The comfortable complacencies of Sunday morning

March 31, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE de GRACE -- Sunday morning. The morning of the Seventh Day.

Depending on the nature of the household and the habits of its occupants, this might be the time for a hickory-smoked cholesterol fix. For a jog down quiet suburban streets. For earnest banalities on Washington interview shows. For sleeping in.

For some, Sunday morning means nice clothes and formal Sunday services, the comfort of familiar prayers and sacred music. For others, not necessarily the less devout, it can be an occasion for more private reflections on life, on time, on eternity, on death. Or it can be used for golf.

''Sunday morning'' is a television show. It is also the title of a complex poem by Wallace Stevens, a Hartford insurance man who died in 1955. He combined high literary achievement with a resolutely conventional life in a way that must seem dumbfoundingly mysterious, if not blasphemous, to those who think it ordained that all true poets wear sandals. I often find Stevens' and my own Sunday mornings entwined.

''Ancient sacrifice''

For example, this. ''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.''

For years after I first read this poem I didn't know what a peignoir is; I thought it might be a sort of sun room, bright with cut flowers and overlooking a garden. My grandmother's house had a room like that. But eventually I looked the word up and found that it means a dressing-gown. No problem. The poem still works.

''Complacencies'' is the key to these lines, which gently touch on the tension between the warm comforts of secular life and the colder concept of eternity, between now and forever, between fresh-ground coffee and bitter sacramental wine.

On my own Sunday mornings I still get up early and do what's necessary around the farm, but then I come back to the house to begin other rituals. These include a trip to McLhinneys for the newspapers and an eggy breakfast of some sort. The best Sunday breakfast around is in Havre de Grace at the American Legion, but more often we do our own frying and scrambling at home.

Sometimes Sunday mornings, especially the ones with all my pTC family at home, seem so magical I want to freeze the frame and hold it forever. But even as I'm living those mornings I can feel them beginning to dissolve.

The fire in the wood stove, probably one of the last of the season, will burn itself out. The terrier puppy making a nest for herself in the quilt on Irna's and my bed will grow fat and slow, with white hairs in the black of her muzzle and a film dimming the brightness of her eyes. The children will be grown and gone.

Perspective of eternity

For a religious person, or at least for a religious person with a secure faith in the existence of some form of everlasting life, the terrors of time's passing must be greatly mitigated. From the perspective of eternity, the significance of temporal things must certainly diminish.

Yet are not the many ordinary joys of the earth, wonders the poet-insurance man, ''things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?'' Isn't there a measure of divinity in what we feel in sun or rain or falling snow, in our ''unsubdued/ Elations when the forest blooms,'' our ''gusty/ Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights''?

And as it is both the experience and the prospect of change that gives meaning to life, particularly in those moments which we wish could last forever but realize cannot, then -- ponders the Sunday-morning philosopher even deeper into his poem -- what can changeless Heaven be like? In paradise, ''Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs/ Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,/ Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth''?

Pigs in heaven

Poets and philosophers, as well as theologians and newspaper columnists and sentimental drunks in bars, have asked such questions for a very long time without coming up with satisfactory answers. They're purely speculative exercises, like wondering if there are pigs in heaven, or whether God is aware of what's going on in cyberspace. But some of us keep on asking, just for the hell of it.

So another Sunday morning passes. Wallace Stevens goes back onto the cerebral bookshelf. If there were a peignoir, it would go into the closet. The egg-stained dishes and the iron skillet are cleaned and put away. Soon enough it will be Sunday afternoon, and then Sunday evening. Somewhere ahead in the fog, Monday morning looms.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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