Life is what we experience in the interruptions to our daily routines

The new semester has begun, and it is back to the multitasking work that is chaplaincy. Multitasking seems to be the norm for many jobs. It is interesting to note the findings of recent research into this way of working. Researchers at the University of California, for instance, have noted that the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, about every three minutes; this is, perhaps, not surprising. What may be surprising is that the study showed that it can take more than 23 minutes to get back on track at the point where they left off. Estimations of the cost of interruptions and inefficient multitasking run into the billions of wasted hours a year, at a financial cost that comes close to a trillion dollars across North America.

And yet, I wonder, is it all about efficiencies, staying on track and productivity? What of the human dimension? At a small university like Mount Allison, with our mandate of education and our tradition of community, one might hope for more of a focus on the people around us than simply productivity. Certainly in my chaplaincy over the past 25 years at Mount Allison, I have lived and worked not simply to deadlines, but to the importance of meeting the needs of those who stand before, who show up, whose paths I cross in walking around campus. Pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, many years ago, of a conversation which framed his work, and which has framed mine: “While visiting the University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older, experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, ‘… my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’ ”

This is what ministry is about, and interruptions may also be a significant portion of student services, and teaching and mentoring generally. For twenty-five years I have maintained that the interruptions are my work. I have come to recognize that life and its goals are interrupted by events and circumstances, and my work is interrupted by those who are seeking to make sense of the events and circumstances in their own lives – but in essence these things are what make life, and the interruptions are what make the work of ministry.

Nouwen went on to write, “It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part.” Of course, interruptions challenge the neat ordering of life, and the essential illusion that we are in control of it, but they open us to new possibilities.

Abraham Heschel writes that the Sabbath reorients our life; it is a reminder of rhythms and routines and the way in which we fit into the flow of the world. In the Christian tradition, worship has been an opportunity to be reminded of the slowing of the pace of life, even for an hour, to be open to that which we might otherwise not see or experience. This includes meeting those who stand before me, as children of God in all their unhappiness, challenge, disappointment, fear and worry and more. And it means taking time to be present, in the stillness of the moment, so that we can both be restored in a moment that is not concerned with accomplishment, achievement, deadline, productivity or usefulness; often ministry is simply about being human in a world that seems sometimes to deny the value of that.

Stop in and see me sometime, and interrupt my work; I will watch for you, through stained glass.

Rev. John C. Perkin
Rev. John Perkin is Chaplain of Mount Allison University.