Friday, September 30, 2016

Of Family Mantels and the Notre Dame Basilica

Winter is a hazy abstraction and seemingly a long ways off these warm autumn days. Aside from the Christmas decorations already on display in the Dollar Tree, what’s to remind you of the coming precipitous drop in temp and the mad rush to get your presents wrapped before December 25th?

At my house, there’s a constant reminder: a neat line of small gold hooks permanently installed above our fireplace. They’re for Christmas stockings, ten hooks total – nine for my immediate family and one extra in case we host an overnight yuletide reveler. It was a bit of a pain to get the intervals between them fairly even, so I just leave them there year round. These days, they’re sporting key chains and lanyards, a rosary and, until recently, a Dr. Who necklace. It’s like a Hanging Garden of post-summer flotsam and a centrally located household Lost and Found.

Come November, though – hoo, boy! The flotsam will be excised, and it’ll be time for radical reassignment when it comes to our home’s interior décor – yours, too, most likely. For us, the fireplace mantel is key: The stockings will take their rightful place on those hooks, of course, and the mantelpiece clock, front and center, will be packed away. The same goes for all those family photos – group and individual, family and friends, school portraits, graduation shots, Baptism and First Holy Communion – carefully stacked and stowed to make room for candles, crèche, and myriad festive decorations.

It’s a temporary renovation, however. Once Christmastide starts waning in the new year, the crèche will come down and the photos will once again take their place – as much of a tradition as anything we’d been doing throughout December. And like most traditions, we don’t give it much thought – where else would we stick all those portraits and goofy snapshots?

Yet, think about your own behavior when you visit a home for the first time. If you’re like me, you make a beeline to the bookcases – what do they have and how is it all arranged? Eventually, however, even I wander over to the mantel to join my wife in perusing the photos. It’s a way of getting to know a family: Who the players are, past and present; the faces that express a family’s history and personality – who are these folks? What are they all about?

That’s what I think of when I step inside churches – especially big ones like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. The walls and ceiling are awash with Biblical heroes and heroines as well as saints and martyrs from Church history  – a true "cloud of witnesses." All those icons, stained glass windows, and painted images help keep the campus community tethered to its Catholic heritage, and they serve to orient visitors to what that community is all about.

Just like a family mantel.

For a guided tour of one family's connections with the Basilica's iconographic "mantelpiece," follow this link