Growing up vaguely puritan, I somehow nursed the notion that beautifying one's space was wasteful or worse, and that decoration was eminently dispensible. Church in particular was deliberately bare, and the Catholics were missing the point with their soaring visual romance. Yet I had aesthetic tendencies that struggled against this apparent prohibition. I would read interior design magazines furtively, guiltily. I would draw and then tear up houseplans or pictures of furniture, knowing they were worldly. I would secretly enjoy the architecture and atmosphere of stony, incense-ridden chapels.
As I grew up, read more and thought more, I decided the Puritans were wrong about space. Whatever level of spiritual detachment you might reach, the space you inhabit influences your state of mind and wellbeing. The ideal of a non-visual theology doesn't quite match our intensely visual lived experience. Besides, there's nothing irreligious about beauty, and ordering one's private space, as much as ordering an ecclesiastical space, is a thoughtful activity, perhaps even a wise one. I still belong to a church that doesn't oblige aesthetically, but I now think that time and imagination should be given to arranging one's domestic life, not in defiance of one's spiritual life, but in accordance with it, as a reflection of it and an aid to it.
When we got married, a truckload (literally) of presents arrived. Having travelled fairly lightly for many years, this sudden profusion of stuff in my house, especially in my kitchen and my linen cupboard, left me delighted and alarmed. The delight came not, I think, from having more stuff, but from a feeling of being, for the first time as an adult, replete; well equipped, well prepared. It gave me a sense of kinship with women through generations who were wardens of domestic wealth, who had a place for everything and everything in its place, who, like the paragon in Proverbs 31, laughed at the days to come.
And here's the heart of what I struggled with as a child and for years afterward. How am I supposed to live in this world, knowing there's another? There always seemed to me two models to choose from: the first was the life of the world-renouncers, the zealots, martyrs and ascetics; the second was the life of the wise - those who found joy and order in creation, who celebrated ordinary human loveliness. Paul might have belonged to the first category; Job and John to the second. As I get older, the second comes to seem more valid, not just more appealing. I grow more and more sure that the best clue we have to that other world is beauty, and the best way to live is beautifully.