Today has been mostly slow and rainy, so I have a moment to sit and reflect on our trip thus far. It started with long delays in the airport, a missed connection, and an overnight stay in Newark. It took us 48 hours to get here, and with a toddler in tow, it was hell. The worst of it was a man shooting me dirty looks on the plane from Newark to Brussels – he clearly had some sort of anger problem, and my stomach still gets in knots remembering. Johanna was crying, beyond exhausted, and he kept turning around from the row in front of us to glare at me. I felt like he wanted to strike me. And what could I do, really? There was nothing I could do for my exhausted daughter. And, to be sure, there were many nice and sympathetic people on the flight, but it only took one aggressive man to send me, shaking, to hide in the bathroom.
We arrived in France so much later than expected that we had very little time to prepare for the baptism. We also discovered, last minute, that another little girl would be baptised during the same ceremony. Oddly, though I was not happy about the last minute surprise, it all worked out well in the end. The other family took care of much of the planning that we didn’t have time left to do. They explained the ceremony in detail to us, made programs with both children’s names on them, took the spotlight off of us a bit, and we were most grateful it worked out as it did.
The ceremony was stiffly formal and traditional. The priest lacked the warmth of the American priests that I have known, and I felt that he took himself too seriously. I still cannot decide entirely how I felt about him; he was polite enough I suppose, and I had no particular objection to his theological interpretations – I found him intelligent and thoughtful. But I think his own personality was a big stumbling block – with him leading, the church seemed imposing and cold. Because if a priest has the burden of reflecting the love and compassion of God to his parishioners, I’m not sure he succeeds well. Of course, there may be different cultural expectations that define the role of the priest – though I was told, after the ceremony, that this one was remarkably conservative.
In the end though, the priest himself is of little consequence, it is the act of baptism that counts, the symbolic representation of God’s grace freely given, humbly received, never deserved. And the grace is still there, because the ritual is larger than the priest, the church, the cultural limitaions that define us and divide us so superficially. That is what moves me still in these sorts of rituels – that we are, in a flash of a moment, a part of something profound. And so for that I’m glad we did the baptism here in France, just to see that the same truth holds. And I hope the family appreciated the ceremony too, even without holding any particular religious convictions or sentiments.
Afterward we had a great celebration, in the French tradition, with champagne and a lengthy multicourse meal. And we smiled and talked together until well into the evening. The very next morning, we set out on the long drive from Compiegne to Quiberon, and arrived by boat on Belle-Ile, just in time for a late dinner.