I teach philosophy and religion, and I have a house full of antique furniture. My wife and I have somehow managed to stop short of the point that some other antique collectors passed, the point where they had no more room for the antiques and became antique dealers themselves! But, having both these interests, it is natural that I would want to connect them in some way, no matter how contrived. Here's how I did it. Years ago, I asked my pastor, Don Morris, if he thought it was pretty materialistic of me to love and buy, buy and love, all these furnishings. Wasn't this too worldly an interest for one who wanted to grow spiritually? I knew he would know of a piece of the puzzle I was not seeing, and sure enough, he did.
Don suggested to me that some surroundings may be conducive to spirituality, while others are not. Some bespeak the profane (and I don't just mean having nude centerfolds on your walls), while others bespeak the sacred, the spiritual. One can create an environment in which a certain atmosphere prevails, an ambiance of culture, learning, piety, beauty. And if these things mean anything to you, you will suffer to the extent that you cannot secure such surroundings, if, for example, instead, you are stuck amid kitchy knickknacks, loud, tasteless music, beat-up or utilitarian furniture, and yelling human mouths.
In terms of the way I had posed the problem, I now see that what Don was saying is that "spirit" is not simply the opposite of matter, as much of our religious rhetoric might seem to suggest. Rather, spirit has to do with the proper way of shaping and using and regarding matter. All objects crafted by the human hand function to some degree as symbols, pointing us to the lower realms of physical preoccupation, the satisfaction of the baser appetites, or upward, to the more refined and spiritual aspects of ourselves. Both are good, but Plato and the Bible agree that you have to lead with the spiritual, or there's big trouble in store, what we today call dysfunctionality.
I know this may sound snobbish, implying that those too poor to afford "nice things" are less worthy. Not at all. I think that, on reflection, part of the pain of poverty is the aching lack of such tokens of the elevation of the spirit as I have been describing. It was for this reason that the pious poor, from ancient Israel to medieval Europe to Latin America today, have always been ready to give what pennies they can scrape up to help pay for a shrine, a cathedral, the fine fittings of a church. They know that human hands like theirs can build here upon the earth finite zones of beauty and edification that contain fine art and architecture, and that when one steps inside, one has momentarily left behind the mundane, shabby, tawdry world for a better one, one where one's soul instantly feels more at home. I am quite sure that if I did not have access to a fine old sanctuary like the one in which my church meets, I simply would no longer attend church. My spirit would not be fed amid cinder blocks, no matter what else might be going on.
If I were rich, I have often thought--and here you are free to imagine the music from Fiddler on the Roof coming up--how I would love to build my own chapel on my own property. But short of that, I have sought to make my house as chapel-like as I am able with a liberal accumulation of books and antique furniture. None of it is very lavish; some of it is shabby, but it's the symbolism of the thing I like. I was fortunate to live in Mount Olive back in the mid-eighties, where antiques were beautiful, plentiful, and cheap. Now I live in charming Selma, the antique Mecca. What luck for me! What luck for you! The next time you have a choice to make about furniture, fixtures, etc., let me suggest you make it a spiritual decision, and begin to design an environment that will connect you with the riches of the soul and a past more sensitive to these values than the present, or, as H.P. Lovecraft put it, "a century less a dream than this we know."