How I think about marriage and homelife is much affected by life with my wife. I must remind myself not to universalize too quickly or without nuance. Yet I think what I’ve seen with my eyes, and felt in my heart, does point to something that goes beyond the contingencies of my experience. Woman has a natural inclination, we could say ‘genius,’ in setting the tone of life in the home.

This ‘tone’ is anything but peripheral. It’s at the center of family life. It is its beating heart. Is home a place of peace, joy and refinement; or contention, gloom, and lack of refinement or even coarseness? Is home a place where people are welcome, life’s challenges are faced with confidence, and sorrow is met with compassion and care?

Here I will focus on one major feature of the tone of homelife—namely, what I’ll call ‘refinement,’ and through it briefly ponder the unique place of woman in setting tone. It is proverbial that woman has a kind of ‘civilizing’ and ‘domesticating’ effect on man. It is important to consider what truth is in this.

To say that men tend to be ‘uncivilized’ would, I think, miss the mark. A better angle onto this point is that women tend to be more attuned to persons and their concrete, particular needs, and so they likewise have a keener sense and feel for how human life is enacted in a multitude of concrete, material aspects. What we call ‘culture’—closely related to the term ‘civilized’—consists especially in a set of customs whereby a community practices and so passes on a truly human life.

The household—which Aristotle characterizes as a community established by nature as the place of daily human life—is the primary source and seat of culture precisely because it is where life naturally begins and ends, and takes place every day in between. In view of the wonderfully complex, specific, and concrete needs of human life, nature has inclined and endowed woman to excel in intuitively grasping and addressing those needs. Starting in daily practices in the home.

Herein we can begin to see both why culture in the home is so crucial, and why woman is the special cultivator and guardian of it.

An example of a wife telling her husband not to walk in the house with muddy shoes is prone to trivialize the matter and to avert our focus from what matters most. That said, even this small example, seen in light of the above principles, can point to something of transcendent significance; indeed, something that we—men or women—ignore at our own peril.

A more telling example would be a woman’s conviction and insistence upon a whole approach to eating in the home. Manners, decoration, and decorum all have the work of expressing and promoting a beauty, refinement, and sociality so critical to truly human life.

Now certain objections and concerns understandingly arise. The main one in my estimation is that we can seem here to place the burden on woman alone while more or less freeing man for less refined ways.

I opened with a big question: who is setting the tone at home? At risk of oversimplifying a wonderfully complex issue, I will offer three suggestions in view of the above reflections.

1. Decide to set the tone in your home.

The tone in your home is really its animating spirit. People—beginning with members of the household itself—will feel it as soon as they walk in. There already is a tone in our home. What is that tone? And where is it coming from?

This calls for careful reflection and intentional deliberation, regardless of the form of our household (single, empty-nest, children at home, etc). It is our responsibility to do all we can to set the right tone. If we are married, the tone should be the fruit of a joint effort, according to the wonderful complementarity of man and woman, which brings us to the next two suggestions.

2. Men: take the lead in empowering your wife to set key features of the tone, as only she can.

Complementary roles enable an intimate, intricate, and fruitful dance of mutual service. That the other excels in something is never a call to leave the other alone there; it’s often a call to come closer; and to learn from the other and then work together.

Take a woman’s sense of refinement as a key example. For her to enact what she has to offer here demands that the man see it, affirm it, and join her in it. Otherwise, the difference that should have grounded real complementarity actually causes isolation. And everyone suffers.

Staying with the example: refinement should be as much a concern of his as of hers. He might well first come to have this concern by seeing her concern. But now it is his too; and he calls it out from her; he even now leads the way, to bring her gift to its full fruition.

3. Women: consider the profound gift that can be yours, to receive and to give, in setting the tone in your home.

Again, what I called refinement is but one note in a harmonious chord of home life. In Willa Cather’s great novel Shadows on the Rock, an ailing mother seeks to form her young daughter for when she has passed on, training her so that “the proprieties would be observed, all the little shades of feeling which make the common fine.” Of the ‘individuality’ and ‘character’ of that home, we read, “though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver, [it] was really made of very fine moral qualities in two women…”

Perhaps especially today women will wonder what this means, how to go about it, and whether they are up for this. But the challenge of discovering the gift of a providential plan is the arduous task of both men and women. This shared task can either drive us apart, or draw us together. It is up to us which it will be. ~ ~ ~

LATEST PODCAST EPISODE: IS WOMAN STILL THE HEART OF THE HOME? Join Sofia and me in asking some hard questions and uncovering some exhilarating answers, going deeper into the above reflection! Listen wherever you get your podcasts.


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