There is a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for “those who serve mankind by their labour and learning.” Ever since I first noticed it I have loved it.
I’ve spent this weekend at a conference devoted to Dante and the Christian Imagination, which was wonderful. The papers were excellent, the people friendly and brilliant, the atmosphere enthusiastic. I learned a great deal about Dante, about the role of imagination in faith, about how to deliver papers, about scholarship, and even, about the kind of intellectual courage it takes to stand up and say, I’m studying Dante because I love this poem. I’m so pleased to be here because twenty years ago tomorrow I first read the Comedy and had both my imagination and my faith awoken. I’ve spent years worrying at this one image at the end of Paradiso because when Dante says, O reader, read well, he is speaking to me. And then, after announcing such intimate details of the origins, to speak forth superb scholarship.
My first proper post in this blog was about how I think the world issues invitations. Invitations to adventure, to friendship, to danger, to love. Invitations to hope and fear, to wonder and admire, to laugh and marvel. I believe the world issues invitations because there is an Artist standing behind it, who not only made it (in the middle ages some people called this is the doctrine of original creation: God made prime matter, hyle or silva — the ‘wood’ of which the world is made) but continually makes it. Every moment can issue an invitation to us, because there is someone standing behind, saying: O reader, read well.
There are yet such horrors; it becomes so difficult. Yet there are those invitations, to life, sounding out regardless.
I have also been reading William Morris, a lecture of his called “Useful Work versus Useless Toil.” He was not a Christian, though his vision shares many aspects; he believe in the creation of an Earthly Paradise, and not, like Dante’s, one necessarily empty of residents, full of passers-through; Morris believed if we worked for it, we could learn to dwell there. For him, labour and learning and the service of mankind are necessarily intertwined, because labour without learning and service is toil and useless; without thought (it needn’t be formally educated, but it must be learned), there is little chance of beauty; without beauty, we are condemned to ugliness of life and soul.
Morris loved the Gothic cathedrals whose magnificence is the work of a thousand handicraftsmen, artists, artisans, working together over generations. People who worked for the work’s sake, carving roses in the roof-trusses they thought no one would see but themselves and God. It was so wonderful to see that care at work in scholarship this weekend, to be part of a group of people listening carefully and accepting the invitation offered by one superlative artist who spent twenty years learning and labouring over his task.