Third Sunday After Pentecost
And there's nothing short of dying
half as lonely as the sound
of a Sunday morning sidewalk
and Sunday morning coming down.
Sunday. How the hours weigh us down, like a double quilt on a bed when the night suddenly turns warm and we awake, suffocating. How the minutes hang heavy like those at an airport as we wait for a flight that's been delayed by weather.
Any Sunday is bad enough, but the worst is a rainy Sunday when the ingrained inertia of the day is doubled and drops of rain on the roof reverberate like the seconds of a clock ticking backwards. Hemingway, in his Farewell To Arms, has a young lieutenant in a military hospital looking at the rain and seeing himself dead out there. We don't know if it's a Sunday in the novel, but it probably is. Any other day of the week he'd be too busy with shots, and nurses drawing blood, with visitors and noise on the ward to harbor such thoughts. Thomas DeQuincy, that old addict, wrote: "There is no duller spectacle on this earth of ours than a rainy Sunday in London."
In my drinking days it was worse. To awake on a Sunday morning in Denver hung-over and shaky and know that there were no bars, no liquor stores open, because of antiquated "blue laws" passed by teetotalers a century before was bad enough. But there was also the blinding headache, the futile fumbling through ashtrays for a leftover roach; the frantic search through the house for the last half-inch remaining in the bottles from Saturday night's revels. Then, the drinking of ice water, the dry heaves, followed by a return to bed: chilled, antsy, unable to get back to sleep, followed by promises to quit forever, and the useless, unanswered (perhaps because insincere) prayers.
Speaking of prayer. What used to give substance to Sundays in our childhood back in the Fifties was attendance at church. We may not have liked it much but at least there was some structure to part of the day. We woke early, washed up, dressed in our Sunday finest and walked to the church with Mom, Dad and Sister. The liturgy was clearly defined. It not only gave shape to the day but provided a pattern for the year. It was, for example, Palm Sunday with its welcome story of Jesus' entry into the city. Then after Mass, the gift of the blessed palm fronds in the vestibule, and the fashioning of them into little crosses at home, with the expectation of Easter on the horizon. Or it was the second Sunday in Advent, or the Third Sunday in Pentecost, Septuagesima Sunday, Candlemas Sunday, each with its own colors, its own Biblical story, prayers and hymns. Now, we don't even remember what half those terms meant. Sundays have no shape at all.
In the days of my youth, Catholic boys and girls went to Mass, returned home to a rich and leisurely breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon. It was a ceremonial breakfast as opposed to the usual fare of oatmeal and toast served most weekday mornings. Then the fat Sunday papers with the colored comics for the kids, weekly sports summaries for Uncle Harry, in-depth news analysis for Dad, and fashions and recipes for Mom. Then a walk to the park while the Sunday roast slowly simmered and filled the house with rich odors, and we waved to the neighbors sitting on their porches, and crossed the streets without looking both ways because there was so little traffic you could hear the occasional car coming long before it reached your block.
Our appetites sharpened by the walk, we returned home to the pork roast, or roast beef, the French beans, the rich gravy and mashed potatoes, the biscuits hot from the oven which we'd slice open and fill with butter so that they dripped as we lifted them to our mouths.
When Sunday dinner was done and the dishes washed, Mother would undo her apron and comb her hair. Dad and I would go out to the driveway and take a chamois cloth to the car to wipe away any smudge on the Simonized surface. Then we'd all pile into the station wagon for a Sunday drive around town and then out to the countryside. We'd count the number of sheep or cows in a field, the out-of-state license plates of the cars we passed (never more than two or three), and play word games, sing songs, or recite verses we'd learned at school. There was a car radio, but it was never played on Sunday. Dad would have liked to listen to the Red Sox game, Mom to Patti Paige, we kids to Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. But since we could not all have it our way, none of us did.
Then ice cream on the return home and the long winding down of the afternoon as we each retreated into our private corners of the house: Dad to hear the re-cap of the ballgame and ultimately to fall asleep in his armchair snoring gently; Mom to catch up on her sewing or to read a neglected novel; my sister and I to do homework assignments or play records (quietly because it's Sunday). Then a light supper after which we'd gather around to hear Bishop Fulton J. Sheen castigate the Communists on "Life Is Worth Living" and then the Ed Sullivan Show with its odd mixture of family comedy, dull Hit Parade music, circus acts and surprises like Elvis and the Beatles. As I tell my Mexican students, it was the Sabado Gigante for Sunday in Fifties "Gringolandia." (For those who don't watch Spanish TV, there simply exists no other point of comparison.) After Ed Sullivan, we each retreated to our rooms where we got our clothes ready for Monday school or work, bathed and brushed our teeth, then curled up with a book or magazine until we fell asleep.
Sundays had a clear shape to them then, although the outlines were fuzzy and some were better than others. There were Sunday mornings when the sermon was boring or the hymns off-key; when someone was wearing the same new outfit as my mother; or when my sister was snubbed by a group of girls with whom she had been fast friends only days before. There were afternoons when the smoke from Dad's cigarette and an undigested piece of beef would produce car sickness on the Sunday drive in one or both of us kids. There were evenings when the TV was on the fritz, or when there was "nothing at all to read," or when the house was heavy with the silences of my parents' anger. Still, Sundays were ritualistic and family-centered, comforting in their sameness, dependable, habitual. And if we sometimes felt that there was a lack of freedom to do your own thing, to be alone, to think deep thoughts, there were -in retrospect- islands of self-awareness and peace. We were left on our own at church to think our own thoughts; we could converse or ramble along silently on our morning walks. After the Sunday drive we could retreat to our rooms to read, to write in our journals, or simply lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling. And at night we could retire early to review our day and plan the week ahead.
As we got older and went out into the world to cobble together our own shapeless Sundays, the disciplines of family and religion gradually fell away due to distance, independence, jobs abroad, new cultures and new people. In most places there is still the Sunday Times, but now it is mostly page after page of advertising, trying like all of corporate America (and its globalized partners) not to entertain or enlighten us, but to convince us that we are incomplete and can never be whole without the latest in perfume, jewelry, health care products, automobiles and cruises to Alaska or the Caribbean.
Church is still an option for some Pentecostal folks who shout and sing and then listen to an entertaining preacher. But the Catholics have kind of lost it. They've surrendered the beauty and mystery of Latin Mass, Gregorian music and sonorous hymns, for a contemporary post-Vatican II tepidness composed of insipid language, watered-down homilies and unsingable hymns. The only relief from this banality is the announcements of fund-raising projects and the list of sick and dying parishioners to remember in our prayers.
There's still the late breakfast, but even I f we sleep in and don't eat until noon, we are still left with half the day. The afternoon hangs heavy as the storm clouds that now threaten outside the window of my study as I write this on a gloomy Sunday afternoon.
There are, I suppose, a few places left where a Sunday afternoon drive is still enjoyable. Perhaps the Ocean Drive in Newport, cruising past the Breakers on the cold Atlantic in the dead of winter, or the Rambla along the Rio Plata circling Montevideo. But in most places the traffic is too ugly and congested and driving is not much fun. It is something you must do on a weekday commute to work; not a pleasant pastime for a Sunday afternoon. So we clean out the closets, iron clothes for Monday, page listlessly through magazines, and wait for someone to call. In the evening we listlessly watch inane programming on TV, or try to feign an interest in a minimalist novel, as short on plot as it is on substance.
More suicides are committed on Sunday afternoons than at any other time. Even more distressing, more teen suicides occur between the hours of 1 PM and 10 PM on Sunday.
Not hemmed in by old religions, dead languages, worn-out rituals and the demands of family, we are free to do whatever we wish on Sundays. In Middlemarch, "poor Dagly read a few verses on a Sunday evening, and the world was at least not darker than it had been before." But for many of us filling the hole that is Sunday is not so easy, and judging by the suicide statistics, the number who finds the world much darker, unlike "poor Dagly," grows each year.
Unable to accept the hypocrisy which goes with most church attendance, even those who are nominally Christian often opt to stay at home on a Sunday. As preachers voice their support of the war with Iraq, embrace the death penalty but deplore abortion as murder, and sing the praises of Israel's slaughter of Lebanese civilians because it hastens the Apocalypse and the return of Christ, staying home seems a sensible choice. For Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and million of others, Sunday has never been a day that was particularly holy or special. It may be that they are exempt from the statistics which I noted earlier. But I doubt it. Setting the day aside has become an existential black hole, transcending culture and religion. We are all stuck with our Sunday afternoon of the soul.
Maybe the Catholics have at least part of it right with their half-empty churches of ageing parishioners listening to the priest done on with his announcements of the sick and the dying who need our prayers. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls;" we are all sick and dying. Only what moves us has meaning. And the irony is that by taking away the rituals which shaped our Sundays, we are left with a spiritual vacuum which we are now free to fill as we wish, but often lack the inner resources or will to do so. William James a century ago warned of dropping habits and rituals unless they were replaced by others more salubrious. "The hell to be endured hereafter off which theology tells," he wrote, "is nothing compared with the hell we make for ourselves in this world." Free of the demands of school and work, of appointments and deadlines, we get to live with ourselves for a bit on a Sunday afternoon, and many of us discover to our distress how poorly furnished our souls are for the task.