Monday, April 18, 2011

Hallowing the House: The Living Room

“Learn the lessons that lead to joy – and to Heaven”

The living room is usually the first room we enter when we come into a house. As Thomas Howard points out, it is also usually the room which is devoted simply to being together. It’s a room without a specific purpose besides that one. Thus, you can think of it as the heart of the home – what makes the house a home rather than simply a gathering place or institution.

When you walk into a living room you can tell something right away about that family. So in a way the living room is meant to say “this is what we are as a family” Not necessarily in an affected way, though sometimes that is how it turns out. Often the living room says something like “We are ordinary folk” “We are very interested in Indian art” “We are Christians” “We are eclectic” “We are minimalists” “We like or at least can live with old hand me down furniture” “We like expensive things” “We have several small children in our house!” “We don’t spend much time here!” So one thing a living room expresses is the unique nature of that particular family.

But no matter what the differences in different living rooms there is usually one thing that they all share and that is the element of commonality. If there is one thing that makes a living room what it is, it is some kind of circular, face to face element. Even when a living room’s focal point is the TV, the chairs are arranged around it in a kind of community.

When I walk into someone’s living room I notice this commonality and also this unique stamp.
What is a living room used for?
• Conversation
• Reading in company
• Warmth
• Games
• Planning times
• Music
• Interludes in the busy-ness of life
• Growing together
• Spontaneous activities

Hospitality – gathering people from outside the house. This brings in something else that is important. A living room presents a kind of face. It is meant to be attractive and individual at the same time as it is accepting and comfortable. In that way it seems sort of like the perfect gentleman described by Cardinal Newman.

What does the living room represent?
• Comfort
• Individuality
• Leisure
• Ordered expression of personality

Thomas Howard talks about how the living room goes beyond its hospitable face to the life and growth of the family. This is where the “lessons learned in love” come in.

This reminds me of the place where CS Lewis talks about how a person who is kind and witty and generous in public sometimes becomes a lazy, critical tyrant at home. Surely it should be the other way around – the public persona should spring from the family one.

Hierarchy, says Howard, is a “lovely rhythm of inequality as a mode of mutuality and joy.” He applies this to family life. An older brother teaches a younger one, passing on the lessons taught to him by someone else. A father says “Just one chocolate, Peter” – teaching the lesson of self-denial and moderation within the context of daily life. In the end, everyone is in training to take responsibility for the common good. The living room is a microcosm of society, but in a safer, more spontaneous and flexible private mode that respects each individual, nurturing immaturity and modeling maturity.

What things seem contrary to the spirit of a living room?
• Rejection or shaming
• Ongoing tension
• Condemnation
• Deep-rooted dissension
• Fear
• Absence – emotional or physical
• Haste and hurry
• Discomfort
• Separation, isolation, loneliness
• Squalor
• Defiance and refusal to cooperate
• Immodesty and bad example

(I qualified several of these because things like arguments and messiness aren’t dysfunctional in themselves – sometimes they are very much part of a healthy family life, but they probably should not be a default – everyone has been in a home that is so oppositional or chaotic that it makes visitors uncomfortable, and it surely has similar effects on the family that lives there).

Thomas Howard suggests these are the characteristics of relationships gone wrong, a foretaste of hell where hierarchy is a matter of scrambling on each other’s heads to get to the top. He briefly points out that many modern sociologists characterize ALL families this way – as if family life were essentially dysfunctional. This leads to the logic that the family should live separated lives as much as possible – that the parents should both work outside the home and spend minimal years actively rearing their progeny.

This is one pressure that most of us feel in our society. Taken to its extreme, it probably would eliminate the need for a living room at all. And indeed, in some ways a living room is a relic of a particular type of culture. I am not sure if the Holy Family at Nazareth had a living room per se – they probably gathered around the cooking fire. The Vikings gathered and feasted in a Great Hall, so the living room and dining room were basically one. I wonder, in fact, if the living room is a carry-over from Victorian parlors…. Usually more than one, one formal one for receiving guests, and one more casual for family living.

When we built our house, we chose to make our dining room and living room combine together into what is now called a “Great Room”. And in a way our living room is two-storied, because we have a loft which serves the function of a “family room” or “rec room” or “play room”. It is where we keep the toys and the TV, and the atmosphere is more casual (more messy). We chose to do it this way because we wanted a spacious center to encourage gathering together.

Still, I think Howard’s point remains, that there is a part of family life which is a “type” of the Christian life in general, and a prefigurement of our Heavenly life. There is a center which is devoted to being together, not just casually linked through sitting in the same room watching the same TV show – but linked through relationship, through shared experience, through teaching and learning, through give and take according to ability and need, through the years.

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