A renaissance is upon us.

I hesitate to employ the word renaissance, overused as it is, but it seems like the right one. What better word is there to describe the swelling number of seminaries and other schools for theological education – Saint Andrew’s Academy, Greystone Theological Institute, The Maker Institute of Studio Art + Theology, College of St. Joseph the Worker, and Harmel Academy among them – that are dedicating not just individual courses but entire programs to handcraft? What word, in an economy that thrives on disintegrated specialists and so-called knowledge work, can better encapsulate the burgeoning push toward a long-needed reintegration of head, hand, and heart? If a renewed interest in the convergence of manual labor and spiritual formation doesn’t count as a renaissance, then I really don’t know what does (plus I’m unwilling to relinquish the word to Beyoncé).

The question of the intersection of our spiritual and work lives looms large for the modern-day Christian, especially one that lives in an increasingly postindustrial economy. Many find themselves wondering how their often bureaucratized and less-than-fulfilling labor can possibly be what God had in mind for them. It’s a question I spend no little amount of time thinking about and certainly one that the Holy Scriptures address at length. I am a plumber by trade, an amateur theologian, and an even amateur-er philosopher, so how to do my work in a Christianly way–how to “pray without ceasing,” as St. Paul put it, something I begin to explore here–and what this work in the material world means is on my mind a good deal. As it turns out, I am not the only one pondering these considerations. More recently, many have done so, and at such depth that they have sensed a pressing need to structure entire educational programs toward this fitting marriage of craft and theological education.

Perhaps this is the first you’re hearing of this. Perhaps you’ve never questioned the meaning of your work or what it has to do with your faith or why a seminary might require its students to learn a trade. If that’s you, welcome to the conversation. In the second part of this series, I’ll introduce you to some schools that are engaged in this nuptial liturgy between trades and theology, and in a final essay I will, perhaps audaciously, attempt to give an answer to the question, “Why is this happening now?” My project in this first essay is to try and trace a sketch of the relationship between what Joseph Moxon called “the doctrine of handy-works” and the teachings we have received from the Church, the doctrines of God.

Rebuild My Church

We are not the first generation to wonder at work and our Christian faith or to have some inkling that the two might be deeply connected. Eight centuries ago, Saint Francis of Assisi had his famed mystical vision of Our Lord on the Cross while praying in the church of San Damiano. “Rebuild my church,” instructed a bloodied Jesus, looking down from the crucifix upon a praying Francis, “which is falling down.” Francis broke his gaze with his Crucified Savior to cast it about the church. Dilapidated bricks. Crumbling walls. Holes in the roof. One might forgive the saintly vagabond for thinking that Jesus meant that church, San Damiano, when He clearly meant the broader ecclesial architecture. Christ has no concern for physical structures, after all. He wanted Francis to drive bishops to the cross, not nails into wood; patch leaking souls, not leaking roof holes; to reinforce virtues, not church pews. Right?


That ain’t how Frankie heard it. Whatever spiritual import Christ’s words had, and they obviously had a lot for all His words are “spirit and life” (John 6:63), for Francis there was a material reality in which their meaning was shaped, labor in which their truth was to be apprehended. Adolf Holl in his biography of Francis, The Last Christian: A Biography of Francis of Assisi, says, “It is important that Francis saw Christ not as a ruler and conqueror, as was customary then, but as a God fallen into destitution and abandonment, whose roof threatened to collapse.” Francis saw a world that required careful maintenance and love-born repair and a God that participated in this.

Francis walked away from his encounter with Jesus having had a dramatic reorientation akin to what Saul experienced after his own encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul, like any good bully with the full authoritative backing of his religious institution, would likely have remembered pummeling a guy so bright that the smallest glimpse of Him stole his sense of sight. But no one was coming to mind. “Who art thou, Lord?” He really had no idea. “I am Jesus,” okay, tracking, “whom thou persecutest.” Wait. All the Christians whom he had beaten, imprisoned, tortured, killed: they were . . . Him? He was with them? In them? The Incarnation was made real for Saul in that moment, and it transformed him: Paul, Architect in Christ’s Church.

And while I think that it would be a stretch to say that the physical structures in which Christians worship are Christ’s body in an ontological sense, Francis saw a fulfillment of his Lord’s instruction in the chapels and cathedrals that dotted the Italian countryside and, importantly, the Lord didn’t stop him. A tangible tie between the anemic inner world of the church’s soul and the deteriorating outer world of the church’s buildings was visible to him. As Holl says, “Jesus became for Francis the physical incarnation of human degradation. . . . It is striking how at this point in his development Francis did not choose a life of charitable works, but worked instead at repairing churches.” Francis did not build any new churches; all his masonry skills were directed toward repairing church buildings that already existed. In a way akin to St. Paul, the Incarnation was made real for Francis in San Damiano, and it transformed him: Francis, Restoration Architect in Christ’s Church.

It almost feels heretical to say that at the center of our religion, indeed our existence, is a God that can be wounded and broken, but this is precisely the Christian claim. We live in a world that can be degraded, and God entered that very degradation in Christ. So might there be a connection between what we do in the world and this world’s wounded God? What was St. Francis intuiting that might be instructive for our thinking on (the) matter? What does physically ordering the material world have to do with our thoughts and interactions with God?


“Of all things to be sought, the first is . . . Wisdom.” So opens Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, written in about 1128 AD, fifty-three years before St. Francis was born. For Hugh, we humans are in a state of darkness, desperately in need of an illumination that we cannot provide. The darkness occludes our vision of ourselves and our place in the hierarchy of creation, relegating us to a sinful life in death’s shadow, and so Hugh wants to direct us toward those arts in which this illuminating Wisdom is seen in order that, our souls enlightened by its instruction, we might come to possess it and obtain beatitudinal bliss. The arts he commends to his readers are the seven liberal arts and what he calls the seven mechanical arts. The pursuit of Wisdom in these arts is nothing other than philosophy–since philos is Greek for “lover of” and sophia, “wisdom”–and philosophy “is the discipline which investigates comprehensively the ideas of all things, human and divine.” As Hugh conceives of it, this instruction is primarily brought to a soul through the art of reading, but not reading as one with a disposition of familiarity with the subject. Rather, one must read as on foreign soil, as an exile, as on a journey: as a journeyman, we might say.

It takes three years in the state of Georgia before you can take the State Licensing Board’s examination and earn journeyman plumber status. Three years of verifiable experience with some combination of classroom instruction, should that be available, and riding in a truck as an apprentice to some journeyman or master plumber who was an apprentice to some journeyman or master plumber. The manual-labor world’s own proprietary apostolic succession going back to the first plumber Jesus ever commissioned, I suppose. The purpose is simple: it takes time to learn this or any trade, and you’ve gotta learn it from someone. Preferably, someone good.

In the older usage of the term, a journeyman–with enough experience under his belt to ply the trade with competence but not enough to have a workshop of his own in which he would train journeymen and apprentices–would quite literally journey hither and yon, seeking to increase his skills under the tutelage of a master. The master contained in his flesh years of hard-won tacit knowledge; he housed in his mind decades of technique and lessons learned at the feet of failure; from his mouth poured forth until-then-unarticulated proverbs (and, just as likely, vibrant expletives). The master’s hand is the textbook which for the journeyman, as the poet Jesse Bertron put it, “is the hand I read.” Implicit in wielding tools to order the material world are the intellectual and moral faculties that direct their use. In a word, the journeyman seeks the master’s wisdom, made intelligible not through a book but through the master’s body.

While it is true that the practice of a trade’s work is no guarantee of the interior life of its practitioner, those in pursuit of Hugh’s Wisdom will be attentive to notice its form as they labor and, as they apprehend it, their souls will become illumined, restored to “the divine nature” which “begins to shine forth again in us.” When we strive to rightly order the world around us, we become more able to rightly order the the world inside of us. As Ivan Illich points out in his commentary on the Didascalicon, “Reading, for Hugh, is a remedy [to our darkened state] because it brings light back into a world from which sin banned it.” The primary sense of “reading” is that of texts relating to the seven liberal arts–importantly, Hugh also lists texts related to the seven mechanical arts–but I think we can draw out this principle of reading and apply it to the work itself, reading the master’s hands and body to such a degree that his wisdom becomes the journeyman’s own, not only in theory, but in practice. The student receives the master craftsman’s wisdom in his body as much as, if not more than, in his mind.

Wisdom in Practice

Allow me, with Illich as docent, to make explicit what I’m getting at here. The Wisdom for which we are journeying is no mere worldly wisdom: it is Christ. The philosophers of the ancient world “taught that the goal of learning was wisdom as the perfect good, and Christians accept the revelation that this perfect good consists in the Word of God made Flesh.” The Word of God made flesh. And that flesh is “the perfect good.” The Word, spoken by the Father from eternity past and captured by the Church in squiggles and shapes to render Him intelligible in books, was (and still is) a Body. Since it is the case that the Wisdom of God could refract His brilliance through the prism of a human body, it is likewise possible that we can ascend the mountain of manual labor to meet with the embodied God and find that our faces shine forth like Moses’ own.

Am I suggesting that being a good plumber will cause me to luminesce with celestial light? With apologies to my fellow drain surgeons: not exactly, no. Rather, I’m suggesting that the life of God is ours to possess in the attentive plying of a trade in at least three ways:

  1. There are principles of life at play in the matter we manipulate. If we’re listening for them, we can hear the lessons God would have us learn about our own souls in the repair of a cracked water service or the incorrect pitch of a sewer line.
  2. Going beyond the Greek notion of virtues but including them, we can be sure that our work will provide us with opportunity to struggle against vice and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. Materials and men both will demand my patience. The holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) is not a requirement of only knowledge or manual laborers, or only students of the seven liberal or seven mechanical arts. All people equally are required to become holy. And it is not available only to those with the leisure for contemplation, but also to those who mindfully work with their hands.
  3. Tradesfolk get to rightly order the material world around us in a way that draws lower orders of creation up into participation with our human rationality even as God draws us and our work up into Himself, and, ideally, we do this in the context of crafting a social order that is itself conducive to lives that embrace Life.

“Hugh presents the book as medicine for the eye,” says Illich. “He implies that the book-page is a supreme remedy; it allows the readers, through studium, to regain in some part that which nature demands, but which sinful inner darkness now prevents.” If Wisdom in a book is medicine for the eye, then it seems true that Wisdom in a body can also be medicine for the flesh and, through eye and flesh, medicine for the soul.

And this, I believe, is what underpins St. Francis’ impulse to repair churches. Although I have articulated this beyond what he may have said for himself, I think he understood that we are souls situated in bodies situated in places. However we understand the relationship of the inner and the outer, it cannot be in terms of disconnection. This interpenetration of self and sense and society is what we lost in adopting Cartesian modes of dividing body and soul.

This is what the schools I mention at the top see. They see that not only do we need Christians with a vision for Wisdom designing and building the structures and infrastructures around us, repairing people’s homes and populating manufacturing plants and sowing seeds of holiness as they go about their work. We need theologians that have sparkling souls which aren’t seeking to escape their bodies but are marvelously anchored in and animating them—theologians that are so earthly minded that they can do immense heavenly good.

And if what I’ve described here isn’t a renaissance? Well, then I guess Beyoncé can have the word after all.

Image credit: “St. Francis of Assisi at Prayer” via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. As a kind of kindred spirit being a blacksmith, homesteader, amateure theologian, and Bible teacher, I would like to elaborate on one idea presented here. In our crafts (blacksmithing and husbandry, for me) the wonderful order and demonstrations of the mysteries of Creation are often revealed. Yes, hot steel and soil are revelatory about our God in ways many do not notice as we craftspeople might in our intimacy with the material world. That’s not to say the office worker cannot notice things about God’s mysteries of Creation as well. But it has been my experience that I learn much about God’s ways and His provision and His wonder that draws me to my knees unto Him when I consider soil and ecosystems; when I mix heat and steel and applied force. This classroom of Creation in which craftspeople apply their knowledge might be as informative as the scriptures themselves, which does tell us that Creation points us to God. Humbled each time I raise my hammer or sow a seed, my intimacy of both helps my intimacy with Him who set these elements of Creation according to His word.
    I think because of the attention to the details of the physical world due to the demands of our crafts, we often have a chance to have Creation illuminate some truth of God, His love, His provision, His work.

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