Few vocations offer as much closure with as little completion as does schooling. Teachers, students, and administrators are forever bumping up against conclusions: the end of the lesson, the week, the unit, the quarter, the semester, the academic year, high school, the bachelor’s degree, then the master’s or doctorate—all observed with due ceremony, ranging from the ritual recitation of “Have a good weekend!”, to the gathering of an all-school assembly, to the donning of academic regalia for a university convocation.
But perhaps the ceremonies of closure are needed precisely because completion is never reached. The last great insight remains ever beyond our gaze; the final paper can always be improved; our minds and our souls have so very far to grow. The work continues, endless.
That word “endless”—does it describe our desire or fear? Occasionally we express the longing for something to be endless: youth, a moment of beauty, summertime, joy. But the word also voices our complaint against grading papers, planning lessons, doing laundry, disciplining children, fighting cancer, resisting temptation, confessing sin, and other toils that have no end.
Perhaps we know both an earthly “endless” and a heavenly one. On earth, the endless things involve the fight against decay, in which our best efforts have the result of keeping us on top of the treadmill. We rarely progress and often repeat. The heavenly endless, on the other hand, answers the cry of eternity in our hearts by promising the continuation of things blessed, forever. When we groan that our work is endless, we are speaking of the things of earth; when we wish for endless beauty, we are longing after heaven.
The distinction seems sensible—except that it cannot be true.
Not everything earthly only decays. Creation is daily, though not fully, restored by the livening grace of the God who promised that “while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
Indeed, at its essence, repetition may not represent drudgery so much as delight. Chesterton rightly wondered in Orthodoxy whether “perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”
The earthly endless, then, is not intrinsically decaying or dull. Nor do our premonitions of the heavenly endless always satisfy. We like good things, but (at least in consumerist cultures) we like them cheaply made so that we can get newer good things by and by. We like the places we live, but we think we’d like a fresh landscape better. We like the idea of Heaven, but we worry that we’ll get bored. Huck Finn’s suspicion that “all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever” matches our own fears, and like him we may be tempted to “[not] think much of it.”
Perhaps, after all, the particular endless thing does not rattle us so much as endlessness itself. We fear an endless Heaven and we balk at endless duties—even those we love.
Teaching and learning, caring for bodies and nurturing souls, confessing sins and seeking holiness: these things are endless on earth, and perhaps at least some of them will be endless also in Heaven. There we shall overcome our fear of eternity.
But even here, surely there is nothing better for man, under a sun where nothing is new, than to welcome the endless aspects of our vocations with joy. We long for completion and we await a final ending, but until He comes, “Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing”—so marking tests, so scrubbing floors, so receiving the Sacraments, so marveling at sunrise.
For when He comes, then, at last and only, shall we see how He has turned our endless labor into completed beauty. The faithful toiling in home and classroom for the sake of human beings who will remain imperfect even at death—this very labor shapes the glorified beings we shall greet at the Resurrection. “The dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to,” said C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory,” “may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror . . . All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
Or, as T.S. Eliot put it in “The Dry Salvages,”
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. . . .
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying . . .
So we pray: Establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.