I am standing in the narthex at the back of the church, rocking slowly from side to side, balancing on the balls of my feet as I rock. In my arms I hold several yards of white organza, embroidered with shamrocks and trimmed with lace. And in the middle of all the fabric, swaying gently in my arms, my not-quite-eight-week-old daughter is sleeping.
In a matter of moments my husband and I will stand in front of the congregation, flanked by grandparents, godparents, and friends, and make lifelong promises on her behalf. We will promise to raise her in the Christian faith and tradition, promise to help her grow to love the Lord. We will listen as the priest pronounces words over her head, words so rich they shimmer with tradition and with promises Christians have been making for millennia. All this for a little girl so tiny and new I still have trouble believing she is here to stay.
I’ve made a lot of promises in this church, standing under the soaring roof of the sanctuary that is built, inexplicably, in the shape of an upside-down ark. Baptized as an older child, I stood up in this church and promised to follow Jesus Christ and obey Him as my Lord, shivering as the cold water trickled down my skin. At my confirmation, I knelt down in front of the bishop and pledged to uphold that baptismal covenant, while the hard stone altar made dents in my knees. And a year and a half ago, I processed up the long, candlelit aisle dressed in yards of white, and vowed in God’s name to love and cherish my husband until death do us part. I’ve stood and watched as countless parents have brought their children to this baptismal font, and I’ve promised to support them in their commitments. I’ve made many promises here, for myself, but never before on someone else’s behalf.
Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and love?
I will, with God’s help.
My daughter squirms in my arms, now awake. Around her fat baby neck she wears a golden cross, the twin of the cross I was given on the day I was baptized. We stand before the priest in our matching crosses, and I reflect as I look at her that I don’t yet know where I end and she begins.
Will you by your prayers and witness help this child grow into the full stature of Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
I know these words by heart, having committed them to memory for my own baptism, and I speak my responses clearly without so much as a glance at the Book of Common Prayer my husband holds open before us. This memorization is a point of pride — not a very Christian virtue, admittedly, but true nonetheless.
The service continues as a series of questions, asked by the priest and answered by parents, godparents, and friends. I close my eyes and let the familiar liturgy wash over me. As I hand my daughter to the priest — a delicate transfer, given the swaths of slippery fabric — I think about the promises we are making for her, and about my own place in the tradition of our faith.
My life resembles this liturgy of baptism, in that it often seems like a series of questions. Unlike the liturgy, however, I don’t have all the answers neatly printed out in a book I can follow. The Book I turn to for answers is often enigmatic, written in the language of parable and story, tending to conceal as much as it reveals.
When I was preparing for baptism and confirmation, I asked my priest innumerable questions — weighty questions about the nature of God, lighter questions about the Eternal Candle in the sanctuary and who relights it when it eventually goes out. Finding myself alone in the church one day, I climbed up on a tall pedestal designed to hold flower arrangements so I could see the mysterious candle myself, disappointed when all I saw was ordinary wax and flame.
At baptism, the presiding priest prays for the newly baptized: Give them an inquiring and discerning heart. I don’t know about discerning, but I seem to have the inquiring part — so much so that, when these words were said over my newly baptized head, I snuck a look at the priest who conducted my preparatory class and saw him shake his head and roll his eyes to Heaven. Dear God, he seemed to say, this one certainly doesn’t need to be any more inquiring.
But if I thought I would have all the answers, would fully understand the mysteries of faith when I bent my head under the water of baptism, I was disappointed just as surely as I was disappointed to discover that the Eternal Candle was simply wax. By the time I knelt before the bishop at confirmation, I was slowly beginning to realize that study wasn’t the answer, even seminary wouldn’t be the answer. My questions were not going away.
I talked to my mother about faith and uncertainty. “You don’t have to know all the answers,” she told me. “You just have to believe.” It was what I had expected her to say. “But that doesn’t mean you stop asking the questions,” she said, her brown eyes holding mine intently. I hadn’t expected her to say that. “Take them to the Lord,” she continued. “Make them a part of your journey.”
I thought about what my mother had said. Maybe faith wasn’t something to be attained once I had all the answers. Maybe faith meant acknowledging something bigger than myself, beyond myself; saying I am not all that there is — a humbling statement for someone accustomed to relying on her own abilities, her own mind. Maybe faith meant trusting in something I couldn’t verify, couldn’t prove — hence, faith.
If I couldn’t find answers to all of my questions, perhaps the two, the faith and the questions, could coexist side by side. Not despite, but because of, each other.
Like most of my great life revelations, the thrill of discovery was slightly diluted by the realization that I was not, in fact, the first person to ever have such an epiphany. It is this exact relationship between faith and questions that the father of an ailing child discovers in one of the Gospel stories, when he cries out to Jesus: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” It is this symbiotic pairing of belief and uncertainty that singer/songwriter Michael Card refers to when he asks, “Could it be the questions tell us more than answers ever do?” And it is this complicated mixture that I ultimately chose to embrace, with a conscious decision not to stop asking, but to believe through the questions. Faith and doubt, coexisting, side by side. Faith to make an active, conscious choice to ask questions, hard ones, and still believe.
My daughter is held over the baptismal font, and water pours over her head as she is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I read a story once that said in the Middle Ages, superstitious Christians wanted their children to cry at baptism, as proof that the devil was being driven out of their souls. If the superstition has any basis in reality, the devil was fully and completely kicked out of my daughter. She howls as the water meets her skin, and although I know it is a howl of hunger for milk and for mama, I’m tempted to imagine that it also holds a primeval cry of frustration in its depths — a cry for all that we long to understand, and for all that we never, on this side of eternity, will.
I wish the faith I am passing down to her wasn’t so fraught; I wish the tears she sheds at her baptism could be her last. As she sobs, the priest makes the sign of the cross on her forehead: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
Forever. She is handed back to me, and I cradle her to my chest as we process down the long aisle, back into the narthex where we cuddle and nurse and, for the moment, she has everything she needs.
As she grows in the faith she will doubt, and she will question; but she is sealed as God’s own. And I choose to trust that as she asks the questions, her faith — the faith we pass on to her — will sustain her every step of the way as it becomes her very own.
“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” the book of Joshua admonishes. “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I like this declaration of conscious choice. This is the faith of my mothers, yes, but this is also my faith, a faith I have chosen to make my own. A faith I pray my daughter will someday choose as well.
I will never have all the answers. But this I know: as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.