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On Vocation Blog

Posted September 18, 2018 by Center for Faith and Innovation
Tags: Vocation and Calling

Her Galloping Commitment: Dorothy Sayers's Dedication to "Good Work Well Done"

Crystal Downing, newly appointed co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center, reflects on vocation in the life and writings of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was so passionate about vocation that her friend C. S. Lewis once wrote her “Hey! Whoa!” in response. Her galloping commitment to “Christian work” – which for her potentially included all work – developed out of life experiences.

Like Lewis, Sayers graduated with highest honors from Oxford University. But she wasn’t granted a B.A. because the university thought females, who would merely go on to be mothers or teachers, didn’t need degrees. Sayers dutifully tried teaching, only to discover that she was not cut out for the job. Hence, for much of her twenties she was still supported by her parents while ricocheting from job to job. Only because she needed income, Sayers began writing detective fiction, eventually attaining what many twenty-somethings long for: money and fame. Vocation at last!

Whoa! Not so fast! It took fifteen more years for Sayers to grow into a full sense of vocation in her own work – and a fuller understanding of Christian vocation. At age 43, she was asked to write a play about the history of Canterbury Cathedral, choosing as her protagonist a cathedral architect committed to “the integrity of work”: something she had already started to think about. However, because the play was to be performed in the cathedral, Sayers felt the need to tie vocational integrity to Christian belief. This forced her to think both deeply and critically about her faith for the first time in her life, leading her to profound theological conclusions. Because the play was a rousing success, Sayers received numerous invitations not only to deliver lectures about the relationship between Christianity and culture, but also to write plays on biblical topics for radio. Thousands came to Christ through her BBC plays. Sayers became, almost against her will, a nationally-known lay theologian, while continuing to pour herself into the literary art that she found so vocational – writing plays and translating medieval literature (including Dante’s Divine Comedy)..

Sayers did occasionally publish essays about work and vocation (see for example her fascinating “Why Work”)—and her detective novel Gaudy Night wrestles with vocation from beginning to end!—but her own story also teaches us much:

  1. Vocation is a process of discovery more than a product handed over on a prayer-lined platter. During college, Sayers had no idea where her interests and gifts would take her. She loved creative writing so much that she started an extra-curricular writing group. But she loved singing in the Oxford Bach Choir even more. If she had pursued a musical career, we may never have heard of her. Even then, her writing career was a step by step process, marked by failure as well as success: all in preparation for her true vocation.
  2. To regard college education as preparation for one particular job is a waste of mind and soul. College should be seen as an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills that prepare students for any number of careers. As Sayers puts it in a 1941 letter, “One is hampered by the abominable phrase ‘vocational education’, which usually means the very opposite of what it says. It shows how far we have lost the very idea of ‘vocation’ in work, that we give the name to a training which is chiefly designed to train people for employment.”
  3. Cultural constructions often drown out the call of vocation. From gender expectations to the insidious idea that money defines success, the culture in which we are embedded dictates acceptable careers. Recognizing this problem in her own life, Sayers came to the astute and Bible-verified conclusion that people motivated primarily by income can easily miss God’s call. Only by shaking off the golden handcuffs of best-selling novelist status was she able to fulfill her deeper vocations in other areas of literary work. As she finally learned, “We should ask of an enterprise, not ‘will it pay?’ but ‘is it good?’; . . . of goods, not ‘can we induce people to buy them?’ but ‘are they useful things well made?’; of employment, not ‘how much a week?’ but ‘will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?’”
  4. Exercising one’s God-given faculties to the utmost, whether in college or in middle age, is preparation for vocation. Hence, for Sayers, shoddy work done in the name of evangelism honored God less than beautifully done woodworking or creative childrearing. For Sayers, “Christian work is good work well done.” Whoa, indeed!