The air was far too cold for an April morning. Any right-thinking person would have opened the door, felt the cold, turned around and crawled back in bed. But I am not a right-thinking person. There were photographs to make and a blog to write, both of which required me to step into the cold.
I fueled Beans (my truck) and filled a gas-station-coffee cup. Four .375 fluid ounces of French vanilla. I was ready:
Three layers of shirts. Two layers of pants and socks. A jacket. Coffee in hand. Cold or not, I was going to take pictures. Like collecting downed tree branches for a fire, my photographs have become the writing prompts for my blog – the sort of lectionary that guides my thoughts; what guides my photography is the trinity of chance, caprice, and, hopefully, a sort of providence nudging me towards discernment and surprise.
On Saturdays, at the riverfront in Wilmington, North Carolina, just under an hour’s drive from my house, the open market started at eight. This would not have been a photography event I would have picked out by myself. But my camera club decided it was a good idea. So, the mysterious three in one, it seems, moved me to see things I would have normally slept through.
The market itself was small and looked exactly like what you would think an outdoor, Saturday market should look like. A street was closed off. Half the vendors had set up tent-like contraptions on the road, and the other half had set up matching tents on the oversized, not-exactly-cobble-stoned sidewalk. The vendors sold what they’d made or grown or caught. One sold cut flowers, several sold produce. A seafood vendor offered fresh fish, shrimp, and scallops. Artisans contributed ear-rings and necklaces and crafted tables and wooden spatulas and cutting boards. One vendor sold doggie treats, while another forged caffeinated rewards for the early risers.
I went from vendor to vendor having polite conversations and asked, “Do you care if I take some photos?” Everyone was pleased to have their work photographed, and I wondered if they felt validated – curated work. The Argentinian-born crafter excitedly spoke of threading needles and polishing stones. With his thickly accented English, which enunciated each familiar word with a sort of unexpected charm, our brief conversation left me feeling as though I had traveled a great distance. A wood worker talked about his workshop and saws the way a painter might talk about her studio and favorite brush. The cut flowers propagated their own beauty, so much so that anything more than quick, casual glances felt like ogling. But I asked anyway. “Do you care if I…” And of course she didn’t care. But I asked another question. “You grew these?” And the tone in my voice carried a little too much admiration and embarrassment. I wanted to call her a god or a goddess, for only a heavenly creature could command the earth to yield the very fabric and texture of color.
The lady who sold unrefrigerated duck eggs was thrilled enough to have me capture her eggs. After she explained in detail that duck eggs take on different tints, mostly blues, and arranged the composition for my shot to fit her aesthetic, she asked me if I would take over her booth while she made a quick trip to her car. So, for at least five minutes, I was a duck egg salesman. I wanted to holler out in the market, “Duck eggs, come get your fresh, uncleaned, not refrigerated, blue-green, duck eggs.” But I didn’t because I was too afraid I might've succeed.
Each vendor regarded their work with a careful piety that, I believe, it is safe to call them religious. They were artist, ones who create, and such a vocation imbues a holiness, a wholeness, sustained only by devotion. As someone who writes and takes photographs, I would like to call myself an artist, but a high-flown, self-moniker feels like a Christian declaring himself a saint. And maybe that is the way an artist should be identified, that is to say, they should be identified by someone else. As such, I declare those devoted to their artistry with such reverence, as to be set up for a poorly attended, too-cold market, hereby canonized.
I can hear a crotchety, slack-jawed lackey bemoaning the needlessness of cut flowers or hand-crafted cutting boards – life is about utility and function, keeping your heads out of the sky with useless daydreams. To quote Bill O’ Reilly, “Get bitter or get busy.” Such an ear has no regard for the poetry that spoke creation into existence, the elation of God to create art as God said, “Let there be…” Such an ear mistakes fact for truth and ignores the truth of the whirlwind who demands to know where we were when art was born. To believe in God is to believe in art. To suffer a degenerative bother, art immunity, is to be incapable of ever noticing God.
Talking with the vendors, I walked away wondering about the connection between devotion and vocation. These artists who clearly have given their lives to their craft have done so not because it brings them a pleasing paycheck. They are not famed or greatly sought after. I can imagine that when a new conversation is started up and, “What do you do?” is inevitable asked, the reply, “I sell duck eggs” does not demand further exploration, except, maybe, to applaud the farm-to-table movement and an awkward, guilt-laden apology for not supporting their local growers and vendors more often. But the true artist isn’t concerned with the pyramid of pleasing appearances and gratifying prestige or even a satisfactory return. A true artist, a devout, is concerned with pleasing and gratifying and satisfaction, which can be only snatched now and then by surrendering oneself to the greater, internal world of art.
The same is true of the Christian devout. We often think of our daily devotionals as things like prayer, meditation, reading a Sunday school quarterly, or participating in Bible study. I sort of doubt that my neighbors who all seem to leave for work at the same time and who all seem to come home from work at the same time, I sort of doubt that the average guy working in a cubical or the telemarketer who insist on calling me up 8 times a day, or the cashier at the grocery store, or any of the other 99.95% of jobs in the world think of their work as devotional material.
But what if we did? What if we were supposed to? What if the devout life had more to do with our vocations than things like prayer or fasting or almsgiving? We bend our knees and offer all means of loquacious chatter towards the heavenly vault, but what good is prayer if we, as Saint Francis de Sales says, give “angry, irritating, conceited, or insulting speeches” to our family and friends. We can give up food in fast, but nothing comes from it until we fast from bitterness and resentment. We can empty our entire savings in the offering plate, but, still, we have given nothing if we “close [our] heart[s] to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to [us].” Saint Francis de Sales goes on to say, “all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.”
Now, before you go and dash off and angry email, I’m not suggesting that prayer or fasting or any of the other activities we think of as our devotional life be trolleyed over to the county dump. But I am suggesting that we not so easily compartmentalize our lives. We don’t cease being Christian when we say “Amen.” We don’t stop striving for holiness when we close the cover of the Bible. We don’t stop longing for God when the candles are blown out and worship concluded.
Rather, what we spend the greatest amount of time doing is our primary devotion. Our vocation, which comes from the Latin word meaning calling, is “a spiritual activity and liveliness by means of which Divine Love works in us, and cause us to work briskly and lovingly.”
This probably sounds sweet and nice coming from someone who has no “real” job or coming from someone who finds tremendous satisfaction from looking at clouds. It may even sound down-right romantic from a former pastor. But trust me, pastors, at least the good ones, get sick of preaching. The good pastors know burn-out and occupational fatigue. As for coming from someone without a “real” job, well, maybe you have a point. Clouds are nice. But the writing life, if indeed that is what I have, is just a worn-out trail of self-delusion followed by rejection letters and, finally, self-doubt.
How then do you turn your job into a vocation and then turn your vocation, your calling, into devotion? How does the road worker turn asphalt into assurance? How does a government official turn policy into praise? How does a waiter turn table thirty-three into fellowship? How do salesmen and women, the public-school teachers, the nurse, the builder and journalist and dental hygienist and police officer and engineer see their work as an extension of their Christian identity?
I think the answer is very simple but nearly impossible. Turn your work into art. I can hear the objections. “Well, you wouldn’t say that if you had my job.” “My boss is abusive.” “I work with 60 hours a week and can barely afford the grocery store.” Yeah, I get it. I do. But turning your vocation into art doesn’t just happen. There is no incantation or magical spell, even the most devout prayer will frequently fail to instantly turn your dead-end job into something meaningful enough to call art. Art takes practice. Art takes study. Art requires, more than anything else, a steady devotion that scrutinizes motivation, seeks out constructive criticism, and never relaxes with contentment. Art finds a way to become art; it is emergent, becoming more than the sum of its parts. Vocation and devotion mingle and flirt and coalesce with a consuming love that makes beauty – but this romance, this limbic dance dallies and retreats, strikes fire in the heart and regresses to unknown places.
Some of the most “prestigious” vocations, medical doctors and lawyers, do not say they are going to work; rather, they are going to their practice. The devout life and vocation require a hand-in-hand understanding. But unlike most “prestigious” vocation, there is no rank, position, or scale. You are not more valuable because you are paid more. There is no delight in climbing the corporate ladder. Hubris cannot reach the devout supervisor of legions of “subordinates.” There is no one under you. There is no one above you, except for the One above all. You work with holiness, and wholeness, because what you do is an expression of art – it is something bursting out of you with the love and tenderness your Christian identity demands of you.
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Right now I am sitting in a hotel room in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In the parking lot across the street is a children's activity called "Touch the Truck," where children can climb in school buses, firetrucks, dump trucks and push buttons and blow the horn. Needless to say, they really enjoy blowing the horns. In the writing world we live in, it is a sad, sad fact that we writer types have to beg people to climb into our writing truck and blow our horns. So if you wouldn't mind...**