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In praise of duty and dishwashing

There is an asceticism in daily duty that is easy to overlook, easier still to scorn and run from.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth in an April 8, 2014 photo. (CNS photo/Ben Stansall, pool via Reuters)

How many of us expect to mark seventy years on the job? How many of us would like to spend seven decades in the same job? Even if we find much of our work interesting, there are times when its tedium, or its personnel conflicts, would stir fantasies about a different line of work. In fact, during the past 18 months many have not merely fantasized but actually jumped ship in what numerous stories are calling “the great resignation” as millions of people are freely changing careers.

Instead of having such freedom, imagine your job is thrust upon you at a tender age. And that every part of your upbringing constrains your personality to submit to a position which deliberately and even ruthlessly smothers all your own interests and creative impulses, and suppresses all your own unconventional and controversial ideas. Imagine that such a job, even on its brightest days, involves no greater intellectual stimulus than vacuous glad-handing, ribbon-cutting, and speech-making (in words written for you in such a way as to bleed out all your character).

Would you go at least a little bit mad contemplating such a career? What could possibly redeem such a path?

The path and position I am describing, and even more the person, is Queen Elizabeth II, by the grace of God queen of the United Kingdom and my own native Canada. This month marks the 70th anniversary of her succession to the throne after the early death of her father George VI on February 6, 1952.

If on this anniversary we insist once more on singing Vivat, Regina Elizabetha it is not for nostalgia or cheap sentiment. Rather, it’s because Her Majesty has been a singular example of someone steadfastly doing her duty—her demonstrably and undeniably dreary duty—day in and day out, decade after decade, until she has become the longest-serving sovereign in British history.

Yes, as her republican detractors will say, she is compensated by living in palaces and castles and is wreathed about in jewels and ermine. She is enormously wealthy and has ladies-in-waiting to ensure she never has so much as to fetch some tea by herself.

But is any of that compensation given the essentially boring nature of her job? She must hold all the records for the cheap bouquets collected from little girls in crowds, the most ribbons cut opening new hospital wings, and the most utterly forgettable platitudes uttered about peace, prosperity, and cultural comity among her diverse peoples.

I could not survive in her job for a month. And yet she has done it for 840 months without complaint! If that isn’t an example of heroic virtue suitable for a saint, what is?

The queen’s Christian faith has helped her through seventy years of mortifications. One does not endure so much self-denial without a sense of vocation and divinely ordained purpose. (Eileen Atkins, playing Queen Mary offering advice to the new Queen Elizabeth II, describes this in a memorable scene from The Crown.)

Such duty is inconceivable to most of us. I am reminded here of a charmingly amateurish (in the best sense of the word) documentary produced about the late Fr Jonathan Robinson, founder of the Toronto Oratory (the largest in the world), and author of several books, including two by Ignatius Press. I knew him somewhat in the late 1990s. Given his background and brilliance, he could have easily become a cardinal or celebrated academic or figure of political power.

Instead he served as a priest for nearly sixty years, most of those in an obscure and shabby neighborhood. In the documentary, the journalist David Warren notes that even late into his 80s, when quite frail, Fr Jonathan nonetheless insisted—even as he now had ten priests in his community—on taking his turn to hear confessions. Asked about this, Robinson, with disarming humility, replied, “I always thought it just part of the job.” Warren, slack-jawed, recognizes that it is “very difficult for us who are younger and for us who are just not sufficiently Christian to grasp that kind of humble heroism—you just do things because it’s your job.”

Whether as anointed sovereign or priest, both vocations involve doing a lot of things just because they are part of your job. This, in fact, is the lot of us all. There is an asceticism in daily duty that is easy to overlook, easier still to scorn and run from. There is an old line, whose provenance I know not, I use with my students: “come the revolution, everybody wants to man the barricades but nobody wants to stay behind and wash the dishes.”

As we enter Lent in a few weeks, we might discover we need to make no grand renunciations of booze or bacon but instead simply wash the dishes for the glory of God.

This is the advice of John Henry Newman, founder of the English Oratory tradition. In his 1856 exhortation “A Short Road to Perfection,” Newman counsels us thus:

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones………

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic-not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings-but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound…..

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Royal Family is doing anything to defend the UK from the WEF and much evidence that it is collaborating with it.

  2. Or we *Catholics could talk about what’s happening in Canada where ice cream has been banned….no wait it was something else….
    Anyway anything is more relevant to us than popular opposition to church supported government lunacy…the church has chosen its side

  3. To equate a life of “dishwashing” to someone that lives off of the backs of the colonial pursuits of Britain is the most illogical and harebrained analogy that I have ever heard. What are you thinking “ Dr. DeVille?

  4. A reflection upon the Queen’s life on her eightieth birthday.

    Shout and roar fourscore
    Ancient line your place in time
    Outward show all must know
    Picture house Paramount News is my muse
    Newsreel soon to be Queen
    A Princess with grace joyous face
    Wavy hair spirit fair
    Open and pure in love secure
    Bubbling with fun a family you had begun
    A natural response to any prompt
    Coronation day we party and play
    I see a neighbor’s television and think of a prism
    A different face for the princess with grace
    A heavy load to bear as I watch from my small chair
    Throne, gown, scepter and crown to weigh one down
    A part to play come what may
    Privileges for sure but the load evens the score
    Your aids took your hand but your father took command
    Love is manifest in many ways he would heap on you his praise
    A mother you may be but a queen must be free –
    To stand alone even to sacrifice a home
    To serve the crown and mask a frown
    In fifty-eight, you passed me by
    I think you caught my eye
    In glass showcase, I glimpsed your face
    Still waving the flag but a little sad
    More controlled myself I told
    Joy, sigh, and cry time passes by
    I had troubles of my own but yours were always shown
    As you played your part often with a bruised heart
    One side of the prism duty generously given
    Each Christmas day a message you would say
    Your Great grandmother’s aids would set the stage
    If I may be so bold even more controlled
    But with the autumn sun, a transformation has begun
    From my television screen more gentle and real you seem
    A heavy load you no longer appear to hold
    Under your wavy hair, I glimpse you there
    Give us one score more
    Show us the side you were taught to hide.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  5. Wonderful article.
    She has truly done what Our Lady asked us to do at Fatima: offer up the sacrifice of our daily duty.
    Thank you for this tender reminder.

  6. I have always wondered when and under what circumstances the “royals” ceased being commoners and ascended to their lofty status? Are we all not descendants of Adam and Eve?
    “When Adam delved and Eve span,
    Who was then the gentleman?”

  7. Elizabeth was born and trained to be a queen. A queen she has been, and all of the gracious (and yes, tedious things) a queen must do, she has done splendidly. It isn’t easy to imagine another queen elsewhere or in the future, given the devastation of anything elegant, restrained or simply decent in our current world. However, a queen, with all her duties, has certain perks: one, being help.
    Now take the “common” housewife. Not only does she do routine, tiresome chores, day after day after day, but to her joy and utter
    exhaustion, she has children who need constant attention and a husband she loves and whose needs she tries to care for. That is the “duty” expected of her when she enters into marriage. Most likely she will do those duties alone. No “ladies in waiting” to help her, though she is blessed with
    with various appliances unknown by her grandmothers. For more than 50 years, though, she
    has not been honored for her contributions, and by her own sex. She has been told that she is a slave to her husband and children. Far, far more
    important to be chained to a “career,” even if the work is more trivial than washing diapers.
    She has been told that men are merely conveniences; rather useful nuisances. Too many women believe that…Like everything else the Left has foisted on us, we pay the price. “Duty” is a word like “honor” or “refinement.” It will be interesting to see if they ever come back.

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