Baptism: how to make a graceful entrance

IT IS A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN EARLY DECEMBER. Large, wet snowflakes drift down from a low, gray sky. We are gathered outside an old church waiting for the priest to arrive.

One of our numbers, the grandfather, is sticking his tongue out and catching the snow. There are several young children with us, and when they see this patriarch's tongue deftly sliding under the falling flakes, they quickly imitate him—only with more gyrations. Tracking a single flake, they run under it like an outfielder under a pop fly. With mouths open, they twist their bodies this way and that, gauging the snow as it drifts toward their tongues. More misses than catches. It is not easy to drink from the sky.

The grandmother looks at her husband and her grandchildren absorbed in their winter game. She playfully slaps her husband's shoulder. "Now see what you've done!" bapds2

Then she announces, "With this family around her, we had better say a lot of prayers for Amy today."

We all laugh.

Amy is the baby. We are here for her Baptism. Her father, Joel, is holding her in a cocoon of pink blankets. I fantasize that when they unwrap the blankets she will not be there. She will be at home watching the Chicago Bears, which is where a few of us long to be. Instead we are patiently waiting outside an old, locked church in an old neighborhood. Amy's grandparents were baptized in this church, her mother, Helen, was baptized in this church, and so, after a 45-minute ride from the suburbs into the city, Amy, too, will be baptized in this church. Scratch a Catholic, find a tradition.

Faith unlocked
The priest suddenly appears down the block. He is coming toward us, smiling, waving the key in front of him. A crown of snow is building up on his already white head. "A good day for a Baptism," he says, looking at no one but the church door he is about to open.

There are theological and pastoral debates about infant Baptism. Just what are we about to do? How can Amy participate in this ritual when she sleeps more than any of us, and we are praying—even the priest is praying, especially the priest is praying—that she sleeps through this ceremony? Wouldn't it be better to wait until she was older and could choose for herself? Perhaps in the tumult of adolescence, she would muster enough inner strength to commit herself to Christ. Shouldn't all sacraments be consciously participated in?

I do not know what to think. There is always attraction in the adult drama of individual choice, of someone gathering up her life and committing it to a larger purpose. But there is something mystical about our gathering around this still embryonic person, about her need for us and our passion to attend to her. Perhaps this type of Baptism is not about individuals coming to decision, but about persons in relationship. Perhaps this ritual is grounded in our inner beings, in our mutual, mystical indwelling in one another. Although it looks like we are separate—different bodies at different stages of the journey—it is always Amy and us. She is the center because her infant state reveals this hidden network of intimacy. Didn't Jesus say, "I am in you, you are in me, and we all are in the Father"—or words to that effect? Perhaps infant Baptism is the unveiling of interdependency—the antidote to the isolation of original sin.

This series of "perhaps" is what I do in the inner world when something in the outer world stirs my mind. I create "perhaps" theology. It is a habit. It takes me out of the flow of conversation. But it is a habit beyond breaking.

The inside of the church is cold and cavernous. No furnace could ever completely banish the chill. No microphone system could ever overcome the echo that even a whisper makes. They built this church "when churches were churches." Our voices run around the stained-glass windows, swirl toward the arched ceiling, and come back at us. The rebound sound seems to suggest we stop talking. We obey. Silence is the appropriate way to be in this old church.

The priest motions to us, and we gather around. He has another key, and with it he unlocks the baptismal font. First the door, then the font. How many closed things will be opened, how many mysteries await us?

"What name do you give your child?" the priest finally says. "Amy Renee," her parents reply.

The four syllables enter into the sacred space and take their place among the saints. Now we know who she is—on one level.

"What do you ask of the church of God for Amy Renee?"


The book I have in my hand has a list of substitutes. Instead of saying "Baptism" the parents could say "faith" or the "grace of Christ" or "entrance into the church" or "eternal life." I have often wondered if the church has all these spiritual treasures to bestow. I tend to think that all these words point to something hidden, and the church and her rituals bring it to light. There is something about Amy that is mysterious. She is more than she appears. We intend to reveal that more. Like the church and font, Amy is about to be unlocked. The closed is going to be opened.

A third eye revealed
 "You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training her in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring her up to keep God's commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?"

The priest looks at Joe and Helen. Everything about him seems to be saying, "So?"

So this is it. Baptism is a start, the beginning of a spiritual path. We will not be done in time for the second half of the football game. In fact, we will not be done at all. "Loving God and neighbor" is so simple sounding for so endless an exploration. If you woke Joe and Helen up at 3 a.m. and shone a flashlight in their eyes and asked, "Do you love God and your neighbor?" I assume they would answer, "Some days." Now they are told they must bring their daughter along on that journey, take her hand on the spiritual path that will be the unfolding of her life.

bappl1 Perhaps this is the elusive meaning of life, the ultimate meaning that permeates the lesser meanings, the meaning that goes beyond the drive to get through to Friday. As Amy pushes out of her blankets and crib into sandbox, neighborhood, school, work, and relationships, she will be exploring this ultimate meaning of loving God and neighbor. It will be the hidden companion to the frenzy of her life. She will gradually weave into her awareness these twin connections—God and neighbor—that even now constitute her identity. Then there will follow deeper participation, more conscious incarnation, more directed enfleshing of her spirit in the world. Her identity as a child of God will be realized in the flesh and blood of the child of Joe and Helen. Make no mistake about it, this ancient ceremony anticipates high adventure and surprising unfoldment.

Joe and Helen say yes. They understand their daughter's journey of growth is their responsibility. However, to sensitive ears the "Yes" sounds a lot like "Help!"

The priest comes to the rescue. He turns his eyes to Bob and Jane. "Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?"

They are the godparents. They will have the specific responsibility of nurturing the spiritual in Amy. Chances are they will default and, not knowing what to do, buy her dolls and dresses. But this is their moment.

The godfather has told me he has been practicing his Marlon Brando-Don Corleone imitation for over three months. However, it becomes an offer he refuses. Attempting to be throaty, he mumbles the most inaudible "I am" in the annals of godfatherhood. Jane, his partner, belts out, "We are!" Bob realizes he has blown his only line in the ritual. He looks at Joe and Helen and mouths sheepishly, "I will help."

The priest invites Joe and Helen, Jane and Bob, and everybody else to make the sign of the cross on Amy's forehead. We are going to open her third eye, the one in the middle of her forehead, the one that allows humans to see spiritual reality. We line up, one after the other, wrinkled thumbs making shaky signs of the cross on her pink, newborn skin. She accepts each commitment without comment.

Spiritual traditions often note three eyes. There is an eye of the flesh by which we see discrete objects—trees bending in the wind, wrinkles in the mirror, all things that stand out and say, "Here I am!" If this eye of the flesh weakens, we get corrective lenses. The small print unblurs, and we find phone numbers and movie times. There is also an eye of the mind. It corrals discrete objects into categories and interrelates them. We understand man and woman, different classes of plants, families of animals, the relationship between law and culture. If this eye cannot see, well, we go to school and learn.

There is also, the mystics tell us, an eye of the soul, located symbolically in the middle of the forehead. It resonates with the deeper divine spirit and with the animating spirit in all things. This eye of the soul looks two ways. It peers both into the eternal and the temporal. In this way the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the finite, the transcendent and the immanent are held together. If the eye of the soul goes blind, we go to a community of people whose soul-eye is open. They bring us into themselves and through word and ritual open the closed eye of the soul.

This is what we do here today. Sometimes sleep knits tight the eye of a child, encrusting the lashes to the skin. With washcloths soaked in warm water, careful parents open the unseeing eye. So today with the water of Baptism, we open the closed eye of the soul, we wipe away sleep and awaken the soul.

Lessons for a spiritual baby-sitter
But how do we do it?

The priest is reading the gospel about Jesus the baby-sitter. His bodyguard disciples are pushing the children away—nuisance patrol. However, Jesus is inviting them in, embracing them, blessing them, laying hands on them.

This is how it is done. We embrace Amy, welcome her into our living presence. The eye of our soul is already open, and so we know how to wash away the sleep from her eye. But it is not a ministration that can be done at a distance. Embrace means participation. And in a condition of togetherness we bless her, uncovering her unbreakable bond to the divine source.

There will be days when she will forget this blessedness and fall into the malaise of not knowing. We must be there to remind her. What one forgets, all of us together can remember. Then we lay hands on her, sending her off on a mission. When she knows she is a daughter of God, she will naturally be about God's business. She is God's child as well as Joe and Helen's, and she is meant to continue the divine presence on earth. This is how Jesus did it—allowing people to participate in all he was—welcoming them into the blessedness he knew and the mission that drove him. This is how to baby-sit a child of God.

Social baby-sitting worries about the outside world and endless details—where are the diapers, when to feed, when to put down to sleep, phone number where the parents can be contacted, and so on. Spiritual baby-sitting focuses on the internal renewal of the baby-sitter. In order to open Amy's third eye, our third eye must be open. Only people awake to the spirit can awaken the spirit. We must explicitly constitute ourselves as the Christian community before we can welcome her into it.

So before we baptize Amy, we renew our own Baptisms. There is a strong theological tradition that says once baptized, always baptized. Do not repeat. However, in spiritual development we go back over the same territory again and again, deepening and strengthening ourselves with each return. Christians should participate in many Baptisms so their own once-and-for-all Baptism can come home to them. Baptized once, renewed many times.

There is a double movement to this renewal—renunciation and commitment. We refuse Satan, his works, and his empty promises. The word Satan means "accuser" and the word devil means "divider." We renounce the strategies of accusation and division. Although this way of dealing promises us protection and aggrandizement, we see through it. It is false and empty. We commit ourselves to the strategies of Christ: forgiveness and inclusion.

We enter into the mysteries of Christ's life as the revelation of our own life. We have now both purged ourselves and opened ourselves. In doing so we have created a space for Amy, a space of embrace, blessing, and sending forth.

The spiritual and physical as one
The ceremony continues to unfold. The priest is reading a litany of Bible passages that reveal the secret history of water. Water is the power of creation in Genesis, the path of liberation in Exodus, the Jordan River of the beloved in the gospels, the source of life flowing from the pierced side of Jesus in John, a mission to the whole world in Matthew. In this church the last thing water is is only water, and the last thing we are going to do is wash Amy's head.

One of the constants of Catholic spirituality is the steadfast refusal to allow the physical world to be its own reality. To be sure, the physical world has its own laws and operations and is respected for its internal workings; however, its ultimate grounding is the spiritual and how the spiritual manifests itself through the physical. Catholics are trained to have detective noses, tracing physical clues to their spiritual source. The water will be poured, and it will hit Amy's skin and skull and slide backward into the waiting font. Catholic eyes will see that and sense an awakening in the soul. This is the sacramental sensitivity and almost every aspect of Catholic life nurtures it.

Also, there is no end to it. After the pouring of the water, Amy will be anointed with oil that is and is not oil. This smooth smear will symbolize a quickening of the spirit of leadership. The prayer says that she will join Christ in the line of priests, prophets, and kings (and queens). Her parents will be given a candle that is and is not a candle. Its bright burning will denote a luminous center, a clear seeing into the truth of God and neighbor. Then she will be clothed in a white garment that is and is not a white garment. It signifies the renewal of spirit, a close contact with her true essence as a daughter of God. And so it will go on and on throughout her Catholic life, the physical world symbolizing the deeper currents of the spirit.

The camera cannot capture all
We are now gathered in a double circle. The outer circle is all the family and friends. The inner circle is priest, parents, godparents, Amy, and font. It is time for the actual pouring of water and the words of Baptism. Suddenly four cameras appear in the outer circle. One is a handheld video camera. It will catch both sight and sound. Nothing is to be missed. This is the sacred moment.

The priest pauses between "Father . . . Son . . . and Holy Spirit." It happens fast. However, we have captured it. We will be able to find it in the album, a spur to our memory. But perhaps we need not look in the land of the past for the truth of Amy's Baptism. The relationship to God always lives in the present. We have introduced Amy to an eternal now. What the camera has captured is gone. But Amy has not gone. She is more here than ever. She is here as the living daughter of God. At some future date we may go back to the pictures and tape and laugh at our outdated hairdos and heirloom clothes. But if the nurture of the baptismal moment has been steady, we will be able to sense in Amy the spiritual reality of the water, oil, candle, and clothes; a reality that fades in photos but not in life; a reality that refuses capture but never refuses to be present.

The celebration continues
We are back at Joe and Helen's home. Amy is sleeping in her crib in the family room. Everybody is milling around. The football game is almost over. The Bears are losing. Not even the grace of Baptism could bring them a victory. Food is being put out. Champagne is being poured into jelly-jar glasses.

bapbible Joe toasts, "To Amy and to all of you who will love her so much. Be good to her as she grows up."

Helen continues, "And for the world. Let's make it a place where Amy and all her little friends can grow up and live in peace."

There are sipping toasts and guzzling toasts. I guzzle.

Everyone goes into the other room to attack the food. Only Amy and I are left to watch the Bears and pray for a miracle. She cries. I go to her. Her eyes are open. She cries again. I slide my little finger into the palm of her hand. She grips it. I stand there and let her hold my little finger until her distress, like all distress, eventually passes away.

Perhaps Catholicism is a spiritual path with a difference. It does not celebrate the individual seeker, the lonely exile wandering in search of God. It begins in the relationship between the old and the young and the instinctive yet conscious gesture of the old to initiate the spirit of the young into the truth. Perhaps it is about a little finger extended and a whole hand gripping it.

And what truths do I know? What truths do I want to flow through my finger into her grasp? Tips on the market? The Bears' chances next year? The importance of a college education? The strange ways of boys? The inevitability of bruises? How to dust yourself off after you have been downed by a fast ball? Perhaps the truths of the spirit?

See from the soul. Ponder the water, the oil, the candle, and the clothes. Never forget the touch of the flesh is the revelation of the spirit. Embrace what the less knowing push away. Bless whatever seeks you out. Lay hands on the heads of the young before they are ready; their day is dawning. Go to Baptisms; you will understand your own.

What do I know that can help her? How can she be more than me? Is my spiritual path her destiny? Is it as involved as all that?

Perhaps she can hear me. Perhaps we don't need voices all the time. Her free hand is waving up and down. Perhaps she is conducting an orchestra only she can hear.

Perhaps I am doing too much "perhaps" theology.

There is an explosion of laughter from the next room. I look through the doorway. Amy's grandfather is at the center of a circle of fun. "Stay close to him," I whisper to her. "He will teach you how to drink from the sky." 

John Shea is the author of numerous books, including The Legend of the Bells and Other Stories (ACTA, 1996) and Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998). This article originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles