CHAPTER XIII — SPIRITUAL INFANCY AND MANHOOD
EVERY beginning has about it that which demands a tribute of admiration from the most sceptical of men. With our gift of vision, we can see the long roads it opens up, the obstacles that must be hurdled before the far distant goal which has called it into being is reached. At the very least, there is a stirring courage in every beginning; it is the launching of a ship in spite of the long history of giant waves, pitiless storms, wreck, and disaster. It is the story of the universe in miniature; something new has come in, something old must pass on. Beginning, even to the dullest of us, is a word that means battle, fatigue, desperate effort, triumph or failure.
The mystery of birth: Of all birth
Never is that more true than when life begins. It is true that the very nature of life puzzles us, we cannot dissect it scientifically, cannot as yet reproduce it; but that is not the whole of the story. No little of our interest in birth is contributed by our own knowledge of all that life entails; its possibilities and threats, the tragic finality of its loss. Birth itself is wrapped in mystery; so much so, that, were it not so common, it would leave us as terrified as the Roman soldiers who gaped at the empty tomb of Christ. For birth, too, slowly swings back the heavy gates that bar the entrance to life; it is an issuing from the dark isolation of the womb by one who is not dead but lives, equipped for the struggle of life.
Of human birth
In the presence of human birth, the tribute which spontaneously issues from our hearts is one of deep respect, of tenderness, and, above all, of humility. Even the superficial observer cannot miss the quiet pride and complete self-satisfaction of the mother, nor the almost gloating, insistent, even boresome exultation of the father. These are the things anyone can see; the deeper, more sacred emotions are not for public display. Actually, in the heart of every parent there is more than a stirring of awe at this mystery which readily brings out a deep humility enslaving the parent to the child; there is even a kind of adoration, so lowly does the parent feel in this presence.
Small wonder. Here it is not merely a matter of tearing down the barriers to life, of a triumphant exit from the tomb of a mother’s womb; here is the first small gleam of the spark that will break out into an undying flame. We are present at the establishment of a kingdom which will demand constant government, will include complete sovereignty, and impose heavy responsibilities; we are foreign kings come to lay our gifts at the feet of an infant king, where, of course, they belong.
Of birth to divine life
Here, God knows, is mystery and dignity enough; but this is not all of the mystery of the birth of a man. The infant is still to be born into that life which is proper to the omnipotent Lord of life. He is to see the things that are properly for the eyes of God; to love with a love that in its object and its beginnings is nothing short of divine; to live the life of God every moment, even though he is immersed in a world of men. Whether it be a question of the kitchen slavey or the first lady of the land, once that second birth has taken place, it is a divine life that is being lived. By this birth, man is incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ; he is endowed with the long reach of love that is stopped by no barriers; he is given hosts of helpers in the communion of saints. His smallest acts are given an efficacy which moulds the hard metal of life into an eternal masterpiece of divine grace.
There, indeed, is a beginning. It is as superior to human birth, in the visions it calls up, the struggles it prophesies, the triumph it promises, as the birth of a man is to that of an animal. Indeed, it is infinitely more so. This second birth entails no long months of preparation, no excruciating pain; it takes place in an instant, suffering no threat to its success.
The mystery of growth: In human life; in participated divine life
This same contrast is present between natural and supernatural growth. In the natural order, a man’s years from infancy to manhood are glorious things compared to the rest of the physical universe. Every animal goes through a stage of automatic, inevitable building up of physical strength in order that it might quickly pass on the species. It has nothing to learn, nothing to govern, nothing to look forward to; no enemies within itself and no enemies without except equally blind or instinctive forces against which the animal will blindly and instinctively react. But the years of human growth are uneasy, slow, dangerous times; there is so much to learn, so unruly a kingdom to govern, such difficulties to overcome, such threats to life and learning, such hopes to face courageously. Growth in the supernatural order is an instantaneous thing, as is supernatural birth. In an instant, the infant passes to manhood; instantaneously he has courage, strength, the force that enables him to look out on a world that would take the breath away from an angel and be eager to get into the fight because he is so eager to win to its end. It is a growth that will always remain mysterious to us as the things of God must always remain mysterious to the minds of men, as the things of men must always remain mysterious to the world of the animals.
Basis of appreciation of the birth and growth of a man
There is a very odd thing to be noted about this supernatural life of man. It is not to be conceived as an extra coat put on against colder weather or an added pillow for more luxurious rest; it is not a bit of cosmetics artistically added to improve the beauties of nature. It is much deeper than this; so deep, in fact, that, historically at least, without its consideration men have always erred grotesquely, horribly, about the natural birth, the natural growth, the natural life of man. Divorced from the supernatural, they have studied man as a primitive might study an airplane, blind to its sky-soaring purpose; they have been as bitingly critical of the human design as a stubbornly ignorant man might well be of the design of the ship if he had never heard of an ocean.
As a matter of fact, human life exists only on a supernatural plane; all men are ordained to eternal and supernatural life with God. Aside from the necessity of understanding the essentials of supernatural birth and growth for the successful living of human life, we simply cannot make a just estimate of our humanity without that understanding; we must have it if we are to respect the material side of our nature and embrace the spiritual, if we are to avoid making ourselves ghosts or beasts. Exclusion of the supernatural has led men again and again to complete pessimism or the silly illusion of omnipotence.
Birth to the life of God — Baptism: Its essence and institution
This birth to divine life is as easy to perceive as the birth to our natural life because it comes by way of a sensible sign; yet, it is as impossible to understand as the eternal acts of God, for it is a divine thing. Like the life it generates, it puts something of the infinite into finite hands, and we find this a concept as elusive of our mind as that of a ray of sunshine wrapped in cellophane and sent through the mail. Yet the divine gift is as easily traced as the package shunted along by the postal service. For the sacrament of Baptism is a sensible sign instituted by Christ to give the first sanctifying grace which is the birth of a man to the life of God.
In this sacrament, as in all the sacraments, there is a double element to be considered: the sacrament or sensible sign signifying, and the effect signified and produced. In the three sacraments which leave an indelible character on the soul of man, there is an intermediary between these two; that is, there is a sign that signifies, an effect which is signified and in no way signifies anything else, and a sign which, while signified and caused, also signifies. All this sounds extremely complex until it is stated in concrete terms. The complexity is immediately dissipated when it is said that the character of the sacrament is intermediary between the external, sensible sign and the grace produced by the sacrament. The character is signified by the sensible sign and produced by it; in turn, it signifies the sanctifying grace. It is, of course, the sensible sign itself which is properly the sacrament. Thomas, using the phrase consecrated by the Fathers, expressed all this briefly by distinguishing sacramentum tantum (sensible sign), res et sacramentum (character), and res tantum (sanctifying grace).
The full importance of this will be seen later on. Just passingly for the moment it may be noticed that the character-imprinting sacraments are particularly safeguarded. They are given but once; no chance can be taken with them, for that original conferring must endure. It is as though God, to protect man from himself, made allowance for the possibility that a man would not be in the best of shape to receive these sacraments when they were conferred; He attached a receipt (the character), always good, which assures full delivery of grace if presented when a man does get into shape for these sacraments. It might be that the containers of a man’s soul are all filled up with the heady wine of the world; when some room is finally found, God is waiting patiently to deliver the wine of His life.
Its physical nature: In itself — matter and form
The institution of Baptism represented quite a step up for ordinary water. It had been used as a means to cleanliness from the beginning, no doubt with perpetual regret by children who are never fussy about these details, sparingly perhaps by the less socially minded, shiveringly by the men to whom a cold bath is an act of heroism. As a matter of fact, water was never a particularly brilliant agent of bodily cleanliness until, to its humiliation, soap was introduced as its helpmate. Of course it made no slightest pretensions towards cleansing the soul; it was humble enough, going about its business quietly or boisterously, falling from clouds, meandering through deep river beds, crashing the ships that showed contempt for its power in the open sea.
For all its invincible might far from land, men in their own element made water a lowly household drudge, too sluggish, too dull, too beaten to protest. It was the family workhorse plodding on its gray routine without a thought of congratulations or special favors. Then on one day, as suddenly as the Virgin of Nazareth became the Mother of God, and by the same agency, plain water was elevated to undreamt of heights; in a sense, it was made the mother of the men of a new race, for it was chosen by God as the instrument of divinity in cleansing the souls of men and bestowing divine life upon them.
That day started off like any other day for the mass of water all over the world. Men were drinking it, washing in it, sailing through it, idly fishing in it, or just sitting by it dreaming the dreams evoked by water’s restless life. One man was standing in the shallows of an historic river, pouring water on the heads of others as a sign of repentance for sin. That was a strange ceremony in the land of Israel. It was strange to the river Jordan. To the Baptist came another man, Who was also God. Over the protests of the prophet of the Messias, He, too, was baptized; but here, as in all the rest of Hie life, the important thing was not what men did to Him but what He did to men. In this case, it was not what the water did to Him, but rather what He did to the water that made all the difference in the lives of all the men who were to come after Him.
In the instant of the baptism of Christ, plain, ordinary water was consecrated by this contact with God. From that time on, wherever it existed all over the world, divine power would flow through water to the souls of men when it was rightly applied. It is true that this new instrument was not to be used by God immediately; it was a marvel of the New Testament, and the Old had yet to die. When it had died with Christ on the cross, and when the New Testament had come forth with Him from the tomb, then water entered into its divine rights.
From then on it would wrap men as a shroud, ushering them into the tomb of Christ that with Him they might issue forth from the grave into a new life. Its power to drown men, cutting off their supply of life-giving air, was transmuted into the supernatural power to strangle sin by giving life-giving grace. It became at the same time a means of burial with Christ and a resurrection with Him to the life of God.
It was powerful, and wonderfully kind, of God to we the worn, dog-eared little book that plain water had always been to men in order to tell the story of supernatural birth; as kind and as powerful as His use of the familiar star to tell the story of His birth to the students of the stars. Between the lines of the familiarly soiled pages of this book, the mysterious chemistry of faith brought out the words written in invisible ink by the finger of God. There was the extension of the mercifully fertile capacity of water beyond the refreshment of desert earth, of drought-stricken, feverish bodies, to the regeneration of souls parched into desert barrenness by sin. In water’s calm, cooling touch was now to be seen the merciful abating of the fever of passion; in its limpid clearness, something of the visions vouchsafed by faith.
This consecration of water tells the mysterious story of another birth, death, and resurrection by which all men are born, die, and rise to a divine likeness; but above and through all this is the comforting assurance of the limitless generosity of God. Originally, He had bestowed water on men with positive extravagance; with the same free hand, He shared His divine life with them. For men are not to be found where there is no water; so that wherever men can live their human lives, there they can be born again to divine life. That divine birth is much more essential to the success of the life of a man than water is to his very existence; and what ss necessary, naturally or supernaturally, has always been made easy by God, as easy as breathing or seeing, as accessible as water, as universally within reach of the hands of man.
This prodigal generosity of God with His own life is seen more clearly when we realize that the water necessary for Baptism is plain, ordinary, natural water. The means of divine birth, then, is not a precious treasure handed down in a privileged family, not a rare thing transported with great care to the ends of the earth; rather it is to be had by walking down to the sea, stepping into a river, bending over a spring, or putting a vessel out in a spring shower.
The words which make the sensible sign of Baptism dear beyond all doubt, the form of the sacrament, are classic in their simplicity and completeness: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Just those few words coming from human lips, be they lips of saints or sinners, believers or infidels, those words and a little water, and man is born again. Yet, brief as they are, these words clearly declare the living instrument (the minister), the material instrument, the actual baptizing, and the principal cause, the triune God.
There is the same deceptive simplicity about this bestowal of divine life that marks all the works of God with their own special beauty. It was an altogether simple prescription for living, for instance, that was written in ten short sentences by the finger of God; yet it would strain all the energies of men of every generation. For all the long, patient hours of His teaching, Christ’s final orders to His apostles were simplicity itself: “teach ye all nations, baptizing them.” Yet that magnificent simplicity has consumed the lives of the most heroic of men. Obviously it does not do to tamper with the simple-looking works of God. This is how the sacrament of Baptism was instituted by Christ, with divine simplicity; so only can it be conferred.
The conferring of it
From the artistic point of view, there may be only one way for a human face to be washed, for of course the artist would try, even against such odds, to preserve dignity and grace. From the essential angle of cleanliness, however, there are possibilities of exuberant variety. The task can be approached with the calm impersonality and economy of a cat. It might be gone at cautiously, applying water to the spots that are obviously soiled. There are face-cloths for the fastidious; or the individually satisfying, though socially stressing, splash-and-splutter methods of the rugged individualist so popular in crowded Pullman cars. Whatever the leanings of personal taste, the point is that all these methods accomplish, more or less, the essential task of cleansing.
It is precisely this sensible sign of washing that is demanded for Baptism. As far as the validity of the sacrament goes, it makes little difference whether the water is poured on a man’s head or whether a man’s head is poured into the water. Indeed, we might refrain from both and simply sprinkle water on the subject to be baptized. The limitation of the process to a “pouring” of water in the Latin Church is not a matter of validity but of lawfulness; it must be done this way under pain of sin for the minister, but not under pain of nullity for the sacrament.
Over and above the bare necessity of the sacrament, there are the rich beauties of the liturgy, as over and above the bare, essential four walls and roof of a home, there are tasteful decorations and convenient furniture. These latter add nothing to the protective power of the house against the elements; but they are far from superfluities. The liturgy of Baptism adds nothing to the essential effect of the sacrament; nonetheless it completes the beauty that might be expected of a work of God. That completion is made up of a call to our inner devotion, a wealth of instruction, and direct action against the powers of evil.
Emergency births — Baptism of fire and of desire
Men must sometimes be satisfied with bare protection against wind and storm; obviously, too, all men cannot have the rich beauty of a solemn birth to divine life. Not infrequently, it is a mater of clutching desperately at just the one moment of life granted after birth; sometimes it is even necessary to invade the mother’s womb to win another citizen for the kingdom of God. Indeed, millions and millions of men can never enjoy the sure, safe delivery into divine life effected by the sacrament of Baptism; nor does this mean that they are spiritually still-born, barred forever from the divine life they might have had. The sacrament of Baptism is the means of normal supernatural birth. Besides this, there are two abnormal or emergency exits from the death of sin into the life of grace. One, the path taken by the martyrs, is known as the baptism of blood, and is a complete destruction of sin along with full infusion of the life of grace accomplished by the infallible power of God in return for the supreme witness of martyrdom. The other, baptism of fire or of desire, destroys sin and brings life to the soul by reason of the very dispositions of the individual; he has turned to God in his unconditional desire to do all that must be done for salvation.
All three Baptisms of water, of fire, and of blood — concur in their common effect of sanctifying grace, in birth to the divine life. But only one of the three is a sacrament; for only one produces its effect of its very nature by reason of its institution, only one is a sensible sign signifying and producing grace — the Baptism of water. This is, therefore, the only one of the three which produces that indelible mark of fellowship with Christ which is the character of the sacrament. Consequently, it is only the Baptism of water that requires a living instrument of divine power, a minister; surely, it is clear that there is no minister of the desires that spring, from the depths of a man’s heart, while to classify a lion in a Roman arena as a minister of Baptism would be stretching things somewhat.
The instruments of birth — the ministers
Because men cannot live a supernatural life without supernatural birth, we have seen that God chose the most common of materials as the matter of the sacrament of birth to divine life. The material for Baptism, ordinary water, is to be found wherever men live; and wherever men can be found, there, too, there are ministers of Baptism. It is true that the ordinary minister of solemn Baptism is the priest, and fittingly so; he is the minister of the sacrament of unity which is the Eucharist, and by Baptism a newcomer is admitted into this unity. But in case of necessity, anyone who can lay claim to humanity in his actions can be the minister of this supernatural birth of Baptism. Men, women, or children, laymen or clerics, believers, infidels or heretics all are valid ministers of the sacrament; subject, of course, to the essential limitations demanded by the sacrament itself, that is, valid matter, correct form, and the intention to do what the Church does, to confer the sacrament. It is obvious, then, that the sacrament is not to be conferred validly by an idiot, a drunk, a complete paralytic, a mute, or a practical joker.
The usually clumsy and self-conscious god-father and the inevitably confident and self-assured god-mother are really the nurses and instructors of the spiritual infant. They do not play an essential part in the supernatural birth of the child any more than a nurse or governess does in natural birth. Their office pertains to the full beauty of solemn baptism. By their part in the ceremony, they take on the responsibility for the spiritual education of the infant should their efforts be necessary, and thereby contract a spiritual relationship with the child.
To get back to the comparative examination of the three Baptisms, it must be noticed that, while baptism of fire and of blood share with baptism of water the honor of ushering a man into divine life, the first two reach only to the barest of essentials. Wherever it is at all possible, Baptism of water must be received, for Christ has commanded it and with good reason. It is only by Baptism of water that a man receives his badge of membership in Christ, his titles to the reception of all the other sacraments, and his incorporation into the visible Church; no small items, by any means. Then, too, Baptism of fire may stop far short of a total remission of sin since it is so dependent on the dispositions of the subject; while Baptism of water is a complete remission both of sin and the punishment due to it, a secure remission infallibly producing its effects, not by reason of the dispositions of the subject, but by reason of the institution of Christ.
The truth of the complete purification by the sacrament of Baptism suggested a wild scheme to some heretical minds by which they might combine the full, though doubtful, luxuries of a sinful life with the eternal joys of the vision of God. Why not delay Baptism until just before death? Meanwhile, all restraints could be tossed aside with impunity. It was, of course, a silly notion based on the assumption that the human hand was quicker than the eye of God. It is a terribly dangerous thing to attempt to fox the Omniscient. Looking at it sensibly, it should be clear that the beginning of life is not to be dodged, under penalty of missing all of life and life’s goals; nor is it to be delayed. It must be had as soon as possible; so we baptize the infant within a few days or a week; if necessary, immediately at birth. An adult, unless he be in danger of death, must, of course, undergo instruction on the nature of the supernatural he is being introduced to. Since he must start living that supernatural life immediately after Baptism, he must know what it is all about.
Christ’s words were absolute: all men were to be baptized; not when they pleased, not at the moment of death, not when they had finished sinning, but without any limitation whatsoever. Should sinners be baptized? Well, if they were barred, Baptism would long since have rusted away in the tool shed; for all men, from the youngest infant to the oldest patriarch, are sinners. There is, however, a distinct difference that separates sinners cleanly into two groups: there are those who are fighting sin and those who embrace it. The only difficulty, relative to Baptism, comes up in regard to the second group. Can a man be separated from the sins he still has his arms around? Of course not. If he were baptized, the sacrament would be a false sign inasmuch as the grace it signifies would not be produced.
Nevertheless, if such a one is baptized, the first thing signified by the sacrament, the character is produced; this man, then, has in his possession the divine receipt on whose later presentation the full payment of grace is made by God. The one condition absolutely demanded from an adult receiving Baptism is that he have the intention of receiving the sacrament; granted this much, no disposition of his can utterly defeat the sacrament. Perhaps later in life he will come to his senses and regret his sins; then the full blood of the graces of Baptism, dammed up so long, is let loose on his soul.
The much more normal case is that of the sinner who comes to Baptism sincerely sorry for his sins; here, there is a direct and immediate application of the merits of the suffering and death of Christ. His sins and their penalties are completely forgiven, not by reason of the disposition of the newly baptized, but by reason of the infallible power of God. No penance is imposed on this man after Baptism, for his soul is pure of all stain. He is not required to go to confession. Indeed, how could he be? Before Baptism he is incapable of receiving any other sacrament; after Baptism, he has no sins to confess. It is only in the case of conditional Baptism that the individual immediately goes to confession and receives conditional absolution, for there is the possibility that the former Baptism was valid, necessitating the sacrament of penance as the only means of forgiving sins committed since that first Baptism.
The spiritual infants: In general
To the Catholic mind, Baptism will always be the sacrament of children. It ushers a newcomer into the family. It lays the cornerstone of an eternally enduring domestic edifice. In a larger sense, it makes children of us all, children of God. Surely, there is no age at which a child cannot receive Baptism; the very youngest has tasted death in Adam, of course it can taste life in Christ. To be nourished in that supernatural life from infant days makes everything about it easy, homely, familiar, part of our blood and bones. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons why there can never be a substitute for Catholic education; home is, after all, the best place for a child.
Yet, this is no reason for a misguided zealot to invade a family of Jews or infidels, baptizing their children by force, or to slip into an insane asylum and baptize all the inmates. There are cases, of course, in which the Baptism of a non-Catholic infant is entirely reasonable; if the child, for instance, has been abandoned; if one of the parents has been converted to Catholicism and wishes the Baptism of the child; or if the infant is at the very point of death. Outside of these cases, the guardians and parents have natural rights over infants before they become masters of their own lives and over the insane who have never enjoyed the use of reason. These rights are not to be violated. It is, of course, evident that parents or guardians do not have power of life and death, either natural or supernatural, over their children; but it is only when the child is in danger of natural death without Baptism that the question of Baptism is a final question of supernatural life or death. Nevertheless, Baptism, once conferred on such minors is valid; it produces its eternal effects, for it operates effectively by its very nature.
The effects of birth: a. Regeneration — opening of the gates of heaven
Sudden spring rain falling on barren earth to recall it to life and make it richly fruitful is only a faint suggestion of the effect of the water of Baptism on the soul of a man. The infant coming forth from its mother’s womb is a little better image; it is, after all, making an entry into life; but it is not coming back from death. Christ’s resurrection is perhaps the best picture of the first, astounding effect of Baptism; the effect of regeneration, of resurrection from the death of sin to the life of grace. For Baptism flings open the gates of heaven; after that, there is only the long road to travel by which we approach the gates that wait open for us.
Enlightenment — equipment of the virtues
The full rich equipment that coma into our soul with the grace of Baptism is hardly less impressive to our penurious minds. Not only is all sin remitted, both actual and original; not only is every last punishment wiped out; but the means by which we can walk the long road home with firm, giant steps has been given to us. Faith, hope, charity, the four cardinal virtues, all the gifts of the Holy Ghost spring up with a sudden vigor that makes an Alaskan summer’s approach look like slow motion in nature. In the infant, these virtues wait poised for action until the infant’s faculties are capable of that action; but in the adult, their supernatural fruitfulness makes itself clear to the eyes of God and His saints instantly, even though we, who “see through a glass darkly,” can mark no difference from the previous actions of this man.
But why did God stop there? Could not the death and the merits of Christ have gone all the way in undoing the damage of original sin? Why didn’t He win back for us the preternatural gifts that supply the inherent defects of human nature; why did He not assure us freedom from suffering, from civil war within ourselves, from death and the chance of complete failure? God knew it all along; for the rest of us, well, it seems we must learn for ourselves that men can never be given enough, that a gift is as likely to awaken a roar of protest at its limitations as to evoke a murmur of gratitude for its perfections.
Yes, Christ could have done all this; but He did not. He made us members of His Mystical Body, full of grace and truth, like unto Him Who fought His fight, carried His cross, and won His triumph. We, too, have to fight. So much the better. We shall appreciate the goal to which we fight; we shall earn it; we shall make it our own. We shall suffer, and it is better so; our Master suffered to show us the divine shortcut to heaven. We also shall triumph, but only if the battle is won, only if we refuse to quit, only if we wield the weapons put into our hands and wield them with a stout heart. Put these same questions honestly and see what happens to their semblance of justified complaint. Why is courage necessary for life? Why must I face the possibility of losing? Why must I carry the responsibility of human life? Or, to put it all in one word, why was I ever born a man?
Equality of and impediments to the effects
Baptism brings the gifts of divine life and complete destruction of sin to all who receive it. To all infants, these gifts come equally; they are proportioned to the disposition of adults. They can be held up on their way into the soul by barriers of infidelity or defective sorrow for sin, except for the one effect of the indelible character; and this is itself a guarantee of the other effects once a man has removed the barriers he has erected. In the character of the sacrament is to be found the family likeness of the adopted sons of God. This likeness cannot be marred, as might a natural family likeness, by talking out of turn in somewhat rougher company than we are accustomed to; it cannot be destroyed by even so crushing a fall as that from the heights of sanctity to the depths of sin. Its recognition does not require anxious peering for a family likeness at the request of an imaginative mother where we can hardly recognize humanity. This likeness is beyond all doubt; it is clear for all of an eternity. It is not necessary to trace its outline again and again; it will not be eroded by the winds and rains of life; it will not wear out. It has the marks of the chisel of the divine Sculptor about it; and He works for eternity, not time.
Contrast of birth in the Old and the New Testament
All this is not mere promise, not a matter of prefiguring, not a prophecy. It is not a profession of faith in the remission of sin by the future merits of Christ. All this circumcision, the baptism of the Old Testament, was; this and no more. The character of Baptism, however, is a positive, divine stamp; indelible, adequate, complete, with all the effectiveness and finality of the word of God.
For all its sublime effects, Baptism is only supernatural birth; it produces infants, not giants. Yet, for men to live the life of God is a giant’s work, particularly when that life is to be life among men and in the midst of enemies who are no less than angelic powers. By Baptism a man is a child; and, in a way, a child lives a life all its own. Its existence is individual rather than social, for it has not yet arrived at the fullness of life which will enable it to communicate of its riches to others. Childhood, then, is a preparation for manhood; surely, individual life is unworthy of man who, like God but in his own humble way, does not move along determined paths but roams the world, master of his life, distributing his riches in lordly fashion. He is a social being; for him, then, supernatural birth is not enough.
Growth to spiritual manhood — Confirmation: The sacrament and its essence
We must be brought to spiritual manhood, to the fullness of spiritual life, that we might do the things of a man This full spiritual growth to perfection is the purpose and the effect of that sensible sign instituted by Christ which we call Confirmation. It is true that we may search the Scriptures in vain for an account of its institution; but then, John had warned us long ago that not all the deeds of Christ could be written in a book. For our comfort, however, there is the scriptural account of John and Peter’s descent from Jerusalem to the faithful who had not yet received the Holy Ghost, though they had been baptized; when the apostles arrived and laid hands upon them, they all received the Holy Ghost.
The fullness of life, the coming of the Holy Ghost and His grace, is signified by the olive oil used in the sacrament; no doubt, because of its richness, the perpetual greenness of the olive tree, the nourishing, soothing, and healing powers of the oil, the symbolism of peace of the olive branch. The communication of that fullness to others, the supernatural social life, is signified by the balsam which is mixed with the olive oil and whose fragrance permeates to the far corners of the church. This mixture is the chrism of Confirmation with which the cross is signed on the forehead of the spiritual infant in consecration to perpetual warfare; it is the proud symbol of the warrior Chief carried boldly by all of His followers. The same union of the ideas of adult manhood and courageous fighter is to be seen in the very administration: the bishop, who possesses the fullness of power, lays his hands upon the subject, then gives him a gentle tap on the cheek that is both a warning and a promise.
Its effects — character and grace
The form of Confirmation is simple and solemn. The bishop says: “I sign thee with the sign of the cross and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Simple as they are, the words clearly determine the material sign beyond all doubt, and assign both the living instrument (the bishop) and the principal cause, God Himself. The words should be solemn. For the spiritual infant, while brought before his Chief by a patron, indicating his childish need of being sustained by his elders, in the few instants demanded for this signing and anointing, in the few simple words uttered by the instrument of God, the boy is changed into the man. More sanctifying grace has poured into his soul, bringing with it the titles to all the future graces he will need to meet the emergencies that will come to the adult soldier of Christ. On his soul, there is stamped the indelible identification of his membership in the band of fighters who march undaunted behind their Master to face incredible odds; the fighters for the faith.
Just as infancy and adolescence are ordained to full manhood in the natural order, so Baptism is ordered to Confirmation in the supernatural order; Confirmation is as necessary in the supernatural order as manhood is in the natural. Yet we must be careful about carrying images over from the slow-moving material world into the altogether spiritual world of the sacraments. In this world, independent of the limitations of matter, a weary old man can be born again and become a spiritual infant; while a small boy becomes a spiritual man within an instant.
The persons involved — subjects, patrons, and ministers
In this swift moving spiritual world, the essentials of life are had by the smallest infant. Confirmation, then, has nothing like the absolute necessity of Baptism about it. This could have been seen easily enough from the very difficulty of its material and administration; God has not made it too easy, so it cannot be absolutely necessary. Its material is not easy going, natural water, but a mixture of olive oil and balm; its minister is not just any human being, but the possessor of full spiritual power, the bishop; nor are its subjects all men, but only those who have already entered into life, who have been born by Baptism.
The double life of man, natural and supernatural: The tragedy of stopping at the natural
It is this second, and supernatural, life, completing and perfecting the natural, that is all-important for man. This is the life for which all else must be sacrificed when sacrifice is necessary: youth, beauty, health, comfort, even natural life itself. Perhaps one of the bitterest, certainly one of the most cryptic, expressions of the importance of supernatural life s Bossuet’s terrifying sentence: “Those who give us birth, kill us.” Unless the generation be double, both natural and supernatural, there is profound truth in that indictment.
Distortion of the natural by enemies of the supernatural: Distortion of birth
Weigh the sentence carefully for a moment. We can pity the still-born child and appreciate something of the bitter disappointment of the parents; they had looked along the road that this life will now never travel; they had seen visions of its possibilities, its fineness, its courage, its triumphs. What a horror it would be were still-born children to return year after year to saturate the walls of the home and the hearts of the parents with their own bitter disappointment at being excluded from life. How infinitely more horrible it would be if the parents themselves insisted both on the birth that is death and the ceaseless, ghostly wandering of dead children through the house.
In a very real sense, that is what has been done by the men and women of an age that scorns supernatural life. They have given their children only half a life, insisting that their children be supernaturally still-born; and, consequently, that these living-dead children haunt the halls of home and the hearts of parents. The children have been barred from the life of God, yet they live forever. We are blind indeed to mistake the dead for the living; we are mad to be complacent in that mistake. That very blindness hides from our eyes even the little that is left to life without the supernatural; for the natural life of man has been thoroughly understood only by those who saw beyond it to higher goals, by those, that is, who saw in man not only the image but the son of God.
Men deprived of that vision can cherish grotesque notions in place of respect, love, and understanding of the natural life of man. Birth can become a thing to be sedulously limited, even when it is not taken as an evidence of vulgarity, of animality, a biological accident, a matter of political policy, or of social and emotional convenience. The strength of a man can easily become a thing to be surrendered eagerly that men might fed the cowardly comfort and release from individual responsibility that are the rewards of incorporation into a mob.
Distortion of growth; of manhood
Man can be denied both his childhood and manhood, even when, grudgingly, he is given birth. Normally, childhood is a time of carefree development and of protective habit building; to be shielded from life, from evil, from struggle until the child is able to handle these things itself. Without the vision of the long goals of men, it can easily become a naked revelation of life, an institutional existence at the mercy of impersonal officials, to be followed by a cancellation of adolescence which pretends that high school children are university men, while undergraduates are statesmen directing the whole of national life.
Why should these youngsters wait for that which never arrives? As the purely natural view becomes more solidly entrenched, it becomes more and more impossible to achieve manhood and womanhood. Under such circumstances, a philosopher could find many a pertinent question to ask: What principles and what ideals are there for man to defend? What is there for which he can struggle? What is there worthy of unending love? When the whole story of a man’s life is told, what difference does it make? If it made any, what could he do about it? The questions would pile up; but the only answers available would fool only those who had been duped from the beginning of their intellectual life.
Bethlehem, Calvary, and the appreciation of man
We must have bent our stiff necks to enter the low doorway at the cave of Bethlehem if we are to appreciate any infant. We must know that man must be born again to understand his first birth We must have stood on Calvary as that dead body was lowered and placed in a tomb, sealed and guarded, if we are to know something of the life of man. We must see the shroud of Baptism envelop a man before we can see him rise again.
Men signed by Christ
It is only by seeing men who are signed with the sign of Christ that we can know what it means to be a man and, knowing, understand why the “men signed of Christ have wars they hardly win and souls they hardly save, yet go gaily in the dark.” It is by this knowledge that we can trace the majestic lines of the Lord of the world in the red, wrinkled features of the infant or the white, wrinkled features of old age. Man must be born to live and grow to manhood; he must be born again, enter into another life and reach another manhood if he is to have full understanding of his fellow-men, his own life, and his God.