Before She is Old Enough to Know.The Meaning of a baptism.


The first time that a child is part of a religious ceremony, she is too young to know what is happening. She has been awoken early; perhaps she has had a long drive. Her grandma, her grandpa, her relatives, and her parents’ friends are hovering around her, their low voices full of love and admiration for her. She can feel that something is happening, but she doesn’t know what – and this makes her a little nervous. She is dressed in something fancy, something frilly, perhaps, and taken to a beautiful church, opening up around her like the universe expanding. Voices echo. She is silent. The sounds of footsteps are too loud; her own heart beats like a tiny, steady drum. There is wariness in her eyes, but she knows that her mother and father are there to protect her. She has the trust of a child, the absolute faith that never wavers because she has never known terror and uncertainty.

Then she hears chanting, singing, the steady rhythm of an unfamiliar voice; she is cold, she is wet, she cries with surprise and is gathered up in a warm towel and loving, reassuring arms. The glow of candlelight blurs through her tears, caught like raindrops in thick, dark eyelashes. She is safe. She is loved. Something is new, and something has changed, but she is too young to know what it is. It is as difficult to see as the shimmer of dust motes swirling in a cathedral, yet as certain as the feeling of mother’s arms wrapped around her, the sound of her voice whispering kindly in her ear.

The rest of the day is a blur of activity. She and her tiny sister are dressed up and photographed, captured in perfect detail – their tiny wet shining feet, their innocent howls of fear, their sleepy eyes closing on beloved parents’ shoulders, their delicate shoes, hardly bigger than those of the porcelain dolls decorating tables at the party afterward. Her parents will tell her about how they felt, about the strength of their love for her bursting out of their chests, but she’ll have to be much older before it all becomes clear as she has children of her own. She won’t remember this day, but she’ll look back and see everything she missed – the joy in her father’s eyes, the knowing look of her grandmother, the happiness of her aunt as she dances in her best dress. She’ll see that before she was old enough to know, she was already adored and tenderly cared for – caught up in a circle of caring hands, bringing her carefully toward a lifetime of happiness and love.

This is what you want her to know, and it will be hard to explain to her, later, how you felt. But of course there is so much that you can’t explain – how you felt when you first discovered you were having a child, how you felt when she was born, what it was like when she first spoke to you in words. You can only show her, in black and white and color, little moments in time, little snapshots of her past, that will capture better than words just how much she means to you and how glad you are to call her your daughter.

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