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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