Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Simcha Fisher: Napoleon at the baptismal font

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Portrait of Napoleon by Joseph Chabord (1766–1848)

The baby who was baptised last week was past the newborn stage, and strong enough to sit up on his own. At first, he was astonished to find water trickling down over his forehead, but he got over it quickly – and then he lurched forward in his mother’s arms, rummaged around in the font, and starting dabbing more water on his head. He did this several times throughout the rest of the baptism, much to the delight of the people in the pews. A real go-getter, getting in plenty of extra baptismal water!

Please be clear that what I’m about to say next has nothing to do with the actual child or family in question, and everything to do with my wandering brain. As I giggled at the sight of this ambitious baby baptising and rebaptising himself, I thought, “Look at little baby Napoleon!”

At his coronation, Napoleon spurned the Pope and the spiritual authority he represented, plucking the crown from Pius’ hands and placing it on his own head, instead. Now, anyone with a smattering of historical awareness knows it never goes well when the Church and the state are all enmeshed together. Better to let the Church be the Church and the emperor be the emperor. Still, it was an act of breathtaking arrogance, to crown himself, essentially claiming for himself the authority to bestow the power of an empire. He was, by all accounts, a driven, egotistical, transcendently ambitious man, brilliant but ruthless, and obsessed with power.

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As soon as the name ‘Napoleon’ came into my head, I felt bad. Here was a cute little baby who had just discovered it’s fun to play in water, nothing more. Obviously he wasn’t actually trying to spurn Fr J and baptise himself emperor of the tri state area. Just a bright kid playing in the water on a sunny day.

OR, my brain insisted, A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF EXACTLY HOW WE ALL SHOULD BEHAVE WHEN PRESENTED WITH A SOURCE OF GRACE. When a newborn is baptised, he doesn’t have the strength or coordination to participate in the sacrament. (Or, for that matter, to object. Once I saw a five-year-old baptised, and the kid twisted away from the priest and sprinted down the aisle shrieking, “No, no, noooooooo!” There’s something to be said for signing up for this sacrament before your kid is old enough to fight back. Goodness knows he’ll have the free will to sprint away from the Church for the rest of his life, if that’s what he wants to do.)

But a slightly older baby is aware enough to go, “Oooh, water? I like water! Fun! Good!” and has enough motor control to literally take matters into his own hands and dive right in. He doesn’t know that this water is different from regular water, and he doesn’t know that this day is different from any other day. He just knows that something he likes is happening, and he wants more of it.

You will forgive my wandering brain if I mention that I want to be more like that baby. When is the last time I truly grasped the full significance of some sacrament, or even the full significance of some source of grace put in front of me by the Holy Spirit? When’s the last time I found myself in front of a font of spiritual opportunity?

I would much rather err on the side of being too enthusiastic about my Faith, of assuming too readily that it’s all there for the taking, than to be poised and reserved and to only ask for a reasonable, sensible portion of grace. This is, I believe, what God wants: For us to leap eagerly, trustingly, heedlessly into His generosity.

It doesn’t always work out well. Sometimes you have to refine your technique, tone down your enthusiasm, learn patience and proportion and propriety; but that head-first enthusiasm, that knows how to identify something good and says, “I want more!” – that is how sanctity begins. There’s really no sense in saying, “I’m interested in Christ, but only a little bit, please.” You gotta go all in.

So where do Napoleon and his crown-grabbing ways fit it? Well, I have seen a good number of Catholics who strongly identify with Catholicism and are heavily involved with other Catholics. The drive and hunger is there. But as soon as it comes time to kneel and accept something good and meaningful from God, they don’t just gleefully, joyfully go for it. Instead, they grab it out of his hands and bestow it on themselves.

What does this look like? “I understand better than most that Christ loves me and forgives me. So . . . people like me don’t have to listen to the boring old catechism! Whoopee!” “Ah, the priesthood is a wonderful conduit of grace. Looks like the time for Womynpriests has finally arrived!” “I have skimmed through a bunch of memes and Facebook groups on this topic, and I’m pretty sure I’ve found a loophole in Catholic theology which no trained theologian has ever discovered in thousands of years. And that loophole happens to be the exact diameter of my . . . conscience!” They see that God has something for them, and they grab it out of their hands and crown themselves.

And Napoleonic Catholicism isn’t just for libertine lefties. My more conservative friends are just as like to go crowning themselves as anyone else. On the right, it looks more like this: “It says here we should expect to be persecuted for our faith. Ohhh yeah, it’s time to teach my pansy brethren what suffering really looks like” or “I notice the Church allows for such-and-such, which I think is unforgivably lax. Move over, magisterium, and let Super Layman deliver this giant load of obligations” or “I’m Catholic, and I also belong to this political party; therefore, anyone who doesn’t belong to that political party isn’t a real Catholic”.

You see, there’s enthusiasm, and there’s enthusiasm. We will not go too far astray as long as we remember that all good things come from God, and without Him, there are no good things. But we will go very far astray indeed if we think we can bestow any goods at all on ourselves. That’s a good way to find yourself exiled on an island with nothing but your regrets to keep you company.

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