Dorothy L. Sayers’ play The Zeal of Thy House is a play about the work of the artist, the work of the Church, and the work of God. In the play Sayers makes a strong statement about the sacramental nature of man’s work; man as homo faber mirrors the Creator in his making. The play was written to be performed at Canterbury Cathedral for a festival that would celebrate the work of craftsmen and artists. Sayers accepted the invitation to write a play for this annual event and was given the Latin chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury which recounted the burning of the Norman choir of the cathedral in 1174 and the work of the architect William of Sens in rebuilding this choir. In the midst of his work William suffered a crippling fall from the heights of the cathedral which kept him from seeing the work through to its completion. In this incident Sayers saw great possibilities for a play which would deal with both the glory and the dilemma of the artist as an imitator of God.
Sayers explores the relationship between the work of the artist and the work of God in accomplishing His eternal purposes, and to achieve this she puts angels and archangels on the stage. The play opens with a conversation among the angels sent to supervise the rebuilding of the choir which highlights the contrast between the work of angels and the work of men. The angels are God’s servants who do His bidding without fail but also without understanding and without free choice. “I am a soldier, I take my orders,” says Michael. The angels see no place for the work of man, who after the Fall is prone toward sloth and the hatred of work, in fulfilling the purposes of God. “Nothing that men do is ever necessary,” says Gabriel. Here is the most telling contrast: angels work by necessity, man does not, and in this he is like God and higher than the angels. God, says Sayers, writing elsewhere about work, “knows no necessity to work except His own delight in creation” (Letters 251). Man mirrors his Maker in this. “…he makes things–not just one uniform set of necessary things, as a bee makes a honeycomb, but an interminable variety of different and not strictly necessary things, because he wants to” (Vocation 132). He paints pictures and builds cathedrals.
In this high calling to imitate God in our making it is the artist who leads the way. In a letter written in 1941 Sayers says: “The Divine joy in creation, which man should inherit in virtue of his participation in the image of the Godhead, has been largely destroyed, persisting today almost alone among artists, skilled craftsmen, and members of the learned professions” (Letters 252). Artists, she says, understand something about working for the love of the work, not just as an economic necessity to be endured. Artists are among those few who seek to make money, not so that they can pursue mind numbing leisure, but so that they can do their real work, the work they love, the work of creating which is its own reward. The artist does not delight in possessing so much as in creating; for the artist the statement, “This is my work,” does not mean “I own it,” but “I made it.” The artist, more consistently than most, lives to work rather than working to live. Sayers sees the act of creating as a primary human need (Mind 224). She says that man “cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job; he is made in the image of a Maker, and he must create or become less than a man” (Vocation 132).
William of Sens loves his work, does it with integrity, and finds much satisfaction in it. In much that he does and says throughout the play William shows a right understanding of the high calling of the artist. Alone among the architects being considered for the job William stands on his work alone and puts forward drawings and designs of earlier projects as the sole argument for choosing him to do the job in Canterbury. His skill as a diplomat and his arrogance begin to show themselves in this opening scene, yet he comes across as an impressive figure because of his confidence in his artistic skill. After he is chosen and has been at the work for two years, Gervase, the monk who serves as his clerk, says of him, “He thinks of nothing, lives for nothing, but the integrity of his work.”
Throughout the play William speaks with great passion about the special place that the artist has as an imitator of God. In their first conversation William tells because he is in love with his work. He adds:
What does a woman know
Of the love of knowledge, passing the love of women?
The passion of making, beside which love’s passion
Shows brittle as a bubble? To raise up beauty from ashes
Like the splendor of resurrection; to see the stone Knit unto stone and growing, as in the womb Bone grows to bone; to build a world out of nothing-
That is my dream; that is the craftman’ s dream..
Later he speaks to Ursula again of how well he as an artist can understand the joy in creating which God experienced when He spoke the world into existence.
We are the master-craftsmen, God and I-
We understand one another. None, as I can,
Can creep under the ribs of God, and feel
His heart beat through those Six Days of Creation; Enormous days of slowly turning lights
Streaking the yet unseasoned firmament;
Giant days, Titan days, yet all too short
To hold the joy of making.
After describing God’s joy in making trees and flowers, beasts and fish and birds, he concludes:
And lastly, since all Heaven was not enough
To share that triumph, He made His masterpiece, Man, that like God can call beauty from dust, Order from chaos, and create new worlds
To praise their maker.
He speaks here with mounting pride just minutes before his fall from the heights of the cathedral, yet the content of his speech is true; it is his tone which is wrong. Rightly perceived, this truth about being made in the image of a Maker should cause us to fall to our knees in worship rather than to boast as William did. Nevertheless, it is true that man is like God in his ability to bring something into existence that did not exist before except in his mind.
Out of a conversation among the archangels comes one of the play’s greatest tributes to William as an artist and to the value of good work. After Michael the archangel catalogues William’s sins and Gabriel credits him with building columns and vaults “all well and truly laid without a fault,” Cassiel, the recording angel, asks Raphael, the archangel responsible for receiving men’s prayers and offering them before the throne of God, “Canst thou indeed find any grace in William the builder- up of Canterbury?” Raphael answers:
Behold, he prayeth; not with the lips alone,
But with the hand and with the cunning brain Men worship the Eternal Architect.
So, when the mouth is dumb, the work shall speak And save the workman. True as a mason’s rule And line can make them, the shafted columns rise Singing like music; and by day and night
The unsleeping arches with perpetual voice Proclaim in Heaven, to labour is to pray.
Later in the play the Prior chides Theodatus, a monk who is extremely critical of William, for calling William “a man without truth, without shame.” Theodatus is complaining that William is “a notorious evil liver, a seducer of women,” and “a cunning liar.” The Prior, who sees the integrity of William’s work, says,
You must not say, without truth,
Lest you should hear the very stones cry out Against you. Truth is glorious; but there is one Glory of the sun, another of the moon,
And all the truth of the craftsman is in his craft. Where there is truth, there is God; and where there is glory,
There is God’s glory too.
In so saying the Prior is not excusing William’s other sins, but he is affirming that work well done speaks truthfully about the truth, goodness, and beauty of God the Creator and that artists as sub-creators can bring glory to God in their work. We hear Sayers speaking here through the Prior, for she states elsewhere that this is a play about “integrity of work overriding and redeeming personal weakness” (Hone 89).
This critic of William, Theodatus, is a major character in the play who represents the Church at its worst in its view of the artist and his work. Theodatus has a neo-Platonic view of reality. He has narrowed down serving God to prayer and acts of piety. To him it is more important that the architect chosen for the work be a virtuous and devout man than that he be a good architect. He says to the Prior: “I would rather have a worse-built church with a more virtuous builder.” He does not see the value of artistic work or manual labor done well, nor admit to the possibility that one can serve and bring glory to God through the work of his hands.
Sayers believes that it is the work of the Church to encourage the artist in his work; she has no use for the super-spiritual view that only recognizes certain spiritual activities as having value to God. The churchman who thinks this way and thus discourages the artist in his work has missed a key message taught to us through
the Incarnation; flesh and blood and muscle are not to
be despised. God put on flesh and picked up a hammer and nails and worked and sweated as one of us. When Theodatus says he would rather see righteousness than skill in the architect, the Prior answers thus: “My son, will you not let God manage His own business? He was a carpenter, and knows His trade better, perhaps, than we do, having had some centuries of experience.” Our acts of making, of giving form and substance in wood or stone or clay or pigment to our creative ideas are of equal value in God’s eyes to our praying and proclaiming the Gospel. A clergyman who does not understand this is not doing his work well. In her essay Why Work? Sayers says:
It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work …It is not right for the Church to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation (57-58).
The Prior again speaks for Sayers in telling Theodatus that God would not be honored by a “worse- built church.”
This is God’s House, and if on any pretext We give him less than the best, we shall cheat God As William never cheated God, nor us.
He that bestowed the skill and the desire To do great work is surely glad to see That skill used in His service.
Sayers blames the view of churchmen such as Theodatus for encouraging shoddy workmanship.
No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. Yet in her own buildings, in her own ecclesiastical art and music, in her hymns and prayers…the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse, work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman. And why? Simply because she has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church ….that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work (Why Work? 58-59).
The Prior goes on to tell Theodatus that God the carpenter knows how to work with men as His tools to accomplish His eternal purposes and that in the process he redeems and purges them. It is at this point that we see that Theodatus has a wrong view of his work as God’s minister. He sees himself as the one who should carry out God’s vengeance against sin, a ministry never given to man. The Prior counters that God does not need us to defend His honor and that we dare not pass judgment upon those made righteous by the blood of God’s Son, and then, seeing how blind Theodatus is to the Pharisaical spirit within him, he warns him to “set charity as a bridle on his tongue” and look to his own work.
Theodatus does not heed this advice and the consequences are grave. What irony that it is his work carelessly done that becomes the human means of William’s crippling fall. Given the job of examining the rope that would support William as he was raised to help set a keystone in the ceiling of the choir, Theodatus did this work with his eyes closed in prayer! “Scandalized” by what he perceives to be William’s sins of the flesh with the Lady Ursula, Theodatus recites prayers “with his eyes tight shut” (according to the stage notes) misses the flaw in the rope, and does not hear the archangel’s warning cry, “Take care, Theodatus! There is a flaw in the rope.” What a vivid image Sayers has created in this scene to support her words about the damage the Church can do when she has a wrong view of work.
When the Prior confronts Theodatus after the accident, Theodatus tries to defend himself: “God Himself laid the seal upon my eyes. I was His appointed instrument to overthrow the wicked man.” The Prior’s answer sets the matter straight:
Think what you say, my son. It is not for us
To ordain ourselves the ministers of vengeance; For it must needs be that offences come,
But woe unto that man by whom the offence Cometh; ‘twere better he had not been born. This is thy sin: thou hast betrayed the work; Thou hast betrayed the Church; thou hast betrayed
Christ, in the person of His fellow-man.
What work has Theodatus betrayed? He has betrayed not just the work of examining the rope, but the work of the Church.
In the final act of the play after William’s accident, we see God at work both in Theodatus, who repents of his sin and humbly serves the crippled architect, and in William. William is guilty of sins of the flesh, but it is not these that are at the heart of God’s dealings with him. While William does his work with integrity and understands much that is right about how the artist mirrors God as he creates, in his pride and self-love he draws a wrong conclusion from this understanding; he declares himself indispensable to God. He says, “…in making man God over-reached Himself and gave away His Godhead …Man stands equal with Him now, partner and rival…This church is mine and none but I, not even God, can build it.” After his fall William expresses his determination to finish his work in spite of the pain it causes him in his crippled state. He says that no amount of pain or suffering that God can heap upon him will cause him to give up his work. William has succumbed
to the special temptation of the artist to make an idol of that which was given to him as a gift of incredible love. Now God does His work of grace in William through His minister, the archangel Michael. Michael shows William that no amount of suffering on his part can match the suffering already experienced on his behalf as God did His work of redeeming fallen man. It is made plain that God Himself is the only One Who loves and serves His work perfectly, for He loved His work enough to give up His life for it. William, in fact, has come to love himself and his reputation more than he loves his work. Confronted with the selflessness of God’s love and the sacrificial work of Christ on his behalf, William sees his own pride and repents of it. Immediately his attitude toward his work changes; he decides to leave the completion of the cathedral choir to another and makes one request of God:
Jesu, the carpenter’s Son, the Master-builder, Architect, poet, maker–by those hands
That Thine own nails have wounded–by the wood Whence Thou didst carve Thy Cross–let not the Church
Be lost through me. Let me lie deep in hell…
But let my work, all that was good in me,
All that was God, stand up and live and grow.
The work is sound, Lord God, no rottenness there- Only in me. Wipe out my name from men
But not my work; to other men the glory
And to Thy name alone.
The angels declare the work for William’s soul complete. The play ends with Michael addressing the audience and exhorting people to praise God “that He hath made man in His own image, a maker and craftsmen like Himself…” This is man’s calling and his glory and a cause, not for boasting, but for wonder and praise.