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Temporal and Spiritual Communion: Labor as an Act of Devotion
How a Medieval Psalter teaches us that spiritual worship involves embodied acts.
By Steven Carter
I recently came across a psalter from the fourteenth century. I had known of its existence before but had never really analyzed it for what it was: a collection of psalms with many corresponding illuminations. The Luttrell Psalter, commissioned by the English lord Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, is a beautiful example of an illuminated manuscript that illustrates a work sequence of household servants and laborers.
There are a whole host of images that depict aspects of medieval life and mythology, but what particularly captured my attention was the sequence of manual laborers and the depiction of a Eucharistic meal at Sir Geoffrey’s table in the final sequence.There is an order of practice—a liturgy—to the way in which the laborers—committed to different tasks—work towards a common end.
The sower, plowman, and the woman tossing feed to the chickens, to name a few—work as part of one “devotional economy,” a term that Ellen Rentz applies in her analysis of liturgical labor imagery in the Luttrell Psalter.While they all have different tasks, their work is directed towards a common end. And although they may be mere servants and laborers of Sir Geoffrey’s household, they all participate in the final sequence: a meal of the lord and his household.
The Luttrell Psalter’s imagery of labor and communion draws attention to the relation between the temporal and the spiritual—the here and now and the yet to come. Even as we carry out our daily tasks—as we work with our hands—we do so as participants of God’s household. Yet this understanding is not meant to be a discussion of a “Puritan work ethic,” which emphasizes the importance of hard work as a means to certain economic or material ends. Rather, the message of the psalter’s illuminations of liturgical labor conveys the reality of us, as embodied beings, working within the great narrative of God’s created order—an order that affects us both temporally and eternally.
The Eucharistic meal of the lord of the manor is meant to be a temporal celebration of a divine reality, of, not only the Last Supper of Jesus and His disciples, but also that final communion that we are to enjoy when we are raised—body and soul—to sit at the Lord’s table, with all our Christian brethren.
As one looks at the illuminations of the sower in the field, the men and women threshing wheat, or the frustrated plowmen beckoning the oxen to persist in loosening the soil, one can find all these laborers going in the same direction. There is an order to their practice, a direction to their labor. They are all heading towards the same place, even as their particular tasks may be slightly different from others. One man sows.Two other men plow. And several men and women gather and thresh wheat.
Their labor is not chaotic and lacking order. They are not all going in different directions, and then shown eating a meal alone. They are all part of the same liturgy. They are all devoted to the same end. This holds true temporally, in the way that we work through our daily tasks to come together at the end of our day and dine with our household. And how much more meaningful is a meal when we have worked to deliver the flour, vegetables, and meat ourselves, and prepared it with our own hands? This also holds true spiritually. As we pray, endure trials, and praise our Lord with song, we would do well to keep in mind the final sequence of our journey as Christians, for one day, we will sit at the Lord’s table and commune with Him.
The imagery from the Luttrell Psalter illustrates how the work of our hands is intimately connected with the work of the spirit. There is a sense in which our labor is an act of devotion (‘devotion’ meaning something we give our support to and place our confidence in) that reaches its proper end as something that transcends our own wants and ought (like all things) to be given up for God’s glory.
Ecclesiastes 3: 12-13 says, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them [man] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live, also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” The Scriptures tell us that we should take pleasure in all our toil because it is a gift to us from God. It is those who are redeemed who can truly understand this, for when we are left to our sinful selves, we only see toil as misery. The difference between toil and labor, or work, is that toil denotes a specific kind of labor, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, that is especially difficult to perform. It is this kind of work, a toilsome work, that, so long as it is of a good nature, we ought to take pleasure in.
We are embodied beings. We were given hands to work. It is far more enjoyable to gather for a meal if one has labored over it. A proper understanding of labor recognizes the formative way it can cultivate economic and material goods for an individual and his household and community, while also considering the labor itself as an act of devotion because we gladly accept what God has given and understand how our labor on earth—understood both physically and spiritually—is part of the journey towards the ultimate communion we enjoy with our Lord.
Our physical and spiritual needs should not be viewed as things to escape or conquer by creating technologies or dogmas that “liberate” us from a means of genuine spiritual cultivation, nor something we view as “beneath us,” something fit for others to do. No, as embodied creatures, we are called to work with mind and body, taking pleasure in our work by recognizing that we, as Christians, all work for a common end—the glorification of He who gave us hands to work and bodies to praise.
We ought not grumble when we labor. Rather, we should toil with a joyful demeanor, for that which we work for—so long as it is good—is something with which God takes great delight. Doing the right thing in and of itself doesn’t fully fulfill our calling. It must be done in joy. As the psalter depicts the lord and his household gathered after the sequences of liturgical labor, we ought to live lives worthy of He to whom our labor is devoted, so that we might take our eternal places at our Lord’s table after our temporal work is finished, and hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Steven Carter is a graduate of the University of Idaho, where he studied medieval English political culture. He enjoys cultivating the soil of his family’s farm in Minnesota, drinking coffee, and taking walks in the rain.
Luttrell Psalter, c. 1340. Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Sir_Geoffrey_Luttrell_at_table_-Luttrell_Psalter%28c.1325-1335%29%2C_f.208_-_BL_Add_MS_42130.jpg
Ellen K. Rentz. “Representing Devotional Economy: Agricultural and Liturgical Labor in the ‘Luttrell Psalter.’’’ Studies in Iconography 31 (2010): 69–97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23924982, 90.
Luttrell Psalter, c. 1340. British Library. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/10/the-luttrell-psalter-on-film.html
Luttrell Psalter, c. 1340. Groteskology Blog. http://groteskology.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-grotesques-of-luttrell-psalter.html