We built a family room onto our home a few summers ago.
It was a process – the least of which was the actual construction.
The process was marital.
The process was financial.
The process was also emotional, ethical, and theological. When the kids pressed their noses against the window to watch the bulldozer dig the foundation, I was already exhausted. My husband grew up in a family that moved and I grew up in a family that stayed…and kept adding on. This is what you do, I had explained with the patience of someone who really wants something…You buy the house in the location and you just keep tweaking it. But even more, “This is what we need,” for our children to thrive, for our practices of hospitality to grow, for our weekends to not be miserable. Right?
But we both struggled. As Christians, we are called to simplicity and contentment…but as Christians, we are called to hospitality and generosity? Our homes are places of shelter, we should be able to find rest there…but wasn’t Jesus an itinerant preacher? We had to continually return to our goal, cognizant of cultural influence but praying for wisdom. We needed more space for life with four children who continue to grow. We also wanted more space to welcome friends, family and neighbors – enough room that they felt like they could stay and be comfortable and feel at home within our home.
The social world of the first Christian church was as heavily layered with cultural influence as our own. Though different customs and issues prevailed, the Church, which first organized itself within houses, both inhabited and altered the spaces it filled. The movement of God demonstrated its power both to transform and dwell within the particularities and inequities of culture, even in its most intimate unit, the home.
“Flow” is a contemporary buzzword. Turn on HGTV and you will find it to be a constant sticking point. “ I love this house – it just doesn’t flow right,” homebuyers will often complain to realtors. This word choice belies our opulence – shelter has long since been taken for granted- but it also alludes to a larger theme in the modern world: we construct spaces for movement, not confinement.
The world of the New Testament differed significantly. The Ancient Greco Roman world was socially static: life changed very slowly, generations repeated themselves in levels of education, vocation, and class, and just as society was constructed to restrict social movement, homes were constructed for definition and not flow. If the home was upper class, it was designed in a layout of separate, assigned spaces, while a lower class home, the majority of dwellings in the Roman empire, lacked definition, space or light. The limitations of lower class homes resulted in predominantly providing the most basic shelter during the night hours, thus demonstrating the dependency of the individual on city life and highlighting his or her identity, even within a family unit, with the masses.
One of the most significant distinctions of the Roman House or domus was the atrium, a room just inside the front door with its roof sloping toward a central opening (compluvium) to allow rainwater to flow through to a shallow pool below. As Romans did not distinguish between work and leisure, the home existed for the benefit of both, and the homes of the upper class could be comparable to our modern day businesses. People regularly came and went and the atrium provided additional space for this “professional” activity.
Furthermore, the Patron/Ower/nobleman, could actually be seen at work in his home from outside. He worked in a tablinium, a living room/office. His role was not only defined by his space, but displayed. A stark contrast from the modern world, which connects increased affluence with increased privacy and seclusion, the Roman noble’s status was a visual for the city around and below.
In contrast to Greek homes, Roman homes were not separated by gender spatially, but temporally. Male members of the household were gone outside of the house for most of the day, making it a female space within those hours. At dinner, the house became male dominated again, when the women would eat separately.
Men and women had separate dining rooms (triclinia) and while slaves were moving throughout every part of the house serving, they lived in tiny, dark quarters called cells (cellae, cellulae) which were also used as storage closets. The dining rooms (triclinium) were designed to hold nine diners with three couches arranged together off a square leaving the open space facing the inner area of the house.
Greek influence infiltrated every aspect of life in the Roman empire, including the tradition of reclining while dining. Diners supported themselves on their left elbows and ate with their right hands. They did not use forks, only knives, spoons and their fingers, which came more naturally from a reclining position. Reclining appears throughout the New Testament texts and contributes a greater understanding to how Mary could have anointed Jesus’ feet (John 12:3). The wealthy entertained in their dining rooms, feasting to mark religious occasions as well as life rituals – births and weddings.
However, the majority of the Roman Empire’s occupants did not inhabit villas, or even what modern-day vernacular terms “single-family homes.” They were housed in multi-story tenement homes, or insulae, or in apartments behind their businesses. Most did not have their own kitchens pushing them to eat from city shops and return home to dark, cramped conditions only to sleep.
These insulae often contained just one or two rooms or multiple rooms with multiple families sharing the space. Most poor citizens had to get water at the public fountain and carry it up to their apartment and everyone used public toilets and public baths or chamber pots kept under the outside stairs. Poor hygiene and disease abounded in what would be decried by as public health crisis by modern standards.
Yet, it was into this scene that Christianity began as a movement, transforming the spaces even as its followers sought to fit their new life into confined and particular places. Christianity adapted to the local structures- the importance of mealtimes was maintained and eventually involved into the most widely recognized sacrament, the Eucharist. The house was a favorite site for teaching by Jesus and eventually became the meeting place of his people.
Within these structures, as the church grew, movement overcame confinement and transformation occurred. Women and men were gathered together for the meetings, defying earlier standards of separation during meals. Spaces that had long since been seen as symbols of status (domus with its patron on display ) or squalor (the insulae with its dark, cramped quarters) became invigorated with fresh identity. The domus was used for the growing numbers of the church, breaking down the barriers of separate rooms and quarters, and the insulae was filled with the light of crowded meetings and eventually became the sites for the first church construction.
The meal in Corinth, detailed in I Corinthians 11:17-34 provides a clear picture of the tensions held in the early days of the Church within the very physical space it inhabited. The Apostle Paul rebukes the scenario of the poor being pushed to the outer, darker edges of the triclinium, while the wealthy feast on gourmet delicacies. This may have been the norm, but it is not the new vision. This is the way of static structure, the confinement, not the movement ushered in by the Spirit of God.
In her recent book “Grounded”, Diana Butler Bass describes the changing form of families and the increasing value of their habitat. “The domestic revolution is a spiritual revolution and the way we make a household opens up questions about the God who is with us at home.” Regardless of the size and layout of our spaces – are they a place for God to dwell? Bass urges readers to examine the practices that make our homes places of spiritual birth and life. Though our culture may elevate flow and movement, it also centralizes consumerism. In our location in history, we must overcome the temptation to understand houses as spaces for stuff, and instead cultivate homes that create and sustain relationships between family members, guests and God.
Therefore, we must examine our homes, our most intimate spaces, in terms of spiritual practices, meaning we must examine our own inner lives.
The truth is, a new floor plan will not increase our rest or our hospitality or our connection with family and neighbors.
The real work of “home improvement,” then, is not picking out paint colors or ceiling fans, but developing spiritual habits and allowing those habits to structure and fill our spaces. As much as I would like to believe that a more soothing paint color will allow me to rest, putting my phone down every evening, or developing a rigorous weekly Sabbath plan are the holy habits that will alter my space.
And though I might claim that a spacious eat-in kitchen will increase my hospitality, hospitality is an intentional orientation of the heart, and I have never once described granite countertops when recounting the tender experience of being welcomed.
The church was birthed in households, and it flourished first in the home. It grew in houses that were large, equipped with space and servants. It grew in houses that were cramped, dark and crowded. The common denominator was not in the flow, design or layout of space but in the response of the inhabitants. Looking back, even as my husband and I theologically wrestled with building an addition, we were living out our Christian response. Our struggle was part of the commitment to faithful living in a particular cultural space – yes, one that happens to debate vaulted ceilings and square footage, but even more, a particular cultural space in which, regardless of shape, through our faith and practices, we dare to believe God dwells.