Craft and Theology in the Workshop

Geoffrey Keating

My earliest memory of Yale Divinity is sitting in a pew in a stripped down Marquand Chapel. It was the first chapel service of Fall 2001, and my first, shortly before Marquand was closed for renovation. I was struck by the simple beauty of the space.

As a Catholic I was used to more: more statues, more art, more spectacle. But the starkness was stirring. The space was flooded with natural light as Academic Dean David Bartlett offered a memorable reflection from the high pulpit on the nature of proclaiming the word.

Two years passed, books were read, exams taken, friendships formed, and the chapel renovation completed. Gathering again in that space in Spring 2003 with the other students, I was struck anew. But this time brought a deeper sense of awe, built on the interlocking sense of community I had come to know. I knew the people who were cantors during regular worship. I understood the history of this campus at the top of the hill. I had touched the brick and plaster in the bell tower during a clandestine, late night excursion. All this helped me see beyond the simple beauty of the high arched windows and into the soul of the space.

I took that memory with me – an awakening to the many dimensions of beauty – as I forged a vocation as a furniture maker. The challenge of shaping a theological idea or hymn or prayer – the interplay of solitude and community, ethical ideals and coherence – is not so different from the endeavor of woodworking.

In my work, beginning a piece is often the most difficult. It’s not simply a matter of forming an idea a shape with a nice sense of proportion that then somewhere down the road becomes tangible. Conceiving a pleasing but original shape is hard enough.What compounds the difficulty is that the design must interact with sound structural methods as well as the material itself.

A Journey of Patience

I often spend an entire day sorting through material, small pieces of leftover scrap or large slabs of walnut that have been leaning in the corner for years. Which pieces of wood should be used for which project? I may have to practice new or unorthodox methods of joinery to suit the design. I must consider how all this will affect the aesthetics and the structural integrity of the piece. It is not a journey for the impatient.

On the surface this seems a solitary pursuit. The mental image that drew me to the craft was that of the woodworker, meticulously planing boards by hand late into the night. However, I now see that designing and making furniture are never undertaken alone. It is an act of participation – in tested and honored practices of a craft, in an industry that includes workers of all sorts around the world, in longstanding elements of design that consider proportion, balance, ornamentation, and ergonomics.

If a client compliments my work, a chair for instance, I don’t boldly conclude I’ve created something definitively beautiful. I don’t think the client is simply stating it is visually appealing. That would be a dangerously reduced understanding of beauty that ignores all that goes into the chair. What makes it beautiful in the eyes of the client is that the chair points to something else: to the labor of love that went into it, to a tradition of craft that stands behind the piece, to the respectful use of the material, to the honoring of balance and proportion.

Chapel Epiphanies

The architectural lines of Marquand that I experienced many years ago – the high windows, the pillars and ceiling, the lovely interplay of muted colors – represented to me a new sense of beauty. Yet it did not terminate there. I could see that the space served as a conduit through which the goodness and care of all those who helped construct the chapel itself and the community who worshiped there could be experienced.

I regard what I do as a woodworker as a downtoearth version of this idea of beauty, something I aim for daily in my work. Beauty is not true beauty because it glitters, because it catches our eye. It is not a matter of mere taste. Something is beautiful because it participates in something that is true,and therefore that is good.

There’s no standardized or formulaic way to make the experience of beauty happen. The participatory nature of beauty is fluid. The boundaries can be pushed, challenged, and reshaped. Indeed, the participation can be false or idolatrous, and the iconoclasm of Calvin or the postmoderns can be a necessary corrective.

The same is true in my own craft. There are many ways to design and build a chair that may be considered beautiful, but the moment I begin to use materials that were harvested unethically is the moment the chair ceases to be beautiful no matter how lovely or pleasing the shape.

To behold the truly beautiful, be it a painting or a chair or a liturgy, is to become a participant in the truth and goodness that it conveys. Those first moments in Marquand, the space and all that the aesthetics of it conveyed, opened a new door on beauty. It was enlarged by the classes I took with Margaret Farley, by conversations I had with authors both living and dead about their texts, and by meals in the refectory, the rhythms of daily chapel, and my exposure to those who pursued the craft of ministry or teaching.

All these invited me to participate in a vision of beauty I wouldn’t have known, one I was able to take with me.

Geoffrey Keating M.A.R. ’03 is a fifth-generation furniture maker whose grandfathers built churches and monasteries throughout the southwestern United States. He is now based in Colorado Springs, CO. See