On Sunday our kid was baptised into the Catholic Church. My husband and I have debated the pros and cons since the kid was born- I have largely been against (‘I don’t want to baptise him into my baggage,’ was my tired line) and he has largely been in favour. His reasons are beautiful and elusive- I am bemused but adoring of his intellect, his solidly Catholic upbringing, his ethical contasalltion. He is so different from me. He loves Pascal’s wager. He loves the aesthetic experience of the church, the smells and bells. He loves the ritual and the tradition and medieval theology. He rates Thomas Aquinas and is baffled by televangelists because they were not ordained and therefore are not valid links in ‘the chain of apostolic succession.’ I got him to admit this whole baptism thing was for him, for his benefit, because it means something to him. I didn’t expect to find the ceremony meaningful. I thought maybe it would be a nice father son thing to have between them. Like football and rough and tumble and steak pies. Although my husband vibes with the likes of Schopenhauer and can hold forth about the romance of German Pessimism, my felt experience of his faith is one of liberation. He thinks the tradition has some wings, still has something to say. He thinks it’ll be of use to the kid and wants him to at least have the option of joining the club. I sort of washed my hands of the whole affair, telling him I’d turn up on the day, say the right words and enjoy the post-ceremonial cake as long as someone else took responsibility for baking it.
And I’m not sure ‘meaningful’ would be the right word to describe what I got out of it. Whenever I step into any church the lines of Phillip Larkin’s poem Church Going knock around in my head. Like Larkin, I find myself, ‘tending this cross of ground,’ and I too find, ‘it pleases me to stand in silence here,’ though I also ‘end much at a loss like this,’ as I ‘wonder what to look for.’
And yet perhaps here was another opportunity to wonder. And not in a heavy handed sort of way. Not much calculated marvelling happened. My soul did not proclaim greatness nor did my spirit exalt in my saviour. But. But once or twice I glanced at my service sheet and was surprised. I felt a flutter in my chest when my son obediently held his head over the stone font and the priest poured the water over his beautiful blonde head. He didn’t cry as I’d resigned myself to, he didn’t scream, at the most holy part of the ceremony he remained in a state of silent curiosity. Perhaps he sensed our solemnity and maybe it was moving to watch a three year old tap into a corpus of sentiment. He felt it, was a part of what we all felt, fell into step with it. I felt bemused but appreciative when the father read the blessing for ‘the mother.’ (ME! Me? THE MOTHER.) But maybe it was another call to surrender, to say, well, perhaps my understanding is not perfect- perhaps there is something in this after all, though I may never work out what that is. Someone would know: I don’t, says Larkin. Exactly.
And yet, here I am the night after it all happened, re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s gorgeous essay on negative capability called ‘Woolf’s Darkness.’ Although it is a critique of art criticism, it is a joyous grappling with the role of the unknown in interpretation. The necessity of cultivating hope and non certainty in the process of meaning making. I get shivers every time I read it. She values in writing what I value in religious experience, ‘the liberation’ of ‘full freedom to roam, geographically and imaginatively.’ She passionately argues for a logic of ‘darkness’ – writing which ‘respects the essential mystery of a work of art.’ Although I am turned off and I tune out of dogmatic conversations about infant baptism, I saw a glimmer of value in what we did yesterday. Maybe I could set a place for the stranger at the table, make room for the essential mystery. It is far too soon and the spark was far too delicate to bear any kind of meaning-making right now. It was a glimmer, a glimpse, a little twist of potential that might catch, or might not. Maybe. But perhaps there is value just in that, just in the practice of sitting open-hearted in the pew, waiting, watching the ritual, not knowing quite what to expect.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
Phillip Larkin’s poem Church Going can be found here
Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Woolf’s Darkness is part of her 2015 collection of Essays, Men Explain Things To Me