Last night I finished the last book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Emily” trilogy, Emily’s Quest, and was happily struck by the following passage towards its end, which I copied into my notebook. For context, the protagonist, Emily Starr, is a budding writer who had found herself unable to write after a bad injury and difficult convalescence (and an unwise love affair); this diary entry details her feelings upon finding her way back to her work:
“Get leave to work–
In this world ’tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
than men in benediction.”
So wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning — and truly. It is hard to understand why work should be called a curse — until one remembers what bitterness forced or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted — which we feel we are sent into the world to do — what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend.
“Leave to work” — one would think any one could obtain so much. But sometimes anguish and heartbreak forbid us the leave. And then we realise what we have lost and know that it is better to be cursed by God than forgotten by Him. If He had punished Adam and Eve by sending them out to idleness, indeed they would have been outcast and accursed. Not all the dreams of Eden ‘whence the four great rivers flow’ could have been as sweet as those I am dreaming tonight, because the power to work has come back to me.
Oh God, as long as I live give me “leave to work.” Thus pray I. Leave and courage. (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily’s Quest, Ch. XII.ii)
This jumped out at me immediately because I wrote my thesis on work — specifically on Dorothy L. Sayers’s theology of ditto. Although Sayers and Montgomery lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, they were rough contemporaries in age, and it is intriguing to see them working on a common theme — what was it about the inter-war period that made the question of work so pressing? — for Sayers also was adamant that there is no work on earth so worth doing save that for which we are particularly suited. As she wrote in a letter to a young admirer:
“Success”, by the way, is finding yourself engaged in doing the thing you are best fitted to do. Consequently, of course, you can never really know whether other people are successful or not. But you may come to the moment when you say, “I am now doing the job I was made for”. That is success, though nobody will know about it but yourself. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Letter to Hilary F. Page, 10 August 1944)
For both Montgomery and Sayers, the fundamental mark of being successful in work is finding oneself pursuing the job for which one has been made — that is to say, for which one is particularly suited by temperament, inclination, call, and training. In this scheme, there is no value judgement to be made between persons who are each doing the work for which they are best suited; a stay-at-home-mother may be regarded as equally successful to a neurosurgeon, provided that she works in a way that is faithful to her particular calling. Where they disagree, however, is in a subtle (but important!) matter of theology: was work cursed in the Garden of Eden, or is work itself the curse?
Montgomery, following Elizabeth Barrett Browning I suppose, accepts the premise that work is God’s curse upon mankind — though she finds that this does not leave it wholly unredeemable. But this is a misreading of Genesis. In the Creation->Fall narrative, work is present in the garden before the fall; it is part of God’s plan for an unfallen mankind in paradise. As Sayers points out in her essay Vocation in Work, the “new and ominous thing” that the curse brings in Genesis 3 is the fact that work “was [now] to be conditioned by economic necessity” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Vocation in Work).
Work has now become necessary for survival, not just for our flourishing. It is in this way that work has been cursed — but it is not, Sayers strongly asserts, a curse in and of itself. I believe that her interpretation is the correct one. Work is redeemable; one of the ways we can participate in that redemption on a personal level is by seeking out and then faithfully serving the work which seems to have been made for us alone. And when we find it, then we also will rejoice with Emily/Montgomery and Sayers, for the blessing and fulness of joy that it brings.