Editor's note:

“Work,” Richard Foster writes in Streams of Living Water, “is another everyday place—perhaps the most substantive place—for incarnational living. By ‘work’ I am referring not merely to our job; I am referring to what we do to produce good in our world. I am referring to our vocatio, our vocation or calling.

Now, I really must bear down on this point of our work as the place for living sacramentally. While some have a special calling to pastoral or priestly work in order to equip the people of God, the calling or vocation for most of us is smack in the midst of the workaday world. … And this is where we learn to do our work as Jesus would do our work if he were in our place.”

Dorothy L. Sayers echoes these ideas in this excerpt from her classic essay, “Why Work?” What’s more, she looks at how the Church fails to nurture this work-life sacrament by falsely dividing the realms of secular and sacred. She reminds us that “the very first demand that [a carpenter’s] religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.” 

—Renovaré Team

It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. The Church must concern herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: She must concern herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation—that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul destroying, or harmful. It is not right for her to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.

In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

Yet in her own buildings, in her own ecclesiastical art and music, in her hymns and prayers, in her sermons and in her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

And why? Simply because she has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. 

Let the Church remember this: that every maker and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade—not outside it. The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word.

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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Excerpted from the essay “Why Work?” by Dorothy L. Sayers, via Malyon Workplace.