What is authentic decor? Part II: Hospitality

Advent is a good time to talk about hospitality, since the season is centered around two archetypal acts of hospitality (well, two at least that spring to mind at this moment; I’m sure there are many more). I mean, first, the Virgin Mary’s submission to God’s will that she become the Mother of His Son, and second, the Incarnation, at which God radically accepted humanity into the divine life.

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This has everything to do with the physical stuff of our daily existence, since, as John of Damascus famously argued, at the Incarnation, God sanctified matter for all time by becoming part of it.

All this is terribly important, but for purposes of this essay it serves simply as the background and foundation for what follows. Anyone who may have seen the previous installment in my series of Authentic Decor essays is also probably wondering how on earth we got from authentic materials—wood, stone, natural fibers—to theology. My answer is that hospitality, properly understood, is another one of those authentic materials that necessarily comprises good decorating. I will spend the rest of this essay attempting to explain what I mean by this.

Authentic decor is decor for others. It is hospitable. It is the arranging of a home in such a way as to meet the physical and spiritual needs of anyone who happens to enter it, with the understanding that this meeting of needs will inevitably cost the host time, money, and labor.

The sort of hospitality I am describing involves two closely interrelated attitudes.

First, the understanding that decorating and maintaining a home is a process. Like the liturgical year, it is cyclical. Good hosts and good decorators know this. Rugs are vacuumed only to be walked upon with muddy shoes. Clothes are washed only to be worn and dirtied again. A home may reach a perfection of cleanliness momentarily (mine never has, though I suppose it’s theoretically possible), but then the kids come home from school, or the dog comes in from the yard, and one must start again. This is something to be celebrated, not lamented. The “why-wash-it-when-it-will-just-get-dirty-again” attitude is antithetical to both good decorating and to hospitality, because it doesn’t value things enough to maintain them. It also undervalues people by not bothering to provide the best for them.

 A good host cleans his or her house in preparation for the arrival of guests, and readies a bedroom, joyfully looking forward to the guest’s relief and comfort. The host knows full well that the cleanliness and tidiness of the space prepared for the guest will only last for a moment. But in that moment, it is as though the host is saying to the guest, “Look, I have cleaned and prepared this space for you. I have anticipated your needs and thought about your desires and met them as best as my means allow. Welcome, and refresh yourself.” And then within thirty seconds the duvet is crumpled by the plopping down of a suitcase and the bedside stand is cluttered with the contents of pockets.

The second attitude acknowledges that this is what authentic decor is for—to be used and enjoyed by others. A good host holds his possessions lightly, and freely abandons them to the use of others. A good decorator anticipates the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and plans accordingly, placing antique tapestries on walls rather than on throw pillows. And here is yet another reason why authentic materials make for hospitable spaces. Wool repels dirt; cotton is washable; dented or scratched wood is easily repaired; stone is durable. A house too fragile to be lived in or too precious to be touched and used is no home at all.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: