My dear daughter,
I have prayed, throughout your life, even before you were conceived, that you would grow to love God beyond all else. I knew that, if you learned to do this, all I hope for you would follow. Now that you are a young woman in the last days before the Easter Sunday on which you will be anointed by a bishop of the Church, I want to tell you what it means to me to be a member of the Body of Christ. It is my heartfelt hope that my experience of growing in love for God will help you with yours.
Before there was confirmation, before Communion, before kindergarten and siblings and my high chair and crib, there was, in my life, a presence. It loved me, held me, rocked me, permeated the air around me. It was there all the time, telling me: I made you. I delight in you. I see you always. You are my little love. I will never leave you.
I am blessed — your grandma says cursed — with a crisp memory. I remember riding my tricycle on hard-wood floors while my mother knitted on snowy days. I remember my first encounter with my closest sister, your aunt, who's three years younger. I remember climbing into her crib (from which I'd only recently been evicted) to bonk her on the head with her bottle. And I can even remember the soft flannel of a diaper against my cheek, my head resting on my mother's shoulder, the room swaying as she rocked to me, singing, “Mother is near, nothing to fear.”
But, my dear daughter, someone else was near as well. In church, I learned his name. I saw that other people knew about him, too, and that made them family. And, as we learned the Catechism, I realized the only people who could really understand this conversation I was having with God were the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who came to teach us every Sunday.
When the sisters taught us to sing, “of all friends the best thou art,” I felt I had a first-hand understanding of the words. This unseen Other was my best friend. Without him, life would have been unbearable.
For my confirmation instruction, I, like you, had lay teachers. They taught me to walk with my name-card up past the Communion rail, to where no children except altar boys were allowed.
We practiced answering the questions of the mysterious man we'd meet that night, the bishop. We practiced being anointed. We practiced being slapped in the face and told, “Peace be with you.” (Our accepting the slap, we were told, was a sign of our openness to persecution and even martyrdom on behalf of Jesus.) And we practiced singing, “Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest, and in our hearts take up thy rest …”
I am blessed with a crisp memory, my grandmother says ‘cursed.’
On May 10, 1969, your mom wore crimson and white, and asked the Church for confirmation of her baptism. A voice introduced the Most Rev. J. Carroll McCormick, bishop of Scranton, the man who was supposed to be so scary — but whom I loved instantly. He questioned us and I, a bundle of nervous energy, faltered. My teacher scowled, but my dear bishop threw back his head and laughed warmly.
I approached the sanctuary, up the steps to where he sat. As he anointed my forehead, he said, “I sign thee with the sign of the cross; I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation.” The Chrism of salvation — the mark of the presence of God.
Dear daughter, the night of my confirmation, I knew the Holy Spirit was dancing. It was as though all that had been outside me — this vast power that seemed to cradle me in its arms all my life — was now inside of me as well as all around me. Where I stopped and God began, there was no telling. In me there was an intensity and strength and focus I'd never known before.
I lay in bed, covers up to my nose, laughing, crying, saying “thank you thank you thank you” — for what, I didn't know. All I knew was a happiness beyond words.
Years later, when your grandfather died, I sat in a chapel wondering if the gash in my heart would ever heal. I was so sad I couldn't pray. I sat, for an hour every day, for many months, before the Blessed Sacrament. I mean, I just sat there. I didn't ask anything. I didn't do anything. Finally, one day, a mini-miracle: I felt my way through the grief. And on the other side of my self-pity over losing my dad? The Presence. Soothing me, loving me back to health, washing me as with the chrism of salvation once again.
Dear daughter, you who have taken Elizabeth Ann Seton as your model, you who have chosen as your sponsor my sister (who has long since forgiven me for bonking her head with a bottle): I want you to know I am praying for you. I pray that your confirmation will mark a time in your life when heaven opened for you, and God declared to all the world:
“This is my beloved child, upon whom I delight. Nothing she ever does will make me love her any less than I do at this moment, which is higher and deeper and wider than she will ever understand. And there is nothing she can do to make me love her more. To receive this love, she need not ask. All she ever need do is pull up the covers, be still and wait — and know that I am God.”
Susan Baxter writes from Mishawaka, Indiana.