Father Allen is a tall bald man who speaks with a lisp and looks at the world with round blue eyes. As the priest in charge of baptism education at St. Austin’s Catholic Church, this forty-something man of the cloth discusses water, oil, the color white, and fonts with the kind of enthusiasm a frat boy reserves for discussions of breasts. His eyes go wide, his eyebrows pinch into plaintive arcs, his big white hands stretch in front of him, beckoning us to understand:
“White symbolizes purity,” he says. “Water can nourish and destroy. The font is shaped like a womb.”
Allen’s understudy, Father Ivan, is a slight man from China who shifts nervously in his black Reebok sneakers and speaks only when spoken to by Father Bob. His deference belies his background as an MIT-educated computer scientist who became a priest only after working for Hewlett-Packard and living high on the hog as a Silicon Valley mogul. On the few occasions that Ivan addresses the assembled flock of 14, I can’t understand what he says.
It’s a gray Sunday afternoon and I thank the Good Lord that at least it’s raining. Whether I’ll be nourished or not remains to be seen.
Sunday, December 9, 3:15 p.m. Austin, Texas
Waiting for the next part of the class to begin, I affix the “Hello My Name Is” sticker on my chest, pace the yellow linoleum floor of the education center, and remind myself that this class isn’t about me. It’s about Owen, my son, who is almost a year old and still a pagan. The kid must be dunked. Not according to me though. All I can think about is what sins a nine-month old needs washed away. Insisting on dinner in an impetuous manner? Crapping in his britches at the Whole Foods supermarket? Denying his parents sleep? As far as I’m concerned, the only thing a child too young to understand good and evil really needs cleansed is his face and his ass.
February 19, 2002–December 9, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia and Austin, Texas
Fortunately, my parents have supplied Owen with a lifetime supply of gorgeous smelling and absurdly expensive butt-wipes imported from France. They have also imported their staunch advocacy of Original Sin. They’ve been making pleas every Sunday since Owen’s birth.
“When?” they ask.
“Soon,” I lie.
We are born into sin. We are born with the foul stench of sin on our breath, Our sinful thoughts begin the moment RNA produces sinful neurons to comprise our sinful brain. Owen is replete with sin and, should tragedy strike, he’d rot in some forlorn purgatory. Father Allen naturally agrees with my parents on these points. He and his sinful blue eyes. Frankly, I’m befuddled by it all.
Sunday, December 9, 3:30 p.m., Austin, Texas
The two lay leaders–a young married couple whose job it is to clarify the mysteries of the sacrament before Fathers Bob and Ivan return to lead the “stunt baptism”–don’t help very much. What they’re saying about symbolism might be interesting, but all I notice is their smiles. Huge and ebullient, their sunny dispositions suggest a deep well of unhappiness, if not pure existential rage. Their veneers never droop, never waver, never twitch or relax. They’re truly spectacular in their spiritual rapture. Their eyes shine (with the light of the Lord, I suppose) and their posture–feet flat on the floor, backs erect against their metal folding chairs–is rigid and perfect, like a couple of teacher’s pets. I’m deeply suspicious.
But I’m also amazed that anyone could affect such a posture and expression so consistently, so much so that I’m caught completely unawares when I find myself standing in the inevitable circle of love. Head bowed, I hold hands with guys named Phil and Bruce and pretend to know a prayer that I haven’t mumbled since the fourth grade. I fight back the urge to let out that single, convulsed chuckle that will break my dam of composure, drowning me a the flood of my own hysterics.
But I’m cool. Actually, I’m quite proud of myself. Father Ivan, after all, gave me the required official-baptism paperwork before the class began. I seriously considered running for freedom, going AWOL then and there, as O’s baptism will take place not in Austin, but in a suburban Atlanta church. But, God bless me, I don’t have the guts.
Sunday, December 9, 3:40 p.m., Austin, Texas
After the prayer, we pull our chairs into a circle to endure that other perfunctory group ritual–going around the room and discussing our backgrounds. We are asked to elaborate upon our personal feelings about baptism. I scan my classmates (soulmates?) for a sympathetic eye, someone who was also forced into this contradictory mess by the imperatives of parental appeasement. Nobody’s looking back. In fact, everyone seems genuinely thrilled to be here.
Most of the women have yet to give birth. They’re scheduling baptism appointments while their children are still in-utero. As my turn approaches, I learn that their chosen God-parents cried with joy when asked to play the part. One guy who knows all the answers to the theological questions admits that he almost became a priest. The smiling couple assures us that three months is not too late an age to baptize. Relax, relax, relax, they assure us. As my turn to speak approaches, I consider fabricating huge lies, constructing outrageous tales about my deep piety. But I’m neither creative nor sharp enough to think so quickly. And again, I just don’t have the guts.
The room goes slack when I explain that Owen is almost a year old, his mother’s father is half Jewish, his mother is unbaptized, I haven’t a clue who the godparents will be, and I’m pretty much present and accounted for today in order to keep my parents from disowning me. A long pause follows. People shift nervously.
“Well, it takes a village, doesn’t it?” the smiling woman finally offers.
Sunday, December 9, 4:25 p.m. Austin, Texas
We head over to the church for the walk-through, which takes us outside into the rain where, sitting on the sidewalk, a homeless woman with matted clumps of gray hair asks us for change. Nobody coughs up so much as a dime. The men actually run into the church to keep their loafers from getting too wet. Ivan dutifully holds the door. Fossils embed the limestone walls of the church, where people who believe that Jesus died for our sins gather to worship. Father Allen makes me into a mock godparent. This means that I actually have to pretend to cradle a baby over the font, which has in it water covered with a thin layer of church dust. He dips a chalice into the stagnant water and pours it between my encircled arms. He then dips his hand in oil and makes a sign of the cross on my fake baby’s forehead. Oil glistens on his fat thumb. It’s oil that was cured in balsam wood, he explains, as we all go over to sit in a pew. An ancient and sacred recipe blessed by the Bishop.
“What kind of oil is it?” Bruce asks.
“Olive oil,” the priest replies, smiling, his eyes big and blue.
I lean over and whisper to Bruce, “Extra virgin I suppose.”
I think this is pretty funny. Bruce remains expressionless.
Sunday, December 9, 5:15 p.m. Austin, Texas
Father Allen finally frees us. It’s official. Owen has ecclesiastical clearance to be dunked. I check three times to make sure that I have my certificate and then drive off to my friend’s house to deliver a graduation gift: a glinting blue bottle of Sapphire gin and a green bottle of vermouth. If I had any class, I tell myself as I knock on his door, I’d have picked up some cocktail olives. As it is, I slurp down a martini and feel my sins sloughing off me like the thin rivulets of water streaming down the storm sewer outside my friend’s window.
Sunday, December 27, 3:00 pm–3:30 p.m. Atlanta, Georgia
The whole family gathers for the big event. We arrive a little late, but just in time to see the church’s Monsignor pull up in a shiny black Cadillac and duck into his elaborate home. Historians talk all the time about how religion has torn the world asunder. Well, I’m one who knows that, if not handled properly, it can tear a family asunder. It will not do so today. I am quietly and bravely leading a peace process by accepting something about which I am deeply ambivalent.
The priest, Father Brian, is 28 years old and has a cherubic Irish face and a warm smile that strikes me as completely genuine. The crystal water in the font steams and Owen reaches out to touch it–reaching is his new skill. Assuming the position I practiced in rehearsal, I hold Owen out and over the font. He’s heavy and unsure, but he’s okay. Father Brian leans in and confidently pours a thin stream of clear water down my sweet son’s fresh forehead and then blesses him with the olive oil, assuring us that it’s not Valvoline. Owen’s hair curls into tight little kinks and he bellows an impressive squawk. For some reason, the whole ritual feels damn good.
I look up and see my dad chasing my brother’s little boy down an empty pew, his head bobbing up and down. My grandmother is fiddling with her hearing aid and my mom is trying to help her. My other grandmother looks impatiently at her watch. I take in this scene of chaos and boredom and, as Owen reaches out once again to touch the steamy water, I think about how a little honest hypocrisy on everyone’s part can go a long, long way. And, in a way, I’m nourished.
When James McWilliams was in the first grade, he had his knuckles rapped by a nun.