“The priest wants to see you,” Ty said.
“That sounds ominous. Why, does he want to check if I’m fit to be a godfather?” I asked him.
I was aware that technically a godparent needs to be in good standing with the Church and an upright moral person. I thought I was the latter, though not precisely in the way the priest would probably define it. But I was definitely not the former.
“Relax, it’s just a formality,” Ty said. “Besides, you know what Waugh said about the lapsed. They’re often the nicest ones in the family.”
In truth, none of the four godparents to the twin brothers, or Ty and Alicia themselves, practiced the faith in the way the Church would have expected, except to the extent that they all went to mass on Easter and Christmas, and those who could get married, had done so in a church. I attended services on those days, too, though only because the alternative was staying home alone on Easter Eve.
I’d have to denounce Satan and recite the Creed, I told Ty. I was comfortable with the former, substituting other abstract concepts such as injustice, oppression and narrow-mindedness in its place. The Creed, however, was a stumbling block.
“There are four of you,” Ty said, “no one will notice if you don’t say it.”
I had felt honored when Ty asked me and I immediately agreed without really thinking about the theological implications of my decision. They had chosen me out of love and because they thought I’d be a good person for Harry to have in his life. I’d be in Harry’s life anyway and his twin brother’s, even if I weren’t a godfather, of course, but Ty and Alicia thought that this public acknowledgement of my role was important.
Despite my reservations about the Church, I wanted to do it. I imagined myself teaching Harry chess and reading him stories of valiant heroes and talking badgers. I’d give him gifts of drawing paper and colored pencils and guitar lessons. I’d show him paintings in museums and take his him to plays. I would help teach him to be true to himself and a loyal friend, and as he got older, to cultivate a critical mind and be wary of fanaticism. I’d help him foster a measure, not excessive, of self-discipline but more importantly of self-awareness. I’d be the best godfather imaginable, I promised myself.
The priest welcomed us into his study. He was an imposing figure, almost as tall as Ty, stocky and barrel-chested with a lush but meticulously trimmed beard, as black as the cassock he wore. The dull, black cloth and unflattering line of the cassock reminded me of a widow’s dress. I found myself thinking how peculiar his cloth of mourning was. If there were a God who created this world of turquoise skies and verdant hills and filled it with creatures sporting feathers and scales in a riot of brilliant color, this world of trout and limes, and parakeets and raspberries, how could this God be satisfied with servants in black? I knew it represented an abnegation of the material world, a willing death in witness of the life to come, but still I imagined him dressed in the colors of a parrot. We sing hymns of praise, why should priests not be dressed in garments of praise as well?
But this was exactly the kind of thinking that would get me into trouble if he interrogated me on my faith and I tried to focus on his speech.
He told us that god-parenting was a lifelong commitment. It meant more, he said, than just showing up on the child’s name-day or Easter with gifts. I could have delivered this spiel, I thought. But then he started to talk about our helping distill in Harry a desire to serve Christ and the Church. He talked about how we would serve as role models of faith, how we should take our godchild with us to vespers. Our gifts would be books on the lives of saints, prayer beads and their first bible.
In the end he didn’t ask us anything personal. I imagine he assumed that if we were here, we belonged. Or maybe he knew that if he assessed each prospective godparent on their spiritual fitness to sponsor, he would not be baptizing many infants. It must have been painfully clear to him from the ever dwindling number of congregants at Sunday services that faithful communicants were few in number.
Years after the christening, I see that I have done none of the things I imagined doing with Harry when I accepted Ty’s request to be his godfather, apart from the gifts (thought not the guitar lessons yet) and teaching him chess. Harry and I talk but mostly about his school and friends, movies he’s seen and crafts projects he’s done. He’s only 8 so perhaps that’s to be expected. I’m not around kids enough to know. He tells me about a clown he saw at the circus and a rod lodged in stone at the beach (“Just like Exclaibur!”). He’s a happy, outgoing kid with seemingly inexhaustible stores of enthusiasm and a trace of the sybarite. (He called me once from a food fair his father took him to; I had rarely heard him so excited. “I had four different kinds of sausage!”)
I enrolled him in an engraving workshop, and bought him a book about a young giraffe who overcomes her fear of heights. But I’ve done nothing to guide him spiritually. I’ve turned into the godfather who brings gifts.
Moral education is so much more complicated than teaching a kid how to castle. It requires presence and opportunity and I don’t see him often enough to have many opportunities, except for the occasional lesson in fairness and sharing I’m called upon to deliver when he and his brother fight over the i-Pad I bring with me when I visit.
Harry’s parents will bring him to Church on Easter and Christmas, and he’ll learn the signs to make and words to say, the common prayers everyone knew by heart, like the songs sung at weddings or heard on old films. Catechism class will teach him the stories of a woman turned to a pillar of salt and a man in the belly of a whale, the same stories I heard as a child, though Harry will hear them differently than I had.
As a child I lived in world visited by angels, a world in which a prayer to a saint and a pair of candles crossed upon your throat could protect you from colds and infections, and there were saints you could pray to for lost things and hopeless causes. The saints whose images I saw in the ruby and sapphire stained-glass panels in church or on the postcard reproductions of paintings I would glue into my grade-school composition book and write about were agents of intercession. I was watched over.
One afternoon walking back from school in the city—I was only a few years older than Harry at that time—and precisely at that point in my return where I felt uncomfortable, right in front of the public junior high school which all the tough kids in my neighborhood attended, I saw God.
Through a rift in the clouds a shaft of light appeared, teeming with millions of infinitesimal specks of light, like a radiant, gently pulsating beam descending to the earth. And it seemed to be coming directly towards me.
This wasn’t like the sunbeams I had seen before. It seemed to me, instead, as if the sky were emptying itself of its light through a rare window in the heavens. In Paradise.
I feel to my knees on the sidewalk and clasped my hands in prayer.
I said an Our Father and then some of the prayers I recited as an altar boy during Mass. I said aloud the centurion’s words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” which seemed to fit most of all, even though I wasn’t technically at home.
I didn’t expect to hear a voice; God, I remembered, could make himself heard in my heart without needing to speak. Then the curtain of light closed and the sky darkened and I became suddenly aware of looking at a fender of a car parked a couple of feet away from me. I got up and ran home.
My mother was ironing in the kitchen as I dashed into the house to tell her I had seen God. She acknowledged my vision with a “that’s nice”, and told me to change and go out to play. She knew I was too much a good Catholic boy to have made up a story about seeing God, but didn’t want to encourage my religious leanings and lose me to the priesthood.
I had been singled out—I had a mission—but how was I supposed to find out what it was? Willfully disobeying my mother’s instructions but knowing I’d confess the sin on Saturday, I ran up the back stairs to see my Uncle Leonard. I was sure he could explain the vision.
“Well, that’s extraordinary,” Leonard said, “though I’m not the best person to ask about this.”
Leonard was the only one in our family who ever admitted he didn’t know something. “But if I thought God appeared to me, I’d certainly start asking why,” he said.
“But I don’t know why,” I said. “That’s the problem.”
“Well, God reveals himself in countless ways all the time,” he said. “We just don’t pay attention enough.
“Here,” he said and took my index and ring fingers and placed them against my neck. “Can you feel your heart beating?”
“It does it sixty times a minute, without getting tired, every single minute every single day, for the rest of our lives. And I bet you never noticed?”
“Is that God?”
“Well, let’s say it’s a sign. Like the light was a sign, too.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe how important it is to notice things.”
The next day was more or less like all the rest of my days and I soon forgot about finding out what my mission was, though I would remember the image of these crepuscular rays for the rest of my life (the name I learned later from my high school physics teacher). And just as importantly, what Leonard had told me about noticing things. He wasn’t my godfather, but he is the one I want to be to Harry.
There was, of course, a downside to the immanence of the divine that filled my childhood years. The idea that I was watched by an omnipresent, omniscient deity inculcated within me an inner watchfulness, in which I measured myself against the yardsticks of the saints whose stories I was told. Am I good? Am I pure? Am I worthy?
I kept a mental tally of sins committed and regretted, and with each added infraction I imagined my soul smudged with the black soot of pollution. Granted, developing a conscience is an important exercise in developing an awareness of the ethical consequences of one’s actions, though now in retrospect I see a certain perverseness in a 5th grader’s concerns about purity.
I was watched over but found myself wanting, the more so as I got older and became aware, ever so faintly at first, of my attraction to an distant cousin, a friend’s older brother, the beautiful young uncle whom I’d watch as he napped after dinner. I began to realize I would never fit into the Church’s notion of the soldier of Christ I had imagined myself becoming. I began to wonder how could God grace me with the capacity to love but do so in a way I could not express, a God who had given me feelings which the Church condemned but over which I had no more power to control than I had to part the clouds and release a gush of light upon the earth. And so I fell. It was easier than I had imagined.
Harry’s world won’t be poorer in heroes or magic or tales of courage, perseverance and faith. He has hobbits and holy quests and valor enough. He will encounter the hero’s revelation of his destiny and his prudent use of secret powers. The magic rod he will learn of may not have parted a sea but will nonetheless hold powers of the universe. I had the devil, he has Sauron and Melkor.
Harry is arguably luckier in his world of dragons and Star Wars and Lego heroes without the looming presence of an ever watchful God and the threat of hell. He has no saints to intercede for him, but no immaterial yet ever present judges either. Luckily he has many who love him and will watch over him.
Live well, Harry.
Featured image: Island church at dusk, author’s photograph. Alas, there’s no shaft of light, but hopefully details enough to notice.