In Praise of Redoing the Kitchen
For three years now, my wife and I have been debating remodeling our crumbling builder-grade kitchen. So far, uncertain of how long we will live in the house, we have put it off, glued the cheap linoleum back down, scrubbed the dated appliances, and waited.
How different this life is from the life I now experience as I spend a few days with the Benedictines at Belmont Abbey. Here the kitchen is industrial, and the floors are heart pine, tile or stone flags. Most of the furniture is white oak, oiled or polyurethaned, tougher than the screws that hold it together. Even though the walls are unyielding plaster, beautiful religious art hangs in all the common spaces. Some of it is very good, and must have been very costly—an investment in the future. The roof is slate, which will last a century if properly cared for. From my window, I see a branch laden with pecans.
“Wealth,” someone said, “is the ability to wait.” But while this is a factor, it is not simply that the monks, poor individually, have the collective means to afford a higher standard of living than we do. Their clothes, cars, diets, entertainment and exercise routines are all simpler and less costly than our own. Rather, the difference is in their attitude toward the future.
Today’s American single-family home is disposable. Its finishes are warranted for three years, its major systems for ten. It is built of pine and gypsum; if there is brick or stone, it is, quite literally, a façade. Its roof is made of paper and particle board. If not replaced every ten years, it will leak, then fall in. Its floors are carpet, which cannot be fully cleaned, cannot be repaired in pieces and cannot be refreshed, only replaced. For this, we indebt ourselves for thirty years—or more.
At this point, it is probably obvious that this essay is addressing the middle class: homeowners, married people, parents. I am aware that there’s a certain amount of privilege talking here. If you are living hand-to-mouth, wasting nothing, and this essay strikes you as precious, or even offensive, it could be that you are living with a better set of values than I am. If so, please pray for me. However, if you fear you may not be much better than I am at distinguishing what is important from what is not, read on. Perhaps we can learn together.
I have entered large, impressive homes to find them mostly unfurnished, where little more than a couch, a television and a couple of beds mark the ephemeral presence of a family, their belongings strewn about the floor, rapidly obsolescing. Part of the cause of these disposable spaces must be sought in the disposability of the families themselves. I do not mean broken families, although there are many of those and they constitute their own special tragedy. Rather, I mean that the reduction of the family to its nucleus entails instability in space. Parents buy a house to make a home for themselves and their children. The balance that keeps them in one place depends on one or most likely two jobs, schools and the proximity of extended family. It is likely to shift. When the children leave, as they must, the parents find that the house no longer suits their needs. It is disposed of by being sold, sometimes to someone willing to replace its many disposable components; sometimes not.
In 2008, brand new outlying neighborhoods in America’s overbuilt sunbelt cities became ghost towns. We learned that HOAs could not protect us from blight. When we bought our current home, I hired a home inspector to make sure that it was not in a designated floodplain and that its foundation was sound. But I did not look with my own eyes. In 2015, the floodplain maps in my city proved to be inadequate, their edges nibbled by hungry developers and compromised by aging dams. Whole neighborhoods, uncovered by flood insurance, were flooded.
Unlike other religious, along with their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Benedictines take a vow of stability: “to persevere in the monastery until death,” as the prologue of the Rule says, or, in the more colorful words of The Little Exord of the monks of Cîteaux: “to sweat it out until they breathe their last.” This means that a Benedictine monk or nun will normally live in the abbey or nunnery where they profess their vows until they die, and be buried there, next to the church. A Franciscan friend of mine once told me about a conversation he had with Michael Casey, the great Trappist spiritual writer, at his home of Tarawara Abbey in Australia. As they were walking the grounds, Casey pointed to a rusty bulldozer, overgrown with creeper. “Stability means never throwing anything away,” he said.
What if we ceased to think of our homes as disposable? What if we began the selection process by asking simple, hard questions about the site: Is it in a desert? Could it be in a floodplain? What if a dam broke? Is it on a beach? What if we bought a house that might be small enough to be manageable when our kids are gone? What if we planted fruit trees and vineyards, hung pictures, and bought furniture that would last more than ten years? It is probably a fantasy, in the age of global consumer capitalism, to think that we might leave our homes to our children. Someday, they will be bought by strangers. If we make improvements, we might be making them for someone else. But this too is a part of stability. The monks are revarnishing those eternal oak baseboards for brothers yet unborn. They are keeping eighteenth century Spanish religious art that probably strikes some of them as grotesque, knowing that a future generation may treasure it. Stability uses the things of this world as though not using them. The house is always swept because it is unimportant. Death comes, as expected, and, if they are not disposable, our possessions become gifts for posterity.
For we suburbanites, building a durable, fully-realized home does not make economic sense. Unless you are extremely fortunate in your neighborhood and never have to move again, your equity will never catch up. But if we are Christians, we share in the mandate that Benedict gave to his sons and daughters, in his rule, to give hospitality to strangers: “Guests are to be welcomed as Christ.” He was, after all, simply repeating Scripture: Do not forget to entertain strangers (Heb 13:2). A simple, durable, fully-realized home need not be one more monument to our vanity or greed. With the right attitude, an attitude of stability in a world of wandering, it can be an act of hospitality to the future.
Aaron Gies, PhD, is an independent researcher in the theology of the early University of Paris, particularly as it was expressed through the medium of biblical commentary. Alexander of Hales: On the Significations and Exposition of the Holy Scriptures, his English translation of a recently-edited early Franciscan hermeneutical manual, will be published this fall by Franciscan Institute Press. He loves late-night jam sessions with his wife, “run-rides” with his son, and deciphering gothic manuscripts on the front porch of their Columbia, SC home with only coffee for company. He’s Presbyterian and Evangelical, but does all his best writing in monasteries.