Another weekend with the in-laws ends on a sour note as the question is again raised, once the Agnostic-Rastafarian in the family (that’s me) steps outside to load the car, why our children aren’t baptized.
For some reason this discussion always takes place when I’m out of earshot and can’t participate. I think it’s because of my reputation as boy theologian, the kid who received a little plastic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary every year in grade school for the highest score in Catechism class. That kind of street cred scares off church-goers who worry more about what to wear to Sunday service than the parable of the lilies of the field (Matthew 6: 28) would suggest is proper.
“The kids are grown–it’s their choice,” I say when the uncomfortable discussion is relayed to me once we’re on the road.
“I know, but it’s really important to my parents,” my wife says.
“Do you think it would help if we baptized the cats?” I ask, trying to think of some way to heal the rift that I’m blamed for causing.
“Why on earth do you think that would help?”
“Well, that way they’d know you’d have company when you get to heaven, since I’m not going to be there.”
“I don’t think that’s the solution, but I know you’re going to do whatever you want, so don’t mind me.”
We drove on in silence, but as soon as we got home I broached the subject to our two male cats, Okie–a grey tabby–and Rocco, a black-and-white “tuxedo” cat. “Grandma and Grandpa think you can’t get into heaven unless you’re baptized,” I explained. “Would you guys be interested?”
“Is the cat food better in heaven?” Okie asked.
“It can’t be any worse than that low-cal Iams crap they feed us here,” Rocco said out of the side of his mouth.
“Everything’s supposed to be perfect up there, so I’d say yeah, it will probably be an upgrade,” I say.
“So we’re talking ‘wet’ catfood for once–like every other cat in the freaking universe gets?” Rocco asks with more than a trace of bitterness.
“Yes,” I say.
“Okay, I’m up for it,” Okie says. He’s gotten by on his dashing good looks his whole life, and as a result his critical thinking skills are–shall we say–underdeveloped.
“You maybe ought to ask him what’s involved in this ‘baptism’ ritual everybody thinks is so important,” Rocco said, as he lifted one leg and licked at the spot where his balls used to be.
Rocco: “You can’t be serious.”
I was silent for a minute; Okie stared off into the middle distance, profoundly incurious. Rocco gave me a look like I was a chipmunk peeking its head out of our stone wall and asked–“Well?”
“Let’s just say it involves water,” I said, trying to keep things vague.
“How much water?” Rocco asked.
“Depends. Could be a little on the forehead, could be what the Southern Baptists call ‘full immersion.’”
“I’m a martyr for my faith–or lack thereof.”
“What do those words mean?” Okie asked. Every now and then he shows a spark of intellectual curiosity. About as often as Halley’s Comet comes around.
“It means I’d dunk you under water and hold you there while I repeated some religious mumbo-jumbo.”
“You’d let me up–right?” he asked nervously.
“Don’t worry–I was baptized Catholic, it’s the lower orders of the Protestants who are the real wing-nuts.”
“So that would involve?”
“Just a little moisture on the forehead and you’re good to go.”
“I’m in!” Okie said as he ran to the laundry room sink, the one he knows from past experience he can drink from without getting in too much trouble.
“How about you?” I ask Rocco, who’s been taking all this in with a gimlet eye and a skeptical ear.
“I think I’ll stay rational and maintain my membership in Agnostics of America in good standing,” Rocco says, not even trying to conceal his mammoth indifference to things religious, that source of comfort to so many.
“You know, the irrational is way underrated,” I say as I prepare to administer the holy sacrament to the more credulous of our two pets.
“You ever notice how Okie hides under the bed when there’s a storm–and I don’t?” Rocco asks.
“Yes, you’re brave that way,” I say.
“Not brave, just not stupid,” he says. “It’s a simple discharge of electricity,” he says. He spent a lot of time sleeping in front of educational TV programs when our kids were young.
“I think the two go hand in hand,” I say, as I scratch his head a bit to show him that we two are of like minds, although I’m pretty sure mine is a good deal bigger than his.
“Lightning and thunder?” he asks.
“No, the tendency to believe in a world of spirits, both benign and malign. People who think there’s an afterlife where the rivers flow with beer and wine are also the ones who get spooked by mundane natural phenomena,” I say.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” he says as he washes a paw with his tongue. It garbled his message but I understood him.
“Are you guys about finished, because I’d like to get a dish of that wet cat food before I die,” Okie calls from the sink.
“As usual, you missed a fairly essential part of the program,” Rocco replies.
“What’s that?” Okie asks.
“You have to die to get it,” Rocco calls back to him.
There is silence from the laundry room. Rocco and I wait to see whether the paradox of the belief in an afterlife will penetrate Okie’s thick but good-looking skull.
After a moment the suspense is broken as we hear Okie say “I can live with that.”
Rocco and I look at each other with, as Keats said in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, a wild surmise. That’s the Okester for you.
“How about you, Roc?” I ask as I get up to baptize Okie. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?”
He looks at me for a second, then returns to the task of washing that paw. “No, pops. I’d rather be with you.”