Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.
-Yoshikazu Ono, son of famed sushi chef Jiro Ono
An admission: I don’t watch a lot of current-day television. My wife and I have been long-standing Netflix subscribers, but most of the time, our girls are using it to watch a couple of episodes of their favorite shows. I usually spend more time scrolling through Netflix trying to find something to watch, only to end up diving into a book or talking to friends on Facebook.
However, one of my guilty pleasures involves watching cultural documentaries- after all, I am a folklorist who also did an anthropology major- and I’ve been watching one of the seasons of the PBS show The Mind of a Chef, which is a more personal look into the lives of chefs, and how their background and surroundings make an impact on how they cook, as well as how they create unique culinary experiences. Initially drawn to the show by the chef and author David Chang (best known for his restaurant Momofuku), I’ve especially loved watching the episodes featuring Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, who owns and operates the well-known Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Fäviken takes traditional Swedish cuisine seriously, not only creating Michelin star-winning dishes, but also gaining attention for his dedication to preservation and conservation of his ingredients. In these shows, the product is very important to highlight, but what draws my attention to them is the processes, and the thoughts, that go into doing very intentional, deep work.
These “process-oriented” shows and films have always attracted my attention; I used them during my years as a university lecturer as a way to get students to understand that the finished product is not the only place for aesthetics, beauty and community to exist. I have seen the movie Happy People: A Year in the Taiga at least ten times because I find the processes involved in the practice of fur trapping to be absolutely intriguing: making skis and canoes for the hunting season, building and re-building hunting shelters, stocking up on provisions, and living a life based around the seasons. Similarly, I have grown to love the food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which centers around the life of Japan’s most famous contemporary sushi chef, and which highlights the small details of making what is widely considered to be the world’s best sushi: fish-buying, making rice, heating nori, and cutting the seafood in ways to obtain the perfect cut of tuna. My kids have even joined in on the fun; both of them have watched Jiro and Happy People with the same amount of gusto that they would use to tune into Sarah & Duck or My Little Pony.
…having some limitations is good for creativity, it should make you want to figure new ways out of doing things. If we have access to everything we want there is no reason to think about new ways of getting something we want.
Magnus Nilsson, head chef, Fäviken
According to folklorist Henry Glassie, we are trained “…to learn to understand tradition as a process, an integrated style of creation.” A folklorist’s job is to bring out the cultural significance of the process, rather than just highlight the finished product. This has made a profound impact on how I understand the traditional craftsmanship of liturgical arts in our church, and because of that background, I’ve found myself drawn to the writing and podcasting work of Khouria Krista West, an ecclesiastical tailor based out of Oregon.
From Kh. Krista’s podcast, The Opinionated Tailor, I have not only learned about the great efforts that go into making cassocks, epitrachelions and zones, but also a lot about doing good work really, really well, and with prayerfulness. In her podcast episode, The Honorable Workman, Kh. Krista speaks of how duty and responsibility are misinterpreted as an obstacle in contemporary society:
it’s time to embrace duty and responsibility, despite our culture trying to convince us that they are millstones round our neck. The duties and responsibilities of our lives are like the repetition of the craftsman—we get better and better at things the more opportunity we have to practice. This includes things like marriage, raising children, caring for aging parents, showing hospitality, serving our parish community. A carpenter can’t call himself a master until he’s made hundreds of pieces of furniture; likewise, a father must work daily at providing for his family, a mother for her children, a priest for his parish. Hey, it’s certainly not glamorous, but glamour’s a little over-rated. I recently spent two days acid-etching the concrete floors of my new workshop. The way you start the process is by mopping on a diluted solution of hydrochloric acid and letting it fizz and bubble, after which a brown sludge appears. Glamour is a lot like this—about 15-30 seconds of fizz and bubble and then a bunch of brown sludge. It just doesn’t have any life-long staying power.
In previous blogs, I’ve discussed how there is a lot of sociocultural pressure for people to constantly change their work, whether through switching their jobs or changing vocations entirely. This is why documentaries such as Happy People and Jiro are of such interest; with their focus on solitary practice of doing one thing very, very well over the course of life, they stand in such sharp contrast to modern-day tenets of who we are, and what we should do with our lives. DIY and Pinterest culture have made it possible to be inspired by the work of other makers, but such maker culture is often more a hobby, or a side enterprise, rather than a full-scale vocation. (Sometimes, it becomes the latter, albeit not always at a young age.)
In her book, The Garments of Salvation, Kh. Krista references how, in the Orthodox Church, properly adorning the church, whether with vestments, icons or hymns, is not just a DIY endeavor, but is actually rooted in our church’s theology:
The true craftsman of the Church understands that his goal is not to create something from his own limited human imagination but rather to serve and perpetuate an ultimately God-created, not man-made, tradition. […] Once we understand that the beauty of the material church temple is integral to the theology of the Church, the adorning of the earthly temple is no longer seen as a “fussy” or “luxurious” pursuit, but becomes a holy and worthy endeavor.
Kh. Krista’s book repeatedly focused on the effort that parishes must take to ensure that their space- and that which fills it- is properly outfitted with the people’s best efforts. In an age of fast culture, limited free time, and readily available, readymade culture, the focus on traditional artisanal work as a side enterprise stands in sharp contrast to our calling as Orthodox Christians. Although people write icons, chant and create beautiful things to serve the Church, such things are not “side gigs” that people do during the hours they are not making their living. Rather, our full-time jobs are things that support us as we strive to do the work of the Church. In a previous post, I wrote about how Archbishop Irenée, in his pre-hierarchical years, worked in the emergency room of a Montreal hospital as a way to make his living. The consternation that might arise from saying “He works in a hospital, and in his spare time, he is a monk,” would be understandable.
With that in mind, we have to ask: how does our way to make a living supplant what we do in the Church? How would our daily lives change if we focused our thoughts in that direction, and doing our best work as a way to support our involvement in the Church? The final thought that I learned from Kh. Krista’s look at the honorable workman says it better than I can:
In the barest terms, the honorable workman is just that, a workman. He’s got great skill, learned over years, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself anyone special, like an artist or a genius. He’s simply done the same actions over and over and over until he has freed himself from even paying attention to the actions. But along the way, he’s figured things out—a technique to make this go together better, a certain method to achieve a particular result. It’s the repetition and the limited focus of his work that has ultimately brought him freedom.
Part of the strategy of finding that freedom is like prayer- it involves repetitive practice and a willingness to stay in one place, as it is, in the given moment.
That, perhaps, is why folks like Jiro and Magnus Nilsson appeal to me: they are reminders of how, in the world, joy and satisfaction can come through doing something, sticking with it, and doing it very well.
When you add the beauty of the Church- whether in its liturgies, iconography, or hymns- the combination is a powerful, moving force that serves our true vocation: a life in prayer.