Family Culture, Home, The Symbolic Home
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The Sullivan Home and the Moral Imagination

We’re delighted to share with you a new addition to our Meaningful Home Series — a reflection and blessing for a house from our poet friend Helena Nellie Sullivan. Nellie is a former English and poetry teacher who lives in Carson City, Michigan with her husband and two children (they actually live in a funeral home, where her husband works). She begins by interacting with this quote from G.K. Chesterton, the inspiration for this series: “It is the main earthly business of a human being to make his home, and the immediate surroundings of his home, as symbolic and significant to his own imagination as he can.”

I depart from Chesterton on this slightly, in that I do not believe that our own imagination should guide so much as a moral imagination *—an imagination beholden to creeds.

To keep a home, then, that fosters moral imagination means that the homemaker will uphold certain “enduring standards”** (as Russell Kirk puts it) in a variety of ways.

For us, this means that we hang richly symbolic pictures on our walls, such as a high relief wood carving we have of St. George slaying the dragon, decommissioned from an old Québec cathedral.  Our art ranges from a five-dollar antique cross-stitch piece to cough-it’s-for-our-grandkids splurges.  We have collected several illuminated manuscript leaves that we have framed and hung around our house, trying to show to our guests and children that, as God commanded the ancient Israelites, so we will be people of the word. 

libraryFor us, this means always having a library at the center of the house.  My husband is nearly finished building his third library (see picture for work-in-progress). This one holds a mere 1,000 volumes, which meant a considerable downsize for us because we like to have a massive library, but this last move necessitated it. Fairy tales, nature books, philosophy, plays, fiction, and poetry fill our shelves and spill over into our waking hours and souls.

For us, this means that where we eat dinner is pleasant, as it is the center of conversation.

For us, this means that we show hospitality regularly to guests through earthy food, smoky candles, diverse fermented beverages, and salty conversation.  And cheese.  For all things homely we take our cues not from the Kennedys but from the Hobbits.

61150922_438237636975960_2048930993418534912_nFor us, this means we have a piano on which to play hymns and folk songs and around which to sing.

For us, this means we have no TV so that we actually read our books and practice the piano.

For us, this means we keep fresh flowers and plants and trees in pots.  For us, something is always growing or fermenting.  “That dearest freshness deep down things” that Hopkins wrote about was probably the yeast of bread and beer.

In choosing décor, I try to stick to natural fibers and woods whenever I buy something.  Did you ever see two things in nature clash?  “Oh, that brown sheep just looks so out of place in that green field.”  “Red sky at morning flanking a field of neon pink sweet peas, sailors take warning.”  By sticking to natural dyes and fibers, I never have to worry about anything matching.  And in so doing, I celebrate God’s Pied Beauty, his “fickle and freckled,” just as Hopkins did.

Overall, I prefer the homemade, hand-loomed, and junk-picked over the pre-fabricated, curated, and manufactured.  To keep a house with only ten doilies is quite hard—and would surely scandalize Diana Barry, but I do love the few I have from my Great-Grandma.  Piles of old wool blankets have served our company well over the years in the many drafty houses we’ve inhabited.  And I can’t think of anything more fitting than to collect a treasure from somebody else’s leftover trash.  After all, Jesus told the disciples to “Synagogue the broken pieces” once the loaves and fishes stopped the people’s hunger.

I try to remember, too, that God spoke the world, planted a garden, then hand-made us ***, so I think it fitting to make a virtue of handmade things, homegrown plants, and fresh-baked bread.

With all that said, the best and first ingredients in a morally imaginative house are a good attitude, contentment, and blessings.  So grace.  But I’ll never forget that my great-grandfather always greeted and said goodbye to me with blessings.

A few years ago, I wrote a house blessing that I will share here because it best sums up my prayers for any place we live.

A Blessing for Our House

May he deign to grant us this,
a house, complete in form,
ready in function, beautiful,
filled with good things for the hungry.
May bitterness sweeten to joy at its threshold,
anger succumb to mercy
at its doors.  May those who eat here
find themselves, in leaving, lighter
in eye and heart, held as it were
by the strings of heaven, and resting in
its suffusion of merriment and grace.
May these walls represent to all a vision
of the good-hearted life.
And may its many children return to it often,
Refreshed by its guardians, givers of life and adopters
of many wayward souls, found at last here
and in God himself.

* Chesterton probably means moral imagination anyway.


*** Women being at one-remove from the earth may also be the reason why we are more fun to look at in paintings than men are.  Uncut garnets are mud rocks compared to the finished gem.  And our eyes tend to pivot around the thing at one remove from nature.  Footnote-to-footnote: I think this might be what Stevens was getting at in his poem about placing the jar in Tennessee, but the bunny hole ends here.


If you’d like to contribute to this series, email with your guest post! 


  1. Jacqueline W. Teachey says

    Oh I love this house blessing! That is absolutely beautiful. I may have to borrow it!

    Liked by 1 person

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