My 7-year-old nephew steps cautiously into the baptismal pool. Surrounded by a few hundred people attending the noon Mass, he yields his shivery thin boy-body back to the waters of life. His younger sister and brother, faces upturned in wonderment, stand below him waiting their turn.
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This day had not come easily. When my nephew was born, my brother and sister-in-law were just shy of celebrating three years of sobriety. Every morning during that time, separately and together, they had chosen to live consciously, with eyes wide open; to admit powerlessness over drugs or alcohol; to ask for God’s help.
Those years before sobriety were a time of sickness and slavery. The etymology of “addiction” conjures up giving up one’s name and selling oneself. In addiction the individual becomes debilitated, diseased, obliterated, while the ravenous demon grows stronger. In addiction one trades a unique identity for a drink, a hit, for “pottage” (see Esau in Genesis 25:30-35).
Of course, addiction is not an individual disease; it’s a family sickness. It has required us, as a family, to look hard at our co-dependencies and denial, our anger, depression, and lack of self-regard. Gaining sobriety hasn’t been only for my brother and sister-in-law; it’s been for all of us. Their tenacity has led us into new terrain. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but we have matured as a family.
When my nephew’s head sinks under water, I think about how many of my ancestors also had this moment. For some it was at a small marble font in a city church; for others it was a Nebraska farm pond or in the yard of a Cajun country church with a circuit-riding priest.
“Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?” the priest asks. “Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?” The initial “yes” is more aspirational than actual. I want to reject sin. But sometimes that means sinning until it makes me sick, then accepting God’s invitation to get healthy again.
Sometimes the “glamour of evil” is held at bay only by daily confession, repeating the Jesus Prayer, or taking a rigorous moral inventory. And living in “the freedom of God’s children” is achieved only through forgiveness. “To forgive someone is not to say that what they did to you is all right,” Benedictine author Joan Chittister writes. “It simply says that what they did to you, cannot, in the end, destroy you.”
Families are the crucible in which we are formed. Brokenness and mercy are the two hands that guide the shape of our human clay. When people sin, writes Paul, “you should try your best to forgive and to comfort [them], so that the person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7). We can include ourselves in the prescription. Forgiving ourselves is key to living in God’s freedom.
Even though my brother and sister-in-law aren’t “regular churchgoers,” my family’s fierce Catholic history, identity, and spirituality provides them an anchor. Enrolling my nephew at St. Thomas More Catholic elementary school has allowed his natural spirituality to blossom. He loves helping the younger kids at Mass. He’s quick to note which parts of Mass are “fun” and which are “boring.” (It must be a family trait.) He wears his school uniform with confidence and leads his class prayer time when asked. Between skateboarding, climbing trees, and advancing to the next level on his Nintendo DS, he is—if I can say it this way—growing his soul.
Up from the baptismal water he comes, smiling and shaking droplets over the pews. His skin is nearly blue from the cold. He looks around to see if he’s done everything right. We wrap him up in a thick white towel and hug him tight. “Our Lord Jesus Christ has given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit,” says the priest. “May God keep us faithful forever and ever.”
Rose Marie Berger, author of the book Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.