The Courtier In The Federalist: Our Obsession With Midcentury Modern Design Is Out Of Control

'GILMORE GIRLS' TV SERIES - 2000My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, in which I look at some of the issues surrounding our current obsession with “Midcentury Modern”, that incredibly imprecise term which gets bandied about everywhere these days. The article builds off of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for this site, which resonated with many of you. It gave me the opportunity to revisit the very gracious home of Richard and Emily Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls”, while at the same time praising the work of several key furniture designers of the past several centuries – not to mention making an aside about the “art” of Lucio Fontana. As always, I am ever grateful to everyone at The Federalist for the opportunity to share some of my musings with their readers.

“The Little Oratory”: A New Handbook for the Home

The new release from Sophia Institute Press, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home is not at all what I had expected – but you will definitely want to keep reading to find out how you can enter for a chance to win a free copy.  Written by David Clayton and Leila Lawler, with illustrations by Mr. Clayton and Deirdre Folley, this volume is certainly a work of Christian spirituality, but one geared very much toward practicality.  If you are in need of a guide on how to bring devotional spaces and practices into your home and daily life, this is very much written for you.

Mr. Clayton and Mrs. Lawler use as the focal point for their book the idea of the “oratory” in the Christian home: a physical place set apart for prayer, and containing visual reminders of our relationship to God.  Beginning with the Early Church, they make a compelling historical and aesthetic argument for having a dedicated area in the house, no matter how large or small it may be, made over for religious use.  Over the course of the book, one begins to understand how doing this can help integrate one’s faith into one’s environment, so that spiritual life grows beyond attending Church on Sunday, into something for every day of the week.

As it happens, I have a cabinet in my own home which I always refer to as my oratory.  It stands about six and a half feet tall, with shelves making up the top 2/3 of the piece, and drawers on the bottom third. Spread out symmetrically across the shelves are devotional works of art, family photographs, and little items reminding me of important people and events in my life.  The largest of the shelves is just at the perfect height where I can kneel in prayer, and rest my hands on its ledge; the last shelf contains my Bibles, prayer books, and those spiritual books I return to most frequently.

One could also call this piece of furniture a shrine, although as the book points out we need to be careful about how we define that term in the home.  “The shrine we speak of,” the authors write, “is meant to be simply a place of beauty, directing our gaze through carefully chosen representative objects toward the transcendent.”  In my case, the cabinet certainly does that, since it’s the first thing one sees when entering the room.  In addition, because the wall sconce hanging above it shines light down directly onto an image of Christ Pantocrator, His gaze is the first I meet when I enter the room.

In this context, although we Catholics say so all the time, it deserves repeating that we do NOT worship such images.  “The Christian veneration of images,” as the authors of the book note, “is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols…the honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone.”  Having a framed picture of a revered or beloved dead relative standing atop the piano in the living room, for example, does not mean you are worshiping them as a god, nor do such objects substitute for the person themselves.  Rather, they are simply visual reminders of them.

Once we can understand the importance of having this space an these cues set apart for prayer, the authors argue, we can then go on to try to incorporate those devotional practices of the Church which we may know about, but find difficult to integrate into day-to-day life.  The huge list of possible prayer practices, from the Liturgy of the Hours to the Rosary, litanies, novenas, examinations of conscience, and so on, may be too overwhelming to try to take on all at once.  Instead, the authors present the practical plan of starting with the space first, and then gradually building from there, as circumstances permit.

Key throughout the book is the authors’ repeated emphasis that the Christian home, and the relationships we enjoy there, must not be maintained separately from the spiritual life.  Rather, the home should be united to faith, in imitation of Christ’s own life. “God came to live among us as one of us,” they point out, “also being born in a family and growing up in a particular place, in order to make evident to us the importance, not only of these human relationships, but of the divine relationship which is the Trinity – three persons in a relationship in the one Godhead.”

Particularly for families, this book can serve as an instructional manual on how to get the kids to develop a deeper prayer life in the home, working with you rather than against you in order to make that happen.  The micro-site for the book even has a number of beautiful coloring pages that you can download and print out for the kids.  For singles, there is plenty for you here, as well – and not only the set of beautiful icon prints that one can can detach from the back of the book to help set up your own little oratory.  The authors take pains to point out how the single person, who is able to more deeply reflect on his own faith in his own space with fewer distractions, can be used to aid others, particularly families, in creating a more prayerful, spiritual home life.  Just as in the monastic houses, all are Brothers and Sisters, becoming someone’s spiritual aunt or uncle, brother or sister, can also be a way to help grow in faith, including by helping them to establish a prayerful space in their own home.

There really is something for everyone in this book, not only in terms of looking at spirituality, but also regarding how to actually go about employing that desire for spiritual growth in real terms.  If I’ve piqued your interest, you can enter for a chance to win a free copy of “The Little Oratory” from this blog, courtesy of Sophia Institute Press.  One entry per reader, please, and I’ll announce the winner this Friday, June 13th.  And of course if you can’t wait, then visit the Sophia Institute Press website, and order a copy directly from them.  I’ll think you find, as I have, a wealth of knowledge and ideas in these pages, which you can draw upon for many years to come.

The Little Oratory





Notes From A Small Town Part II

Since today is a holiday, and I am still sitting in my parents’ kitchen drinking coffee, I have the chance to write another blog post. And because this weekend has been one marked by various thoughts and reflections, I hope the reader will forgive me for doing a post similar to that of yesterday, i.e. a few short ideas for your consideration. Though they will be tied together at the end, if you will bear with me.

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If you are no longer living under your parents’ roof, you will no doubt recall that there came that heady occasion, that right of capitalist passage, when you got to make your own decisions about things large and small in your own place.  Take your food and household product selection for example.  When you are in charge of taking care of yourself and no one else is expected to help, then you get to decide what brand of laundry detergent, or coffee, etc. you want to have in your own place.

And yet when you go home, it is curious how the same, familiar brands, which you grew up with and may not choose for yourself now, are the ones that seem comforting. Of course your mother uses Brand A detergent to wash the clothes, and Brand B detergent to wash the dishes, even though you buy whatever is on sale.  Naturally your father reaches for Brand Y coffee and prefers Brand Z butter, because he always has – why change now?  Not having these things in the pantry, under the sink, and so on, would create a sense that you had somehow wandered into the wrong house.

Is there a lesson, here, rather than just an observation? Perhaps we could say, choose what you like for your own place, but if you don’t really have a strong preference, then go with what Dad and Mom preferred.  We could also observe, Dad and Mom have established a routine with these things, because they realize that the freedom of having so many things to choose from is really more of a distraction, after awhile, from more important things we have to do.

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The desire to create some order from chaos struck me as I was watching an episode of Father Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series last night on television with Mom – or rather, with Mom asleep next to me, as she was tired and a gentle-voiced priest from Chicago talking about Jesus and Thomas Aquinas was probably going to send her off to sleep, regardless of how interesting the talk was. I still have not seen all of the episodes of Father Barron’s series, just portions here and there, as I always seem to come in at the wrong time or miss it when it has been on.  It was good to sit down and get through one, complete episode for a change, particularly because it is such a beautifully shot and composed series overall, and Father Barron has such a clear, unfussy way of presenting things.

Several things he said during the episode I watched were ideas I wanted to be able to reflect on and read more about later; this is not an infrequent occurrence for me.  I may watch a television show like Father Barron’s, listen to a podcast, or hear a sermon at mass where there has been a particularly good piece of insight, perhaps once a week or more. And I then think to myself that I should write that insight down, so I can refer to it later.

If I am lucky I quickly type something into my phone or my computer, or jot something down on a notepad or a scrap of paper.  Yet I never seem to be good at systematically following up with these things, and transcribing them into some cohesive whole for future use.  Is it better to try to internalize the lesson learned at the time it is communicated, and then move on and get about your business?

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The preceding two ramblings are the sort of thoughts you (or at least I) tend to have when on vacation.  This is particularly the case when one is on holiday in a small, country town like this one, where there is very little to do, and frankly no real reason to do much of anything for the several days that one is visiting.  Like Thanksgiving, Easter, and other holidays, if you come from a small town and go home to visit for a few days, you will probably spend much of it loafing about, eating too much, falling asleep unexpectedly in a chair, and so on.

As pleasant as that may sound to continue indefinitely, being on a permanent holiday is not what we are meant to do with our lives. Going back to something Father Barron said in the aforementioned episode, if your primary goal in life is to accumulate pleasure and avoid pain, then you are not really living.  And Dad and Mom get about the business of life, rather than spending a great deal of time debating the minutiae of laundry detergent like some self-obsessed hipster taking his or her cues from whatever Madison Avenue wants him to believe.

All of us have things which we need to do, for ourselves and for others, which may be difficult at times, but definitely cannot be accomplished through a life of inaction brought about by indolence or by fear.  Whether we do nothing because we are lazy and want nothing but pleasure no matter how fleeting, or do nothing because we are afraid of our own mortality and bury our talents in the ground, either way the end result will be the same: disappointment.  We cannot live lives in a permanent vacation mode, revolving solely around avoiding reality.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, and at mass we were reminded of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Looking at this list, I know which gifts I need to pray for especially, as I am going through some changes in my own life. And perhaps you, gentle reader, recognize some that you need for yourself, in your life.  Do you need to make more of an effort to understand your children or your co-workers? Are you making a bare minimal effort to pray? Are you willfully embracing ignorance in some aspect of your life rather than educating yourself?

This evening as I and many other Americans hit the road to go back to our regular lives at the conclusion of the Memorial Day weekend, we will probably be doing so with some sense of regret that the relaxation and time with family or friends cannot continue indefinitely. Americans will not have another three-day weekend like this again until Labor Day, at the end of summer. So now that summer is unofficially here, perhaps setting ourselves a goal to be able to return to those family and friends by summer’s end and say, “Look how things have improved since Memorial Day!” is not such a bad plan, is it?  Now there will be something to get the village talking.

“Village Green” by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1800)
Private Collection