Half a gallon of holy water mixed with blessed salt splashed over the newly poured concrete of our foundation.
Father Augustine Akinluyi carried the kettle to the next corner.
“Li oruko Baba ati Omo ati Emimimo,” he said.
Another half-gallon washed over the concrete and down the corner boards framing the footer of our house-to-be. Two more corners and then Father turned to us. “Where is the master room?”
Embarrassing silence. Master room? Master bedroom? What does he mean?
“Where is the heart of your home to be?”
We hadn't really thought about our home that way. We'd mapped out rooms to the house, but didn't have one marked “heart.”
“The family room — I guess. Over there,” I said, pointing to the southern corner.
He lugged the kettle to where a room would soon be and emptied the remaining holy water onto the dust.
“Li oruko Baba ati Omo ati Emimimo.” In the name of the Father (Baba), the Son (Omo) and the Holy Spirit (Emimimo), spoken in his native Yoruba, the language of Western Nigeria. Our first foundation blessing. Father's first in America.
He pointed to the four corners, still wet with their holy dousing. “The foundation is the most important part of your home,” he said. “If the foundation is weak, your house will be weak. The same thing with your faith. The sacraments are your foundation. Without them, your faith is weak.”
“This is only a temporary home,” he added, then looked upward. “There is your true home, in heaven. We only are pilgrims here. Seventy, 80 years. That is why you must fill your home with holy things, with holy pictures, and build a small altar where your family prays every day. I will show you how to do it when your house is built and we bless it.”
Having Father Augustine bless our foundation was a holy inspiration, a thought that came to me as we scrambled to plan and prepare for the building of the home on our homestead. In Nigeria, blessing the foundation would have been thought of first. “In my country, everything is blessed,” Father Augustine told us. “Everybody is always coming to the priest. ‘Father, bless this. Father bless that.’ In America, nobody thinks of such things.”
I'm afraid he is right. As so often happens, a foreigner sees us with far clearer eyes than we see ourselves.
I recall the assessment of Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in the first half of the 19th century, and who captured so well the American character in his justly famous Democracy in America. Americans are an agitated people, Tocqueville noted, a people constantly on the move. A family in America will build a house and sell it before the roof is on; Americans will plant trees and uproot them before they've produced their fruit. That was America around 1830. Our love of change, our characteristic continual mobility, has only gotten more pronounced since.
My family has been no exception. In our 19 years of marriage, my wife and I have moved 12 times. We have lived in Virginia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. When we decided to move back to Ohio to be closer to our families, we decided that our nomadic existence must end. This would be our last home. Our final resting place.
And so, in building our house, we knew that this would be the place where our children would grow up. Here we would grow old together, here where the apple trees I planted even before the house was built would bear fruit picked by our grandchildren. Here, finally, we will put down roots.
Hence the importance of having the foundation blessed. If the family is really the domestic church, then the home must be its cathedral. That doesn't mean, contrary to American housing trends, that each family should live in an enormous, imposing edifice. On the contrary, it means that (as Chesterton said) the home must be larger on the inside than on the outside. Rather than adding on merely decorative rooms, true spaciousness is achieved, first of all, by having the inside open onto eternity. Of course, a foundation cannot support a house that reaches to the heavens unless it is supernaturally strong. Without holy water and a priest's blessing, I would now be afraid to build.
But the house itself must be a kind of icon of the family's status as the domestic church. Americans, even and especially contemporary American Catholics, tend to be iconoclasts. Look at the insides of our houses. We have every imaginable trinket and bauble dangling from our walls — icons of ephemeral things — but few, if any, crucifixes and holy pictures. Icons are, as the Church Fathers taught, windows to eternity. How much more breathtaking our views would be if our houses had windows that remind us of our ultimate and proper home.
An altar in the home? I had never seen such a thing and was a bit surprised when Father Augustine suggested it. But then I thought about it. If the family is the domestic church, then the home should be a kind of icon of a Church. The heart of any Catholic Church is the altar, the sacred place where Christ, crucified and resurrected, is present at every Mass. In Nigeria, houses have thin altars, adorned by icons and candles, pressed against a wall. That's where the family gathers for prayer.
And it's what Father had in mind when he asked, “Where is the master room?” In my foolishness, I was thinking of myself as the master, as we do when we build master bedrooms. Father was thinking of the Master, the Lord, and so wanted to know in what room we were going to put the altar. That is truly the heart of any home.
Watching the workers building the walls this morning, carefully laying block upon block, I am more eager than ever for the next spiritual phase, the blessing of the completed house. Finally, I think, we have found our home. Then I remember Father's words of warning. This, too — blessed as it will be — is still only our temporary home.
Benjamin Wiker, author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, writes from Hopedale, Ohio.