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.

We’re glad you’re here!

Helping people like you abide with Jesus is why we post resources like this one. Always ad-free, Renovaré is supported by those who know soul-care is vital. Would you join us?

Donate >

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

Originally published April 1942.