Sundays then and now


First one eye opened. Then the other. The bright light forced both eyes closed again. The sun outside was already blazing. Summer in St. Stephen. I looked over at the alarm clock. After 9:00 already, and a beautiful Sunday morning.

As a boy I’d have been up for a couple of hours, and by this time would have been sitting through the Sunday service. As a teenager I’d have been sleeping for another two hours at least, recovering from the late night before. Somehow, between the age of 10 and 17 my entire religious foundation disappeared.

I dropped one leg out of bed, then the other, and as I got dressed thought about my own kids. Unlike me, they’re not required to go to church on Sunday. I suppose we’re the expression of post-Christian family. Mostly the kids get up earlier than I do on Sundays, get some cereal then go out bike-riding or, if it’s raining, take out a board game or hook up to a video game.

I wonder what has been lost or gained in the translation. My own experience with religion produced a conflicted response. Sure, all my moral values come from Christian origins. But the literalness of my early religious indoctrination never quite sat right with me from the start. I could never get used to the old man in the sky and all those arbitrary rules and strange stories. As I got older the discrepancies between the Old Testament “eye-for-an-eye” and the New Testament “love-thy-neighbour” further complicated things.

Today, I’d have to say that I have a more reflective approach. I’m not exactly what you’d call an unbeliever, though I’m not exactly a believer, either. That said, I’m always attracted to reading about how someone else has wrestled with the same problem.

John Gray is a prof at the London School of Economics. I picked up a couple of his books: Straw Dogs and Black Mass. Both are great reads—if a little gloomy. Black Mass deals with the role of religion in world conflict, which as you might imagine is a broad topic. To his credit Gray is not into slagging religion. What he challenges is the role of belief systems as they affect the politics of power. For example, he views neo-conservatism as an outgrowth of liberalism, which in itself is an outgrowth of Christian redemptive philosophy. In other words, Gray is able to connect the dots between our religious paradigms and our foundational political beliefs.

This gets interesting at the end of his book when he concludes that religion is not the problem—it’s the distortion of religion that’s the problem. Gray concludes that religion is the only system we have to effectively deal with the unknown, and as such may never be repressed. To do so is a lot like trying to repress sexuality—if we try it leaks out into everything we do. Better, Gray suggests, to keep religion actively engaged in our culture, but to see it for what it is—a guide into and through the unknown.

So instead of going to church I took the boys out for a hike up the St. Croix waterfront then past the old axe factory and up the Dennis Stream. Scrambling over the rocks and through the cool shaded trails I reflect that nature provides the greatest cathedrals.

Some kids have built a fort back in the woods, nailing a sheet of tin to four trees to make a hut. Beside the campsite is a small ravine filled with rusted out oil drums, detritus from some industrial activity at the axe factory, long gone. A big fat bumble bee struggles through the weeds as we crash into to an impassable swampy area. We’re forced to go back the way we came.

The kids get bored. They’re getting hot and want a drink. One of them brought his bike, and lugged it through the forest trails. The cathedral experience was starting to wear thin. My oldest was getting quiet and moody.

Looking at them, I realize that there aren’t many moments when we’re actually satisfied. We’re either looking back with nostalgia or ahead at what we have to accomplish. Being in the moment is not something we’re trained to accept—unless we’re playing or working hard. The idea of quiet reflection is foreign.

I kept urging the kids on. We were about a mile from home. Surprisingly the walk back went quickly. And just as surprisingly their energy returned as soon as we walked into the front yard. They ran over to the trampoline and spent 20 minutes airborne as I made lunch.

Lunch was a turning point in the day. Looking around, there was a ton of work to do. We’re still cleaning up our renovations, plus setting up a new office. And then there are my personal projects, not to mention writing this column. Instead of doing any of that, I decided to do nothing at all.

For the rest of the day I schmoozed with the kids. We watched a movie together, had lunch, then dinner. Later I had a beer. And after that went for a long walk with Sharon. In fact nothing at all happened, except life. Sure it was a little boring, and yes, I fell asleep on the couch for an hour or so, and I should have felt a little guilty for “wasting” the day. But I decided that’s what the Sabbath was invented in the first place—to give us a chance to recharge ourselves without pressurizing ourselves into the future.

Somehow, as a kid, that depressurization on Sundays never quite took place. But there’s still hope for our future Sundays. We’ll see.


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