Not an oratorio by Handel, but the christening of a friend’s sister’s twins, which I attended on Sunday in Mestre (the industrial horror you pass through just before you reach Venice).
A word on ‘baptation’. It’s a rather splendid neologism coined by a dim-witted Bulgarian friend of mine who has only a slender grasp of the English language, but the more customary English words, baptism and christening, couldn’t in any case do justice to the sheer extravagance of yesterday’s event. It began as a nearly interminable church ceremony, conducted in Romanian according to the Romanian Orthodox rite, and continued as a marathon knees-up at a restaurant in Padua (an event of which the twins, though present, will remember nothing at all).
As for Scylla and Charybdis, that’s what they were called (though probably only by me)before their baptism. Now they’ve become Madalina and Cristian.
I love ritual, at least as long as I’m aware of its dangers. It’s an essential component of many persuasive experiences, but it has the power to drag you in to any political, religious or military ideology. It can provide you with a (sometimes spurious) sense of belonging, whether that’s religious or only cultural. But it can numb the intellect, too, and it speaks most eloquently to the vulnerable. It wraps you up in nonsense, which may be consoling, even if also proscriptive.
Despite all this, ritual is the only component of religion that appeals to me, and I’ll go along with it, and be moved by it, even if the words are utterly nonsensical. Better, in this case, that the words be beyond reach, as they were yesterday, in Romanian. Ritual is a kind of performance art, and as long as you keep your distance from the dogma that comes with it, you can enjoy it more or less safely. The music, the lustre, these can be gorgeous. After all, we need something out of the ordinary to mark the big moments of birth, marriage and death.
Yesterday’s Christening was the second highly emotive, but incomprehensible event I’ve attended at a Romanian Orthodox church, the first, sadly at the other end of the spectrum, was the funeral of a young colleague who drowned accidentally in the Black Sea.
If you’re going to do something ritualistic, you might as well do it in spades. At the Mestre church we endured a two-hour service, complete with all the bells and whistles – incense, candles, flowers, music, chant. The twins were stripped and rubbed all over with olive oil steeped in aromatic herbs, then fully immersed in a zinc font of warm water. They were swaddled, brandished and laid on the altar steps (only the boy, though, was taken on a quick tour of that special place behind the iconostasis). There was further anointing, wrapping, unwrapping, and the service ended with a kind of processional dance around the font and, incongruously, suddenly the singing of Happy Birthday in Romanian. The priest also lectured us all, but with a special focus on the dozen or so godparents, on the ways in which Satan might interfere with the godly life, and listed a large number of ‘European’ sins to abjure, many of which I commit gladly and regularly. It was a relief to have understood little of it.
At the Moldovan restaurant in Padua, the party lasted from four in the afternoon until midnight. There were two servings of dinner to around sixty guests, with wine, cognac, speeches, dancing, cake, cash gifts from godparents to the children, braided bread and other presents being given in return. All through it, the twins slept peacefully, or just occasionally howled. The music, including the singing of a man who sang at Ilie and Svetlana’s wedding in Moldova, was completely deafening.
A Church of England christening would probably be over in half an hour or so, and afterwards you’d be lucky to get a cup of tea, a cucumber sandwich or a glass of sherry. The English make light of family joy and tragedy, preferring competitive sports and other hobbies. We keep our emotions tucked away somewhere out of sight until they can conveniently be forgotten. In any case, if it’s not done extravagantly, or emotionally, ritual is just an embarrassment Think of the watery rituals of the English Church and of the insipid Justin Welby.
Actually, there’s a lot to be said for the Moldovan way.
So, welcome to this world, Madalina and Cristian! Be good, but don’t listen to that priest.