Everything is all sixes and sevens around here this week, with me preparing for my annual Christmas Tree Decorating Party. This Saturday, a few dozen children and a few dozen more adults will show up in their fanciest attire to hang ornaments on my Christmas Tree, eat tiny appetizers off silver trays, and drink cocktails carefully crafted by my friend Dave. This madness has been going on for over 15 years now, and every year it gets bigger. Because I am crazy.
I’ll blog all about the party next week. This week, however, I’m returning to our ongoing theme: The Catholic Home.
Up this week: the Catholic home should be beautiful.
First Things First
Before I start talking about slipcovers and wall décor, I’ll insert the necessary qualifications…for my personal safety if nothing else.
The most important thing that can be said about cultivating beauty in the Catholic home is that the most beautiful things in your house will never be things you can buy. They won’t really be things at all. Rather, the most beautiful things in your home will be the love between you and your spouse, the children who sleep under your roof, and the faith you witness to every day through the love you give and the life you live.
That last one is the lynchpin. Married or single, struggling to conceive or drowning in babies, nothing beats holiness for its beauty. That’s why people walked away from the stooped, withered, and wrinkled Mother Teresa, thinking they’d just met the most beautiful woman in the world. Her love for Christ transformed her.
In a similar way, your love of Christ can transform your home. It can take a crowded, cluttered, chaotic shack and make it a palace. Love covers not only a multitude of sins, but also a multitude of dirty dishes. It’s what matters most.
That being said, I’m writing a series about the Catholic home, not the Gnostic home, so while spiritual beauty may matter most, it’s not all that matters. The material matters too.
“When God created a home for man and woman, he filled it with beauty — with flowers and butterflies, lakes and forests, golden leaves and red-streaked skies. He is, the Catechism tells us, “the author of beauty,” and the beauty he gave us in creation reflects his own “infinite beauty” (Nos. 2129, 341). Because of that, beauty can become an occasion of grace. It schools the spirit to know and love God.”
Basically, beauty is important. It reflects God, and it reveals God. It shows us the order, harmony, and love within the Holy Trinity.
Moreover, the gratuitous beauty of creation is an ongoing testimony to just how much God loves us. He didn’t have to make maple trees so red in October and hillsides so green in May. He didn’t have to make snow fall like lace in winter or ornamental plum trees burst into fluffy pink explosions in spring. But he did. He perpetually seeks to delight us, console us, and teach us through beauty.
To try to bring some of that beauty into our homes, to strive in little ways and big ways to make our houses microcosms of the cosmos, is eminently human and eminently Catholic. After all, we’re the folks that build cathedrals, pray in the Sistine Chapel, and believe that sanctifying grace—God’s own life—passes through matter (bread, wine, water, oil, hands, and bodies) to matter (us). Painting the walls a pretty color should be the most natural thing in the world for us.
In theory, it all sounds great. But then, there’s reality. There are tight budgets, temperamental toddlers, and ten bijillion paint colors at Lowes…about three-quarters of which will look completely wrong on your walls. How do you balance the ideal with all that?
Well, here’s how I’ve done it. Individual mileage will vary, so borrow freely from what you like and forget the rest. No harm. No foul.
- Decorate for yourself…but keep the kids in mind.
Kids and beautiful homes really can go hand in hand. It just requires thinking a little more carefully about how to combine beauty and little ones. And yes, I know, I don’t have kids. But that doesn’t mean this place isn’t regularly overrun by children. I’m not living in some kind of social isolation from the rest of Steubenville. I entertain…a lot. And I entertain families with children…a lot of children. Any given party can include 10-40 kids. Because that’s what happens when you invite 5 couples over for dinner in Steubenville. 35 kids show up too.
Moreover, my closest friends are under the impression that my house is a bed and breakfast, so when they come to visit, they don’t leave. Last summer, I had houseguests for almost two months straight. They all had little ones. The smallest family had 3. The largest family had 9.
When those kids are here, they have free rein of the house. They can roam wherever, play wherever, pretty much do whatever (besides hide behind the curtains and throw things). My friends are used to my relaxed policies, but when people visit for the first time, they panic. They see my house and think, “Oh, my children are going to destroy this.” But you know what? They never do. The reason is that I have been sneaky clever with how I decorate, putting a ridiculous amount of thought into how I can have things that I love, but that also stand up to a steady parade of little ones.
For example, this crushed red velvet sofa?
It’s the most childproof, spill resistant material on the planet. I found the sofa and chair for $100 in a local antique store, then paid to have both recovered in the velvet, which I chose after I visited a family with six active boys who had a sofa covered in the same material. If it could hold up to them, I figured, it could hold up to life in my house. Eleven years, hundreds of parties, dozens of spitty babies, and God only knows how many sticky fingers, spilled glasses of wine, and dirty feet later, it still looks like new. Short of someone taking a pair of scissors to it and commencing cutting (which could happen), this stuff is practically indestructible.
And the living room and dining room rugs?
Magic ones, courtesy of Lowes. Patterned to hide dirt and spills. Light enough to not show every crumb. And all reasonably priced too.
The cream sofas and the carpet in the basement?
The sofas are Ikea. Slip-covered. Washable. Replaceable. Yay! The carpet is light brown to hide dirt and laid on top of the plushest pad I could find, so that kids can pretty much bounce up and down on their heads and not get hurt.
What about my coffee tables and end tables? Old, already worn, already scratched, not a one purchased for more than $20.
If kids bump them and scratch them and nick them some more, I just call it “adding character.” But seriously, who can tell the new damage from the old?
My knick knacks? Only a few and those are pretty much unbreakable: a typewriter that just about every child in Steubenville has banged away on for the past 10 years…
Plus old non-working phones and clocks that kids can play with to their hearts’ content; large (unlit) candles on silver-plated trays that even the most determined toddler can’t hurt; an antique fan (that can’t be plugged in); and books to which I’m not overly attached…all set out with the understanding that, “Everything breaks sometime.”
- Buy Art
Beautiful art is a window to God. It doesn’t have to be sacred art; a Picasso works just as well. Most of us non-billionaires, however, aren’t in a position to imitate the Vatican and stock our halls with works from the Great Masters. As a Catholic hack writer, I’m not even in a position to stock my halls with works from the little masters. But I have managed to pick up a few humble pieces along the way, each of which (fittingly enough) comes with its own story.
The first I inherited from my grandparents.
It’s a reproduction oil painting that once hung above their living room sofa and is chock full of life: children playing games, women caring for babies, and men showing off for the ladies. As a little girl, I spent hours gazing at that canvas in wonder, studying the different scenes of family life and hospitality unfolding upon it. Now, the children who visit my house do the same.
The second is a sketch of the Virgin Mary, breastfeeding Jesus.
It was a study for a more formal piece done by the Catholic artist Jim Langley. He teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design now, but two decades ago, he taught at Franciscan University and owned my house. When I bought it (from the family who bought it from him), I wanted something of Langley’s hanging in the living room, and his wife (whom my roommate worked for at the time) took pity on me and made Jim sell it to me for next to nothing— like $90. That actually was a huge amount of money for me then, but I loved how strong Mary looked in the picture, and hoped that looking at that drawing every day would inspire me to imitate her strength. It required sacrifice on my part to buy, then frame, but it was worth it.
The last things in my house that could qualify as actual art are the three Wallace Nutting lithographs hanging in my bedroom.
Popular around the time my home was built (1915), they cost a pretty penny these days. But don’t tell the antique dealer in the middle of nowhere Ohio who sold them to me for a fraction of their market value. I don’t feel guilty about robbing him blind because, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I just thought they were pretty and would look nice with my new bedroom paint color. Only later did I find out I totally scored.
How do you make a similar score? Well, right now, buying food for your family might be a sacrifice. If it is, disregard this point and move on to number three. But, if you can scrounge up a little money from somewhere, go to junk stores, where cast off art abounds, or art festivals, where young artists hock their wares for cheap. Alternatively, head to a museum gift shop, where you’ll find affordable prints of the really good stuff. When you do, look for paintings or drawings that you find not only beautiful, but inspiring. Look for art that teaches you something or reminds you of something. Then, bring that lesson into your home, so it can transform you and all those who pass through your front door.
- Think Outside the Box
Painting and sculptures are beautiful. But, they’re not the only things that are beautiful in this world. Beauty abounds in creation and much of it can be had on the cheap. The super cheap.
Like this old window, which I find perfectly charming and acquired seven years ago for $5.
Or frames, scrounged up from my basement, which surround scraps of fabric that I thought lovely. Total cost: $8.
As I mentioned a couple weeks back, I have a thing for words. I think poetry just as beautiful as any painting. So, in one of my guest bedrooms, I typed out a half-dozen poems about sleeping and dreaming, and framed them in a hodgepodge of junk store frames, purchased, collectively, for under $15.
I also have a thing for dishes. I feed a lot of people on a lot of different occasions, so I own a certifiably insane amount of them. But, some dishes I don’t want to use. I just want to hang them on my walls or rest them on shelves to admire. The good news is, when you’re not buying china in sets, you can practically steal individual plates. I bought most of mine for a couple dollars each. (This one was a gift, picked up by a friend for me at a yard sale. Yay yard sales!)
Then, there’s my silver-plate obsession (the fruits of which are currently scattered about the dining room floor, as I’m assessing what goes where on Saturday night).
Again, thank you America for not wanting to bother with anything you can’t throw in a dishwasher or that needs to be polished. Silver plate is cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. And pretty.
If you’re willing to think outside the box about what’s beautiful, your decorating options are almost limitless. And affordable. From flowers to maps, you can find all sorts of beauty for under $10. This is true even if you like things newer and cleaner than I do. That is what Ikea and Target are for. What matters most here is what we talked about earlier: choosing things that reflect you and please you. Avoid buying random items just to fill space. Take your time, shop around, and don’t buy anything that doesn’t make you happy when you look at it.
- Choose Paint Colors Wisely.
For lots of people this can be one of the hardest decorating tasks out there. Color matters so much—it affects our mood, the feel of a space, the emotions of children and guests. It sets the tone for the whole look of our homes, and when well chosen, sets off every other object in a room. But, paint colors also look different in different spaces and lights, and always look different on the walls than on the swatches. Picking the right color is challenging…even for people gifted with a discerning eye.
Because color is such an individual decision, particular to different tastes and different rooms, there’s only a limited amount of guidance I can give here. Personally, though, my process usually involves the following steps:
- Pick out roughly 500 hundred different paint swatches and hold them up to the wall.
- Go to Sherwin Williams to get small samples of 3-6 of my favorites from the swatch kaleidoscope. Paint them in 1’x1’ sections on various walls in the room on which I’m working.
- Spend hours staring at the paint in different lights—morning, noon, evening, sun, and rain.
- Ask everyone who comes to my house for their opinion.
- Make a choice. Change my mind five times. Go back to original choice.
A bit complicated, yes. But it has yet to fail me. If you’re nervous about choosing color, I recommend following a similar process. And do ask friends who have a good eye for this sort of thing for advice. They will feel honored.
As for specific colors, I’m a fan of gently colored neutrals—soft blues, greens, golds, and creams—with hints of grey in them (see: Restoration Hardware’s colors), so that’s what dominates in my house.
I don’t want everything tan (boring) or white (even more boring), but I also don’t want a lot of dark rich colors. Unless you’re living in a house with rooms large enough to stage The Nutcracker, dark colors tend to visibly shrink the room. It’s also easier to go wrong with them (there’s a fine line between bold and bad). Plus, although cozy, dark colors can lock the house into a sort of permanent winter feeling…which is the last thing I want in the ever-grey Pittsburgh region.
Finally, no matter what color I’m buying and regardless of who came up with it (Sherwin Williams, Restoration Hardware, Valspar, Behr, etc.) I always buy Sherwin Williams’ paint—semi-gloss for the trim and the washable flat (Duration, I think) for the walls. That means I have to schedule painting projects around their sales, but I don’t mind. The washable flat has been a Godsend for me. The flat part hides the imperfections of old plaster. The washable part forgives the disproportionate number of my guests who like to run their sticky, dirty hands across my walls. (See point one above).
- Keep It Light
By that, I mostly mean that I follow the basic rules of design.
I always let one wall in each room rest; i.e., I try not to cover every square inch of wall space with stuff. In my house, almost every room has a minimalist wall, with little to no décor on it. You don’t really notice this until you start looking, but it helps add a subtle touch of airiness to the space.
I don’t clutter up the flat spaces: mantles, tabletops, sideboards, dressers, even floors. A few well chosen items, grouped in odd numbers, with some space between, seems to show off what you do have better than tons of items scattered about.
In every room, there are several older pieces of furniture or décor. This reflects my personal taste. But even if you like newer items, it’s still good to include a vintage dresser or knickknack here and there. It adds depth and a warmth to a the room. It also, in a sense, reflects the Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints, connecting us physically to those who have gone before us.
Lastly, I avoid heavy window treatments. Natural light does wonders for a room, so I skip the blinds (dusting nightmare) and heavy curtains, and go with lighter (and cheaper) sheers or pull down shades instead. In the rooms where I want more privacy (like my bedroom), I’ve layered the sheers with lighter curtains that I can draw shut.
And that about sums it up.
Again, this is how I go about bringing beauty into my home. Other people do it differently. And that’s okay. What really matters is that we’re striving, within our means, to create homes that tip their hats to a God who is Beauty. We can’t do that perfectly, all the time, in every season of life, but the goal remains a worthy one. And a Catholic one.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 10 pounds of Christmas candy, plus 13 different kinds of fancy appetizers to make before Saturday. Pray for me.
Previous Posts in The Catholic Home series: