By Christine Havens
Episcopal priests Diana Wright, Jeremiah Griffin, and Matthew Hanisian are among a growing number of clergy taking up metalworking and blacksmithing. They use their craft as a way to deepen their relationship with God through this creative spirituality, which then augments their priestly vocation.
At once incarnational and transcendent, what they do forges a link to the sacred and yet is a very human act of revealing God’s image within. Creativity can be subversive and a comfort to others, though perhaps more people might picture hats and scarves knitted for the unhoused. Some might have difficulty imagining a priest as a blacksmith, or reconciling the pastoral presence with the harsh clang of a hammer on metal.
Wright serves three small parishes in west-central Iowa (Trinity, Carroll; Trinity, Denison; and St. Paul’s, Harlan). Wright’s parents had a large self-sufficiency skill set; they “could mend or repair most of the things in the house, but also enjoyed the creative side of those skills.” Upon leaving home, Wright had plenty of practical skills, but felt no “artistic passions.”
Metalworking called to her shortly before the COVID pandemic began, and after falling in love with creative welding, which she learned from a former Union Theological Seminary professor, Wright decided that “welding and blacksmithing go hand in hand.” She is now enrolled in a class offered by North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Griffin has been rector of St. Chad’s Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for six and a half years. His call to metalworking came early in his life. While in his 20s, Griffin served as an apprentice for a blacksmith who sold swords and knives to Renaissance festivals and collectors.
He stepped away from metalworking for a time because he felt conflicted about “making weapons (even if they were archaic and would probably never see any use).” Limited spare time and space for a shop also kept Griffin away from the craft. Now, however, he has realized that “there were all kinds of other, non-pointy things” he could make, and he spends quite a bit of Sabbath time at his forge.
Hanisian recently moved from Severna Park, Maryland, to begin serving as rector at Christ Church in Winnetka, Illinois. His blacksmithing started during the COVID pandemic. In looking for fellowship with other friends and neighbors, Hanisian and his college-age son, Eli, decided to build a charcoal-burning home forge from cinder blocks, using instructions from a YouTube video.
Blacksmithing had been calling Hanisian for several years, but he kept putting it off: “Who has the time or the know-how to do that?” But the acceptable time had come in the form of bonding with his son through learning this craft together.
All three create ordinary items, peaceful objects. Wright creates yard art when she welds; she feels too new to blacksmithing to decide yet what “catches my eye the most, but hooks and hook racks, being useful items, appeal more than key rings.”
Griffin makes “crosses as gifts for parting church staff, ladles/forks/fire tools,” and has “replaced nearly every towel rack, latch, and coat hook” in his family’s home. He loves giving his creations away.
Hanisian crafts “everything from Damascus steel cutlery to crosses and brass sculptures.”
How does this creativity relate to the three priests’ vocations?
Hanisian says that learning to be self-forgiving, knowing that God blesses and uses what we consider broken to create something we wouldn’t have considered, is a large part of it. Once he was making a custom knife as a special gift for his wife, who is a chef. He’d spent hours shaping the steel, but it cracked on the anvil, irreparable.
Hanisian was inconsolable, sitting in despair for about 20 minutes. Then, he felt a sense of “resurrection” when he realized that while he could no longer make a chef’s knife, he could transform the steel into two cheese knives. They now use the two knives for gatherings, sharing the story with others, planting seeds of connection to God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Wright sees metalwork as important to her priesthood in two ways. First, “as an escape and outlet where concentration is required and you can put everything else out of your mind (a necessity for all of us).” Second, as “a metaphor for how our faith can shape and mold us and we become something entirely new and more beautiful. So much in life is a metaphor for faith seeking understanding; we grow and change and are never the same again.”
Saying he would often joke about the catharsis of pounding steel on the anvil after a difficult church meeting, Griffin admits that his frustration came from a place of craving tangible results from his work. “Clergy use their heads a lot and work relationally in the community. When I can forge a new tool or item of beauty, I feel a sense of capability and accomplishment that my priestcraft rarely affords.”
In becoming metalworkers and blacksmiths, these three priests are living into that place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Griffin would love to try forging guns into peaceful objects, as retired Bishop Jim Curry does through a program called Swords to Plowshares Northeast.
Hanisian experiences the forging of steel “much the same as singing Taizé chant — simple movement, repetition — prayer within the simple repeated movements, much like the chanting.”
Wright looks to bring all to the table of metalwork who want to come, all who hope to contribute to a more sustainable future.
The Holy Spirit continues to temper them as they continue to forge disciples and communities grounded in love of God and love of neighbor.
Christine Havens is a writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest. She is training to be a spiritual director in the Diocese of Texas. Her work has appeared on Mockingbird Ministries’ blog, mbird.com, and Forward Movement’s AdventWord (2022).