Like many people, I was seduced (and deceived) by a spell of pleasant weather a couple of weeks ago. There was a discernible heat in the sun, the daffodils were budding, and washing could be seen hanging out to dry – all harbingers of spring in these parts. Those of us who dusted off the patio furniture were soon to be exposed as overly optimistic fools, as the Beast from the East blew all these springtime hopes away in a blast of Siberian fury.
I jokingly refer to my Greenock parish as being “above the snow line”, but those words came back to haunt me as the church and the surrounding streets were held fast in the Beast’s icy grip. Indeed, you could almost see this grip, as jagged icicles hung from the eaves like the talons of Nosferatu.
Unlike the Big Freeze of 2010, which was more picturesque than perilous, this time it was nasty. The high winds dumped layer upon layer of dry snow on us and, worse still, caused it to drift. After a day of unremitting snowfall, my car disappeared behind a shoulder-high wall of the white stuff. Trapped in the house, I fell into doing what everyone else was doing, taking photos and videos of the “snowpocalypse” and posting them on social media. If nothing else, these served to signal to the outside world that I was still alive.
It is ironic that the term that has come to represent the fragility of pampered millennials – snowflakes – was also the cause of widespread panic among their supposedly tougher elders. Perhaps this was Mother Nature’s revenge for turning one of her most beautiful creations into a lazy cliché. A gang of snowflakes can cause havoc, let me tell you.
The depth of the snow and the poor conditions of the streets hereabouts meant that, for two days, the church remained cut off and there was no public Mass. I do not know when, or if, this has ever happened before. The social media platforms on which I was posting images of the Bow Farm tundra also served to get the message out that people should stay at home: the church was closed. That was not a decision taken lightly. We have devout octogenarians who would have strapped on snowshoes and harnessed huskies to get here, but at no little risk to themselves.
I found this enforced hiatus a little strange. With no one around the house for the best part of four days, I did go a little stir crazy. Although I had Jasmine, my trusty cocker spaniel to keep me company, I was conscious of the lack of human interaction. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and wonder at this dishevelled doppelgänger looking back at me, wandering around mid-afternoon in pyjamas carrying a bowl of custard or a plate of party food unearthed from the back of the freezer.
While other clergy might have used their confinement to catch up on administrative tasks or plan future sermons, I simply ate. Stories of empty shelves and panic buying at local supermarkets and shops only served to fuel my appetite for whatever I could find in the cupboards. Even an old tin of cream crackers packed, I think, when Mrs Thatcher was still in Number 10, was prised open and sampled. They were a bit off, but I persevered.
The approach of the weekend meant that I had to snap out of my binge-eating reverie. A call was put out for snow-shovellers and, sure enough, a small band of folk (ranging in age from six to over 60) turned up at the appointed hour to get to work. In the space of an hour they had already cleared the paths and side doors of the church and created a little entrance into the car park – which would, alas, remain out of bounds owing to the depth of the snow.
There is, somewhere in that collective effort of priest and people, a metaphor for the Church in our times. We have to roll up our sleeves and get on with the work in hand: whether we see that as clearing the approaches for those coming from outside or digging the Church out of a drift in which she has become immured, it is a job too big for priests (or bishops) alone. On the contrary, left to our own devices, it is all too easy for the clergy to become trapped in our own routines, as surely as the blizzards held me captive in the presbytery.
As we shovelled and joked, with Jasmine running excitedly among us through the snow, it occurred to me that we were, in that moment, living a line of that Sunday’s Gospel: “zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9). That’s why these people had ventured into the biting cold: not to oblige me or earn points but out of a desire to free the house of God in their midst. The Beast was fierce, but love was stronger.
Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow