Thursday, 17 September 2009
Observing the Secular Sabbath
It's not my own phrase; I stole it from Jonathan Meades, who was on BBC2 last night in a programme about Scotland and how it's the world's leader in the ancestor business. Or rather, I borrowed it, because it reminded me of a visit to Frinton two years ago.
Mr. 4160 and I spent our wedding anniverary at the seaside in Essex, taking in an ice cream and a wander around lovely little Frinton. Estate agents' windows advertised many small homes with well kept gardens and "no onward chain". Frinton has the smallest church in England (or perhaps Essex) but anyway it's tiny. We went in, as Frinton is the sort of place where churches don't need to lock their doors to keep out undesirables. There aren't any. For the first time in ages I read the Ten Commandements which were painted in gold on wood in Arts & Crafts style, and was struck by very reasonable they are.
That said, I looked them up and found that there are more than ten (27) and that the good old Church of England had decided just to keep the sensible ones. ("The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb" sounds a bit parochial to me. Likewise the bit about driving out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. No-one else? Just them, the locals? One can't help thinking that there was some artistic interpretation of the Lord's instructions going on there.)
Back to Frinton and leaving out the spare 17 commandments. As it was my first weekend off in as many as I could remember, I lingered over "Observing the sabbath and keep it holy". I do know a few people who regularly go to church, and when they tell their employers that they can't work on Sundays, that's fine. If the rest of us say that we can't work on Sunday because we've just worked Monday to Saturday and we're exhausted, that's not good enough. So for the following few months a colleague and I had a code. "Off to church on Sunday?" "Yeah, I need to do a bit of bible study." How ridiculous is it, that you have to pretend to go to church just to get a bit of peace and quiet, a nice day pottering about doing nothing and having a cup of tea with your mates?
So there was Jonathan Meades, standing in a dull, drizzly, empty, silent street on a small Scottish Island, having a similar thought. Have we made our lives better by opening shops, cafes and entertainments on Sundays so that it's become normal to work all weekend? Or if we're not working, we're dashing around catching up with things we used to do in our lunch hour (remember that?) or when we got home and still had an evening. It's September; I ought to have the back to school, ready to start the new term kind of feeling. But after working through all but two weekends of yet another summer, feeling all worn out, I need a day off occasionally.
I can't do it alone. I can't just put my foot down and decide that it's just me. Now everyone has to be seen to work hard or else they let the team down. If I don't work on Sundays I'll be holding up a load of people who are waiting for my contribution. Collectively we've got ourselves into this state by willingly taking on extra work to see if we can earn more, get on, make progress, be rewarded financially for all the additional effort we voluntarily throw in. We've got emails that chase us home and follow us around the world on our iPhones. We're kidding oursleves that we're doing it because we want to, because it gives our life meaning. I get more meaning from picking my home grown raspberries or knitting a pair of socks.
It never ends unless we decide to end it. At least the rich Victorian mill owners gave their half-starved underpaid workers a day to go to church with the promise that they'd get their rewards in heaven. We're still falling for it, except that we're told we'll get our rewards paid on earth, in a sense of fulfillment that only comes from accepting a challenge and pushing oursleves until we hurt. And we've fallen for it. We're going to have to take our secular sabbath back ourselves. The non-stop generation needs to put its brakes on. So you can use my code if you like. Tell your colleagues that you have to go to church on Sunday then make it your own personal church. Get the papers in, put your feet up and have a chat. You don't have to achieve anything. Achievement is overrated. Just sit. Wait. Ponder. Listen to things you haven't heard in ages. Remember. Imagine.
I'll be going to church on Tuesdays. Come with me. Bring your knitting. I'll get the kettle on. We can have a bit of a natter and see if any brilliant ideas happen to crop up.
PS. The picture. I took that out of the front window one evening Sunday after sitting on the sofa for ages waiting for the right moment.