Being on-call at the hospital is like Shabbat, in certain ways.
An on-call shift begins in late afternoon and continues through to the following day. Vayehi erev, vayehi boker: and there was evening, and there was morning. This isn't the way we mark time on our secular calendar, but it is the Jewish way of marking time.
An on-call shift, like Shabbat, is a break from ordinary life. (This is true for me in a way that it can't be for fulltime hospital chaplains.) On other days I have my daily routine, but being on-call changes the tenor of time. During on-call shifts my regular obligations and to-do lists recede: the only important task is spending time with people. On-call time moves at a different pace.
I spend most of my on-call shifts praying, either overtly (offering
prayer aloud for, and with, patients and families) or internally
(repeating the words of Moses' healing prayer, "el na, refa na
la," as I walk the halls.) On ordinary days I don't pray without ceasing.
I spend most of my on-call shifts trying to connect with people in a deep way. Hospital chaplaincy is about engaging with the embodied theology of (in Anton Boisen's words) "the living human document," manifesting the listening ear of God for people who need to be heard. It is the I-Thou impulse spun into practice. Being on-call offers continual opportunities to study the lived Torah of human existence. This kind of study sanctifies.
Being on-call, like Shabbat, requires me to make a havdil, a separation, before I can return to the ordinary consciousness of my week.
Of course, being on-call is not Shabbosdik in several important ways. My on-call shifts don't come every seventh day. When on-call I do not rest; being on-call is work. I'm on-duty, I'm expending effort, I'm "on." (Then again, congregational rabbis might say the same about Shabbat.) When on-call I do not gather with other Jews to pray. I do not celebrate sanctified time with a communal meal. I rarely sing, I do not dance, I am not lifted by joy.
Well, the joy comes sometimes. When a security guard blesses me in the middle of the night, or a family member hugs me at the end of a visit, or I see something that moves me in a patient's eyes. And I sing to myself sometimes, snatches of prayers and chants. One night I sat late in the chapel playing liturgical melodies on the piano, unable to verbalize my prayer.
I have never been on-call on Shabbat. Perhaps if I were, the resemblance between chaplaincy and Shabbat would dwindle, and I would resent the patients and staff for taking me away from my regular retreat time. But because I do this on weeknights, some weeks it's like getting Shabbat twice. Two installations of extra-holy time.
Maybe on-call shifts feel to me like Shabbat because I've grown to love them, and because I'm always a little bit sorry to see them go.