The Honorable Workman
Kh. Krista West · October 14, 2008
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
Today Kh. Krista celebrates the laborer who works with his or her hands in a day of automation and machinery.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. It’s been a busy time in my life lately, moving into a new home and constructing a new workshop. My life seems to be somewhat phasic, with periods of lull followed by segments of busy-ness and concentrated activity. I used to worry about this, but over time, I came to understand that this was a fairly normal part of the human experience. Hunter-gatherers had their times of feast and famine and the proceeding agriculturally-based cultures had summer’s bounty followed by winter’s sleepy time of preparation for future needs. Truth be told, as much as I enjoy the sunshine of summer, I deeply relish the coming fall and the cozy evenings by the fire, knitting and reading. I’m a project-oriented gal, after all, and that whole idea of quiet evenings making hand-knit sweaters or embroidered curtains is really appealing.
However, this fall finds me in busy “harvest” mode a little longer than I usually like, and when I get into a rather busy time, I have some tricks that help me get through. One of these is my choice of reading material. I should explain that I am notorious among my friends for hating almost all modern literature. They long ago gave up loaning me the latest “great read” and asking for my opinion on the New York Times Bestseller List. I’ve always had a penchant for the classic English novelists and I never needed to be coerced into reading these enchanting books, so Jane Austen and George Eliot and Anthony Trollope have never really lost their appeal for me. Their witty and perceptive views of human nature and society still charm me every time I delve into these treasures. So, when I find myself in a rather busy phase of life, I tend to pick up my old favorites, like Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” or Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden”. I know when I open the pages of these books, I will find old friends, friends who have a moral and religious outlook on life, friends who actually have beliefs that they base their lives on, rather than being morally swayed by latest fad. Oh, every once in awhile, I pick up a modern novel because I think I “should”, but I rarely get beyond a few chapters before I’m completely put off by the immorality or the foul language or the seemingly hip view that anyone who is “religious” is quaint and outmoded. Despite the fact that Anne Eliot’s empire dress or horse-drawn carriage are completely different from my way of life, I somehow feel that if we were to sit down in Starbucks over a cup of coffee, I would have more in common with her than the hip-young-thing heroine in the latest modern novel. I guess it boils down to the fact that when I read, I don’t want to be entertained or shocked, I want to spend time with old friends who I feel encourage me in the life I already live. I want to be reminded of why work and family and faith are important. I want order and beauty, not chaos.
So, this latest busy phase of new house and workshop has found me re-reading George Eliot’s “Adam Bede”. The last time I read this, I was in my early twenties and I was just beginning to try and figure out a way to lead a life that would somehow harmonize my creativity and my faith. I knew I didn’t want to be an “artist”, but I hadn’t figured out that there was something more. That is, until I read, “Adam Bede”.
“Adam Bede” is the story of a young carpenter in England prior to the Industrial Revolution. George Eliot (who, by the way, was really a woman named Mary Anne Evans) wrote the book not just as a novel, but as an ode to her country childhood and carpenter father and a portrayal of, in her own words, “mixed human beings” as opposed to “eminently irreproachable characters” so favored by other Victorian authors. She believed in the “democracy” of fiction, having stated that, “The only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him”. The novel was published in 1859, and is quite different from many Victorian novels in that the characters are so real and vivid—we’ve all known people like the sharp-tongued, yet good-hearted farmwife Mrs. Poyser, the pretty, but self-absorbed Hettie Sorrel, and the honest and hard-working Adam. The story revolves around Adam’s love for Hettie and Hettie’s infatuation with the local young lord, which has tragic consequences. It’s a compelling and interesting read, not just for the wonderful characters and the inimitable dialect, which Ms. Eliot writes beautifully—the old country English fairly jumps off the page—but for the interesting view of this agrarian society, in which a workman was worth his hire and a good craftsman had standing and honor among his fellow men.
Adam is repeatedly shown working hard, most notably in the first few chapters when he stays up through the night to make his father’s coffin, his father having just drowned in a foot of water in a drunken stupor. The contrast of Adam’s selfless toil to make a coffin for his selfish and destructive father is poignantly portrayed, giving Adam his full dose of humanity, and yet making it very clear that his is the better part. Again and again throughout the novel, we see Adam in his workshop, making things, designing things, studying to learn how to build things better, and we are spectators to Adam’s contentment in his craft. His brother Seth is a devotee of the Methodist movement and has had his head turned by a pretty young female preacher, Dinah Morris. In the first chapter, Adam and Seth and the fellow workmen in the carpentry shop are having a discussion about the Methodists and their frequent preaching and Adam weighs in:
“Nay, Seth, lad; I’m not for laughing at no man’s religion. Let ‘em follow their consciences, that’s all…And there’s such a thing as being over-speritial; we must have something beside Gospel i’ this world. Look at the canals, an’ th’ aqueducs, an’ th’ coal-pit engines…a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t’ hear some o’ them preachers, you’d think as a man must be doing nothing all’s life but shutting’s eyes and looking what’s a-going on inside him. I know a man must have the love o’ God in his soul, and the Bible’s God’s word. But what does the Bible say? Why, it says as God put his sperrit into the workman as built the tabernacle, to make him do all the carved work and things as wanted a nice hand. And this is my way o’looking at it; there’s the sperrit o’ God in all things and all times—weekday as well as Sunday—and i’ the great works and inventions, and i’ the figuring and the mechanics. And God helps us with our headpieces and our hands as well as with our souls; and if a man does bits o’jobs out o’ working hours—builds a oven for ‘s wife to save her from going to the bakehouse, or scrats at his bit o’garden and makes two potatoes grown istead o’ one, he’s doing more good, and he’s just as near to God, as if he was running after some preacher and a-praying and a-groaning.”
When I first read this passage, I was very young and impressionable, not yet an Orthodox Christian, and almost despairing of ever finding a faith that was big enough to include things like beauty and craftsmanship and prayer all in one breath. I remember going to an Evangelical summer camp where I was told that beauty was an idol and that it was wrong to want it.
But here was Adam Bede, making a coffin or a bookshelf and closer to God than I ever thought humanly possible. Adam’s work was his prayer, but so intertwined with his soul that he didn’t view it as prayer. He saw it as doing what God intended him to do. Most of all, he was content. He didn’t need to be excited or energized or even happy, as the rest of the tragic circumstances of the book show, he didn’t need to evangelize or preach, he just needed to do good work. He was an honorable workman, working ultimately for God and the good order of the universe.
In this day and age, the honorable workman is largely a ghost. We no longer have the local carpenter or seamstress or metalsmith, making things with their own hands. Making things seems to be done with at least one buffer between the person and the thing—the graphic designer no longer works with ruler and pencil, but with a computer between him and his work. The painter uses a spray compressor rather than a brush and roller. Garments are designed on computer and shipped to a third world country to be completed. There’s little immediacy or even contact between the craftsman and his product. It’s almost as if this buffer becomes an excuse for a lack of accountability. Instead of picking up your broken toaster from the gentleman down the street who can fix anything and will look you straight in the eye and tell you what’s wrong with the appliance, we find ourselves in the middle of Target looking at a sweater with hole in it, but with no knitter in sight! We could complain to customer service, but they’re not really responsible, either, so who’s to blame?
Worst yet, this buffer seems to not only distance the craftsman from his work, but from the honor that comes with hand-made work. Just like Adam Bede, the gentleman who repaired the toaster is respected in his community—he provides a valuable service and we appreciate and honor his mechanical gift, but on the other hand, who’s responsible for the damaged sweater? The designer, the factory, the clerk who unpacked the box? There’s just too many people involved and no one person that we can look to and say, “Hey, this isn’t right!”
In the barest terms, the honorable workman is just that, a workman. He’s got great skill, learned over years, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself anyone special, like an artist or a genius. He’s simply done the same actions over and over and over until he has freed himself from even paying attention to the actions. But along the way, he’s figured things out—a technique to make this go together better, a certain method to achieve a particular result. It’s the repetition and the limited focus of his work that has ultimately brought him freedom. There’s not a lot of novelty in doing the same thing over and over, but there is a wonderful sense of going deeper into the work, of mastering its secrets. It’s this knowledge that brings the workman contentment, and from his fellow man, honor.
I believe that the idea of the honorable workman is Orthodoxy Christianity’s answer to the cult of the modern artist. For the modern artist, everything is about self—self-expression, self-aggrandisement, self-perpetuation. For an Orthodox Christian, the ultimate goal is to lay aside the self in order to be completely filled with Christ. It’s a scary thing in our modern world, this idea that we intentionally and willingly put someone or something before our own wants and needs—oh my word, what if we lose ourselves in the process?! But, that’s kind of the point—selflessness and humility are the true paths to theosis and if we want union with Christ, tread them we must. We must become honorable workman, and in this case, this doesn’t just mean carpentry or toaster repair.
So, how do we become honorable workmen?
First, by embracing accountability. The other day, I was loading the dishwasher in a rather peeved manner—after all, this is one of my children’s chores—when it suddenly popped into my head, “I’m here to serve them, not them to serve me”. I had made a fatal spiritual mistake by abdicating my accountability as a mother. Yes, it was their chore, but I was accountable as a mother to show mercy and to serve my children. We need to reflect on our lives and find where accountability might be lacking. Are we slacking on some duty or responsibility that our conscience keeps telling us we must do? Is there some work, physical or mental or spiritual, that we keep putting off, even though we know it needs to be done? If so, it’s time to get to work..
Second, we must use in the words of Adam Bede, “our headpieces and our hands”. I’ve often been struck by how much creativity and imagination is needed for the raising of children. You’ve got to be thinking on your feet at all times and it can be tiring. Tiring, but necessary. Just as for raising children, we don’t have the luxury of putting our brains on “auto-pilot” for our lives. We must use our minds and our bodies to live a life in Christ. After all, what’s more creative than this? In my experience, creativity divorced from work is far too over-rated—it’s not sitting around dreaming of something that gets the job done—it’s work. Creativity is more like the spice in the dish—lending interest and flavor,but ultimately requiring the all-important ingredient of work
This is also where gifts and talents come into play. If you’ve got a good headpiece, then use it for the glory of God. If you’re better at hand-work, then by all means, work out your salvation with a mop bucket, but either way, make sure the work you’re doing is done for the glory of God. I think I’ve told the story of Fr. Arseny in a previous podcast, but it bears repeating: Fr. Arseny was a Russian priest who was imprisoned under the Communists. Whatever work they gave him to do, gardening or shovelling, he would make the sign of the cross over the work before he began. This infuriated his captors and, thinking they were imposing an indignity, they gave him the labor of scrubbing the latrines. Fr. Arseny recounted making the sign of the Cross with his eyes since he couldn’t do so with his hands. This story always comes to mind when someone approaches me with the idea that some types of work are more holy than others. No work is more holy than another; however, the attitude with which the work is done can vary greatly. Fr. Arseny managed to glorify God and be obedient to his captors by using his headpiece and his hands.
Third, it’s time to embrace duty and responsibility, despite our culture trying to convince us that they are millstones round our neck. The duties and responsibilities of our lives are like the repetition of the craftsman—we get better and better at things the more opportunity we have to practice. This includes things like marriage, raising children, caring for aging parents, showing hospitality, serving our parish community. A carpenter can’t call himself a master until he’s made hundreds of pieces of furniture; likewise, a father must work daily at providing for his family, a mother for her children, a priest for his parish. Hey, it’s certainly not glamourous, but glamour’s a little over-rated. I recently spent two days acid-etching the concrete floors of my new workshop. The way you start the process is by mopping on a diluted solution of hydrochloric acid and letting it fizz and bubble, after which a brown sludge appears. Glamour is a lot like this—about 15-30 seconds of fizz and bubble and then a bunch of brown sludge. It just doesn’t have any life-long staying power. On the other hand, the things like love and commitment that are produced after years of fulfilling our responsibilities and duties to our spouse and children, don’t go away. They’re there with us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Another aspect of responsibility is that it limits the focus of our lives. I think ultimately, this is what our post-modern culture has such a hard time with—once you’ve accepted one duty, it eliminates others. If you decide to get married, you can’t suddenly choose another person with whom to be in an intimate relationship, you can’t move halfway around the world from your spouse, you can’t take all the money and run off to the Bahamas (or at least, you shouldn’t!). There’s a lot of “NO’s” inherent in duty, so many in fact, that lots of people have trouble seeing the “yes’s”. The “yes’s” tend to be quieter and more subtle—after 20 years of marriage, you can sit by the fire with your spouse in complete ease and contentment, you don’t need to have plastic surgery for your mate to still think you’re beautiful, and your life is more complete because you’ve joined it to another. There might be children and extended family—a whole garden of love and beauty surrounds you, but again, it’s taken years of being faithful to the responsibilities of marriage.
These three steps, accountability, using our headpieces and our hands, and embracing responsibility, can help us approach our spiritual lives with a more workman-like attitude. Not that we are choosing works over faith, or that unloading the dishwasher while saying the Jesus Prayer is an adequate substitute for Sunday’s Divine Liturgy, but rather that everywhere, in every day, there are ways to move closer and closer to Christ.
I share a deep and abiding love of textiles with my Greek tutor and a few months ago when I was in her home for a lesson, she decided to show me all of her mother’s embroideries and linens. I’ve done some fairly advanced techniques myself, but this was a truly dizzying array of pulled-thread work, exquisitely-executed embroidery, and piece after piece of what would now be considered museum-quality textiles. I just stood and marvelled, having never been in one room with this much skill. Demetra told me stories about her mother and how she learned to make these things as a girl, just like every other girl in Greece did. Her mother had a definite talent, but it was simply expected that every girl would learn some kind of textile work. If she wasn’t great at embroidery, she’d knit. If she didn’t like to knit, she’d sew. And, if she showed absolutely no aptitude at these, she’d probably become a fabulous cook. But, it was unheard of not to work at making something. And, it was understood that it took years to perfect one’s craft. These pieces were heirlooms, meant to be handed down for generations and if they took awhile to complete, that was alright. Plus, there was no Home Decorator channel telling all the Greek housewives that drawn-thread linens were so “last season”. Everyone knew good work when they saw it and they valued it. In a small measure, it glorified the workman, but if she was in the right place, she in turn glorified God. It was a channel from Creator to created in bestowing the skill and created to Creator in glorifying God.
So can we be honorable workmen, shaping and honing our spiritual lives day by day. Granted, we’ve got a big job to do, but take heart, we’ve time and God’s mercy on our side. As Colossians chapter 3 states, ” And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.”