Bath-tism and Hospitality

I’ve never felt so unqualified to be a godparent as I did…in the last 30 minutes before I became a godparent. We’d flown down to LA for the weekend for the baptism of our godson, John. His parents, our dear friends Jack and Juliette, are Micah’s godparents and have known us since way back in our Berkeley days. We were so thrilled to be there.

But, as every parent reading this will know, traveling with small kids is sometimes…challenging. One of our kids was having a very hard time the day of the baptism, and, ahem, so were we. We pulled up to the the church about 30 minutes before the baptism and carried our screaming child into the sanctuary, where his cries echoed through marble columns and mortified us as innocent parishioners knelt to pray. I was so worried that our child was going to ruin the baptism (or bath-tism, as Micah called it: both adorable and theologically sound!). Usually when one of our children is having a hard time, Eric and I split up, and one of us takes the upset child somewhere calm and quiet. But we were the godparents! We both had to be there. And we didn’t know what to do.

As our child’s cries and screams ricocheted off of every hard surface, we went in search of the baptismal font and desperately tried to calm him. We were, um, not feeling like model parents. Not because our child was crying. But because we were so frustrated by it (we had blown right past the “ignore it,” “try to reason with child,” “employ all means of comfort,” “bribe with the promise of cake,” and “laugh to keep from crying” stages of tantrum management in the car as we darted through the LA freeways.)

Our friends weren’t there yet, so after we made a lap around the church, a priest approached us and introduced himself. I told him we were there for the baptism and that we were the godparents…for better or for worse. I was feeling so awful. And that’s why what happened next took me completely by surprise.

Father JT welcomed us, gently assured us not to worry about our child’s cries at all, and told us that we could hold our boys during the baptism. As he was explaining how he could tweak the ceremony to fit our child’s needs, I felt my eyes filling with tears. This was the voice of God straight to my heart, and it was full of mercy. It’s not just that the church was welcoming to our child (as all places of worship should be—where else does a child belong but in the arms of God?)—it’s that it was welcoming to me, personally, just as I was feeling at my lowest as a mother. I can’t remember everything Father JT said, but I can remember exactly what God said to me: “Cameron, you ran out of patience with your child. It’s okay. I will never run out of patience with you.” As Father was speaking, our child stopped crying. What a mercy. His spirit was calmed and soothed just as mine was. What a profound gift.

The ceremony was the most beautiful baptism I have ever been to, and I’ve been to a decent few. We started in the very back of the church, and as Jack and Juliette carried John up to the altar, Father prayed that throughout his life John would likewise be brought deeper and deeper into the mystery of God. I was totally crying by then. And I was carrying Micah, who had fallen asleep, in his Lightning McQueen sweatshirt and tennis shoes (I had decided earlier that church attire was not a hill worth dying on.)

At the front of the Church, Father read the gospel passage in which Jesus welcomes the children to him. “Even my child? My child who screamed and cried his way to the baptism?” I thought. But I already knew the answer, and felt it, so deeply. When we reached the altar, Father had us all lay our hands on it and say aloud all the prayers we held dear for his life, just as we will continue to bring our prayers for him to the altar of God. When it was time for the baptism, Eric held John over the font, and Juliette held Francis, while I still held Micah. “This,” I thought, “is the family of God.”

The liturgy was gorgeous, but I missed a lot of it because Micah woke up every five minutes and yelled, “I want to go home! I want to go home! I want to go home!” Yes, you read that right. Every five minutes. For the whole baptism! I did my best to calm him, and he fell back asleep every time. In a situation like this, I’d ordinarily be the first to totally check out from the spiritual experience and be consumed with worry, but, thank goodness, God was there, gently prying open the locked doors of my heart. As I was holding Micah, I felt held myself, by the community, and by God.

After the ceremony, we had cake and coffee outside near the parish school playground, and Micah was thrilled to get both a sugar rush and chance to run and slide. In spite of the chaos, I was able to catch up with dear friends and talk to Father JT about some of the things I hold dearest in my heart: Oscar Romero, Colombia, Walter Ciszek, and the Jesuit charism. During this time of my life, I never really count on being able to have an adult conversation. It felt like a supreme gift.

After the reception we all headed to Antonio’s, a classic Mexican restaurant on Sunset where we’d taken Micah as a toddler with Jack and Juliette. We were late, and our other child screamed all the way there, but there were margaritas and guitar players and dancing babies and so much joy. One does not cancel out the other. “This is the life of the Church,” I thought, “This is the body of Christ.” All of us loud and unruly and joyful and imperfect people, all welcome at the table. St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches us that we find God in all things: in beautiful baptisms and in screaming children, in playgrounds and in dinner parties, in our highest highs and in our lowest lows. Wherever we are, there He is, with arms open wide to His children.

But what does hospitality have to do with any of this? I came away from this experience with such a profound sense of this sacred practice. Jack and Juliette welcomed us and did not mind in the slightest that our child periodically yelled during their child’s holy sacrament. The extended family assured me that they were glad we were there and were charmed by Micah’s outbursts. The church opened its arms to us. And God opened His arms to us, worried and exasperated as we were.

It struck me that this is where the heart of hospitality is. It’s not about just opening our (often messy) homes. It’s about opening our messy lives too. My natural inclination is to hide it when I’m struggling, to avoid asking for help, to keep people from seeing the side of myself I’d prefer to keep hidden. But on this blessed day, there I was, in all my weakness. And I was welcomed. Glory be to God for that.

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