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Monk in the World guest post: George Angus

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for George Anugs’ reflection the holy and creative process of working with a lathe:

“Although the following spiritual practice is written in the form of a recipe, it’s aim is not to be a how-to-guide. It merely demonstrates that in our spiritual nourishment, often overlooked ingredients can play a major role.


George Angus latheIngredients:

  • A workshop
  • A lathe (other machinery will do as well, but I find the rhythm and sound of the lathe to be soothing)
  • A turning job (not job as in “At least I have a job”. In the workshop we use it more in the sense of “Can you do this job for me, or do you have another one in the lathe?”). What works well is something repetitive, without being too complicated. Otherwise you have to concentrate too hard. A fairly big diameter or reasonable length is also an advantage. It ensures a nice long travel for the tool.
  • All the paraphernalia that goes with working on the lathe: enough soluble oil in the sump to keep the job lubricated, the necessary drills and tooltips, the wire hook that you use to remove the shavings from the bed, the splash plate to prevent the soluble oil from being flung in a fine spray all over the floor by the fast turning chuck, the peg spanner to fasten the chuck onto the head of the lathe and the chuck key to tighten the job in the jaws of the chuck.
  • Dogs. The amount does not matter. I usually have three with me in the workshop.
  • A notepad. Preferably nothing fancy. The complementary ones that you get from some of the steel and engineering suppliers are ideal. There is usually one in the workshop. Use a clean page so that you can tear it out if necessary. Do not write at the bottom of the rough sketch of the shaft and keyway that still has to be done or at the back of the drawing with the dimensions of the complicated crimping roller.
  • A sharp pencil.  A pen is of no use in an environment where you constantly use oil or grease and your hands are always dirty. I love the soft dark writing of a 4B pencil. To me writing with an HB or harder is like kissing a rigid woman with a thin black line for lips. No joy there and afterwards almost no sign of the preceding contact.
  • Any flat surface. The welding table is perfect because the light is good on that spot and I pass it often on my way to the pedestal grinder. Just make a clearing for yourself amidst the welding rods, chipping hammer and G clamps.


  • With the job fastened in the chuck and everything set up, start the lathe.
  • I find a speed of about 280 rpm to be just right. Not too fast so that you have to be constantly alert and not so slow that you lose something of the rhythm. At 280 rpm the lathe gets a certain reassuring sweet sound that’s ideal for what we have in mind.
  • Get the feel of the job. See how the material reacts to the tool and determine the amount of soluble oil that is needed. It may be necessary to do some adjustment on the automatic feed of the tool.
  • Results won’t be immediate. It usually sets in at about the 12th or 15th repetition, but even that is not set in stone.
  • Be patient.
  • A certain unity comes over the workshop. Things merge and are somehow transformed into this single, huge, live organism with a body that gently rises and falls as it breathes – engaging the feed, taking the cut, disengaging, return to start, engaging the feed, taking the cut, disengaging, return to start… Rising and falling, breath in, breath out . . .
  • By this time the dogs are fast asleep all over the floor, their bodies mimicking the body movements of the big organism that is gently breathing around us and of which we are a part.
  • Wait. Do not force anything. Wait. Enter into the job, become one with it. Engaging the feed, take the cut, disengaging, back to start . . .
  •  There . . . Do you see them coming? There is no predicting when or in what form it will emerge. It is not something that you create as such. It happens and is done unto you. Words and thoughts start to fill the air around the lathe. Solutions announce themselves, themes open up. Engaging the feed, taking the cut, disengaging, return to start . . .
  • Do not react too quickly. You have time. Delicately hold the fragile tension. At the end of the cut that you’re busy with, disengage the tool and switch off the machine.
  • Now take your pencil and gently gather the thought, image or words onto its tip.
  • Carry it to the note pad on the welding table.
  • Let it slide from the tip of the pencil onto the page. Write it down.
  • Repeat the process.

Through this method, many of the ideas and titles that now appear as posts on our blog came to me: Wabi-sabi, God in all things, Patron Saint SuBo, Whistle while you work . . .  Others await their chance on the dirty page of my notepad to appear in print.

In many respects the turning and the writing become my spiritual practice.

I do not proclaim this process far and wide though. I don’t think many in the engineering business will believe me anyway if I were to tell them what a vital writing tool a lathe is. And in general I haven’t found in clergy, who are often strong on the word-side, a deep liturgical understanding of soluble oil or tool tips.

So I keep quiet and do my turning. Sometimes it is steel or wood. Often it is words. Always it is soul.”

George AngusGeorge Angus and his wife Matilda run a retreat centre in Northern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. A restorer and maker at heart, he not only works with people, but also in wood and steel. He writes about finding God in all things on their blog The Restory News.



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6 Responses

  1. This is a wonderful description of how one can slip into the unitive mind in a time of artistic doing/being. Even in the rhythm of placing the screw in the hole…. as commented below.

  2. Beautiful… I heard of a friend of a friend who spent all of the working years of his life in a manufacturing plant, putting a single rivet, one after the other, in pairs of vice grips. He was highly intelligent, and found that the rhythm of his movements freed his mind for the heights and depths of his daily companionship with God. He didn’t want a management job that would encroach upon the sacred spaces or tether his mind to complex duties. I loved this heart, and love it in you as well. Thank you for this post. It is workable with so many hobbies and routine chores. -Kellie

  3. What a great example of how we may not understand the communication between God and another human being but the end result is the same “Sometimes it is steel or wood. Often it is words. Always it is soul.” Knowing nothing about working with a lathe, I found myself lost in your description, having nothing to compare it to except for me, sometimes it is running or hiking in nature. “Often it is words. Always it is soul.” Lovely!

    1. I find that one of the most important aspects of the spiritual journey is to discover your own unique vocabulary and language in your relationship with God. The other is beautifully described by Paula D’Arcy: “God comes to us disguised as our lives.” To experience understanding and appreciation when writing about it is such a gift. Thank you for that!