Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a novel that takes the form of a letter or journal that a dying, elderly Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, writes to his 7-year old son in 1956 – written so that one day the boy will know something about his father’s life and character.
In this passage (pp. 24-26), Rev. John Ames reflects on a moment from his own childhood.
Now, this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is. We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats.
It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress — there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unsaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.
Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks… We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal.
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.