I have a godson and I have an adopted goddaughter. It’s all new to me. I often wonder what it means.
I saw my godson recently. He is only a few months old. He drools. He wiggles. He is fat. Yes, I think he is fat. And he has a funny face. I stared into his face, his funny face, and tried to consider the simple fact that he had been baptized. The fact that this squirming little boy is a member of the Body of Christ, endowed with the supernatural light of faith, and granted participation in the deepest mysteries of Christ. The little guy made a noise, vocal cords squeaking. Does he know that’s him? Does he know his own voice?
And this tiny boy shares in the very life of God.
And his sister, who is my adopted goddaughter – it is a long story, and anyway it all resulted in my being named her adoptive godparent, whatever that is – squirmed in her chair across from us. She is a very serious little girl. A toddler of some sort. Skinny kid with a pink tutu. Aged some very small number. (I don’t know, I’m not exactly prescient about children. There is “baby” and “tiny” and “not as tiny.”) She stared at us, at her brother and me.
“We’re in a library,” she whispered.
“Yes,” I said. Her brother kicked my leg.
“We have to be quiet.”
“It’s so hard to be quiet,” I whispered back to her.
I love to take small children seriously. To take their whole world seriously. To look them in the face and listen to the nonsensical things they say. They’re really trying to speak. To have someone hear their voices. To try it out, to have been heard. Besides: it almost always unnerves them. Hilariously, they have no idea what to do with an adult who pays attention to disjointed stories about the zoo. In a single act, I can reverence the dignity of the small child in front of me and also completely mess with the kid.
Children open up when they are heard. In their weird little ways. My goddaughter slid out of her seat and asked if she could move to the one closer to me. I nodded. She clambered over, the puffy chair swallowing her up, and stared at me. “We have to be quiet in the library.”
“Yes, I will try.” Her brother kicked me again.
Strange thing, that the faith of an infant is taken seriously. Strange, strange thing. That Catholics imagine an infant has faith. That a squirming little boy participates in the life of God. That a little girl has a voice, a voice of the Church.
Catholics, for all the accusations of Pelagianism – that is, the heresy that faith is a “work” by which someone might accomplish his or her own salvation without the gracious assistance of God – are no such thing when it comes to baptism. A sleeping little baby can receive the total depth of faith. A godparent can speak the words of faith for the whole Church, and for a fussy little boy or girl.
This is perhaps a fantasy, or perhaps the only reality, but I imagine that when the godparent speaks at baptism for the little baby – burning candle in hand – that person speaks with the whole Church. Not just for the baby, but for the whole Church. No one believes alone. No one, ever, believes alone. Faith is too much to bear alone. Too much to decide alone. Too much to accept alone.
And how much more dramatic is this in the Orthodox Churches, in which little babies also receive Eucharist and Chrismation (Confirmation)? As in the old days?
Faith is not, is not ever, alone. Its death is the alone.
Children like me. This is my most unexpected talent. I’m a reserved adult who ignores children completely unless they specifically set about invading my space. I do not care if a little human being spends absolutely no time acknowledging my existence. I will ignore them too. I’m a grownup. I exist fine without the adoration of small things. Weirdly, children seem to love that.
I think it is because they spend all their time being adored for no reason. But I will not adore them for no reason, nor need their adoration. Yet I will adore them gladly, indulgently, if they ask. That they get to ask means so much to them. It means the whole wide world sometimes. To get to be treated as someone who matters. Even as someone who might not matter: but who will matter, absolutely, if they try out their voices. Their real and incredible voices.
Including the kicking baby boy and the little girl with the pink tutu.
Who says that a crying baby has a voice? Or that a squirming child is necessary to the life of the whole community? Who says that we need these small little beings to support us?
The Church does. I do. We do.
Godparents exist as a sign of the faith of the whole Church. As a sign of the little children they guard. As a symbol of a Church that hears and bears their faith. Godparents speak to give words and to pay attention to the tiny voices that matter to everyone in the whole wide world.