Sunday, April 8, 2018

Little Saint Jason

Someone told me the other day that I should post this again. So, since I do what people tell me, here it is.


          When I was at St. Paul’s in New Haven, one of my neighbors stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you do baptisms?” She and her husband lived in a handsome brownstone on the park—they were a “Yale couple”, she was Vice-President of something and he was a professor of economics. They were the ultimate “yuppies”—a term that still meant something in the 80’s. She was tall, immaculately dressed for success and quite beautiful, blonde and willowy. But she wore her hair pulled back severely and horned rimmed glasses she may or may not have needed. (I met several women who worked in big jobs for Yale who wore clear glass in unflattering frames. One actually told me it was to tell people, “I may be pretty, but I’m smart….”) She was wearing a pale gray, pinstripe suit and a pink blouse buttoned to the neck with one of those floppy little ties that are bow-ties on estrogen. But her shoes, I remember noticing (she was beautiful, after all!) were extremely high heels with almost no visible means of keeping them on her feet.  Really sexy, out of character shoes....She hadn’t given in to the corporate image ultimately…her shoes were fiercely feminine.
          I allowed that I had been known to “do” baptisms from time to time and she invited me to come ‘around to our house tonight for a drink…5:30 suit you?'
          I was fascinated. I knew Donna and her husband, Phil, from the park. Our daughter was about their son’s age—5 maybe—and they sometimes chased each other in the park while everyone around Wooster Square let their dogs off lead to run and poop. But I’d never been invited to their house before. I could hardly wait.
          When we’d settled in with our drinks (scotch for Phil, a Manhattan for Donna and white wine for me) I was offered hors devours more exotic than either of them should have time to make before my arrival and we did Wooster Square small talk. Phil, even taller than Donna and nearly as good looking, was a New Haven clone of “Mr. Chips”—casually elegant and tweedy and yet a little awkward all at the same time. He obviously needed his glasses—in fact had two pair with those bands that hold them like long necklaces around your neck. One for distance and one for reading, I imagined, wondering if it were vanity or drama that prevented him from just getting bifocals—but then, I’m always hard on people who ‘come from money’. There house made no secret that one—perhaps both of them—came from money. Everything was understated but expensive from the rugs to the lamps to the properly worn leather couch and chairs to the antique table I sat my glass on and then picked up in horror and looked around for a coaster.
          “Go ahead and set it there,” Donna said. “It was my grandmother’s so it’s really old.” The people who come from “real money” are casual about such things, those who got rich on their own are much less relaxed about glass rings on a table worth thousands. After some small talk about the weather (a pleasant September, better than last year) and the neighborhood (“did you know the Mason’s moved to Europe—Mark’s doing a post-doc in France”) we finally got down to business.
          “We don’t come to church,” Phil began, showing his humility, “but we are Episcopalians….We were married in the Cathedral in Chicago. And both our parents are serious Episcopalians and they’re all coming out for Thanksgiving….”
Little Jason hadn’t been baptized (“our fault,” Donna said, “totally”—as if it could have been Jason’s fault or the fault of Sarah, their AKC standard poodle) and there was going to be hell to pay to Grand-pop and Grand-mom and Granny and Gramps come turkey day. Before they began to grovel, which they would have, I told them I’d be delighted to baptize Jason, which I was. And we started talking about dates and times, settling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when the grandparents on both sides could be there. All I asked them to do was come to church a few times, just so they’d be familiar with the racially and socially diverse parish of St. Paul’s and to let me talk with them…and Jason…about baptism for a few hours soon.
They were overjoyed, called Jason down with his nanny, a 20 something au per from France who was teaching Jason French as well as looking after him and taking some classes from Yale on their dime. (I thought I had maybe underestimated the money they came from!) I knew Jason of course, and he knew me as “Mimi’s dad” and we talked briefly about coming to church and talking about baptism. Later mom and dad and Jason spent several hours with me. Phil, of course, and Donna to only a slightly lesser degree, knew the ins and outs of liturgy and church history and the rich myriad of symbols that made up baptism. Jason asked some of those classic kid questions: “will the water be cold or hot?” “Will I have to say anything?” “Will Jesus be there?”
I told them, at some point, that baptism, to my theology, was admission to communion and Jason should receive communion with them on his baptismal day. Donna was a bit horrified: “But he isn’t old enough to ‘understand’ it,” she said. I thought for a moment and replied, “If ‘understanding’ it is a prerequisite, then I shouldn’t receive it either….” It was a hard sell but Jason won the day: “I want to, Mommy,” he said to Donna and the deal was made.
True to their word, Donna, Phil and Jason became fixtures on the third row near the pulpit. From time to time Brigitte would come with them and all of them fit in just fine—a little better dressed than most, but open and friendly and involved. During that time I came, once more, face to face with my devotion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the rich are not like you and me.” I’ve never quite felt comfortable around the moneyed of the world—certainly both a character flaw and a disadvantage for rapid advancement in the Episcopal Church! Donna and Phil were ‘just like me’—we had many of the same interests and opinions. And Jason was ‘just a kid’ dressed in clothes from Barney’s instead of Sears. I came to like them a lot, which prepared me to like their parents as well. Jason’s two grandfathers were cut from the same mold—successful, keen and most likely ruthless Mid-Western business men who never the less possessed the shy, inviting charm of people from the center of the country. The grandmothers were different—Donna’s mom was an older version of her: stylish, lovely, cultured. But Phil’s mother was like someone Garrison Keeler would make up and put in Lake Woebegone. She was a tad over-weight with a broad, smiling face, gray hair in a bun and simple clothing. She would have been very comfortable in an apron puttering around the house.
They were all delighted that Jason, as his paternal grandmother put it, “was finally getting dunked.” And on the day of the baptism they were all radiant and joyful. The baptism went fine—Jason answered loudly when I asked him if he desired to be baptized and stepped up on the little stool I’d dug out to lean his head over the font with perfect grace. But the real grace came when the family, led by Jason, came up to receive communion. Jason received the wafer and carefully, precisely dipped it half-way into the wine before consuming it. Then he said, “thank you” to the chalicist and started back to his seat between the lines of people waiting for the rail.
He stopped beside the first person he passed and said, politely, “I just got the Body of Christ.” That person nodded slightly but tried to remain solemn, just the way we should be on the way to the greatest party ever thrown! So, Jason was a little louder with the next person and louder still with the one after that. By then, the lack of response began to confuse and annoy him and he started pulling on pants legs and skirts: “I just got the Body of Christ!” he said to each person he passed. Donna’s father got to him first and picked him up, looking back embarrassingly at me. Jason was trying to get free from his grandfather’s embrace…there were lots more people to tell about what had just occurred.
I stopped the service right there, asking the organist to stop playing and pointing to Jason in the arms of his grandfather.
“Do you hear what he’s telling you?” I said, softly. “Can you begin to understand what waits for you up here? Jason understands and he’s telling you to run to this table because the mystery and wonder here is more than you imagine…more than you can imagine….”
For months after that, I was told, people going back from communion would lean over and whisper to their friends, “Guess what I just got?” And for a while the spirit of Jason’s understanding astonished us all.
(I had wondered if having Jason ‘dunked’ would be the end of the family’s church going. I wouldn’t have been upset if it had, since the sacrament was valid and real and ‘objective’. But they kept coming for a few months until Donna was offered a position in the President’s office at Northwestern and Phil was asked to teach at the University of Chicago. The jobs were so good they were leaving at the end of first semester. I was sad to see them go, but it gave me a little rush to know that someone had used Yale as a ‘stepping stone’ to what they really wanted!
I went down the day they moved and watched the movers carefully empty the house of beautiful, valuable things. Donna, so unlike her, was dressed in faded jeans and one of Phil’s J. Crew white shirts. Her hair was a mess and she had on neither makeup nor glasses. She hugged me and told me I could find Phil and Jason and the dog and the nanny over in the park. Before I went to say good-bye to them, she said, “did we tell you that Jason’s favorite game now is playing priest? He baptizes G. I. Joe daily and gives us communion ever so often. He wears one of Phil’s tee-shirts and puts one of his ties around his neck. It’s really very sweet.” She said it was ‘sweet’ but she looked worried.
“It’s just a phase,” I told her, “like me.”
“You’re in a ‘phase’?” asked, smiling.
“Yeal,” I said, “but mine came late and has stayed for a while.”
Then I went to find my friends and say goodbye.)

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.