Sure, it may be an old-fashioned role, but novelist Rick Moody, who is spiritual guide to four wild-haired moppets, takes his job seriously: no-nonsense truth-telling, baring his heart, backyard swordplay, and a willingness to turn pieties upside down.
It's a strange and archaic word, "godparent." And maybe it's just as archaic a concept. That's what I was thinking about one day recently after spending an afternoon with my godson Clement, who is 8. It was the first time I'd seen him since his baptism, a baptism his parents had delayed quite a while. For years. They weren't certain into which particular brand of Christianity they wanted to baptize him, if any. Clement, upon getting a good look at me, proffered an invitation, "Want to see my stuffed animals?" This easygoing Clement was soon supplanted by the Clement who wanted to stage a mock sword fight out on the lawn, one in which I had to use the floppy sword and agree to be symbolically run through. With his mop of long blond hair, Clement struck me, in all his paradoxes, as a perfectly sweet, modern kid. What on earth could I give to him that he didn't already have? He lives in a beautiful home up in the country with deer on the lawn and a pond at the far end. He can walk outside at night and see a sky spilling over with constellations. He has gentle, brilliant parents who've made innumerable sacrifices on his behalf and who are more than capable of instilling in him a spiritual life if that's what they want to do.
Besides Clement, I'm godparent to three other youngsters. I have become a utility infielder in the area of godparenting. I married late in life, don't have any children of my own, and am thus always available. Go with the person who is willing and able to serve! So: There's my brother's oldest boy, Dylan; there's Lucinda, the second daughter of a friend who lives in New York's Hudson Valley; there's the aforementioned Clement; and then there's Wolfie, son of a high school friend who lives in northern Vermont.
Besides availability, one of the reasons I imagine that I am often asked to be a godparent is that I go to church. Alas, I don't go every Sunday, because I travel for work. And I like to change parishes and to visit other congregations. But I do subscribe to the greater part of Christian doctrine. I'm guessing that a dogmatic godparent looks a little bit like a meddler to many contemporary parents. Wolfie's mom—my friend Laura—made clear that even attendance at his baptism was not essential. In her view of godparenting, and it's one that I find admirably pragmatic, I am simply available in case Wolfie, when older, has questions about the spiritual life.
If going to church or temple or to the mosque is, arguably, the second most important quality for a godparent, the more important quality is a facility with instruction, with teaching a thing or two when needed. Is the godparent up to this? Personally, I have a long history of teaching. The mentoring and instructing part is not a stretch for me. But exactly what variety of instructing are we talking about? The sort of teaching I always disliked back when I was a student myself is the sort that involved lecturing and unyielding certainty about the material under scrutiny. Teaching that knows too well what it is meant to teach falls on deaf ears. Teaching does a better job when it's about listening. While none of my godchildren has so far asked to be instructed in his or her spiritual life, I remain ready to address the questions when the time is right. And it's likely I will begin by listening. Listening, as I understand it, is about letting Clement go through his entire retinue of stuffed animals, allowing him to take as long as he needs to take. Listening is about letting my nephew Dylan explain to me at great length his understanding of the world of Star Wars.
But I think there's yet another quality that makes for a good godparent in these times. More important than evangelizing. I think it has something to do with telling the truth.
And the particular truth I would like to share with my godchildren has to do with spiritual uncertainty. For me, spirituality inevitably entails a healthy dose of uncertainty about my religious life. In fact, uncertainty is as reliable a part of my practice as church on Sundays.
Perhaps a little history is in order. Despite my mother's interest in church and things spiritual, I was completely indifferent to religious education in early childhood. I went to church, as young people did in the suburbs, but I often felt that the insular, coffee-hour Christianity of Connecticut, the inwardly directed instead of outwardly directed faith, left me out, rather than in. I never had many friends at church; I never served as an altar boy. I even found praying mystifying. What was it people were doing when they pressed their palms together? To me church seemed more about show than substance. Sometimes I thought I understood church and wanted to be part of it. But more often I had little interest at all. I'd never been baptized and neither was I confirmed. Like many kids my own age, I guess, I thought of the whole church experience as a bit sentimental. The tales of Jesus' birth and resurrection were lovely stories, but were they more than that?
This skeptical approach was fine for my early life, at least until I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. After a number of teenage experiments with LSD in the mid-'70s, I had what is often called a bad trip. In the grip of this drug, I suffered a lot of florid hallucinations, nightmares that became too real. In the aftermath of the experience, feeling unsturdy and fragile, I decided I needed to get baptized. I needed, I thought, the framework of churchgoing, I needed the security of it, and in this fraught and uncomfortable time, all the simplistic pieties of the church of my childhood seemed suddenly generous, bighearted, and welcoming. This is the kind of conversion experience that I can recommend to my godchildren, I think, the kind that has little to do with the herd mentality of churchgoing. I can recommend a spiritual life that is about wanting a direct experience of whatever God is, and which finds its origins in spiritual need.
It would be great if I could report that baptism changed everything, that my spiritual life ran in a straight line thereafter. But in my later teens and early 20s, I merely supplanted the drugs that made me think with drugs that prevented thinking, alcohol first among equals. Drinking has a long tradition among writers, and I wanted to write, and so I felt encouraged to apply myself ambitiously to the goal of having a drinking problem. And the first thing that got in the way of this was a spiritual life.
In local bars I spent a good eight or nine years feeling proud of militant atheism. Atheism, especially as articulated by thinkers like Marx and Freud in their astringent criticism of everything God-related, now seems to me a particularly fervent kind of spiritual belief. Atheism, I suspect, is just as certain as fundamentalism. But also favors nihilists. At the time, nihilism was the best I could do. Upon achieving a bankruptcy of the heart in my mid-20s, of the sort that alcoholism seemed uniquely equipped to deliver, I put aside the bottle, whereupon I finally came to feel, in earnest, that what was happening inside churches was something that I couldn't afford to avoid. I couldn't avoid the seriousness of it, I couldn't avoid the generosity of it, I couldn't avoid the sobriety of it. It wasn't much later that, as a more upright citizen, I acquired my first godson, Dylan.
Since then, my life in and out of church has been disorderly, intuitive, haphazard. Since quitting drinking, I have engaged in any number of spiritual disciplines. I have investigated going to seminary, I have declared myself a Buddhist, I have declared myself a Taoist, I have gone to Quaker services and admired the grace and simplicity of their plain speech, I have pursued some of the rigors of yoga, and I have visited a half dozen Episcopal parishes. I have been full of doubt about God and Christianity, I have been embarrassed, occasionally, by Christianity. And I have been happy, moved, even transported.
This brief catalog of spiritual successes and failures feels very American to me, maybe even very contemporary. My understanding of American life is that it takes place in a frankly religious country, but that our nation treats religious feeling the same way it treats fresh produce: "I'll take one of those, and one of those, and a half dozen of those." Maybe I have been guilty of this myself, the rootless supermarket approach to spiritual research that is more about searching than finding. In the consumer-oriented spiritual or religious world, revelations are not hard to come by, but do they last? You can always be reborn, that is, but accepting the profound and troubling consequences of your birth in the first place is much harder to do.
These days, I am trying to sit still in one spot, one parish, one faith. From this vantage point, I have a bird's-eye view of all that is troubling about contemporary faith. My church, the Episcopal Church, seems to be falling into division in newer and more violent ways every day—over such questions as the ordination of gay persons and gay marriage. I know what I think about these questions (I believe the church belongs to everyone), but that's about the only place in my spiritual life I don't have doubt.
If this is, finally, the kind of godparent I can be most truthfully, the one who is uncertain, the one who is full of doubt, can I still serve with confidence and with my whole heart? To this question I can respond with a resounding yes. I would like to offer Clem, for example, the kind of godfather who is perfectly willing to be run through with the floppy sword, without complaint, or to teach him the lyrics to "Highway to Hell," by AC/DC, and who believes that embodying a fragile, quixotic approach to spiritual life is pursuing the god part of godparenting at the same time that it's pursuing the parenting part. Not knowing is the beginning of learning, as they say, and being teachable is the beginning of wisdom. Uncertainty, and the patience that comes with uncertainty—the patience required to investigate and await results where spiritual life is concerned, perhaps even the patience, on occasion, to learn from my godchildren as much as they are meant to learn from me—these ambitions make, I suppose, for a rather flawed and very human godparent, but also one who is willing to live life as it is instead of lobbying on behalf of dogmas and a Manichaean fight between good and evil. This is exactly what I hope to pass along to my spiritual charges whenever required: contentment, uncertainty, and an open-mindedness about the spiritual life.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013
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