AFTERWORD Diary of a Lapsed Catholic BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS Sunday, December 9, 3:00 p.m. Austin, Texas 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, 2002December 9, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia and Austin, Texas Fortunately, my parents have supplied Owen with a lifetime supply of gorgeous smelling and absurdly expensive buttwipes 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 pm, Austin, Texas The two lay leadersa 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 against their metal folding chairsis 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 ritualgoing around the room and discussing our backgrounds:We are asked to elaborate upon our personal feelings about baptism. I scan my classmates 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 inutero. As my turn approaches, I learn that their chosen God 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/14/03
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