Hearth and Threshold: Thoughts on a Theology of Home

Hearth and Threshold: Thoughts on a Theology of Home

Photograph by Haydn Springett

Photograph by Haydn Springett

About three years ago, my parents drove out to Los Angeles from Houston with a tall, narrow, antique green secretary desk that was once our neighbor’s. That shy, kind scientist had passed away and left some things to my parents. When my parents saw the desk, they knew I would love it, and it was exciting to set it up in my little apartment, but equally exciting when it had traversed the waters of an international move. I set it up in a corner of the townhouse my husband and I had found to rent in a little town in the west of Ireland. 

I carefully selected the books for the three shelves above the desk: one shelf for books on current writing projects, one for new books I’m eager to read. And on the top shelf, books about home. Home, as an idea, is something I have been thinking about for awhile. 

The real space of our homes is an iteration of what we long for in a cold and big world. The craftsmanship and care we put into carving out a home is the human version of what so many animals do: birds make nests, bears sleep in caves, beavers craft dams, and little porcupines dig out hovels. Twigs, stone, wood, and soil make a refuge against the vicissitudes of the weather and threats of prey in the dark and provide a place to store food and protect newborns. Certainly, biologically, there is a capacity from creation to craft a safe spot in the world, and psychologically, the safe home is perhaps one of our deepest and most fierce of desires.

In Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski, the chapter called “Domesticity” is about the 17th-century Dutch home, which developed out of the emergence of the Dutch merchant middle class. Families wanted their own space, often without servants (because they meant a taxable fee), and home now meant not a place for work, but for returning from work: a place of refuge, comfort, warmth, meals, cozy evenings, a place where children learned their letters, a place where newly designed cabinets could display pottery and store cheese, bread, jams. Compared to the large and shared medieval homes, the Dutch home was private; compared to the decorative Parisian bourgeois home, the Dutch home was designed for everyday use. With sparse and functional furniture, bare walls hung with mirrors and maps, and a loving preeminence on a space for family to gather, the 17th-century home Dutch home was certainly a site generating ideals of domestic serenity that we carry even today. 

As we know from the beautiful paintings of Dutch interiors, there is a warm exquisiteness in the quietude of cleanliness, simple and elegant belongings, and a glowing hearth in the corner of the room signifying everything it’s meant to—warmth, food, drink, and safety. These homes, as Rybczynski writes, were also the first to signify a real difference between public and private, “where the public realm stopped and the home began. The boundary was a new idea, and the order and tidiness of the household were evidence . . . of a desire to define the home as a separate, special place” (66).

To me, this iteration of home—“as a separate, special place”—is most vivid within the annuls of beloved stories and literature. In Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery provides first and foremost for the imaginative, love-starved orphan a home—Anne becomes literally, over the course of the novel, “of” Green Gables. What does this home signify? First is the little east gable room upstairs, which is—from her first dreadfully uncertain night there to the last page of the novel, where she prays at her windowsill with thankfulness—a place of solace, sleep, dreams, imagination, a corner in the world that offers the security sufficient for individuation. 

The other main arena in the house is the kitchen—Marilla’s terrain—which becomes, again over the course of the story, an ever-deepening place of mutual affection and care. It’s the place where Anne recites her poetry piece proudly to Matthew and Marilla in the gleaming dusk, where she tells Marilla that she’s going to stay so that they can save the house. The kitchen signifies a place of belonging through togetherness, the individuation that comes through the security of familial lovingkindness. The whole novel offers a winsome, enduring meditation on what a home can provide, a stable place against the terrors of being unwanted and also within the tortuous, albeit quotidian, road of growing up and becoming a unique self.

When thinking of images of the home in stories, I also think of the Beavers’ dam in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Pevensie children are here only for a short while, but in my mind, especially when I was a child, the Beavers’ dam always seemed like an extraordinarily wondrous place. Perhaps because the Beavers signify safety—or at least direction and care—their home does too. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are proud of their snug teeth-and-tail-crafted domain, and for a tiny spell of rest between the frightening threats of Fenris Ulf and the disappearance of Edmund, the kindness of dinnertime (fresh-caught trout, potatoes and butter, fresh creamy milk, and a marmalade roll) presides. 

The animal homes in literature are reliably endearing: in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, some of the best passages to me are the descriptions of the homes. There’s Toad Hall, of course, but my favorite is Badger’s, where Mole looks around in awe: 

Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. 

The witty stories in The Wind and the Willows combined with rich watercolors by Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem (of the Brambly Hedge world) create images of home filled with lamplight, quilts, jugs, nooks, jam jars, wooden tables, clear windows, timber eaves. These children’s stories deftly plant signs in the readers’ imaginations of the abiding, waiting, cozy home, but the images also rehearse from our psychological deeps the longing for a tangible place that means belonging, care, and security.

And the food in these homes! It is impossible to discuss any of these homes without envisioning the food served. Hearth and food inevitably go together: for our forefathers and ancestors, fire meant not only warmth but a way to make food and drink. In Marilla’s kitchen I always think of rich moist plum cake and, in her cellars, big barrels of apples and shelves of red currant jam. In Tom Bombadil’s house, how can I not remember all that Goldberry serves forth—“yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered”—such a resplendent sign of welcome and safety for the travelers. 

Indeed, The Fellowship of the Ring creates for me some of my most beloved sites of home: Bilbo’s Bag End with its bright garden and late breakfasts; Rivendell, the Last Homely House east of the Sea, with its “mirth and music in the hall;” and then, of course, Lothlórien, with its the hallowed and restorative beauty, where the “Elves spread for [the Company] a pavilion among the trees near the fountain, and in its they laid soft couches [and spoke] words of peace.” When J. R. R. Tolkien takes us into the great Elvish homes, the mores of household goodness aren’t considered too lowly; they’re elevated into such splendid heights that the kindliness of sharing bounty never seemed so worthwhile.

One of my favorite stories about the goodness of home and hearth is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The three generations of supernatural ladies who live there fight the depths of evil for our young protagonist—and they do it via their homestead. The home is literally the site of goodness that overcomes evil, and all the tangible expressions of this goodness Gaiman writes with loving intensity of detail: the warm bath, the clean linens, and the meals served . . . paper-thin pancakes rolled up with lemon juice and plum jam, a little saucer of honeycomb and cream (a nod to Goldberry?), roast beef and potatoes, buttered nettles and carrots, apple pie with thick yellow custard, a breakfast of toast and homemade blackberry jam, thick porridge with cream, and rich black tea. With every meal served in this safe old farmhouse, we feel how safe and loved the protagonist is—how deeply these three ladies care for him. 

Food holds a special place in the discussion of home because food is sustenance, and home is where this sustenance is stored, made, shared, and partaken. This is why, in the superb compilation Festivals, Family and Food (which, honestly, I read more than utilize), Diana Carey and Judy Large trace the year by marking it with crafts, readings, and recipes. Throughout, they develop the idea that home is a central site for a child to understand the world around her, the shifting seasons with its fruits and vegetables, the course of the sun and what its means for plants and bees, the liturgical year with its fasts and feasts. The kitchen table becomes the place to comprehend what the arrival of early spring late summer means, and by making and doing—herb dumplings, cheering tea, dough for May baskets—home becomes a place to experience the big mysteries of sky, light, time, seasons. Like Anne in her east gable room, the safety of the secure place serves as a starting point, a rooted and grounded place, from which to learn and grow and blossom.

There is another East room in literature, and it is Fanny Price’s in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. As with most literature written for adults, the homes in Mansfield Park bears the fractures of the wounded and wicked heart—the human heart. Fanny’s childhood home is not only the site of poverty, but also regret and loneliness and the dearth of imagination that comes through the relentless hardships of poverty. Within the walls of Mansfield Park, plentiful income and its grandeur certainly does not keep out the imprisonment of small-mindedness, the weary toll of (compulsory?) idleness, the egoism of lust, the tendency to be bewitched by charm and even deceit. Under Austen’s deft hand, the homes are themselves the sites for all this brokenness. Indeed, homes always express not only our longing for security, but also our wounds and vices. Homes, as we know, even without becoming too cynical, are places of discord, fear, uncertainty, sadness—where we hide what would be intolerable for the outside world to see.

But Austen also provides a unique space in the broken, even threatening home of Mansfield Park for her beloved protagonist Fanny. In her East room, Fanny has a space of her own to read and think, contemplate and pray. Long before Virginia Woolf’s gorgeous treaty about the freedom that a corner of intelligent space can mean for a human being, Austen showed us in story form that part of the source of Fanny’s self-knowledge and resolve must have been this corner, this home-space, where thought and individuation developed, however secretly and overlooked. In some ways, this is a magnificent fictional account of what we can create when we make spaces in our homes: corners where family members can go to think, and learn to be themselves.

Sometimes Fanny’s hearth had a fire in it, and sometimes it was a cold room. Austen was right to show that this is what sometimes happens in real-time, real-life homes: when we carve out spaces, they may be deeply imperfect, but that does not stop them from offering some amount of solace.

Perhaps one of the most poignant lines spoken about a home is Jesus’ words in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” What humble, honest words these are: they put into vocal and linguistic form that urgent universal longing—that wistful waiting for a place where we need not watch our backs or subjugate our voices, where we can rest without fear and close our eyes in safety. 

These words of Christ to me serve as a kind of fulcrum for thinking about a theology of home. Jesus clearly values the foxes’ holes and the birds’ nests: these are worthy provisions, and our ability to make human versions of them are God-given capacities from creation, capacities blessed with common grace, so that all men and women might exercise homemaking and husbandry. And that’s what these beloved stories realize and revel in. But Christ’s own narrative offers another way to experience home. Christ, at this juncture in his life, doesn’t have a home. And this causes pain and sorrow—enough for him to make such a remark, and for such a remark to be recorded for all to encounter. This affiliation with the distress of having no home should certainly inform our own theological narratives of home and homemaking. 

I wonder if the longing evident in Jesus’ honest cry is one reason why the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 rings with such frightening poignancy. Those who claim to have known Jesus are cast out into the darkness. Why? Because they did not look after those who were thirsty, hungry, sick, and in prison—those who, who knows through what faults of their own, have a weakened if not depleted capacity for keeping house. Throughout the Old Testament, we encounter a God who has a deep soft spot for those on the margins, the outsiders, and those like the widow and the orphan who experience difficulty looking after themselves: those whose capacity for homemaking is threatened in various ways. But there is an urgency, even a kind of grief, that makes me wonder if this parable was infused with Jesus’ own experience of what it’s like to be a human without a home. 

So what would it look like for us to hold in tension both this graced capacity for making a secure dwelling as well as the possibility of leaving this dwelling? For me, part of this tension can be answered by looking at the architecture of a house. 

The idea of home is often contained within the image of the hearth. Even today when many don’t use a hearth for heat and food, we experience the meaning of this symbol through our modern day versions of it: gathering in the kitchen for a cup of tea, meal times at the table, sitting together reading or playing a game. From that 17th-century Dutch house to pioneer cabins across the west, from haciendas in Venezuela to the clay and straw huts of the Masaai, there is a center to homes that means, “Here we are, gathered safe.”

Yet architecturally, a house has an element even more important than the gathering center, and that is the threshold. Without a threshold, a house is not a house at all: it’s walls stuck together without any ingress or egress, without any purpose. The threshold brings a livingness to static walls that has to do with the human ability to open and close, to face and to turn away. In Celtic Christian spirituality, the threshold is deeply significant: it’s a liminal space of beginnings and encounter, a starting point for who-knows-what-waits-beyond, a place of surrender and openness. As a wise friend pointed out to me, Jesus did not have a home during his intense season of ministry, but he did stay in many people’s home—and these homes became sites for redemption, rebuke, teaching, healing, and overwhelming love. It was by the open threshold that Jesus entered these homes, which points to the fact that someone in that house was willing to let this passionate, kind, and socially suspect Teacher through their doors. 

This reminds me of another of Jesus’ parables—the one about the Good Samaritan. At one level, this story is most definitely about home and home-making, for it is the story about someone providing for someone else the most basic and restorative provisions of home: safety, bed, time and medicine to heal, and food and drink. The fact that this story is told to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” makes this parable all the more profound in a theology of home, for it situates the home in context of its “neighborhood,” in realistic, real-time connection with other people. Again, the feature of threshold becomes precious to a theology of home, for it is the threshold that faces neighbor, a permeable boundary line that interfaces with those who don’t live with us but whom can we look after.

But Jesus does something even more remarkable with this parable than teaching us to look after others. Samaritans were, to the Jewish people, an “other.” The Samaritans’ religious differences made them suspect and despised. If I were to tell a story to help people have compassion on their neighbors—and attempt, in the transaction, to stir up compassion for a specific despised other—I would probably have the Samaritan be the one who is hurt and then helped. Perhaps then, my listeners could envision the despised other with enough pity, and see themselves as carriers of help and grace. 

But Jesus doesn’t do that at all. He has the Samaritan be the protagonist. In an astonishing act of subversive storytelling, the Samaritan isn’t the one who needs help, but he is the one who crosses his threshold to help his neighbor. A theology of home must include stories like this that confuse, bother, and de-center our own narratives. This is why threshold and hearth work best in tandem. While the hearth centers us, the threshold can—with the transformative work of the cross that sets us free from our own myopic kingdoms—de-center us.

The person who changes most in Anne of Green Gables isn’t really Anne. It’s Marilla. The young, loving girl warms and softens the older woman’s callous, lonely heart, so that Marilla has the chance to experience a love she could not have even imagined before. In the process, her sense of humor deepens as does her pleasure in the daily rounds of home life. This is the natural result of hospitality. When we bring in a neighbor, perhaps we may bless him, and his life will be, for a spell, made better, safer, more pleasant. This, in theory, is the profound ministry of hospitality. But as any veteran host or hostess would say, the giving is not one-way. In fact, it is the dynamic of mutuality that becomes superabundant: serving and receiving, drawing in and stepping out, being quiet and being bothered, experiencing comfort and discomfort, staying and leaving, knowing safety and risk, making and losing, hosting and visiting. Different days and different seasons call for different modes of homemaking and husbandry. 

Thus it is that making a home becomes a vivid and living enterprise, connected to the deep fibers of humanness. A theology of home emerges as a kind of story told with walls and beams and stoves and doorways. We simultaneously make the story and listen to it. We’re the protagonists, and also the foils. The hearth calls, and the threshold does too.

A Shimmer of Possibility

A Shimmer of Possibility

Lessons from Dogs

Lessons from Dogs