My first memory is surely a fiction. I was only an infant when baptized. Still, I recall the scene as from a dream:
There is the whisper of water on my scalp, the shadow of the priest’s hand overhead. In the distance, huddled together in a pew, are my mother, father, and sisters. They are watching me up on the altar. I am a part of this family and apart from it. They are mine, I am theirs, but the priest has me now; I am a separate thing, a creature to be acknowledged and blessed.
No one speaks, not even the priest. There is only the passing of water over my brow. I tremble, understanding nothing. Only later, as a small child, with the help of my religious education, will I interpret the dream clearly enough:
The sinful must be cleansed to live.
In the basement of a southern Indiana church, our CCD teacher explains Original Sin:
We were all born with a black mark on our souls. A sin that belongs to all of us.
The teacher draws a circle on a chalkboard, then makes an ‘X’ in the center. She looks at her charges, all of us second-graders.
That mark comes from the time Eve and Adam ate from the tree. Do you remember why they ate the fruit when God told them not to?
The snake, one of us says.
Yes, the serpent. How did he trick them?
He said God wouldn’t see.
But God saw, didn’t he? Because He’s God. And then what happened?
We all knew. Paradise looked lovely in the illustrated textbook, with fresh green ferns and flowers, cuddly tigers and lions with smiles drawn onto their faces. East of Eden was a desert in which Adam and Eve, hunched like trolls, suffered in fear of the mighty God.
There was an airtight logic to the story. I believed it. I was only seven but the truth of sin was undeniable.
I’d dreamed my guilt often enough. The recurring nightmare of my childhood went something like this:
I am alone, separated from my family by an enormous black door. The door has a key hole. I look through it to see my parents and sisters huddled in the boundless dark, just as they were in the church of my baptism.
As I’m looking, I step on a twig; it snaps; the sound triggers a catastrophe: a menace appears, a wall of churning static, black and white; it has solidity and force; it approaches as a wave. We’re to be destroyed by the static, my entire family and all the world. This is my doing, mine alone. I stepped on the twig and made the sound that caused the avalanche. The door will never open and I’m to die alone.
If you could look at a black-and-white negative of my childhood religion, it would resemble this nightmare: I am not with God and family, but cut off from them. I am not forgiven, but irrevocably damned. I am not reassured in faith, but stricken with fear.
I was a Catholic child with a preternatural dread of the absolute. The Church taught me to fear damnation. I am not sure this fear has done me any good in this life, but I do know that it is real.
When my first child was born, I was not strictly speaking, a practicing Catholic. I’d long stopped attending masses with any regularity. For years, I’d been walking the line between belief and disbelief, reminding myself of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that sophistication entails holding contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. I wasn’t cracking up over God, but I did feel distressingly ambivalent for a man preparing to raise a son.
It was a given, though, that my wife and I would have Lukas baptized. I never seriously considered otherwise. I only worried about having to commit, in no uncertain terms, to bringing the boy up Catholic.
My wife Solveiga had no doubts; her religion had been a comfort to her, a truth to be embraced. But some days before the ceremony, I went to the library to check out a copy of the Roman Catholic Catechism. I read up on the Fall of Man, Original Sin, and baptism, reminding myself of the teachings I’d learned as a child. I read descriptions of our inherent neediness and deprivation, the necessity of sin and grace. I read that baptism, traced from the Greek baptizein, “means to ‘plunge’ or ‘immerse’” and that this plunge “symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as a ‘new creature.’”
Creature was touching. Who created the creature? To whom did it belong? Who claimed responsibility for its tears?
When it came to Lukas, I would be responsible. I was his father. I was to hold him on the altar, beneath a cross and have him anointed.
The ceremony was held in winter, in a small chapel in Washington. A year old, he wanted nothing to do with it and cried and fussed throughout. From the pews, my parents and sister watched as the priest raced through the sacramental ritual. My wife and I said ‘I do’ a few times—like signing on the dotted line at the end of a contract you don’t read.
The priest didn’t seem to care why we were really there. Perhaps our motivation didn’t matter to him. A child’s soul does not belong to his parents, after all. The father’s faith, or lack thereof, is beside the point.
But when his sister was baptized, three years later, the priest did ask questions. Before anointing her, he turned to me and insisted on an explanation: why did we want her to be Catholic?
Is it a matter of wanting, I nearly said. Does one want to be Catholic? One is, and so I am, and so I stand here now.
One can think of it in hereditary terms. You pass down not only the genes, but the myths, too, the symbols, the ideas. But this is too easy. You have a choice in the matter, after all. You do get to decide how to answer your children’s questions and fulfill their needs.
For instance, we’ve opted to instill in our children a belief in guardian angels. They sometimes will pray to their angels at night before sleeping. Once, when he was six and tossing a coin into a fountain, Lukas made an unusual wish: to have tea with his angel. It would be unkind even to hint to him that his angel is a fiction. I never would, yet I am agnostic on the subject. It’s the usual intellectual dodge to believe in the idea of angels, if not in their actuality. I had an angel myself as a child. The notion comforted me. To practice faith in a ministering, supernatural presence strikes me as a worthy use of the imagination. Angels are said to possess human form, yet are emissaries of divine will. They are mute and invisible, but active and forceful. They are not unlike the certain presences in dreams—fictions with substance in the world.
So I have no misgivings about guardian angels, and in the end I likewise chose to have my children baptized. When the priest asked me why I wanted to raise my daughter Catholic, I told him I wished her to experience the sacraments—a spur-of-the-moment response, but one I believe in still.
Sacraments are the heart of the religion and its most artful feature. They give aesthetic form to belief, and thus carry claims of faith into the realm of experiential truth. Consider baptism: as symbols go, holy water is an elegant one. In my mind, it has distinct properties: it is silkier than ordinary water, faintly perfumed, and always refreshingly cool. That is, the water is grace itself, made tangible. To embrace the sacrament of baptism is to believe in innate human depravity, but it is also to believe that grace is an active agent in human life.
For all of Catholicism’s faults, its figurative language is a gift of great value. Last night, I attended Ash Wednesday service with Lukas. We went to the altar to have our foreheads marked not with holy water but with ash. At the far end of life, opposite the baptismal fount, each child’s death awaits. This dreadful truth demands an answer arising from some variety of faith. Despite my childhood fears, or perhaps because of them, I had my children baptized. We grasp the symbols we have handy in life and make of them what we will.