When I was eleven, Sunday mornings were terrifying. My best friend was Catholic, and had convinced me I was going to hell because I had never been baptized. Somehow this fate was more real on Sunday mornings than on any other day of the week. My only comfort came from my friend’s promise that she would baptize me if she were with me when I died (and only at that moment, for some reason I never understood), and save me from my awful fate. This was small comfort. And I was rarely with her on Sunday mornings. Once I went to church with her and was further terrified by the painful figure on the cross who was held in such reverence. Afterward, blasphemous thoughts about “the Lord” entered my mind and would not leave. I was miserable.
My family did not go to church. Both my parents came from strict, religious families and rebelled. Growing up, I often adopted the religious practices of my best friends. Thus, I sampled quite a few churches, most of them Christian. Eventually, my Sunday morning misery abated somewhat.
When I entered my secular phase, Sunday mornings became a mixture of bagels, brunches, and some continuing sadness — about what, I never quite knew. Sometimes I tried to connect it to homework left to do, or the work week ahead, but I knew it was deeper than that. I needed to find a deeper meaning for life and my place in it. I began meditating soon after my children were born. In retrospect, this was primarily defensive meditation, an attempted antidote to my threatened disappearance into the world of motherhood and suburbia. Also, in retrospect, it worked.
One Sunday morning eight years ago, I put on a dress and went down the street to a Unitarian Universalist church. I had driven past this church for several years. I was attracted by the “Wayside Pulpit,” a sign outside which contained different quotations every week, like “No circumstance is so bad that it can’t be affected by the way it is approached.” Other thought-provoking and sometimes comforting statements appeared regularly, situated so that I could read them while I waited in my car at the intersection.
On this Sunday, I needn’t have bothered with the dress. There were only ten people in the large sanctuary, and everyone was dressed very casually. One person was reading poems. The minister had recently resigned to go off and write his own poems, and lay people were carrying on. It was the last meeting before the summer break.
My family and I have since joined that church, which found a new minister and now has close to 400 members and 120 children in the church school. Obviously, I was not alone in looking for a place to be and a community to be with on Sunday mornings. I became a Sunday school teacher, a fact which has not yet ceased to amaze me, so foreign is it to my previous views of myself. Through the church, I became involved in the peace movement, which has become a major influence on my spiritual development.
Eight years later, on a Sunday morning, I am at a retreat center, watching the sun rise through the trees, listening to the birds and to last night’s rain dripping from the leaves. I’m on retreat with my family and other families, part of a support network in the peace movement, through which I have learned the value of commitment, of connection, and of ritual celebrations.
Sunday mornings now bring inner peace, laughter, wonder, and still that deep sadness, perhaps because moments like these are so rare in today’s world.
I think it was Juliette Greco who used to sing, “Je hais les dimanches” — “I hate Sundays.” When I worked Monday through Friday, I didn’t hate Sundays as much as workdays, but they weren’t nearly as enjoyable as Saturdays. Sunday was usually a lonely, boring day.
I used to envy people I’d see going to church because they seemed to have structure and inspiration that I lacked. I read once that radicals used to organize Sunday schools where they sent their children to learn about socialism. I thought it would be a good idea to have one for adults, too.
Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Sunday Morning,” could have been written about me. The woman in the poem has lost her ancestral gods and tries to be content with the bright, pungent things of earth but still feels the need for “some imperishable bliss.”
All my life I have been the proverbial “night person.” My mother said that even as an infant, I would gurgle in the crib long past any respectable baby’s bedtime.
In the days of all-night partying, I would flee from the dawn. Tripping, dancing, discussing, singing and playing, I’d go right up to the edge, but with that first light I would dive for cover — pulling darkness up over me like a soft, flannel sheet.
During the Worst Period of my life, I had to get up at or before dawn to go to work. My bedroom had a little bay window that looked east over a spectacular view: a little lake, twinkling city lights, tree-covered hills, vast mountains behind it all, and a panoramic sky. When it wasn’t overcast, the dawns were breathtaking, filling a 180-degree sky with rich, spreading color. Sometimes I was exhilarated, inspired, cheered; then the feeling would envelop me again that I was doing something wrong, that my eyes were not to behold these wonders unless they were about to close in sleep. I felt like an owl, trapped and struggling in the branches of a floodlit tree. That time was a pinnacle of bleakness. The daily trek brought few rewards or joys, only the chance to do it all over again.
I didn’t sleep last night. Insomnia is not one of my afflictions; I just got too wrapped up in one joyous task after another. There was a barbecue dinner, dishes to wash, and a walk down soft, sandy roads under the moonlight. I studied my native plant books, made two clay pots, mulched the star jasmine in the starlight, listened to the coyotes, and played my boujoukee. When I finally got in bed to read, I looked up to see light showing in the sky! I got out of bed and went to the window, where I saw dawn spreading over these round desert mountains; the morning star, glittering survivor of the night; the joshua trees, still in black silhouette, lifting their arms in perpetual prayer. Naked, I walked outside just to get closer to it all. It’s Sunday morning! It feels like Easter.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California
There is one Sunday morning I shall never forget.
As a child I was taken to Sunday school and church regularly. (It seems that I didn’t always enjoy it; they tell me I once remarked on the way home that I was tired of hearing about “scribes and fairy seeds.”) My parents did not go overboard, but they attended church as a matter of course. I think my mother conformed outwardly but didn’t really believe everything she was told. My father had endured too much stark fundamentalism in childhood. He often commented, with an irreverent twinkle in his eye, that he was bald because he’d sat around too much in damp churches.
Nevertheless, when my religious beliefs were challenged by my professors in college, I went through a painful period of emotional upheaval, and finally concluded that I was an atheist. That viewpoint persisted until years later when I had children of my own. I felt that they should have the opportunity to make up their own minds. I allowed them to attend Sunday school and church, and eventually went with them.
Thus, on that memorable Sunday morning, I was sitting in church, surrounded by a large congregation. The minister was offering a prayer, pausing frequently for periods of meditation. Suddenly, I was no longer in my seat. High above the choir loft, I saw the Christ, radiant with love, surrounded by a cloud of golden light. His arms reached out to me, and all at once I was there in the cloud, as if we had merged into one being. It was so peaceful, so completely blissful, that I wished it would never end. Then, without warning, I was back in my seat as if nothing had happened. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed my absence. No one gave a sign.
This happened more than thirty years ago, but I can still recall that vision vividly. This is the first time I have related the story openly. Alas, I cannot recreate the feeling, the glimpse of eternal bliss. Not yet. Since that day, I have known how beautiful it will be to leave this plane when it is time. I have no fear of death, and I have an abiding conviction of the unity of the human race. Had I been born into another culture, some other deity might have embraced me; Christ, in my vision, represents the cosmic force present everywhere. That this force is beneficent, I now am confident.
Sunday, I’m up early for my long run. The coffee tastes especially good as I choose my best running shorts and matching bandana. I tie and retie it so it fits over my long hair just right, then lace up my shoes for the perfect tightness and comfort.
Cruising along at an easy pace, my breath in rhythm with the movement of my legs and arms, I pass one church after another, families going in to worship. I drift back to those Sunday mornings in Massachusetts with my grandfather.
We’re up early, going through the usual exercises in the spare bedroom: toe-touches, knee-bends, twists. Then we head to his bathroom. First, he shaves, a delicate undertaking I witness from my usual seat, the edge of the bathtub. Next, he cleans and places his false teeth while I squirm. He admonishes me, as always, to brush my teeth and avoid sweets. Last, he tends to his hair, which is thick and wavy, and much longer than the early-Fifties crew cut my mom insists on for me. Gramps loves to comb his hair, I presume, as it takes him so long to finish with it. He turns to me and says, “In order to feel sharp you’ve got to look sharp.” I nod in agreement, patiently awaiting our next duty — picking out this week’s Sunday suit, the task I relish the most.
The huge walk-in closet is full of suits — blue suits, pin-striped suits, brown suits, white suits, an endless wall of suits. I always help in the decision. Today’s selection is blue, an almost sapphire blue with matching handkerchief already in its proper place, folded just so in the chest pocket. I hurry back to my room to get dressed in my best pants and shirt, taking care to clasp the belt on the right notch, the end neatly tucked into the loop.
After I dress, I dart back to help Gramps choose a tie. Since he has three ties for every suit, we require special assistance from Gram, who doesn’t ponder as long as we do. I’m amazed at her quick, confident decision. Perfectly groomed, we climb into the Cadillac and cruise to church.
Each week we drive the same road, a narrow lane marked with immense trees and scattered colonial homes. Gramps loves this road, and we all share his joy, humming to music on the radio. Church is a cavernous hall with secret passageways, I’m certain, behind the altar. After the service, Gramps introduces me to his friends as “my grandson from New York who is named after me.” I’m feeling pretty important.
As we head for home, we stop for a half-gallon of ice cream, tonight’s dessert. We climb back into the Cadillac and drive home along the same shade-covered lane, winding along slowly, peacefully.
Eight miles down, four to go. I stop for a drink of water at a fountain next to a church; I feel strong, in tune, sharp. Could it be these new shoes? As I turn to continue, I see the congregation walking to their cars. I make a mental note to pick up some ice cream after my run.
John G. Mento
My father was a workaholic, care-for-the-world general practitioner when I was a kid growing up in New Haven. I rarely got to spend time with him, much less time alone with him. But at some point in my early teens, he and I developed a routine of going old book shopping on Sunday mornings.
On the outskirts of town, there was an old farmhouse called the Book Barn, packed to the gills with old, dusty books. (Now these stores are commonplace, but at the time it was a place of fantasy and wonderment.) I already had a mad passion for books, and these were so exotic.
After Sunday breakfast with the rest of the family, my father and I would drive out to the Book Barn. Part of the thrill was simply the expedition to the countryside. When we finally got there, I would run toward the barn. What great relic would I uncover today? I still have lots of those books: picture books, manuals, primers, verse by unknowns, all from the 1800s. They were cheap.
Every time I went to the Book Barn, after a brief time spent browsing, I would suddenly have to go to the bathroom. Naturally, they didn’t have a public toilet. From then on my entire focus would be on not shitting in my pants. This happened every single time. But did it stop me from going there? Never.
A few times I tried modifying my diet, thinking maybe it was something I was eating on Sunday mornings: bagels? lox? pastry? Nothing helped.
I’ve since learned that old, musty books are a major irritant for people who have allergies, but I prefer to think my problem was a visceral reaction to my adolescent zeal for communing with sages and scribes of old.
Those times were very special indeed — certainly the most romantic memories I have of my father, and of Sunday mornings.
New York, New York
Most years, in deep southern Illinois, the mornings were hot and humid from May through early September. Sitting in church in the heat, I would long for the open air. How much better it would be, I would think, to go out in the green, shady churchyard and let God speak to us himself.
One Easter when I was in high school, the churches in Johnston City organized a sunrise service. Just before dawn on Easter morning, a few dozen people gathered on a hill in a cemetery at the edge of town. It was still cool, and mist lay in the low ground in the half-light. There was a short sermon; a brass ensemble from our band played hymns. (I was first trombonist; I remember the bracing chill of the mouthpiece against my lips, the printed music growing gradually more distinct on the page, the clear, rich chords filling the quiet air.) After the service, on our way to breakfast, I had a brief drag race with our band director on I-57. We all sat around a table at the restaurant, four or five brass players and Mr. Shaw. We ate, drank coffee, and told the kind of off-the-wall, almost racy jokes that a group of high school friends and a well-loved teacher would tell in a small town in the late Sixties. Though we’d all been up for hours, it was still early in the morning, the day new. All that morning I felt the presence of God, the real God, as close around my shoulders as a coat.
Richard A. Stewart