The next section in my book was “Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water” and nearly every time we skipped that and went to the Penitential rite. But I loved it on the few occasions when we had the sprinkling instead of the dreary old Penitential rite. In retrospect I feel I didn’t need to focus on my childish “sins” quite as much as I was encouraged to, especially given that I had so many adults to tell me what I did wrong anyway, it would have been nice to keep at least my internal voice free from that (it has been a toxic addiction my whole life to dwell on my guilt and shortcomings, it’s exhausting and it doesn’t make you a better person and nit-picking yourself is not the same thing as genuinely taking responsibility for your actions and identity).
But those days when we had the sprinkling were always festive days. We’d get a sharp slap or reprimand from Mum or Dad if we dared giggle aloud like we wanted to but we grinned. As I got older and there were seven children I learned to plan strategically where to sit so the water would land on me. Some priest seemed to have a sense of humour they would grin at our large family lined up and deliberately give us an extra splash. When it was clear that “father” did it on purpose we also seemed to get away with a muted snort of laughter. It was clear that laughing at church was only OK if the priest started it. Small wonder I wanted to be a priest, there was so much to laugh at (joy or amusement) and I wanted to be starting the laugh every time. But girls “can’t”.
The feminist theologians have pulled apart the metaphor of baptism and I find it easy to agree with them that “baptism” as it stands, controlled by an all male “celibate” clergy is a sort of insult to the actual physical fact of baptism, where each person comes into the world to take their own life in their own hands, through blood and water- out of another person (and the love and nurture that led to birth) and welcomed INTO a community. So concurrently at birth we gain our independence (arguably personhood) and our connectedness, membership and dependence (later interdependence) of a family. But patriarchy responds to this sacramentality with envy and seeks to erase its significance by mimicking it in an authorised and controlled way where “father” presides. When my youngest was baptised I wrote a poem about this mystery and how I feel we are “baptised” by birth itself (though like a good little member of church I let the rituals take place) and when my children questioned whether their unbaptised friends would go to “hell” I said that I didn’t really believe in hell and that God could baptise them any time when they get caught in the rain or go for a swim in the warm, motherly font we call the sea.
I explained that when we each are born we come out through blood and water (the children found this fascinating) and our cord to out human mother is cut, but the cord to Mother God is never cut and we draw life from her in the Eucharist, which can be any lovingly shared meal. They asked why we went to church then if we didn’t have to and I said because it makes God happy when we show our love that way and in my head was an image of God that was an older woman, like my grandmother who always wanted everyone to gather at her house every single Sunday (unless we all agreed to meet at the forest instead) and gathering to mean celebration and sharing. Those were gatherings where we laughed whenever we wanted and there was food and singing and serious talk just like at church.
But I was not allowed to laugh at church. Because they didn’t see God as the laughing silly Grandmother who lets you sit on her lap even when you are 12 and too big. They saw God as the angry Father who demands respect. Father as in “wait ’til your Father gets home”. Father as in “head of the household”, stern and proper. But the edges between these two possible images blurred a little on days when the sprinkling happened, because sprinkling in my real life was something that happened when Mum was watering the garden. We would come up and make funny voices at her and tease her until she laughed and turned the hose on us. Then we would squeal and run away and come up again trying to make her do it again. And sprinkling was racing Dad into the waves on a hot summer evening, kicking up the salt-spray with our feet and he would always overtake us and plunge in first, he could swim like a fish and let all of us try to crowd on his back while he swam under water. Sometimes it was the “underwater bus” and he swam quietly past the fish as we clung to each other and other times it was one at a time and he would try to shake us off. Sprinkling was play, sprinkling was silly, sprinkling was being accepted by the bigger people.
My missal tells me that water “gives fruitfulness to the fields, and refreshment and cleansing to man (sic).” and refers me to all the “Old Testament” stories of the Red Sea parting to let people through and water gushing from the rock to give them life. In the Sprinkling, the hostile waves of Patriarchy parted and I walked through into another world where God’s reality collided with who I really was, not who someone else tried to make me be. In that desert place of estrangement from my tradition and inability to adequately answer my call to ministry I drank unexpected water from a rock, when feminists broke open the texts to give life-giving water. Life-giving because it was what I was made of (over half of my body is water). Life giving because I am someone who cries, sweats, salivates, bleeds, and once had the potential to lactate and give birth.
I could rewrite the final prayer of the rite of sprinkling with water if I borrow an image from Colleen Fulmer.
May Washerwoman God, loving Grandmother, with much laughter and play,
wash away all that hurts us or holds us back from her table:
which we are called to set for the whole world and all creation,
which we are called to supply and serve at,
and at which we will sit and celebrate on earth
and forever more. Amen.