As with Erasmus, I affirm that The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis is the grandest of devotional reads. The devotional books that litter the bookstores, especially the local Christian bookstore are more shaped by the lowest common denominator of trivial therapeutic drivel, the “cutting edge” madness of the management class, or silly self-help books that know nothing about the complexities of the human self and never address the matter of how a self so open to self deception can really help that same self. The insipid devotional books reign supreme.
In this dismal situation there is a bright ray of devotional greatness that arrives. Actually, it is making a bit of a second coming. Originally published in 1976, Thomas Howard’s Hallowed Be This House has been reprinted by Ignatius Press. My wife and I have been reading it (almost finished) and it has changed our sense of place. Thomas Howard, co-author of Christianity: The True Humanism, brings that same poetic prose to examine the reality that with our secularized consciousness comes secularized space. He draws attention to the “common” space where we spend much of our time and calls for the reader to see the holy, to see transcendence breaking in, and calls for our participation. There are themes that recur, such as “life for life,” and the way this is played out in everything from meals to intimacy between husband and wife.
Thomas Howard spiritualizes the same domestic space that Witold Rybczynski insightfully explores in his book, Home: A Short History of an Idea but with rare hints of divine otherness. My wife and I regularly stopped to offer up words of thanksgiving, and frequently we were both touched by the sheer delight of the beautiful truth disclosed. Thomas Howard provides a devotional book in the best and oldest sense of that genre. It is a work that calls us to be something that we are currently not. It reminds us that in the particular, common, and ordinary (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) there is something grand, beautiful, good, and true happening. I was reminded often of the writings of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, whose works invite and point without being heavily didactic. This is the best way to teach, and Thomas Howard teaches us well the lessons of the glory of our daily dwelling places.
Howard moves easily from room to room and masterfully redeems the bathroom by looking carefully where others fear to look or simply ignore. This essay could be nearly book length, if I explicated the parts of the book worthy of attention. Let this one quote suffice as a small part of a great whole, and I hope it entices you to get, read, treasure, and live the truth found in this work. In the chapter on The Kitchen, speaking of how the “commonplaces” of household life are parts of the rite in which we celebrate the mystery of Charity, Howard connects our home with the holy,
For when the drama of Charity was played out on the stage of our history, we saw these absurdities disclosed in their true colors. Here we saw love incarnate in the form of a servant; here we heard the disquieting doctrine of exchanged life proclaimed all over the hills of Judea; here we witnessed the humility of the virgin mother exalted high above the station of patriarchs and prophets, and heroic silence of her spouse lauded for all time. Here we saw a gibbet transfigured into a throne, defeat into victory, death into life, and submission into sovereignty. And here we learned of the Holy Ghost himself whose service is to glorify, not himself, dread and mighty as he is, but this incarnate love humbled below the meanest of men. A riot of self giving and glory, humiliation and exaltation, service and majesty. Nonsense by any political calculating; what the mystery of Charity before our eyes.
The book is filled with insights from scripture, anthropology, history, literature, psychology, sociology, and theology. A truly cross-disciplinary devotional book exploring the intersection between heaven and home, embodiment and habitat, space and spirit. I’m confident that if asked, Thomas Howard would agree that this is a Christian Humanistic devotional.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.