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Kathy Bradley - By water and words
Kathy Bradley
Kathy Bradley

          A few Sundays ago, on a luminous October morning, my great-nephew was baptized. Sunshine slanted through the stained glass windows like a sword's swath, stippled the curves of the dark wooden pews with shards of golden light and afforded dust motes a spotlight within which to dance.
       While his parents met with the minister before the service began, I sat holding him, dressed in crisp white (a tiny shirt and pants, not a gown), and watched his eyelids, thin and blue-veined, slowly close. How lucky I was that he would fall asleep while I held him. No one, not even a grandmother, would disturb a sleeping baby in church.
       I willed myself to absorb it all — the warm weight cradled against my chest, the soft fuzz on his head beneath my cheek, the tiny up-and-down breath movements of his back. One never forgets how to hold a baby, how to still all the voices in one's head and concentrate on what matters.
       The sanctuary filled. The organist began playing. The round-cheeked acolytes nervously lit the candles. Item by item the order of worship played out. Offertory prayer. Creed. Gloria Patri.
       Then we were all standing at the altar, so many of us that the baptismal font was completely hidden from the congregation. Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The minister took our baby into his hands, held him out like the sacrament that he is and asked, "What name do you give this child?"
       "Jackson Carl," his father offered, in a voice softer than I've ever heard him use.
       More words, old words, repetitive words. And then the minister poured water on Jackson's head and welcomed him into the community of faith.
       It was, of course, simply a ritual. The faith espoused by those who stood at that altar will not be Jackson's until, unless he chooses to make it so.
       But, the thing is, ritual matters. Whether it be in church or at table, pregame or post-election, ritual generates a collective memory which, in turn, produces the "belongingness" that sits smack dab in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
       Jackson will not remember his baptism day. He will not remember that the congregation sang "Be Thou My Vision," that the Gospel reading was from Luke or that the Epistle was from 2 Timothy. He will not remember that he shrieked (and continued shrieking) loudly in response to the dousing with cold water or that the minister carried him down the aisle of the church laughing and proclaiming that he would, obviously, make a good choir member some day. He will not remember the jockeying of his various relatives for the opportunity to be photographed holding him.
       He doesn't have to. That is the job of those of us to whom he belongs.
       The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says that we engage in ritual "to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma." She is right, I think. Words are my way of processing emotions, but I had no words to hold the emotions I was experiencing standing at that altar, my parents at my shoulders, loving this child. This child who will delight and disturb, entertain and exasperate, please and perplex me just as his father has done. As he continues to do.
       I had no words. Neither did any of the other Bradleys or Bedingfields gathered there. But someone had. So we spoke them. Exactly as they have been spoken by countless others before us. And as we spoke them, they floated up into the sunlight and joined the dust motes in a dance of inimitable joy.

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