Visiting the hospital at lunchtime, the man looked at me, “are you finished for the day?”
“I am. There’s only an evening service once a month”.
With Monday as a day off, it should have felt like quitting time in a secular job, like a Friday evening, or, more realistically, like a Saturday lunchtime for those who work five and a half days a week. Except it didn’t, there was not that sense of solidarity.
Peggy would talk about the shipyard in the old days. Thirty-thousand men worked there at one time; at quitting time the streets were a tide of humanity as the riveters and the welders and the multiplicity of other trades walked through the rows of red-bricked houses on their way home.
There have often been moments when that solidarity seemed attractive; when a sharing of daily tasks and the camaraderie of meal breaks offered a richness of friendship; when a Friday night at the working men’s club or in the local for a pint, with a whole weekend ahead, seemed an idyllic life.
Maybe it’s the solidarity that would be the most important, there is no solidarity in this job, most times there is no-one to notice whether you are work every hour or spend the whole day watching television. There is no beginning to the week and no end and no-one to comment on the moments in between.
Perhaps the work is a matter between oneself and God, but it is hard to believe that the Almighty has much interest in much of the stuff of parish life. Maybe Brother Lawrence, who found delight in even doing the washing up in the Seventeenth Century, would make a better hand of parish work than I do.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of accepting the work as its own reward; even if God is not overly excited by the parish stuff, he does expect that all that is done is done to the best of one’s ability; he does expect that at the end of the day one goes to bed with a sense that one could have done no better.
Much of ministry seems like farming life, repetitive and offering little profit, but done because it is the only life one knows, the only life to which one is called. Seamus Heaney captures that sense of isolation and contentment in the mundane things in Quitting Time:
The hosed-down chamfered concrete pleases him
He’ll wait a while before he kills the light
On the cleaned-up yard, its pails and farrowing crate,
And the cast-iron pump immobile as a herm
Upstanding elsewhere, in another time
More and more this last look at the wet
Shine of the place is what means most to him—
And to repeat the phrase “My head is light,”
Because it often is as he reaches back
And switches off, a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of a tubular–steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill work.