e-mail us


On Sunday, I’m there to be a part of whatever happens


Our alarm clock wakes us with church bells, but the sound effect doesn’t make the Sunday morning decision any easier. Every week, I feel like a trivialized parody of Christ in the desert, tempted by demons that direct me to silence the alarm, stretch luxuriously, punch the pillow into a fluffier configuration, cuddle into the curve of my husband’s broad back and fall blissfully back to sleep.

I conjure the entire fantasy in a matter of seconds: We would wake when we had truly rested, and not when some cute trinket of a machine told us it was time; we would put on shorts washed soft, T-shirts older than our friends’ children. Padding barefoot to the sidewalk, we’d retrieve the fat blue-plastic Tootsie Roll of the Sunday New York Times, then leisurely grind and brew coffee, make omelets, end with a second cup of coffee and a plate of pastry, reading our favorite sections of the paper in rockers on the sun porch, a soft breeze blowing through the screened windows, birdsong filling the yard.

The alternative, of course, is to slap the snooze button and spend the next five minutes irritably waiting for the second alarm. Boil water for powdered chemical coffee, snarf down a doughnut, run the dog around the block, sponge off, throw on stiff, hot dress-up clothes, slink in late, sit down in a hard wooden pew and be preached at. Then come home cranky to start what feels like the real day, half over.

In high school, I never went through a period of wanting to skip church. I’m beginning to think I should have. Maybe if I’d gotten it out of my system then, I wouldn’t be plagued with adolescent twinges so unsuitable to someone in her late 30s. Because I really do want to go to church, and am always glad once I have done so.

On regular Sundays -- Sundays of Ordinary Time, as the church so accurately calls them -- we are still celebrating something momentous and unrepeatably special, but in a matter-of-fact way that blends right into our own mundane routines. We slide into our usual parking spots, head for our usual pews, flip thin pages until we locate the proper hymn. Like lovemaking in a long marriage, the challenge on these Sundays is to avoid being perfunctory about actions as familiar as our own skin.

More public and showy than matins or vespers, less reverent than quiet contemplation, the weekly liturgy is bookended by coffee, casual chitchat and practical committee meetings. People are there because they want to be, but also because they feel they ought to be. We’re all acquainted and care about each other, but often not with great intimacy, passion or even specific knowledge.

The variations in music, readings and sermon prove mildly interesting, but any change is usually guaranteed to be inoffensive.

We do not come to the Sunday liturgy like desert travelers to an oasis’ fresh running water. We come like calm, well-organized Christians to their weekly obligation. Seldom are we surprised. And thus it often takes a conscious gathering-in, an exertion of will, before I can feel the sacred, timeless presence abiding through it all.

The admission shames me. I sound like one of those people who can never enjoy the calm of everyday domestic bliss, but yearns for the temporary excitements, the peaks and valleys of romantic infatuation. Confined inside the four walls of a traditional church, I offer hot, poetic defense of a God found wild in nature, or soft in a marriage bed, or easy on the porch -- as though those experiences and church were mutually exclusive.

Trapped in romanticism, I rant -- until a friend wordlessly hands me Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “Sunday Morning.” It opens with an image guaranteed to seize me: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,/And the green freedom of a cockatoo/Upon a rug mingle to dissipate/the holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”

The woman in Stevens’ poem finds God in the “comforts of sun” instead of the death symbols of blood and sepulcher. The problem is that the sun and the other glories of nature, if bricked off from the altar, are just as insufficient as what she calls death symbols. “In contentment,” she admits, “I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss.”

The only way to reach such bliss is through reenacting, week after week, the kind of death that gives life.

And so, even in the middle of sleepy Ordinary Time, there are days when a chance word in a prayer or hymn is enough to transfigure the entire Eucharist, lift it until it’s shot through with light.

And there are days when I look around at pews full of toddlers, octogenarians, wide-open singles and old-shoe married couples and I can feel the unity, lines of connection as taut as a cat’s cradle strung round my fingers.

And finally I remember: I am not here to be amused, but simply to be a part of whatever happens. However ordinary, or extraordinary, it may prove to be.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999