The Charism of Craftsmanship

By Carrie Gress

Craftsmanship is most certainly a gift. While word craft is something I enjoy, I am astounded at anyone who works with their hands. Perhaps that is why I appreciate the visual arts so much. I marvel at those who can, with a vision in their head, make it come to life some how through the likes of lead, stone, paint, wood.

Like all gifts or charisms from the Holy Spirit, I imagine the craftsman or artist losing himself in his work, forgetting time and the dinner table, and trying to set a goal for himself to quit: "Just a few more strokes and then I will go eat." Only then having to set yet another goal for himself an hour later.

 Gondola "factory" in Venice, present day

Gondola "factory" in Venice, present day

Jacques Maritain, no craftsman as far as I'm aware, but another true lover of the fruit of craftsmanship, wisely noted, “[T]he ennui of living and willing ceases on the threshold of every studio or workshop.” Part of the evidence of a true charism is that there is excitement, wonder, and striving as the craftsman works to bring his vision to life.

Marsilio Ficino, a 15th century Florentine thinker said, “Poets and makers of beautiful things share in the same desire to achieve virtue though their creative powers. And through their love of beauty, they draw themselves closer to God.” We don't often speak of virtue anymore, but craftsmanship is one place that can help us to re-learn it. The laws of physics, colors, tools, materials, all of these serve as a corrective to the true craftsman when he makes a mistake. And yet, even these come to nothing without patience, courage, humility, and discipline. For decades the undisciplined Leonardo da Vinci couldn't finish a commission. He was frequently teased by his rival, Michelangelo, for his lack of execution.

Technology, particularly plastic, has given many of us amnesia about the importance of craftsmanship. We tend to think of it as a luxury, and yet for most of history and in many parts of the world, craftsmanship was and is a necessity. We are beginning to remember this in subtle ways as bakeries and wood-shops have come back in vogue, vocational schools are cropping up, and Etsy has made it easy to find unique products made by hand. Potters, sculptors, candlemakers, woodworkers and so on have reclaimed respect for their skills.

We know Jesus' father, St. Joseph, was a craftsman, a carpenter. The Son must have followed in his footsteps. Mel Gibbon made him the inventor of the elevated dinner table in The Passion of the Christ. George de La Tour has immortalized the father and Son's workshop. Christ sits at St. Joseph's knee, holding a candle to illuminate the room. His eyes look directly at the light, representing God. St. Joseph, meanwhile, is silent, and listening to - quite literally -- the word of God, who is speaking. The father looks keenly into the eyes of his Son in the closeness of their work together. The roles of master and pupil have been reversed.

 George de La Tour, Joseph the Carpenter,  (1645) Public Domain

George de La Tour, Joseph the Carpenter,  (1645) Public Domain

As ever, St. Joseph offers us a simple reminder of where we should always fix our eyes, on the Son. Craftsmanship, like all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, can only truly come to life when our eyes are fixed on Him.


Carrie Gress