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10-BOW-IN-THE-HEAVENS

The radiator knows when it’s time to go

It’s the little thing that tell you when you need a break, THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS observes — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I am not at home just now, though I will be back shortly. I have fled Scotland’s cold and damp shores for the more temperate surroundings of Fuerteventura in the Canaries.

To be honest, I staggered into the holiday rather than raced towards it. My last week on hospital call was gruelling: I was called out three times during the early hours of a Sunday morning and once again during the power nap I tried to take in the afternoon. Then three more times. To say I was a little zombified during the Sunday Masses is something of an understatement.

At times like this, I tend to think of my winter week off in terms of John 16:7, where Jesus tells the apostles that ‘it is for your good that I am going away.’

My parishioners might raise an eyebrow at that but it’s absolutely true. If I don’t go away for a bit, they’ll have a swivel-eyed cartoon version of their parish priest instead of the calm and quietly inspirational figure they know and love.

I know it’s time to go for a couple of reasons. First, I’m getting angry or anxious at the most trivial things. I don’t display my frustration, but I feel it flare up inside me, taking my blood pressure with it. Things I usually laugh off really start to bug me. There’s someone who repeatedly looks at his watch during the sermon. Now, I am not a lengthy homilist—usually five minutes or less. Yet, every week without fail, this person checks his watch every 15 seconds or so.

I’ve devised strategies for looking around or over him, but I can’t quite block out this extremely off-putting habit. And I’m sure it’s just a habit: a nervous tic that he does without realising it or knowing the distracting and dispiriting effect it has on me. But sometimes, as on that Sunday when I was fighting fatigue, I felt like walking over to him and confiscating said timepiece. I hope he reads this column.

Being a parish priest is also a bit like being the manager of a community centre: you have to deal with all sorts of groups who use the church hall or the other church facilities. Managing the competing demands and expectations of these groups can be another cause of stress. Sometimes you feel like shouting at the top of your lungs: “Can’t we all just try to be nice to each other and get along?!” Usually, I just nod and promise to see what I can do.

And then there’s the gas. For the past few weeks, following a spot of maintenance, the boiler seems to have taken on a life of its own.

It’s switching itself on at random times, quite independently from the control panel (which says the heating is ‘OFF’). Returning from one of my nocturnal trips to the hospital, I could see the vapour billowing out of the chimney vent. I’m intrigued by this mystery but also slightly panicked at what the gas bill may be. Don’t get me wrong, the folk find the church unexpectedly toasty and welcoming, but that’s not the sort of parish I’m trying to run here.

And then there’s the sad, but necessary, duty of trying to arrange three funerals in my absence: these depend on the good will and availability of other priests.

Fortunately, I have friendly neighbours and even handy contacts through the good offices of Sr Anne Marie. But if finding priestly cover is a challenge, then securing the services of an organist is even tougher just now.

I absolutely hate—and hate isn’t too strong a word in this instance—leaving others to do my work. The snag, for me and every other priest I’m sure, is that there is such a lot of it.

So, all these factors have combined to put me under quite a bit of pressure of late. The ultimate barometer of my mental and emotional state is the radiator. The radiator is in the upstairs corridor just outside my sitting room. One of my predecessors, I know not which, either commissioned the painting of this radiator or did it himself. However it was done, it was done very badly indeed. Instead of proper heat resistant enamel, ordinary emulsion was used, and, over time, it has blistered and cracked.

The result is an absolute eyesore. Bits have peeled off of their own accord, others have flaked off through passing contact, exposing a wholly different colour of paint underneath. And this is where I come in. If I’m feeling a bit stressed, I’ll often find myself noticing the newest cracks in the paint and settling down to pick them off.

Some sections of paint come off with a deeply satisfying cracking sound, others are less cooperative.

But there is something quite therapeutic about liberating a section of radiator from its unsightly top coat.

Whenever the housekeepers find a sizeable quantity of stripped paint in the nearby wastepaper basket, they know I require gentle handling. Needless to say, there’s been quite a bit of paint in the bin these past few days.

How do I stop myself from being a ‘paint in the basket’ case? The answer is quite simply to step back from the noise and the fuss of everyday life. Prayer is, of course, the principal way in which a priest should slough off the cares of life, restoring balance and perspective. Our recently acquired ‘sleeping St Joseph’ statue is a reminder that sleep is also a door, not only to physical refreshment but also to that space wherein God can speak to us in dreams.

And then there’s the sun. Although wee Peter keeps me stocked up with Vitamin D-enriched cod liver oil capsules, nevertheless there’s no substitute for the sun itself. Yes, I do feel pangs of guilt as I send photos of me enjoying the 22-degree sunshine to the folks shivering back home, but I just want them to know that I’m still thinking about them.

And it’s not just the sun which fills me with delight: like the wise men we encountered recently in the Epiphany, I love the stars. Fuerteventura affords me the opportunity to go on an astronomical safari, into the desert where light pollution is zero and our place in the galaxy is made breathtakingly apparent.

It’s a curious experience at first, heading off with a group of complete strangers, bumping over rough terrain in four-wheel drive vehicles and lying wrapped in thermal blankets looking up into the vast night sky. One can almost experience a kind of horizontal vertigo, as though you might fall upwards.

It’s amazing how changing your vantage point can have an almost hypnotic effect. What look like fast-moving stars are, in fact, satellites.

The moon appears much brighter and the constellations, viewed from a different angle from their position in our ‘home sky,’ appear almost strange and new.

The whole experience is even more therapeutic than picking paint from a radiator.

Lying there under the broad sweep of the Milky Way, you can also hear the words of Psalm 8 in your head: “When I consider the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you have arranged: what is man that you care for him, mortal man that you keep him in mind?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

The Psalmist invites us to consider that the God who sustains the universe by an act of his will, also sustains our own paltry spans of life: while it should shrink our problems to their proper perspective, it also serves to elevate us. Our place in the cosmos is arranged, just like the moon and the stars.

I hope to return to St Joseph’s refreshed, without too many problems in the in-tray. Perhaps the radiator isn’t just a ­barometer of my state of mind, but a metaphor for my life?

Under the flaking paint is a pristine radiator, which works well enough despite its cosmetic flaws. Maybe I should remember that myself and make 2018 the year I endeavour to bring a better John to light?

And then I’ll really get started on that radiator.

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