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A Living Offering

In the February issue of First Things, Matthew Milliner, who teaches art history at Wheaton College, has a striking reflection on the birth and baptism of his daughter.

He and his wife had lost a young child at birth some years before. They had named him "Clement."  For thirteen years they prayed for another child, before being graced with the birth of Mary (whom they lovingly call "Polly").

Milliner meditates on the baptismal ceremony:

“By a virginal birth Mother Church bears the children she conceives by God’s breathing,” reads the inscription at the famous St. John Lateran baptistery in Rome. Architectural historians have even suggested that early Christian fonts were deliberately shaped like wombs.

But they also resembled coffins. “That saving water was at once your grave and your mother,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The oldest surviving baptismal font at Dura Europos is covered by the same arcosolium found in burial places; and it is not a coincidence that the first great freestanding baptisteries resembled mausolea, the architecture of the dead. My daughter had been wrenched from the cords that threatened to smother her new life, only here to undergo a different, mysterious death.

To this I was oblivious. As the bishop handed Polly back to me, I instinctually did what I always did. I took back the daughter that God had given me after so much praying and hoping, and pressed her head up to my nose—only to receive an unwelcome shock. She had been chrismated as well, and the aggressive aroma of holy oil, not precious baby head, blasted into my nostrils like smelling salts.

“You have dedicated her to God, and He has taken the offering.” So wrote John Henry Newman to his friend Edward Pusey upon the death of Pusey’s infant daughter. I knew the same counsel applied to our dead child Clement, but I hadn’t considered that it could apply to our living one as well.

I should have thought twice before going through with the baptism. She is no longer mine.

The full article (subscribers only) is available here.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Wow... I will read the whole account...

As a father who rmembers so well seeing that "coming forth" of my daughter and our total gratitude, joy, worry, and hope, I'll have to think about how I think about this imagery.

What my wife and I ecall lovingly with her (at 20) is how, after all the hospital visitors and  arriving home alone and awaiting others, we put her on the floor in ouor living room, help hands, said a grateful prayer, and then said, "Now what do we do??" She and the Spirit have showed us....


When I click on the link it provides access to the entire article, but I won't tell First Things!

It is behind the paywall; as a nonsubscriber, I was unable to see it. 

Much as I found myself compelled by the clip provided here (and with the caveat that I wasn't able to read the entire story), I've never believed that my son or the two who came before him were "mine."

We always talk glibly about MY son, daughter, kids. But, really, they're not ours. Their souls are their own. God made them from our biological material, and we may see in them our eyes or noses, or see them doing the same dumb or generous things we did at their ages, if we are lucky enough to see them survive their births.

But all parents are only guardians. None of us are good enough for the job. But we're all God's got. And doing the job makes us better.


Rightly humbling stuff.   And well said JHR.

Whatever believe one holds adolescence jars us into reality. At this time with each day, week, month  and year, the education of the parent begins. But as the saying goes "blood is thicker than water." All the literature states that one must prefer God over father, mother, brother and sister. The bond of Christians is ideally more special than that of family. The reality is more sobering. As even  many clergy, religious and other "conscecrated" persons prefer the human family over the Christian one. What is it all about?

In the original post I mistakenly re-baptized Mr. Milliner as "Michael;" I have now corrected it to reflect the name chosen by his parents.

My thanks to an eagle-eyed reader for his gracious and fraternal correction.

I appreciate JHR'sremark and am confused by Bill's...Attributed to Anne Lamott and probably others.

"Being a parent means always wearing your heart outside your body."

That's the truth! Scriptural or not.

I appreciate JHR'sremark and am confused by Bill's...Attributed to Anne Lamott and probably others.

"Being a parent means always wearing your heart outside your body."

That's the truth! Scriptural or not.


I am attempting to say that our tendency to control our children stems from the symbiosis of physical relationship. Which if not controlled has led to terrible wreckage of children's lives. That tendency is usually not controlled. From that I made the jump to how we usually do not transcend our physical family to prefer our spiritual family. Which is more important and according to the will of God. So "blood is thicker than water" applys to the aberation of parental control as well as the distortion of spiritual values. This is why Jesus said:  “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple."

I surely agre with the control part being the great temptation as well as making them "into one's own image and likeness." Yet the notion of "spiritual family" surely includes as primary those whom has co-gnerational role and relationship that may be/have been daily.. spiritually and emotionally compelling...

In my mind, "spiritual family" only wiens the circle but never supplants the rest... but I thinnk I ma stop commenting on this thread...


Bill, are you paraphrasing Matthew 10:37? Isn't the admonition that anyone who loves his mother/daughter/father/son MORE than Jesus unable to follow him as a disciple? Hating people strikes me as going against the Prime Directives, to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself (though I still cleave to the old Unitarian version, to love God with all your heart BY loving your neighbor as yourself).



I once saw a movie made for TV about demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa. A white woman was on her way out of the house, going to a demonstration, risking beatings and arrests. Her 13-years old daughter was scared for her mother and complained to her that she might not come back after the demonstration is things went wrong, and that should think about her family first, and taking care of her daughter. Her mother said that she had to do it for the benefit of her entire generation, and went anyway. What kind of a mother is that?

Then there was the story of St Perpetua, recently discussed, who preferred to be baptized a Christian and die a martyr rather than nurse her baby and raise the child. What kind of a mother is that?

There are some parents - not many - who get so involved with activities outside the house that their children are not cared for as closely as they could be, and some of them may suffer from mild neglect.

There is the devout women, a mother of six, who was telling the priest that it was difficult for her to get to church on Sunday for Mass, and who got told by him that her role was not to go to Mass but to stay at home and take care of her children.

On the other side, there are all the parents who, during the Occupation, were too frightened to help Jewish people in need, and prudently refrained out of a sense of the need to protect their children from possible harm. There are also the self-sacrificial mothers who become slaves to their family and who, instead of being their own self, live only by serving their children and would not consider doing anything that was not for them in one way or another. There are the people who narrow their world to their family, generous to an extreme within the family, but deaf to needs or calls for justice outside the family.

These are the examples and counterexamples that are on my mind when I ponder those words, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple."

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