Crafts, the pursuit of excellence and God
Many years ago, when I first wrote “Bread for the Wilderness,” a book on baking, my wife said to me, “What you have written in the chapter about the spiritual aspect of bread baking could be easily applied to any craft. It’s more or less universal.”
I realized the truth of her statement, and in fact had already thought about the similarity between baking and calligraphy and, really, everything else. Calligraphy is exacting. There are standards to an alphabet on one hand, but there is freedom of expression on the other.
Recently I’ve been visiting the web site for Ieuan Rees, a true master of the art in both paper and stone. Ieuan lives and works in Wales. I attended a deeply inspirational workshop with Rees many years ago and I have never forgotten his spiritual energy, expressed so magnificently in his calligraphic forms.
In Rees’s work one sees both the exacting standards of a particular alphabetic form, but at the same time his creative powers of expression.
His heart is there, visible to the beholder in and through the forms.
One of my favorite writers and artists was David Jones, an Anglo- Welsh poet who did a series of what he called “inscriptions” in his latter years. Once, when a friend was visiting and asked about a particular piece he was working on, and noted the incredible concentration and thoughtfulness he brought to the work, Jones said something to the effect of, “I have to set this aside for now. Perhaps by Saturday I will be able to complete the E.”
Here is the heart of the matter expressed in a simple sentence.
Here is Jones, unaffectedly speaking to a friend, somewhat distracted, and yet pursuing excellence insofar as he was able.
When you are deeply involved in any craft, you lose time and place in the pursuit of that which is excellent by the standards of the craft. You lose yourself in the best way possible: into that which you love.
The pursuit of excellence is both a universally spiritual experience and also a deeply Christian vocation. Early Christian writers and teachers emphasize that we are called to do all things well to the greater glory of God.
What could be more evident than that, if we love both God and neighbor, we must be prepared to give our best?
For those who do not frame matters in this sort of language, there remains the pursuit of excellence in whatever one does. Any increase of beauty in the world deepens our awareness of that which is beyond us, nameless or not, even as does an increase of truth or goodness.
So if you are a plumber, pursue your craft toward excellence. There is beauty in a wellfunctioning plumbing system, as any of us who have known plumbing problems would testify. If you are an electrician know that people are counting on you grounding the system in order to render it safe. They will praise your competence as you pursue excellence in that craft. If you are a musician or a writer or a waiter… You get the point.
When I would introduce the art of leading worship to students in my past teaching life in Chicago, I would advise them to go to a good restaurant and observe the behavior of the waiters. There is an art to waiting tables; the best waiters strive to be on one hand invisible and on the other completely at your service.
Just like God. And there you have my connection between the Holy and the excellent for this week.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is pastor of St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission, Las Cruces. Visit the church web site at http://stanthonylc. org
Tales from the Cassock