The first sacrament. The rite of admission into the Christian church. The symbol of religious purification.
Before the birth of my son, Eliot, I thought of baptism solely as a formality, an arcane ceremony that produced a wet, cranky, yet somehow enlightened, baby.
Indeed, my partner and I never formally decided to have Eliot baptized; we neither argued about the subject nor made a list of pros and cons. We both simply assumed we would follow mores and tradition, adding the ritual to our do-list for new parents: fill out paperwork for Vital Statistics, schedule immunizations, open RESP, plan baptism.
I did not grow up with a church fellowship, although my devoutly Catholic maternal grandparents insisted I be christened, attend Sunday school and receive first communion. As a child, I understood religion as a collection of acts performed to please others, not entirely oppressive but certainly devoid of personal satisfaction.
Conversely, my partner, Jean, always felt spiritually fulfilled at Whitehorse United, the church of her youth. Since moving to Victoria six years ago, Oak Bay United has provided her with a second home, a venue for grounding and a source of serenity. And, despite my own reticent hovering on the fringes of this congregation, its members have shown me boundless warmth and support.
This is the church that married Jean and me. This is the church that provided daily babysitting and catering the week we brought Eliot home. This is the church that threw us an unspeakably generous baby shower. It seemed natural, even obvious, that our son officially join this church through baptism.
My casual attitude changed, however, when Jean and I received an e-mail from our minister, Gaye, containing the order of service and a summary of our parental obligations. A wave of nauseating apprehension undulated through me as I scanned the responsibilities of raising a baptized child: to affirm and nurture my own faith; to provide my child with knowledge of truth and duty; to help him understand God’s covenant through care and discipline so that he may experience its resonance both at home and in the world.
If forced to classify my religious beliefs, I would label myself agnostic. Though I often sense a divine presence in my life, I cannot reconcile the tension between belief and knowledge. I remain skeptical that human reason will ever prove the existence of a single deity.
In my own state of uncertainty, how could I promise to share my faith with Eliot? How would I foster his spirituality and help him celebrate God’s presence when I needed convincing of it myself? I worried that I lacked the conviction to make such vows, that doing so would appear artificial and dishonest.
I broached these misgivings with Gaye when we met in person. In response, she asked me what made me decide to have Eliot baptized. My eyes shifted anxiously around the room. “It seems like the thing to do” felt like a grossly inadequate response, yet I could come up with nothing more profound.
Sensing my disquiet, Gaye said, “If the words make you uncomfortable, you don’t have to say anything; you can simply stand up with Jean in solidarity.”
“No!” I said. The exclamation shot from my throat like dragon’s breath. I absolutely would not choose silence; I wanted my voice to resound with confidence.
And then I realized: I don’t want Eliot to choose silence either. I want him to experience a secular education and to learn the philosophy of the United Church so that he may worship with sensitivity and discernment. I want to foster his curiosity about God so that he asks questions about creation, nature and discipleship.
While my own beliefs may not conform with Jean’s, I hope that unabashedly showing Eliot our individual theologies allows him to carve his own spiritual path. Ultimately, I want to give my son the tools to make independent decisions, to afford him the desire and the courage to choose compromise over violence, compassion over intolerance.
As I verbalized this torrent of thoughts, a smile crept over Gaye’s face. “I think,” she said slowly, “you’re ready to make your vows.”
Standing at the altar last March holding my five-month-old child, facing a sea of his grandparents, aunties, cousins and friends, I felt genuinely embraced.
As the ceremony began, I sensed a spiritual breath flowing through the sanctuary. With serenity, Jean and I made our sacred vows in front of the congregation, who promised in return to provide Eliot with a place to be nurtured and understood.
Eliot stared awestruck at the holy water flowing from pitcher to basin. He appeared perplexed but not unhappy as Gaye touched her wet hand to his forehead and blessed him.
With wonder in his eyes, he fixated on the tenor soloist as he sang You Raise Me Up. He smiled at the children who presented him with gifts: a story Bible, a hand-painted stone bearing the word “beloved,” a taper candle.
As I scanned the audience, searching unsuccessfully for a pair of dry cheeks, I understood: This is love. This is community. This is baptism.
Kate Soles lives in Victoria.