For the title of this post, I’ve riffed on an idea of the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021.) I will use his splendid essay “The Shabby and the Sublime” from A Defense of Ardor to frame my thinking about aspects of vocation. Zagajewski meant “shabby” and “sublime” in tight correlation with “low” and “high” poetic styles. I will use “shabby” and “sublime” more loosely to refer to a range of applications to vocation.
Please read his original essay if you’re interested in his thoughts about an ontological requirement of poetry not to exclude high style. Zagajewski offered a pointed critique of modern poetry and of our time’s preference for low style over high style, for a simplistic style that excludes expressions of the sublime in favor of shabby chatter. His diagnosis when comparing a thing in poor condition from hard use or lack of care and a thing that is beautiful or good beyond measure may surprise you.
Indeed, Zagajewski’s critique is admirable for its generous spirit. He sought dialogue between the low and the high, he advocated for a wide and tender reach, and he encouraged makers and audiences alike to “hold room” for mysteries and the quotidian moments (I love Zagajewski’s image!). Likewise, he avoided the “narrow zones” that contract or reduce, he did not affix particular ideas or forms to the high, and he believed that high style is true when it retains modesty, buoyancy, and serenity.
His essay has good application to how vocation—always balanced between the high and the low, the mysterious and the quotidian, the sublime and the shabby—can be applied to the enterprise of higher education. His generosity reminds me that when we think and talk and teach about vocation, we should consider our words carefully. We ought to be about thoughtfully preparing each other for inspiration and illumination. Being full of tenderness, we ought to approach reality with a wide reach, “holding room” for heroes and saints as well as for ordinary realities. We ought to find ways to be in “proximity to” what eludes words and to what is beautiful and painful. We ought to understand our callings as a “dialogue between the vertical and the horizontal,” between what the world might call the spirit and the street.
What do “the shabby and the sublime” mean to students, to faculty and staff, and to institutions? My speculation is that we ought to acknowledge the low or shabby aspects without dismissing the high or sublime, and we ought to hold up the high or sublime aspects without disdaining the low or shabby. And the sublime that we seek or find is usually gifted to us as an outcome of a lot of work that can feel shabby.
The enterprise of higher education holds room for both. In today’s climate, we can’t disdain the narrow (or shabbier) definition of vocation as career preparation, but we also can’t dismiss the broad (or more sublime) definition of vocation as the multiple stations in which we are called to serve right now. One reason that higher education is imperiled and fainthearted is because it has been pressured to acquiesce to a mostly secular impulse aimed at material ease. Yes, education is costly, and career preparations seem to promise a return on investment, but should we direct most of our energy to transactional values? If we do so, then Zagajewski’s characterization of what an exclusively low style means to poetry applies: we risk our education becoming tepid or anemic, gray or flat, simplistic or ordinary, and, at worst, divisive and diminished. We also risk not being able through our education to access complexity or subtlety, mystery or history, and inspiration or imagination.
Instead, as academics, can we slow down enough to resume a long-honored pace for the sublime telos of our scholarly community—teaching and learning, service and research, devotion and proclamation? Can we return to first things, first, each in their own domain and in the relationships among them?
As part of an academic community, we should be asking what makes our domain an excellent area to study or why we should honor it. We should also be asking how we can help stakeholders in the academy understand our distinct contributions to education, faith, citizenship, and neighbor. These questions have potential to bridge the divisive trending of domains focused on jobs and career preparation. When we talk with our students about careers in any domain, we should share ideas about what those vocations look like in a materialistic culture. These questions orbit around core values in a way that can balance the sublime and the shabby, the high and the low.
As I grow older and attentively watch others faithfully live out their vocations, I appreciate more and more that being faithful reminds us to make neither too much nor too little of our work. We get in trouble if we make too much of our shabby work, and we don’t honor our work if we avoid its sublime station. Personally speaking, this “shabby and sublime” stuff gets sorted out, or formed, in view of a couple of Biblical texts. The transition in 1 Corinthians from the end of chapter 12 to the beginning of chapter 13 is instructive: the desire for greater gifts leads to a “more excellent way,” which is love. I am reminded that my balance of the shabby and sublime should not conform to the patterns of this world but should be tested in relation to God’s good and pleasing and perfect will. My usually shabby work should be offered as a living sacrifice, as it has been transformed by the depth and riches and wisdom and understanding of God (Romans 11:33 and 12:1-2).
Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow, having been a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Paul, click here.