It’s Sunday afternoon all over again. The heart of suburban Dublin, but it could be anywhere. The shopping centre is seething with activity, people crawling the shops and restaurant fronts, the plaza furniture, the pancake truck – or just sitting on walls, eating and gazing out. It’s not really where you want to be, on your only promised day of rest. But it’s something to do.
The carpark is at capacity, the queue for coffee is long and impatient, you came here to disappear and detach and because you had nothing to do. Turned out, everyone else had the same half-plan. Your soul is murdered by the musak and you are uncomfortable, hot and sweating in the warmth of the critical mass.
So this is where we ended up, the falling church congregations, the Pope’s children, the many different religions, or no religions, the spiritually confused, those simply suffering end-of-week ennui. Mall rats.
Thirty years ago none of this existed, or it was illegal to trade. Sundays weren’t perfect, in their blanket liturgical emphasis within a society full of difference. But they were simple, unspoiled, almost Christmas-like in their enforced quiet. They weren’t as thrilling as a champagne cocktail over brunch, but they didn’t cost much money. They were boring.
So boring – we thought. In the morning there was no question you would be marched to Mass. You had to put on something respectable, and make it out for half eleven. You filed up for communion, glancing around to see if you knew anyone. You recited prayers, sang hymns, closed your eyes for a minute. You offered a stranger peace. Your mind wandered, and you thought about things. You mingled in the churchyard, doing your parents proud. It wasn’t such a torture. It was something to do.
Then all you had to worry about was Sunday lunch. A roast chicken was hauled from the oven, a leftover butter foil draped over the breast to make the skin crispy. The electric carving knife came out and floury potatoes, two veg. People ate for hours and hours. Old aunts brooded, or bachelor uncles lounged despicably at the fireplace. You gutted newspapers, you put on the telly all together. You went for an outing. A swim, a drive, or a game of tennis, or a walk along the sea, or a visit to a nursing home. Then more sitting around.
Crucially, we didn’t each carry around the internet like a little friend. When the computer was off, it was out of sight. You could not so sneakily communicate with the outside world, find out stuff, optimise.
So a lot of us grew up with the understanding that Sundays were days of rest. Is it more of a wilderness now, a ravine, a scattered heap of unfilled hours? Like another Saturday, but closer to the end, so bedevilled with The Fear you get when you aren’t sure where you’ve come from or where you’re going. By Sunday at 1pm, we are almost hankering to get back to the very thing we were desperate to escape two days previously – work. Our hamster wheels.
When you can’t work, and you don’t want to worship anymore, the quandary of a Sunday can become personal. Friends are busy – are they? It’s a family day – isn’t it? How to fill the cavity of time, other than pushing a trolley around Supervalu, to buy time during the week? What you can end up doing, in the name of rest, is catching up: puttering around the house picking stuff up. If we do sit down to rest, we can never rest, deleting old emails, purchasing some sweatpants, adding some thumbs up emoji to a WhatsApp group. We’ve all read lifestyle interviews with successful business people, who attest to a Sunday routine of detoxing from their work, recharging and reflecting, before writing their performance review of the week, completing their to-do list and having a long restorative sleep in preparation for Monday’s assault.
When it gets dark and spooky at 5pm, it’s on those days that you start thinking about the old Sundays.
A designated do-little day. Sitting in a pew, then sitting round a table, then gathering at a fireside, the space was there to pause, unplug, like each other. The churchy traditions allowed for the resting and recharging that the business week demands anyway. Now the business week rages on like the hammers of hell, more unrelenting than ever. Take the church traditions out, and you’ve to put something back in instead.
On the latest census those who ticked “non-religion” came to 9.8 per cent of the population, the fastest growing group after Catholicism. Then there are all the others who didn’t tick. Religion has alienated a large demographic but the space to carve out a moment of reflection shouldn’t be let go so easily. It’s the reason a group of comedians started Sunday Assembly in a deconsecrated north London church in 2013, a movement which has since spread to 40 countries. If pop overlord Kanye West can gather a bunch of people as he has with his Sunday Services, then you’re not alone in feeling slightly empty at the week’s end. (Though these services are invite-only religious choral events with Kanye at the pulpit. As Kim Kardashian told Elle magazine, “It’s just music; there’s no sermon. It’s definitely something he believes in – Jesus – and there’s a Christian vibe. But there’s no preaching. It’s just a very spiritual Christian experience.”)
So what does your Sunday rest look like, and how can you refashion it this year? Here’s a start.
Pick an activity that just doesn’t tally with your notion of Sunday rest. Cut it out. Then, think of something you miss. Bring it back in, just once. We all need space to breathe. A community around us. A procession of people, all going the same way. Yoga breathing, friends. Even if you’re just putting the bins out.
Rethinking Sundays: what to do when you have nothing to do
Sunday lunch is a fine institution but it takes too much work, so what about Sunday coffee? Bake a cake, or buy treats. Invite family or friends. Lower your expectations if you want to produce Sunday lunch. Put a bird in the oven and par-boil some Golden Wonders, the rest takes care of itself. Nature is notorious for making everything seem better. Outsider.ie lists some excellent hikes around Ireland. In Dublin, Deerpark junior parkrun sets off every Sunday at 9.30am from Deerpark along the 2km course. It’s free for families, you only need to register. Digital Detox. Could Sunday be the day you disentangle from the internet? Here’s how. Light a real fire, buy a stack of newspapers, colouring books and markers, jigsaws, Lego, and remove all electronic devices from the family room for one hour. See how it feels to have everything unmediated by the shiny creations of tech billionaires. Put some poetry back in your life. Try Books Upstairs Sunday Sessions, for free poetry and fiction readings at 3pm in the recently renovated Victorian tea rooms upstairs in D’Olier Street. If the idea of gardening seems overwhelming, simply sit on the earth and pull out a weed or two, it won’t cost you.