Society for the Preservation of Amazement

I am always so grateful for the community of readers who linger here to read and ponder. In response to my recent post on the “priest/artist”, my friend David Fly was stirred to write a beautiful reflection, which he has graciously allowed me to publish here.

A professional clown before his ordination to the Episcopal priesthood in 1966, David has served in urban, rural, and campus ministries throughout the Midwest. Since his early retirement in 1998, he has been in demand as a preacher, teacher, and conference leader. In 2004, his memoir, Faces of Faith – Reflections in a Rearview Mirror, was published by Church Publishing Company. This summer marked his 50th anniversary of ordination to he priesthood. His own faithful artistry has long inspired my own priesthood.

In the foreword to David’s book, Bishop Hayes Rockwell wrote: “David Fly is fluent in the language of the lighthearted. He knows, as far too few in his calling know, that you can be serious without being solemn. He connects with us in a rich, entertaining and humorous way that points as well to joy, which lifts our hearts and spirits. David knows well, as Peter Berger said, about the “comic relief of redemption” and he is fluent in its vocabulary.”


Artists and Priests: A guest post by the Rev. David Fly

When Jim Friedrich discusses the “priest/artist” connection, he says “Whether ordained or not, . . . artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” And he asks, “What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?”

After fifty years as an Anglican priest, I’ve had the opportunity to look back on my experience and as I do a couple of stories come to mind. They illustrate, for me, an answer the question Jim is asking.

My “training” for priesthood began very early. My grandmother and my great-aunt Susie were my teachers. They were the first who taught me a description of the world, that W. H. Auden describes as “a temporal one, where nothing is as it seems.” This was particularly true in summertime when my sister and I had lots of time to spend with them. Summer gave us a chance to see magic in the ordinariness of our lives, and Grandma and Great-Aunt Susie conspired to help us see it and celebrate it. They taught us that the future is like summertime. It’s always there, stretched out before us, a canvas empty and waiting. It calls us to explore and discover the wonder in commonplace things and to uncover the secrets of our lives. There will always be surprises to find and capture. They’re out there like lightning bugs on a dark summer night.

My family didn’t take vacations very often because we simply didn’t have the money. But, once in a while, we pooled our funds and rented a couple of cheap cabins in southern Missouri or northern Arkansas. One of my favorite places was a little town in northern Arkansas named Popover, which has now disappeared from the map.

Once, in the late ‘40s, when we stayed in Popover, I went walking along a riverbank with my grandmother. The bank was made up of large, flat river rocks. She held my hand to keep me steady as we moved next to the rushing water. The sound of the river almost drowned out her voice as she said to me, “What do you suppose is under those rocks?”

Already a rather cynical six-year-old, I replied, “Just more rocks!”

But she surprised me. She had me kneel with her and then began to gently turn over stones. I discovered under each of them a myriad of life forms: beautiful lichen, colonies of tiny ants, spiders, snails, and even an occasional snake! Beneath the stones life was teeming; you only had to look for it. And as we knelt there, my grandmother leaned close to me and whispered:

The angels keep their hidden faces
Turn but a stone and start a wing
‘Tis ye with your estranged faces
That miss the many-splendored thing

After their husbands died, Grandmother and Aunt Susie lived together in my grandmother’s house. Though their were getting along in years, they chose to continue sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms even though they would have to climb a very steep set of stairs every night. Being the proper ladies they were, they would never have considered pitching their camp in the living room. So, to avoid falls, they crawled up the stairs each night and down them every morning.

Once, long after I had moved from that town and my parents had moved away, I went to visit the two women who had meant so much to me as a child. While we were talking, my Aunt Susie said, “You know, David, I can’t get to church much anymore now that there’s no one to drive us. So my altar has become this flight of stairs. Each night, when I crawl up the stairs, I stop on the last three steps, say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and then I say my prayers. When I come down each morning, I stop on the bottom three steps, say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and say my morning prayers. And God meets me whether at the top of the stairs or at the bottom.”

After years of reverence for the altar at little St. Stephen’s church, Aunt Susie had found another altar and approached it with the same respect. And because of her reverence, she was open to finding God whether at the top of the stairs or at the bottom.

These women were the first to teach me the truth of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit ’round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their faces unawares.

I don’t know when it happened for these women, but somewhere along the way, they stopped to see bushes burn and listen to the sounds of angels. Iris Murdoch says, “We should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world . . . and tell us a little bit of truth.” The artist/priest must do the same.

Many years later, after my ordination, when I was a college chaplain, I was given the gift of a wonderful definition of the Church. I went to the snack bar one afternoon for a cup of coffee. Because the place was so crowded, I ended up sitting with a young woman I had never met. She was reading a textbook. Suddenly, she slammed the book shut and said, “Statistics! That’s all they are. I’m taking a course in which people have been reduced to statistics. They’re not human beings anymore. All the mystery is gone, all the beauty. I’m being trained to treat people as if they were numbers on a page, and I’m afraid that when I leave this place, I’ll do just that.” As she rose to leave, her parting comment was, “You know, I think I’ll go someplace and start a Society for the Preservation of Amazement!”

She walked away before I could tell her that one already existed. My grandmother and great-aunt were charter members. Artists and priests are called to that Society, called to point beyond the present to a future filled with hope.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

For when we first believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.

— Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 394) [i]

You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there… [ii]

— St. Augustine

This Sunday’s gospel tells the parable of the nameless rich man, living the high life in his mansion, and Lazarus the poor man, who is starving just outside his gate. When they both die about the same time, their situations are reversed. The poor man, suffering the torments of Hades, gets a distant glimpse of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven “in the bosom of Abraham.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Where do we find ourselves in this gospel parable? At the gate, or at the rich man’s table? When Jesus tells this story, he doesn’t seem to allow us the option of remaining a spectator, detached and uninvolved.

Jesus is calling us to make a decision.
What would you do in the circumstances of the story?

There’s a 19th century song based on this gospel. I learned to sing it 50 years ago from the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:

 Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
When he lay down by the rich man’s gate
To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat
But he left him to die like a tramp on the street…

 If Jesus should come and knock at your door
Would you let him come in and take from your store
Or would you turn him away with nothing to eat
Would you leave him to die like a tramp on the street?

What would you do?
In our world of extreme economic inequality, it’s not a hypothetical question.

That’s the thing about the lectionary. We come to church to be illumined, fed, inspired, and renewed; to praise our Maker and Redeemer in the company of God’s friends. But sometimes we’re slammed with a question that’s really hard to answer.

In this case, what’s hard isn’t mustering the good will to do the right thing. If you’re a friend of Jesus, you know what is right. What’s hard is figuring out exactly how to implement our good will in complicated long-term situations.

We could empty our wallets for the homeless on a walk through downtown, but homelessness would remain. We could vote for candidates who put the needs of the poor ahead of the billionaires. But we would still remain entwined in a system driven more by greed and consumption than by the nurture of human flourishing and the health of God’s creation.

So where do we start? Does the parable itself provide any clues? It’s not really a story, but more of a snapshot. On one side there is Lazarus the beggar lying outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, dreaming of the scraps of food that fall from the rich man’s table. On the other is the rich man, behind locked doors, dressed in purple and fine linen, eating to his heart’s content – with a clear conscience as far as we know.

And the story seems to imply that he is unaware of Lazarus’ very existence. He doesn’t send his servants out to drive the poor man away. He doesn’t callously pass him by, pretending not to see him.

In the story, the rich man remains inside, Lazarus remains outside, and the two worlds are completely sealed off from each other—until a catastrophe shakes the rich man out of his complacency, and opens his eyes to the suffering he has ignored for so long.

The catastrophe is his own death. This not only plunges him into the fires of Hades but also—even more painful!—it opens his eyes to his lifelong indifference to the suffering of Lazarus, a suffering he could have alleviated, had he been more aware.

So now he must gaze up at Lazarus, safe in the bosom of Abraham, tormented by the knowledge of things done and left undone. It turns out that his blindness to suffering was not the same thing as innocence. The words of the prophet Amos could have been addressed to him:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria…
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory,
and sprawl on their couches,
stuffing themselves with lamb and veal,
singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful,
who anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)

It’s not that the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t even see him. Lazarus did not exist for him, until he was compelled to see reality through God’s eyes:

And what the rich man is shown by God in the end is this: Lazarus, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham, turns out to be very precious to God. But he (the rich man) is a prisoner of his own self-regard, the loveless and isolating condition otherwise known as hell.

And then this parable, as parables often do, turns to us expectantly. So, it wonders, is there anything you are not seeing in the places where you live and move and have your being?

Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Economic Justice Coalition in Seattle. The subject was the situation of the workers at the airport, the ones who clean and load the passenger cabins, who push the wheelchairs and guide the planes to their gates, who prepare and serve the food in the facility’s many restaurants and coffee shops, who rent the cars and staff the parking lots.

When we pass through the airport as travelers, we are served by many of these workers. But how often do we really see them as people or understand their situation?

Are we aware that the Seattle airport, the third largest economic producer in the state, has been a notoriously low-wage pocket within the greater urban area? Other West Coast airports, such as LAX, are way ahead of our own in addressing wage and justice issues.

The employment structure at Sea-Tac Airport is complicated. A variety of corporate contractors apply to the Port Commission and the airlines for the right to provide specific services. Individual airlines can choose to work with their own preferred contractors, so there is a bewildering variety of arrangements in which individual workers may fall through the cracks, as their employers play musical chairs in the bidding and renewal process. Without a guarantee that you will keep your job regardless of which corporation wins the next contract for the service you provide, you could be out of a job with little warning.

The process of bidding and contract renewals has sometimes been used, by both airlines and the Port Commission, to shut out union workers and reduce the job security and benefits of airport employees in general.

When Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage law in 2014, some contractors complied, some chose to fight the law in the courts, and some simply ignored the law and continued to pay only $9.45 an hour, until lawsuits forced them to comply.

Some of the contractors are still in court, but this month several of them agreed to pay retroactively the full minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,000 per worker for each of the two years in which they were underpaid. This will make a huge difference for those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live.

This ongoing struggle for a living wage is about the workers’ dignity and well-being as equal participants in an interdependent society. And, as people of faith would insist, it is about their inestimable value as the beloved children of God. But until my eyes were opened by what I learned at that meeting last week, they were almost as invisible to me as Lazarus at the gate.

And now that I see them a little more clearly, what shall I do? When I take a flight next Saturday, I will certainly be asking myself this question. I can pray for the workers, I can thank them for their service. This Tuesday I’ll be joining with workers and faith leaders at a Port Commission meeting to exert continuing pressure for economic justice. But what else?

I may not have a lot of answers yet, but the question is not going away as long as we keep replaying the unsustainable story of the rich man and Lazarus in our economics, our politics, and our social order. It will not go away, in fact, until that promised day when we will all sit together at one table, sharing our essential communion as grateful brothers and sisters in the feast of God.

Holy One, Lover of Justice, bring that day closer.


Related Post: Why Do We Work?


[i] q. in Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2007), 333

[ii] Sermon 33a.4, q. in Oden, 54

“The artist formerly known as priest”

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

We are all artists, we are all storytellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread… And we should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world…. and tell us a little bit of truth.”

— Iris Murdoch [i]

In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles ….
All these things
Are there before us, there before we look
Or fail to look.

— Richard Wilbur, “Lying” [ii]

My friend and sometime colleague Mark Harris has been an Episcopal priest for half a century. Now in his seventies, with his days of institutional church employment behind him, he devotes much of his time to making art. One of his friends recently designated him as “the artist formerly known as priest.”[iii]

The Prince reference made me laugh, but I also resisted the concept. Priest and artist are not contradictory vocations. Both draw back the veil between seen and unseen; both bear witness to a depth, a meaning, a beauty, or a Presence which is ever before us whether we “look or fail to look.”

Of course the priest is committed to a particular story about the world, and is accountable to some form of ecclesiastical authority, while the artist has no such constraints. In fact, it has been a commonplace of modernity to depict religion as antithetical to artistic freedom.

After a “shameful and distressing” conversation about the subject with T.S. Eliot in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister: “He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”[iv]

Similarly, a collective manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religion:

“We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you. that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, our of our own feelings.”[v]

The modern narrative of art history, at least in western civilization, describes the messy divorce between art and religion. Art drifted away from sacred stories and theological themes to focus on the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life. Then it stripped away all manner of content until its only subject was art itself, the pleasure of pure form and color unburdened by any external meaning.

In her persuasively argued book, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art, Charlene Spretnak refutes this narrative, documenting the deeply spiritual perspectives expressed by many of the iconic figures in modern art. For example, Van Gogh understood his revolutionary style as reinterpretation rather than rejection of a religious worldview: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[vi]

Writing “On the Meaning of Painting” in 1939, Joan Miró insisted that the artist’s vocation was to “endeavor to discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things,” rather than “merely add to the sources of stupefaction.” Recalling his first drawing class as a youth, he said, “That class was like a religious ceremony for me; I washed my hands carefully before touching the paper and pencils. The implements were like sacred objects, and I worked as though I were performing a religious rite.”[vii]

Spretnak cites many more such examples. But the rich and complicated relationship between art and religion is too vast for a single post, so for now let me return to my original argument. Priest and artist, for all their differences, share some essential common tasks:

To make visible what might otherwise not be seen.
To integrate life’s incompatible elements within a harmonizing vision.
To facilitate our encounter with a life-changing Presence.
To perform ritual interventions for the creation of community.

I am aware that many would define priesthood more narrowly, or art less religiously. Nevertheless, I am proud of the company I keep in this matter.

Seventeenth-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert grounded his poems in a word or an image, morphing it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings. As one critic has put it, “he breaks the host of language” as the one becomes the many. This was more than clever wordplay. It was a worldview: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. Or a poet becoming a priest.

Contemporary Catholic poet Les Murray makes a similar connection between his verse and the Eucharist. Both involve “the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine.”[viii]

The Orthodox composer John Tavener (d. 2013) described his music as “liquid metaphysics.” Acknowledging that his call was not to prove God’s existence but only to witness to his own experience of Presence, he said, “I cannot clearly demand belief in what I believe in, but I can ask for an openness, or certainly an acceptance that another level of reality exists beyond this commonplace one.”[ix]

Whether ordained or not, such artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to attend to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”[x] Or as I once heard arts innovator Peter Sellars put it, “The purpose of art is to wake people up who are sleepwalking, to grab them and say, ‘You cannot pass this by. This is your life!’”[xi]

Daniel A. Siedell, who has focused his critical attention on art and religion, makes an eloquent case for the priest/artist connection:

“There is a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualized gestures, and sacramental objects that testify to what philosopher William Desmond calls ‘the porosity of being,’ requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.”[xii]

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist living in Berlin. Her haunting installations are inspired by religious sites and rituals which evoke “strong emotional reactions. I think those reactions are sacred, but not necessarily the objects. It is similar with my art work. It’s the emotions that are sacred.”

For her work, “Key in the Hand,” she collected 180,000 old keys from all over the world, suspending them with 250 miles of red yarn over two old boats at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The keys represent the memories and treasures we lock away until we choose to entrust their custody to others. Shiota states that keys “protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.” [xiii] The yarn evokes blood and the interconnectedness of relationship. The boats, like an immense pair of hands, “catch” the rain of memories falling from above.[xiv]

Is Shiota’s work not sacramental, employing tangible objects to manifest hidden realities and touch our own deepest places? Does not its breathtaking beauty feel like a hint of the transcendent splendor toward which all being tends?

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the African-American artist William Pope.L invited residents of struggling New Orleans neighborhoods to donate photos in response to two questions:

When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?
When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?

The collected photographs were to be projected onto a rear screen attached to the back of an old ice cream truck painted entirely in black. And one night in October, 2011, this 8-ton truck, with its engine shut off, was hauled through the city by a team of strong bodies from sundown to sunrise.

The artist imagined the black truck as the weight of our “collective darkness,” all those regrets and fears and demons we drag behind us. Countering the darkness, the back of the truck was illumined by projections from the inside of all the light collected from their lives and their dreams.

“I am asking people,” he said, “to show the fragility of their bodies as a collective and then go for a walk with others who are dragging the same old dreams down the same ole corridors and to take time out to wonder about that.”[xv]

Is this not priestly work? Using common materials and ritual actions, Pope.L. was the presider/curator for a “work of the people” which employed many of the elements of Christian liturgy: narrative (the photographs as “stories,” and the journey of the truck), symbol (darkness and light), time (a night passage framed by the setting and rising of the sun), and community (facilitating connections among the photographers, performers, and the neighborhoods through which they made ritual procession).

Pope.L acknowledges a “priestly” association: “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”[xvi]

Critic and poet Donald Kuspit says that “being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects,”[xvii] while Iranian/UK installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary defines an artist as “someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.”[xviii] It seems that such artists as Shiota and Pope.L have brilliantly intuited this implicit artist/priest connection.

What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?

We may have much to learn.


Related Posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands

Heart Work and Heaven Work

Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination

Note: The image at the top of this post was made for me by the wonderful calligrapher and Episcopal monk Br. Roy Parker OHC. For information on his work:

[i] Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986, p. 62-3, q. in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar (Ed. by Oleg V. Bychkov & James Fodor, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 162

[ii] Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems: 1943-2004 (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 83

[iii] Some of Mark’s work may be seen here: One of his poems is found in the Related Posts link to “Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination”

[iv] London Review of Books, 10/23/14

[v] Originally published in Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), q. in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27

[vi] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art: Art History Reconsidered: 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40

[vii] ibid., 102, 100

[viii] Missy Daniel, “Poetry is Presence: An Interview with Les Murray”, Commonweal 119, no. 10, 1992, 10), q. in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary C. Reichart (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 217

[ix] John Tavener, ed. Brian Keeble, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 163

[x] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 291

[xi] From my personal notes on a “The Arts: A Catalyst for Change,” a forum at the Stanford University Centennial Weekend, October 1991

[xii] Re-Enchantment (James Elkins, David Morgan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 234


[xiv] Interview with Shiota:

[xv] Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, eds., Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed., (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 247


[xvii] Artforum (1984), q. in Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124

[xviii] Interview with Stella Santacatterina (1994), q. in The Sublime, 93


Gone for a walk

Sunset in Montana's Beartooths range (August 2015)

Sunset in Montana’s Beartooths range (August 2015)

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. (John Muir)
I am taking Muir’s advice, as I do every summer. The season would be incomplete without a wilderness sojourn. So instead of writing a new post, I am loading my backpack for an early start tomorrow deep into the Cascades. I’ll be back with some new writing in a week or so.
Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading this post about a previous hike: “The Ministry of Nature.”
As always, thanks for visiting!

Why Do We Work? A Labor Day Reflection

"September" (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

“September” (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

Good work is a way of living… it is unifying and healing. It brings us home from pride and despair and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are, not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone. (Wendell Berry) [i]

Labor Day began in the late nineteenth century as both an homage to American workers (parade, speeches) and a time of re-creation (picnic, dance, fireworks). Congress declared it a national holiday in the aftermath of a contentious railroad strike in 1894, where 30 workers died in violent confrontations. It was hoped that honoring workers would ease tensions and foster social harmony. As the Department of Labor currently describes it, the first Monday in September “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” [ii]

The holiday’s explicit homage to labor has long been overshadowed by its seasonal significance as the American farewell to summer—one last stretch of fun in the sun before the year gets busy again. But in our overworked culture, where the inbox follows you everywhere and vacations are a fraction of what Europeans enjoy, could we not make some time to reflect together about the nature of labor? What if churches were to revive the notion of Labor Sunday, where our tools could be blessed and the spirituality of work considered? [iii]

In the Bible, the pleasures of a perpetual weekend in Eden ended abruptly when God created Monday morning as a curse upon the first humans, who evidently needed to learn things the hard way. “By the sweat of your face” will you earn your daily bread,” said the Creator.[iv] The story was a way of thinking about the question, Why do we have to work so darn hard? Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were given light duties of tending the well-watered garden, more like an aristocrat’s hobby than the grueling subsistence farming bequeathed to their descendants.

Hard-working humans have been reminiscing ever since about the “happy Eden of those golden years.” [v] Stephen Duck, an eighteenth-century English poet-priest, voiced the complaint of the exploited farmworker.

Let those who feast at Ease on dainty Fare
Pity the Reapers, who their Feasts prepare …
Think what a painful Life we daily lead;
Each morning early rise, go late to Bed …
No respite from our Labour can be found;
Like Sisyphus, our Work is never done …[vi]

The justice issues arising around working conditions, exploitation, and economic inequality are themselves the shared work of any society worth its name. My ideal Labor Day would involve some serious community conversation—more listening than talking—about these things. But I would also be curious to explore the spirituality of work as well. Why do we do whatever we do? Does it give us joy? Does it matter?

An old Scottish drinking song provides a succinct answer in its praise of various occupations. The carpenter’s verse suggests the inner satisfaction of work well done, honors the process as well as the product, and celebrates the interdependence of the social world where each of us benefits from the labor of others:

Here’s a song for the carpenter, may patience guide your hand,
For the dearer your work to you, the longer it will stand.
And when the wind is at our door, we never will forget;
We’ve sung your praises many a time, and so will we yet. [vii]

Like our Creator, we are all makers and doers who enjoy the fulfillment of intentions and the solving of problems. It’s in our nature to see what needs to be done and then take a hand in making it so. We also find pleasure in the solidarity of labor, not only through our relationships with coworkers but also in the awareness of practicing a skill handed down by so many mentors and predecessors.

In an imperfect and often unjust society, not everyone has access to employment that delivers pleasure or meaning in itself, but one’s paying job may still be part of a larger labor which is absolutely worth doing, such as supporting a family or funding a future dream. Studs Terkel, who collected oral histories of countless Americans, believed that all of us long for meaningful work. “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job,” he said. “Most of us … have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” [viii]

Lewis Hyde makes a useful distinction between “work” and “labor.” Work is done by the hour, on the clock, usually for money. Its value is quantified, and has economic exchange value. Labor, on the other hand, keeps its own schedule, sets its own pace, and may include time off or even sleep as part of its process. Its social value may be clear, but its economic value is hard to quantify. Its product is not a commodity to exploit but a gift to share. “Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labors.” So are volunteer work, ministry, visiting the sick and the prisoner, gardening, personal soul work and “the slow maturation of talent.” [ix] Such labor is priceless.

Most of us have done both work and labor, as well as hybrids which include elements of both. And while Citizen Kane’s financial advisor said, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money,” the truer and nobler task is to cooperate with the Creator in repairing the world, that it may be a place of beauty, love and justice.

So my Labor Day question is this: Where and how can we perform the labor to which we are uniquely called, the thing which Etienne Souriau has called the “Angel of the work” [x]— that which gives us joy and blesses others?

Another verse in that Scottish song thanks the singers who keep their voices clear:

For the world as you would have it be,
you sing with all your wit,
And ease the work of Providence,
and so will we yet.

In that spirit, I leave you with two such singers, Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina, who “ease the work of Providence” by voicing the universal human right to flourish:

Bread, yes, but roses too!


Related Post:

Grace Me Guide


[i] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, q. in Karen Speerstra, ed., Divine Sparks: Collected Wisdom of the Heart (Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005), 520

[ii] Department of Labor website:

[iii] This was instituted by churches as a companion to Labor Day, but has fallen into disuse.

[iv] Genesis 3:19

[v] John Clare, “Helpstone” (1809) q. in Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10

[vi] Stephen Duck, “The Thresher’s Labour” (1730), in Williams, op. cit., 88

[vii] The original, “Sae Will We Yet,” is attributed to Walter Watson, but I believe the carpenter verse is a contemporary addition by Ossian’s Tony Cuffe. A fine version by Gordon Bok, Ann Muir, and Ed Trickett is here:

[viii] In Speerstra, op. cit., 519

[ix] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 50

[x] Etienne Souriau, q. in Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 464