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What Is Quality?

by Matthew R. Brooks

"They have parted my garments amongst, them but upon my vesture they cast lots (John 19,24)

Tradition tells us that the vesture spoken of here was made by Jesus's Mother, Mary, without seam, woven from the top throughout. It was obvious that the soldiers had no love for either Jesus or Mary, so why not divide this vesture up as well? Because even these barbarians recognized the value of something crafted by hand with patience and care.

Today, thanks to mass production and third world labor, we have lost the sense of the value of hand crafted goods. Big chain department stores and superstores carry most of the items we could ever need and each promises lower prices than the next. The industrialized (or first as opposed to third) world has been swept up in a wave of consumerism which demands impossibly low prices in order to allow the average consumer to purchase an unrealistic variety and quantity of goods.

Caring nothing for the effects of this voracious appetite, our society in the western world plunges on, working harder and longer in order to satisfy a lust for more possesions, property, and luxury. When possessions take precedence over people, children fall victim to this trend. Sent at a tender age to local or state child care facilities, there to be indoctrinated and steeped in the new morality. It's OK to be here, your parents are working hard to fulfill themselves and buy you stuff. Both mother and father work impossible hours, communicating by means of notes and messages left in areas where paths are likely to cross at some point. Guilt is assuaged by spending a half hour of quality time with junior each week. Too often this translates to dumping the poor child at a playground while mommy sits on the bench finishing up her work on a laptop computer.

If these were the only consequence of wicked excess, it would be bad enough, but in order to meet the unquenchable demand, industry, a willing accomplice in this foul endeavor, utilizes slave labor to produce the products we demand at such impossible prices. How many of us have thought about the misery our TV, VCR, CD player, microwave oven, etc. has caused in a forlorn and desolate corner of the world populated by those who live lives of desperate and hopeless misery?

We are taught that the civil war ended slavery, but this is not true. It simply transferred slavery from our backyard where looking at it made us feel guilty to forgotten and isolated corners of the world where we could pretend it no longer exists. Industrialization, assembly lines, mechanization, and computerization have given us our precious luxuries, but at a staggering cost in human misery.

Compare this state of affairs with the life of the Holy Family. Imagine a house kept by the sweetest and most wonderful of mothers. A neat orderly house, with the enticing aromas of bread baking on the hearth, soup simmering in a pot over the fire, and the faint smell of wood burning greet the casual visitor. From somewhere in the back come the muffled, unhurried rythms of hammer, chisel, and saw, telling that St Joseph is at work in the family carpenter's shop. The young Lord Jesus sits watching in loving childlike fascination as his foster father fashions a wooden implement for someone in the village. The pace is measured and relaxed because there is no lust for possessions driving Holy Family. Most of the things they need, food, wine, and cloth, are produced by other villagers working at the same pleasant peaceful pace. The joy and serenity of unhurried labor plying a trade dictated by talent and family tradition, are as far removed from the overseer's lash and the timeclock's unforgiving mark as it is possible to be.

Consumerism has destroyed the ideal of craftsmanship, of handiwork and detail, the whole concept of a labor of love . It has also destroyed the visual arts, especially those which used to honor Our Lord by adorning His house. We have lost all conception of what it means to pay for goods and services based on a fair wage. Just for example; Michelangelo worked for five years on the Sistene Chapel ceiling. Roughly 50% of that time he had 4 or 5 paid assistants. Using $50,000.00 a year as the base salary for skilled labor, and $35,000 as a base wage for semi-skilled or assistant labor, the total payroll for the project (not including materials, scaffolding, etc.) would be: $687,000.00 or nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

This sounds excessive to our modern minds, conditioned to mass production pricing, because we have lost any sense of the value of hand labor by a gifted artisan. We have also lost the peace and tranquility exemplified by the Holy Family and which was the pattern of Christian life right through the middle ages.

The Roman soldiers knew that the one piece seamless garment woven by Our Lady, was the result of many many hours of loving labor. As such these uncouth barbarians recognized and appreciated the value of such a thing, and rather than divide it they chose to leave it whole and cast lots for it.

Would we do the same? The modern world calls itself civilized, but undoubtably, anyone confronted by the garment today would have assumed that it was woven by machine in a third-world sweatshop and thus worth little more than a dollar. The precious garment woven by our lady would certainly have been divided without a second thought.

In coming articles, I will be discussing in greater depth what we have lost, and suggesting ways to return a sense of beauty, an appreciation for quality, an understanding of the lure of materialism, and a love of devotional art to our homes and our culture.

The image at the top of this article and many others can be viewed at Matthew Brook's website: Art for the Catholic Restoration

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