“There’s something I really need to talk to you about,” my mother announces to me. We’re in bathing suits, reclined on a sandy beach on the shore of Lake Michigan, mid-Sunday afternoon. I’ve come from California for a little visit, taking her away from her husband and her town home in a suburb of Detroit. She prefers to spend time with me alone. We don’t have a huge repertoire of things we do together: we shop, go to lunch or dinner, watch movies, play cards, and sit in the sun.
I’m not unaccustomed to this kind of declaration from her. The subject is usually her unhappy marriage, but sometimes it involves her finances or even my finances, about which she frets. Child of the Depression, my mother has made many sacrifices in order to feel a measure of security and she worries because I, a Baby Boomer, have chosen to do what I wanted to do in this life, despite the risks.
“I feel so bad about this,” she continues. “I really feel I’ve been a bad mother.” Now I feel the fine hairs on my forearms begin to prickle, despite the sun overhead. I hate when she dredges up the past and wants me to comfort her about my childhood.
“I want you to do something for me,” she gives me a penetrating look. “I want you to be baptized.”
It’s all I can do not to laugh, so unexpected is this request. Of all the things I’d imagine my mother might regret about parenting—the story of my childhood includes alcoholism, violence, and incest—her failure to have me baptized as an infant wouldn’t even make the list.
I can see she’s serious however. Her tone is fierce and her eyes beseeching.
As gently as possible, I say, “I can’t.”
“You have to,” she counters. “I can’t sleep at night worrying about this.”
“I’m sorry; I can’t,” I repeat. “I can’t get baptized into Christianity; I don’t believe in it.”
I was about nine when I stopped believing in Christianity. I just couldn’t reconcile the teachings I was getting in Sunday School with the reality I went home to afterward. Not that I don’t respect Jesus as a powerful saint and spiritual master, but I don’t buy the whole superstructure of the church that was built up around his memory, and I don’t buy the distortions of his teachings.
Ordinarily, my statement might trigger a seismic event. Though she hasn’t always been the most devout practitioner, my mother comes from a generation and a part of the country where the primacy of Jesus is just not open to question. But at this moment she’s so determined to achieve her goal she can’t be bothered to debate my belief structure.
“Can’t you just do it for me?” she wheedles. “Couldn’t you just pretend?”
Now I’m a little scandalized. “You don’t mean that.” The sun, which seemed so pleasant just moments ago, begins to seer my skin.
“I kind of mean it,” she insists.
Baptism is a religious act involving purification by water. It can be performed by immersing or dipping the adherent into water, or by sprinkling water on the person’s head. Taken as a ritual, it could be a beautiful act; water, the element of the unconscious, of the emotions, is used to cleanse and purify, to reaffirm a state of innocence.
Within Christianity, the act identifies one as having accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. But what we need to be saved from, Christians believe, is original sin, the very state of being born of woman, being human instead of divine. This state condemns us unless corrective action is taken.
Catholics and many Protestant sects encourage parents to baptize an infant shortly after birth. This acts as insurance: in case the infant dies at a young age, that new soul will not be condemned. Baptists, however, are among other sects who believe that only those who can understand and profess their faith should be baptized, thus ruling out the practice for infants.
Different Christian traditions disagree about whether baptism is a requirement for salvation. Methodists, Quakers, and the United Church of Christ are among those who do not believe baptism is the only way to escape damnation. My mother, however, is a Presbyterian, a sect that holds baptism as one of its two sacraments.
My mother is nothing if not persistent. A few months later, on the telephone, she returns to the topic. “Have you thought any more about getting baptized?” she asks.
“There’s nothing to think about,” I tell her. “I can’t claim Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
“Please!” she sounds more desperate.
“Mom, if you’d had me baptized when I was a baby, it would have been out of my hands. I wouldn’t be responsible for it. But now I’d have to make a vow to something I don’t believe. And surely doing it hypocritically is worse than not doing it at all.” What I find noteworthy is that I at least have enough respect for the practice to not want to make a mockery of it.
“I worry about your immortal soul,” she wails.
With absolute clarity, I respond, “You don’t need to. My soul is just fine.” It’s more than a pat reassurance; I feel the truth of this in every cell.
But she responds, “Well, then, I worry about mine.”
I can feel her anguish. After a lifetime of problematic choices, my mother has found a refuge in her church. But at a time long past, she failed to follow one of its primary rules. And the church teaches that for this, she will face eternal damnation.
What can I do to save her from herself, to save her from her beliefs, from the consequence of her actions or inactions?
In rejecting Christianity, I turned my back on the notion that we are born bad, that only by adhering to prescribed rules and rituals can we hope to redeem ourselves from ceaseless torment after death.
What if instead we are born to be happy and our happiness increases through acts of kindness and service to others? What if the key to liberation is in our own consciousness?
In recent years I have been chanting and meditating daily; I have been cultivating a direct relationship with my “soul,” by which I mean the infinite part of me, the part that is limitless. I’ve been exploring the philosophies of the East, many of which acknowledge Jesus as one of several enlightened sages and yogis who practiced and taught during that period of time.
This investigation has led me to embrace a belief about soul that is not individualized. Many Eastern religions posit a universal soul of which everything that exists is part.
In my cosmology, we are infinite beings composed of energy that has been collected into form. The form is impermanent, the energy eternal. The “soul” is the consciousness of the energy, and while our forms may be individual our souls are inextricably part of that same vast energetic field. How then, can one be worried about one’s soul?
Forms shine more brightly as consciousness deepens. It seems we are here to cultivate consciousness in order to increase the total radiance of the entire field. We do this when we remember that we are energy; we do this when we remember that we all come from the same limitless field. We do this when we show kindness to ourselves and to others; we do this when we release our attachment to impermanent forms.
And at those times we allow our light to dim, our consciousness to wane, when we act without thinking, when we treat ourselves or others with less than kindness, this does not condemn us to separation from that infinite source. We may momentarily forget, again and again, yes, but in any moment we may remember and brighten anew.
Would it be kinder to go ahead and do what my mother has asked? I would like to give her a reprieve from her anxiety. I would like to relieve the fear she holds of being punished because she didn’t follow the rules. But is the best way to do that by dipping my head into a font on a Sunday morning, by intoning words that I don’t believe?
If I could, I would immerse her in another view. Offer a window through which she might see herself not as judged and condemned but as already blessed. Cleansed because she did the best she could, which is all any of us can do. Unredeemed because she was never cast out. Already and always an integral part of this dazzling luminous field.