A Harvard study released last spring found that in recent years, Americans have spent record-setting amounts on home-improvement projects—nearly $425 billion in 2017, up 50 percent from 2010. TV shows dedicated to DIY home projects proliferate; social media overflows with picture-perfect rooms and tips for sourcing on-trend decor; “influencers” like Joanna Gaines have turned home improvement into media and merchandising empires worth millions. By some measures, anyway, our homes are clearly very important to us.
A new book by three Catholic women challenges its readers to reorient the way we think about our homes toward the transcendent. Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday (TAN Books), by Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber, with photography by Kim Baile, is an extended reflection on the nature of home, which the authors describe as “the great theatre where the drama of our lives unfolds.” Combining thoughtful text and beautiful photography, the book encourages readers “to think purposefully about how to make our homes on earth better equipped to get all those living in them to the Father’s house.”
I recently had the chance to ask co-authors Carrie Gress and Noelle Mering a few questions about their book.
Catherine Harmon, for CWR: How did this book come about?
Carrie Gress: The idea of a “theology of home” came to me while on the treadmill. I was listening to a song about going home and it struck me that all of our efforts are really just about trying to get home to be with God in heaven. But then I was struck my how important our own homes have become, that they can be a foreshadowing of heaven or a foretaste of hell. Our homes are certainly much more than just a place we eat and sleep. Significant things happen there to help us grow and become full, mature, healthy people. Interestingly, our culture is obsessed with home improvement, while simultaneously shunning the notion of homemaker. All of these ideas really came together to form the backbone of this book.
CWR: What was it like to open up your home for a photoshoot for the book?
Noelle Mering: It was actually really fun and a bit of a dream. At seven years old, I was moving my bedroom furniture around, styling and restyling my room, and scheming about how I could get my parents to change the wallpaper. Home design as always been of great interest to me. I love homes that look really personal, considered, and uncontrived.
Practically speaking, I certainly cleaned a lot and took a few trips to Ikea and the plant nursery. Early on, I reconciled in my mind that the goal was not to have my home look like a home out of Architectural Digest, but rather to convey a sense of beauty and homeyness that felt real, accessible, and not staged. It also forced me during a busy time to think about all of these deeper themes we had in the book and consider how we can be sure to embody them in our own home—not just for one shoot but in our daily life.
CWR: The book has a lot of lovely photos, mostly interior shots of you and your co-authors’ homes. But, somewhat unusually for a book on home decor and care, most of the photos include people. Was that deliberate, and if so, why was that choice made?
Mering: It was! We really wanted the book to feel full of life, with grandparents, pregnant women, lots of children, teens…It’s not something you see in typical home design books, and we wanted to visually speak to that void. We talk in the book about the phenomenon of falling in love and how your beloved becomes your home in a way. I remember knowing I would marry my husband when he started to feel like my home, and I think that’s a common experience. It’s a signifier that home is for the sake of the people in them. It is about relationships.
CWR: This is a very substantive book, although some could dismiss it as fluff. What would you say to nay-sayers who think Catholics shouldn’t be publishing books like this?
Gress: I would suggest that this is exactly the kind of book we should be publishing. Over the last several years, I’ve been looking at how women absorb information and how it is that our culture has been so decimated. The ideas that drive the culture are Marxist and pagan, as I explain in detail in my book, The Anti-Mary Exposed; they have been presented to us beautifully in magazines, TV, music etc… Women didn’t pour over Karl Marx and Margaret Sanger and then decide to embrace a culture of death; they have been reading Cosmo and Vogue and simply absorbing the ideas the culture puts forth. Consider the fact that print magazines still exist. Their profits are down, but they are still remarkably profitable while other print products are all being forced, for financial reasons, into going digital. There is just something special about a magazine that women love—the blend of information and photos goes a very long way.
Ironically, while the Catholic Church has been the greatest advocate for the arts and beauty, we have somehow gotten used to the idea that Catholic products and ideas aren’t beautiful, or compelling, or attractive. It is time for us to start reclaiming our patrimony, knowing that beautiful art and styling aren’t inimical to our faith. This was one of the motivations for starting our online Catholic women’s magazine, Theology of Home. Our faith and our homes aren’t inimical to each other, but when they work in tandem, they are really powerful tools of evangelization. We have forgotten how much of a role women have played in spreading the faith, women like St. Monica, St. Lucy, St. Bridget. It wasn’t largely through apologetics, but by loving their families and living out the faith.
CWR: Is this book a foray into the Mommy Wars?
Gress: We certainly weren’t interested in getting involved directly in the mommy wars. We wanted to show both visually and through the writing what homemaking can be—to go on offense about living out Catholic motherhood, rather than just always defending ourselves against specific sticking points in the culture.
The elements of home that we describe are certainly gifts to all of us—light, nourishment, comfort, safety. We find them in the Church and we find them in the home. That isn’t an accident. And to be able to offer these gifts to those we love is a gift itself.
CWR: What would you say to the objection that by writing a book on the theology of home, you’re over-spiritualizing homemaking, and perhaps putting undue burdens on people—particularly women—who are either uninterested in or incapable of devoting time and resources to traditional “homemaking” tasks?
Mering: I think to varying degrees we spiritualize our homes whether or not we are trying to. We all want a sanctuary. It is pretty rare to find a woman, homemaker or not, who thinks of her home utterly pragmatically without consideration of beauty—tangible and intangible. Not every woman is baking bread and making bone broth weekly, but most everyone desires beauty, order, comfort, joy, and peace…
We also speak about women finding home and meaning in extremely sub-par living conditions. The book doesn’t romanticize the daily grind of any of it; in fact, we speak to the monotony and tedium. But a main goal of our spiritual life, mother or not, is to transform the small tasks of each day into offerings to God, by doing them with care and putting love into them. We connect with God in the small and large moments each day, but most of our lives are not large dramatic moments. It is in finding Him in the little things that we make our life one of prayer and preparation for the bigger things.
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