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For a while I had been thinking of writing something about the connection between experience in homemaking and the difficulty or ease of hospitality, but before this weekend I felt wholly unqualified; we had only “had over” immediate family and maybe two friends on a handful of occasions, never for more than a couple of hours. When a good friend of my husband’s came on pretty short notice for a three-day visit last week, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed everything from the preparatory cleaning and planning to the visit itself. It was interesting; I was aware of being solely responsible (with my husband) for the comfort and well-being of his friend during his time here, and I thought I would have to restrain myself from excessive anxiety that he was uncomfortable due to some oversight on my part, because that’s one of the more charming aspects of my personality. Ha. It was likely due to the guest’s kindness and good nature that I was at ease instead, even when the chicken refused to finish roasting and I had to pull it out and poach the pieces separately…but that’s another story. Weirdly enough, sometimes I “forget” I am an adult, and married, and no one else is ultimately responsible for what goes on in our household. Having a house guest sort of made me feel like I was all grown up all of a sudden.

At the very least I now know experientially the relationship between showing hospitality “without grumbling” and having some level of general confidence and competence in keeping house. When you factor into normal routines the (probably inevitable) pressures when a guest is on his way, it is a huge advantage to know how to plan meals and to have some sort of mental checklist for preparing the guest room and rest of the house. I have only lately been aiming to keep our home close to “visitor-ready” all the time; not so much because we are apt to have unexpected visitors but because I realized that it’s just stupid to let some parts of the house get messy because no one sees them but me. Aiming for the standards I would have for a visitor helps—and I’m not sure what to think of the probable vanity underlying such a standard. I’m inclined to be pragmatic and say that if it helps me keep my house clean, welcome, vanity! Ahem. At any rate, the fact that I had begun implementing this in our guest/game/spare room about two weeks before my husband’s friend decided to visit helped quite a bit in my preparations. Sometimes I’m so used to seeing a pile of papers or books that need to be put away that my eyes simply begin to gloss over them. But it’s funny how your vision “improves” when you learn company is coming. The baseboards suddenly look dirtier, the relatively organized stack of coupons looks out of control, and you realize your dinner repertoire presents about three options for both guest-worthy and foolproof meals.

Simple thoughtfulness and application of the second great commandment—what would I like to have done for me and not done for me as a guest in someone’s home?—certainly go a long way. Without it a perfect host will be like a “clanging cymbal.” But unless I ever become wealthy enough to have maids and a chef to cook us fancy French dinners every night (which I’m not sure I would actually enjoy), I think it is right and worthwhile to expend effort improving in such mundane areas as cooking and cleaning. Are they really so mundane when they make me more ready and willing to serve my family and friends out of my home, and when they are a so large a part of true homemaking?

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The Lord bids each of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living “callings.” Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life. …
It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path in his duties. Perhaps, sometimes, he could contrive something laudable in appearance; but whatever it may be in the eyes of men, it will be rejected before God’s throne. … From this will arise also a singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.

— from Calvin’s Institutes Book III Chap. X

I feel like I can always use further insight, even particular directions, as to what my calling as a married woman entails. I hope that is not an unhealthy “law-thirstiness”: a desire to “discover” and adhere to man-made laws that go beyond Scripture, in order to build a case before God and man that I am especially righteous. I’ve never been guilty of that before, but there’s a first time for everything. *ahem* Of course, this question, which essentially boils down to, “How do I use my time and gifts as a married woman in the 21st century?”, arises much more readily for a woman without children, whose constant demands pretty well answer the question before it can be asked (assuming there is time and energy to ask it). But I am not the only childless married woman here or in the potential (hypothetical?) audience, and perhaps my questions and musings will help you too. I simply want to know better what it looks like for a married woman to “keep to her sentry post,” and what it looks like to stray—not to judge others but myself. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that this seems to be yet another matter of wisdom rather than law—“yet another” expressing my natural aversion to doing the work of praying for and getting wisdom. Reading a book or an article would be much easier.

From my limited historical studies (more like occasional observations; I do always invite correction), I gather that even into the 1950s, when it was not absolutely necessary that someone—whether the mistress of the home or a trusted servant—be at home ensuring that the family had food and clean clothes (and had clothes, for that matter), the average young woman was either active in her family’s home and community, in a school of some kind, or busy with some outside occupation (such as teaching) up to the point of marriage. At this point, she regarded herself as fully employed in homemaking. She typically quit her job if she had one and took up the very happy duties of managing a home for her best friend. Of course the feminists in the 60s called all this into question, arguing that this supposedly noble aspect of womanhood was rather demeaning; it imprisoned a woman in her house and her life revolved far too much around the man, the domineering, self-serving, pig of a man who perpetuated this unthinkable inequality. Why shouldn’t the woman have the recognized, fulfilling career, while the man stays home to keep house and watch the children (if they must exist)? Well, why not?

Do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Eve was created as a “helper suitable to the man”—that “the woman was made for the man, not the man for the woman”? That this suggests at the very least a certain orientation towards serving her husband that her husband is not obligated to reciprocate? Is not the married woman called by God, in the very sense in which Calvin speaks, to manage the home and serve her husband and children with all the gifts and strength she has been given (Titus 2, Proverbs 31)? A thousand qualifications come to mind: chiefly that a Christian woman is also to be of real assistance to the church (Romans 16, etc.), to her parents and older relatives (1 Timothy 5, etc.), and to non-church friends or neighbors in need (simply part of being a Christian, besides the many “proof-texts”). She is still a church member, daughter, friend, neighbor. But she does all this as a married woman, very often drawing from the resources that her husband has earned, serving such people on behalf of him. She does it with his blessing, and with his guidance and oversight as to the time and effort committed to these abundant opportunities.

With that much clear, then, one of the more practical questions I have is about the role of domesticity in my calling as a Christian wife and homemaker. There are the inevitable chores involved in managing any home, like laundry, paying bills, and cleaning the tub. Then, thanks to technology, there is the “discretionary time,” when chores have been done. (I am sorry, homeschooling moms or any moms of young children; it probably feels like they are never done for you, and as an aside I think that unmarried or even married childless women in the church should be ready and willing to offer themselves as help when that is overwhelmingly the case.) So if you don’t have children to watch and/or teach, you could either get a job to fill up your time, or find other ways to invest in the home beyond the necessary chores. Those are the only two options that I can see, other than idleness, which we will consider an invalid option for obvious reasons.

On the one hand, you have the ideal of domesticity a la Martha Stewart. You put effort into and learn skills pertaining to all manner of domestic comforts, for the enjoyment of family and friends. Martha Stewart herself is no paragon of biblical femininity, yet I think this sort of domesticity, in its place, is worthwhile and commendable. I love that it values domestic happiness and peace, at least in a superficial way. I love that it affirms, contra feministas, the inherent value of housework or homemaking done to this end. One of my favorite excerpts from an old housekeeping manual echoes this: “A bedroom, in a way, represents the girl or woman who occupies it and cares for it. If it has an atmosphere of order and simplicity and repose, it is beautiful and tells of a personality that dominates worldly things and is not confused by them. … Everyone has seen a bedroom so full of charm that she longs to know the person who is responsible for it.” Surely we do well to appropriate the spirit of this domesticity even if we have no natural gift or even inclination for crafting paper lanterns and painting intricate designs on them, after filling each with the scented soy votives that we made last week. On the patio overlooking our 3-acre garden and arboretum out back. Etc.

Yet in defense of women who are less than attracted even to a toned-down version of such domesticity, a wife is only called to obey God and please her husband as she manages the home. Period. If God hasn’t prescribed craft-making, hobby gardening, or the cultivation of mad pastry skills, and the woman’s husband has not expressed an earnest desire for any of these (can you imagine a husband with a fever for more crafts? sorry, strikes me as hilarious), then it is up to the woman to decide whether or not these would be profitable for her family. So what I am sure of is that changing and sometimes arbitrary standards of domestic skills are not to be equated with good homemaking. “Order and simplicity and repose” can be preserved in a home without a Martha Stewart at its head. (Certainly the simplicity bit might exclude a Martha Stewart from even applying. End of MS jokes.) But it does require someone in the home, with a clear sense of her responsibility to preserve that order.

I have too many thoughts on this subject to corral, and many of them are way too uncertain and ill-formed for public blog material. As was hinted earlier, I am finding that much more of the Christian life consists of matters of wisdom—as opposed to hard and fast rules—than my lazy and legalistic flesh would like. I want my life—my daily work—to reflect biblical principles and priorities, but I do not want to endorse or even hold myself to a certain standard of domesticity or “home-centeredness” as if it were divine law. Surely biblical femininity is much more complex: both more elastic and more rigid, more liberating and more difficult, than the world and our tricky hearts would have us think. Discuss amongst yourselves, if you even have time to read this rambling essay.

One of the things that has shaped my thinking over a year+ of marriage and homemaking is a story about the great preacher Al Martin’s mother, from his accounts a very godly and wise woman. He talked a bit about her in his testimony, and all of it was interesting, but he said she used to pray that God would place “holy blinders” over her eyes, to blind her to anything that would divert her from her duties as a wife, mother, and homemaker. I do not understand that to mean that she did nothing but what was directly related to her husband, children, and home—1 Timothy 5, for one, implicitly commands that Christian women use their singularly feminine gifts to care for those outside their biological families, especially those within the “household of faith”—but that she knew the allure of an independent, unrestricted, I’ll-do-what-I-please lifestyle, which has been around long before one particular manifestation of it (e.g., the radical feminism of the 60’s). She understood her great weakness in the face of that temptation, and was serious about seeking to please God through faithfulness in her calling, even when the grass looked greener elsewhere. I want that same kind of single-mindedness, and a distrust of my own supposedly altruistic diversions.

Have I put in a recommendation yet for Home Comforts? This book was written ten years ago by a lawyer and professor who secretly enjoyed keeping house enough to write the first single-author housekeeping manual (and an 800+ page one, at that) in 100 years or so. It is fascinating. At first I confess I was put off by the tone; sometimes it sounds as if the author is trying to evoke the housekeeping manuals written 100-200 years ago. You know how the Victorians sometimes reviewed an obvious point several times in different words. She goes off on philosophical tangents (or so they seemed to me) of why to dress the table with linens rather than leaving it bare, for example. I read what I could of it the first time (I have been checking it out from the library) skipping over those tiresome parts. But now I have it again, and I am actually enjoying some of the more philosophical commentary. I read in some of the post-release interviews that the author was disappointed by the way people received the book as an offense to their intelligence–as if it were about how everyone should clean or set their tables. But the book is clearly about homemaking, about why it is so important to families and even to society that people learn to keep house well. It mixes a bit of philosophy in with a LOT of useful information; above all it is thorough and answers just about any housekeeping question I have in a day.

An excerpt from the introduction:

To the contemporary mind, the idea that happiness depends on good housekeeping might seem quaint or odd. A century or two ago, and in fact until the past few decades, it was taken for granted, and the quality of housekeeping was not beneath the attention of such great novelists as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. Several of Charles Dickens’s novels present an interesting variation on the whore/virgin theme when they contrast good housekeepers, who are lavished with praise, and bad housekeepers, who are described with appalled fascination. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora, who ties a basket of housekeeping keys to her waist in a childish imitation of real housekeeping, all but wrecks their marriage through her infantile incompetence. And though David realizes that he must forgive and love her anyway, Dickens helpfully kills her off and remarries David to Agnes, a genius of a housekeeper who even in childhood brought order and cheer wherever she went with her own little basket of housekeeping keys. In Bleak House, the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away. In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys, and her guardian proves his good sense by appointing her his housekeeper within hours of meeting her.
. . .
Much housework is discretionary, but not all housework is. Minimum standards of cleanliness and order are inescapable necessities for health and happiness. It is up to each of us how to choose the dimensions of “necessary” in our own case. If this means that we can jettison without guilt a mother’s or grandmother’s idea of adequate dusting, it also means, on the other hand, that we still have to figure out just how much dusting represents the rational compromise between health and comfort and available time and resources. It is as true as ever that a dusty home is unpleasant and unhealthy to live in.

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