Photo: Thatcher Keats
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.