MANY of those who work in our stoneyard as carvers and masons
consider what they do to be deeply spiritual, although they might
not all use conventional religious language to articulate this. I
would like to suggest that such spirituality lies in the discipline
of giving total attention to the present moment, and that it has a
great deal to teach all of us.
York Minster is now in the middle of a five-year project to
restore the great east window and east front, expand learning
opportunities, and engage with a wider diversity of people. This
Sunday, the feast of St Peter the Apostle, in whose honour the
Minster is dedicated, represents a milestone, because a newly
carved figure of St Peter - replacing the old one on the east
front, which has gradually been eroded during the past 500 years -
is to be dedicated.
Medieval cathedrals were built primarily for the glory of God,
but it would be naïve to think that motives were wholly pure.
Besides being acts of praise in stone, glass, and wood, they were
also symbols of power and authority. The scale of such buildings
was intended to speak of the grandeur and transcendence of God, but
those who funded them did so in part to demonstrate their own
Those who worked on them with their hands, however, remained
largely anonymous; their motive was not necessarily to make a name
for themselves. They were highly skilled, and it was as much the
commitment and devotion that they brought to their work in the
process of building these great cathedrals that manifested the
glory of God as the finished building itself.
THE work of artisans has often been thought of as a second-class
occupation, compared with those whose work is largely intellectual.
This, however, entails a false separation. One of the apocryphal
books in the Bible contains a marvellous evocation of how all can
grow in wisdom.
The scribe has leisure to pursue wisdom through study. But what
about those who work with their hands in the field, or at the
potter's wheel, or at the anvil? All these take great care that
their work is as good as it can be, and, although they do not
attain eminence in the great affairs of the world, they are vital
to the common good, and they can grow in wisdom, because "they
maintain the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the
practice of their trade" (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 38.34).
The key here is to do with attentiveness to the present moment.
This is a significant element inthe teaching of Jesus. In the
Sermon on the Mount, for example, he counsels against worry by
inviting us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the
air, and to let go of concern about what to eat, drink, or wear
(Matthew 6.25-34; Luke 12.22-31). Such anxieties relate largely to
the future, and can be self-centred.
When we are excessively preoccupied with ourselves, and with
what might or might not happen, we become distracted from what we
should be attending to in the present. Instead, Jesus says, we are
to seekthe Kingdom single-mindedly, and then everything else will
SUCH guidance resonates deeply with those who practise
meditation and contemplative prayer. In the stillness, all sorts of
things continually arise inthe mind. Engaging with thoughts, inner
dramas, and worries, however, obscures the presence of God here and
The task - as is recognised in Christian teaching on meditation
and in Eastern spiritual approaches, such as the practice of Zen,
or in the discipline of mindfulness, which has roots in a number of
religious traditions - is to be still, attentive, and trustful that
all we need is given in the present moment.
This, I believe, is why the carvers and stonemasons can describe
their work as spiritual, and why it can lead to growth in wisdom.
The work requires real attention, and is essentially contemplative.
Without being wholly given to the task in hand; without real care,
significant errors can occur, which could be costly in terms of
time and money. There is simply no leisure for distraction.
In addition, something more positive can be said. Some speak of
being so absorbed in their work that they lose themselves in it,
and self-concern disappears. This is complemented by the fact that
the motive for their work is not to be singled out individually, or
to make a name for themselves. In any case, much of what they
produce will not even be seen by anyone, because it will be hidden
from view, high up on the minster.
The same care, attention, and sense of integrity, nevertheless,
is brought to everything. Preoccupation with the self falls away,
and the focus of attention is the work itself, done for its own
sake. This is why, at heart, their work is a spiritual
THREE important lessons emerge from this for all of us. First,
the division between prayer and work is a false one. Whatever we
are engaged in, we can bring the same quality of attentiveness to
whatever the moment presents. In so doing, we grow into the
awareness of the presence of God.
Second, the judgement that what we do with our hands is of a
lesser value than what we do with our minds is also false. What
matters is attentiveness to the present. It is this that enables
our work, whatever it is, to be prayer.
Third, we need to recover the sense that things are worth doing
for their own sake. In a society where it is often thought that we
can get away with what we like, provided that no one sees, the
notion that we should bring the same quality of integrity to
everything, whether seen or not, might seem odd.
The medieval artisans believed that whatever human beings did,
God saw everything. Not everyone might use such language today, but
learning to be attentive, and doing things for their intrinsic
value might be the beginning of enabling us all to grow into the
realisation that, in so doing, what we are really seeking to do is
to practise the presence of God.
The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of