The two blog posts I mounted from Salernes were achieved only under acute technological distress. I cannot explain its nature, of course, since if I could, it would not have been distress. If the situation led me to draw any general conclusion, I suppose it would be this: an octet of octogenarians rarely includes sufficient technological expertise to resolve computer mysteries. (All the news is not so discouraging: we do continue to be able to change a light bulb if allowed to mass our forces first). But I am now home and in a more friendly cybernetic landscape. I hope for the best. We arrived last Thursday evening just a little later than we had hoped for. The flight from Nice sat on the tarmac blasting its fumes into the otherwise refreshing air of the Cote d’Azur for the better part of an inexplicable hour, then dawdled a while more at Orly Airport (Paris) where it stopped to refuel and pick up the bulk of the passengers bound for Newark. So I felt that I had already put in my sufficient daily quota of airline-seat torture even before we took off for an eight-hour flight to Newark. But the ground transportation arrangements worked like clockwork—or, if my own twelve-dollar watch counts—better than clockwork. And there is always something sweet about returning home, even if it isn’t the Provençal countryside.
Indeed, a very sweet event was awaiting us: the baptism of nine-year-old granddaughter Hazel was scheduled for the next Sunday. There was a slight wrinkle in this event, so far as we were concerned. Hazel lives in Montreal, and the baptism was to take place in Christ Church Cathedral in that city; so our participation in it would be as spectators via Youtube. But if computer technology had challenged me in France, Covid had made us all reasonably competent at Zoom, and watching a video is a piece of cake.
Baptism is the rite of Christian initiation, and since the Middle Ages, in churches of Catholic tradition, it has mostly been administered to infants, with the vows being made by proxies. The real meaning of “god parent” is baptismal sponsor. Like millions of others, I have to take my own baptism on faith, bolstered by the “oral tradition” and written testimony registered on an ancient paper certificate. But in the early Church this was not the case. Preparation for receiving the sacrament—the rite often was administered at Easter—was generally rather demanding. Augustine’s philosophical seminars at Cassiciacum, touched upon in my last post, were a prelude to his baptism. Hazel, though not yet up to Augustine’s erudition, was old enough to make an uncoerced volitional choice. To the extent that anyone can be said to know the meaning of spiritual events, she had to know what she was doing and want to do it. So I’m a little jealous. How proud were her grandparents when we heard her, speaking with a clear and confident voice, promise to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil. I can but hope that she will be more constant and successful in this intention than I have managed to be.
Baptism is the first sacrament of what eventually became seven. The word is derived from the Latin “solemn oath” and the equivalent of the Greek word for “mystery”. Indeed it is both. One theological definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Though there are seven sacraments, only two (baptism and the Eucharist) are by biblical warrant required for all Christians. As a student of poetry, I am inclined to think of a sacrament as a material allegory in which meaning is conveyed not only by words but by things like water, bread, wine, oil, and so forth. The most “sacramental” writer with whom most readers are likely to be familiar is Dante, a real man who in his famous poem becomes an allegorical emblem of the human situation. Early in his poem, when he finds out he is required by Virgil (another real/fictional character) to undertake an arduous journey for which he feels incapable, he cries out in distress “Am I Paul? Am I Æneas?” The answer implied by the logic of the poet is: “Yes, you are both of those real people”—symbolically or sacramentally, without ever ceasing to be “Dante”.
Baptism is, of course, a pre-Christian rite, versions of which or parallels to which are found in many of the world’s religious traditions today. Perhaps the first act of Jesus’s public life was his baptism by the desert prophet John in the Jordan River. According to the gospels, the spirit of God audibly approved the ceremonial act while descending on Jesus in the form of a dove. This is a not infrequent scene in Christian iconography, my personal favorite being a great painting by Piero della Francesca. The descent of the divine dove, a bizarre event, is naturally much discussed by early theologians. One of the evangelists, John, adds a detail likely to disquiet anyone who has ever seen the effects of pigeons repeatedly taking roost on public monuments: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him”. Many commentators were eager to insist that the bird was wholly spiritual and immaterial. But Thomas Aquinas insisted otherwise. The dove was literal, an actual bird of bone and feather. That was because it would be beneath the dignity of the Divine Artificer to use anything that wasn’t real. A famous Dante scholar of an earlier generation, Charles Singleton, used this theological argument in explaining the nature of Dante’s Commedia, a poem in which “real” history and allegory are sutured into an indivisible unity.
In this instance the binding was also generational. The figurative language of the baptismal liturgy is in the strange word that Dante used of his own poem—“polysemous,” having many layers of meaning. Baptism is a symbolic cleansing or washing. It is a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection. It is a renovation of what is old. It is the spiritual exemplification of being “born again”—a concept that must have baffled many of Jesus’s first admirers. “Nicodemus saith unto him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?’” It is easier to see that Nicodemus didn’t at first get it than to get it oneself. His words are just as strange to an eighty- as to an eight-year-old, but strange in a very different way. Grasping the idea of putting off the old self in favor of a new self requires living for a few seasons in the skin of an old self. Wordsworth knew this and expressed it in a few short lines of what seems on the surface a rather simple poem, a verbal sacrament:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.