(Host) And now we turn to our Sunday Essay. Today, poet and novelist Jay Parini reflects on the meaning of essays themselves.
The word essay has associations. By etymology, it has French roots in
the term "essai" from "essayer" – meaning "an attempt." The great
essayist was, of course, Montaigne, who would take up a general subject,
such as friendship or the education of children; but the topic at hand
was a starting point. He went off into the deep woods of reflection by
himself, unsure of his destination, stopping to smell the flowers or sit
quietly by the banks of a stream. He claimed he would write "for the
private benefit of friends and kinsmen," and that his essays would
reflect "some traits of my character and my humours."
so-called "humours" were his moods, and he moved through a range of
these, being sometimes gentle and charming, other times fierce and
testy. "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself," he
We all have a variety of monsters and miracles residing
in our heads. And it’s good sometimes to allow them room to wander,
especially on Sunday, which is, for many, the Sabbath. In Genesis we
read: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he
rested from all the work of creating that he had done."
tradition begins with the Judaic concept of Shavath – a day set aside
from the others, when meals are elaborate and slowly savored, when
poetry and music are enjoyed, when families gather to tell stories. It’s
also a day of reflection, which includes prayer and meditation, a
celebration of the spirit. It’s not that Israel has kept Shavath, as the
saying goes, but that Shavath has kept Israel.
Life in the
modern world often doesn’t allow much opportunity for meditation, let
alone deep and self-reflective thought. We’re just too busy, living life
at a pace our ancestors would not have believed.
I have to
remind myself to keep the Sabbath, as it takes reminding. Many years
ago, as a young professor and writer, with a growing family and
obligations that seemed endless, I found myself unable to write. I went
to my old friend and mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren, who is buried
in West Wardsboro. Red and I often took a long hike on Sunday afternoons
up the back side of Mount Stratton. I remember him stopping dead in his
tracks one day, putting a hand on my shoulder, and saying: "Cultivate
I didn’t understand what he meant, but I do now. One
needs to set aside time to cultivate ease, to reflect, to savor life’s
genuine pleasures, to wander without an obvious destination. That might
take place in a synagogue or a church. We might find it on a trail up
the mountain. But wherever we’re headed on this Sunday morning, the
critical thing is that we continue to search, to open ourselves to the
wonders that lie all around us, even deep within.