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

The Sec­u­lar Voca­tion is Sacred

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. 

Serve God in Your Pro­fes­sion, Not Out­side It

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.

The offi­cial Church wastes time and ener­gy, and more­over, com­mits sac­ri­lege, in demand­ing that sec­u­lar work­ers should neglect their prop­er voca­tion in order to do Chris­t­ian work — by which She means eccle­si­as­ti­cal work. The only Chris­t­ian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the work­ers are Chris­t­ian peo­ple and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Chris­t­ian work, whether it is church embroi­dery, or sewage farm­ing. As Jacques Mar­i­tain says: If you want to pro­duce Chris­t­ian work, be a Chris­t­ian, and try to make a work of beau­ty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Chris­t­ian pose.” He is right. And let the Church remem­ber that the beau­ty of the work will be judged by its own, and not by eccle­si­as­ti­cal standards. 

Let me give you an illus­tra­tion of what I mean. When my play The Zeal of Thy House was pro­duced in Lon­don, a dear old pious lady was much struck by the beau­ty of the four great archangels who stood through­out the play in their heavy, gold robes, eleven feet high from wingtip to san­daltip. She asked with great inno­cence whether I select­ed the actors who played the angels for the excel­lence of their moral character.” 

I replied that the angels were select­ed to begin with, not by me but by the pro­duc­er, who had the tech­ni­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions for select­ing suit­able actors — for that was part of his voca­tion. And that he select­ed, in the first place, young men who were six feet tall so that they would match prop­er­ly togeth­er. Sec­ond­ly, angels had to be of good physique, so as to be able to stand stiff on the stage for two and a half hours, car­ry­ing the weight of their wings and cos­tumes, with­out wob­bling, or fid­get­ing, or faint­ing. Third­ly, they had to be able to speak verse well, in an agree­able voice and audi­bly. Fourth­ly, they had to be rea­son­able good actors. When all these tech­ni­cal con­di­tions had been ful­filled, we might come to the moral qual­i­ties, of which the first would be the abil­i­ty to arrive on stage punc­tu­al­ly and in a sober con­di­tion, since the cur­tain must go up on time, and a drunk­en angel would be indecorous.

After that, and only after that, one might take char­ac­ter into con­sid­er­a­tion, but that, pro­vid­ed his behav­ior was not so scan­dalous as to cause dis­sen­sion among the com­pa­ny, the right kind of actor with no morals would give a far more rev­er­ent and seem­ly per­for­mance than a saint­ly actor with the wrong tech­ni­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions. The worst reli­gious films I ever saw were pro­duced by a com­pa­ny which chose its staff exclu­sive­ly for their piety. Bad pho­tog­ra­phy, bad act­ing, and bad dia­logue pro­duced a result so grotesque­ly irrev­er­ent that the pic­tures could not have been shown in church­es with­out bring­ing Chris­tian­i­ty into contempt.

God is not served by tech­ni­cal incom­pe­tence; and incom­pe­tence and untruth always result when the sec­u­lar voca­tion is treat­ed as a thing alien to religion…. 

And con­verse­ly: when you find a man who is a Chris­t­ian prais­ing God by the excel­lence of his work — do not dis­tract him and take him away from his prop­er voca­tion to address reli­gious meet­ings and open church bazaars. Let him serve God in the way to which God has called him. If you take him away from that, he will exhaust him­self in an alien tech­nique and lose his capac­i­ty to do his ded­i­cat­ed work.

It is your busi­ness, you church­men, to get what good you can from observ­ing his work — not to take him away from it, so that he may do eccle­si­as­ti­cal work for you. But, if you have any pow­er, see that he is set free to do this own work as well as it may be done. He is not there to serve you; he is there to serve God by serv­ing his work. 

Serve the Work

This brings me to my third propo­si­tion; and this may sound to you the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary of all. It is this: the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The pop­u­lar catch­phrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the com­mu­ni­ty, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great com­mand­ments. Love God – and your neigh­bor: on those two com­mand­ments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” 

The catch in it, which nowa­days the world has large­ly for­got­ten, is that the sec­ond com­mand­ment depends upon the first, and that with­out the first, it is a delu­sion and a snare. Much of our present trou­ble and dis­il­lu­sion­ment have come from putting the sec­ond com­mand­ment before the first.

If we put our neigh­bor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to wor­ship human­i­ty and make man the mea­sure of all things. When­ev­er man is made the cen­ter of things, he becomes the storm cen­ter of trou­ble – and that is pre­cise­ly the catch about serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty. It ought per­haps to make us sus­pi­cious of that phrase when we con­sid­er that it is the slo­gan of every com­mer­cial scoundrel and swindler who wants to make sharp busi­ness prac­tice pass muster as social improvement.

Ser­vice” is the mot­to of the adver­tis­er, of big busi­ness, and of fraud­u­lent finance. And of oth­ers, too. Lis­ten to this: I expect the judi­cia­ry to under­stand that the nation does not exist for their con­ve­nience, but that jus­tice exists to serve the nation.” That was Hitler yes­ter­day – and that is what becomes of ser­vice,” when the com­mu­ni­ty, and not the work, becomes its idol. There is, in fact, a para­dox about work­ing to serve the com­mu­ni­ty, and it is this: that to aim direct­ly at serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty is to fal­si­fy the work; the only way to serve the com­mu­ni­ty is to for­get the com­mu­ni­ty and serve the work. There are three very good rea­sons for this:

The first is that you can­not do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the com­mu­ni­ty is tak­ing it – any more than you can make a good dri­ve from the tee if you take your eye off the ball. Blessed are the sin­gle heart­ed: (for that is the real mean­ing of the word we trans­late the pure in heart”). If your heart is not whol­ly in the work, the work will not be good – and work that is not good serves nei­ther God nor the com­mu­ni­ty; it only serves mammon. 

The sec­ond rea­son is that the moment you think of serv­ing oth­er peo­ple, you begin to have a notion that oth­er peo­ple owe you some­thing for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the com­mu­ni­ty. You will begin to bar­gain for reward, to angle for applause, and to har­bor a griev­ance if you are not appre­ci­at­ed. But if your mind is set upon serv­ing the work, then you know you have noth­ing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the sat­is­fac­tion of behold­ing its per­fec­tion. The work takes all and gives noth­ing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And third­ly, if you set out to serve the com­mu­ni­ty, you will prob­a­bly end by mere­ly ful­fill­ing a pub­lic demand – and you may not even do that. A pub­lic demand is a change­able thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in the­aters owe their bad­ness to the fact that the play­wright has aimed at pleas­ing the audi­ence, in stead of at pro­duc­ing a good and sat­is­fac­to­ry play. Instead of doing the work as its own integri­ty demands that it should be done, he has fal­si­fied the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings (who by that time have prob­a­bly come to want some­thing else), and the play fails by its insin­cer­i­ty. The work has been fal­si­fied to please the pub­lic, and in the end even the pub­lic is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

We are com­ing to the end of an era of civ­i­liza­tion which began by pan­der­ing to pub­lic demand, and end­ed by fran­ti­cal­ly try­ing to cre­ate pub­lic demand for an out­put so false and mean­ing­less that even a doped pub­lic revolt­ed from the trash offered to it and plugged into war rather than swal­low any­more of it. The dan­ger of serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty” is that one is part of the com­mu­ni­ty, and that in serv­ing it one may only be serv­ing a kind of com­mu­nal egotism.

The only true way of serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty is to be tru­ly in sym­pa­thy with the com­mu­ni­ty, to be one­self part of the com­mu­ni­ty and then to serve the work with­out giv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty anoth­er thought. Then the work will endure, because it will be true to itself. It is the work that serves the com­mu­ni­ty; the busi­ness of the work­er is to serve the work.

Where we have become con­fused is in mix­ing up the ends to which our work is put with the way in which the work is done. The end of the work will be decid­ed by our reli­gious out­look: as we are so we make. It is the busi­ness of reli­gion to make us Chris­t­ian peo­ple, and then our work will nat­u­ral­ly be turned to Chris­t­ian ends, because our work is the expres­sion of our­selves. But the way in which the work is done is gov­erned by no sanc­tion except the good of the of work itself; and reli­gion has no direct con­nec­tion with that, except to insist that the work­man should be free to do his work well accord­ing to its own integri­ty. Jacques Mar­i­tain, one of the very few reli­gious writ­ers of our time who real­ly under­stands the nature of cre­ative work, has summed the mat­ter up in a sentence. 

What is required is the per­fect prac­ti­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion between the end pur­sued by the work­man (finis oper­an­tis, said the School­men) and the end to be served by the work (finis operas), so that the work­man may work for his wages but the work be con­trolled and set in being only in rela­tion to its own prop­er good and nowise in rela­tion to the wages earned; so that the artist may work for any and every human inten­tion he likes, but the work tak­en by itself be per­formed and con­struct­ed for its own prop­er beau­ty alone.

Or per­haps we may put it more short­ly still: If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the work­er serves the work.

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

Originally published April 1942