Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Did Anyone Warn You About The Oil?

Today I have a story about clothing but in order to tell it I have to admit something personal that might weird some of you out: This weekend I got baptized.

There is a whole long story about why I did it and why I chose to do it in an Episcopalian church, but the main things you need to know is that Episcopalians are really into their rituals, and this one involved a BISHOP.

This guy.

Now, as someone who came from a relatively non-hierarchical church tradition where the pastors walk around in sweaters and khakis, I find myself fascinated by the whole concept of a guy (or lady--they ordain both) who wears a pointy hat and embroidered robes and has magical hands that can bless things. I mean, outside of Harry Potter, how is that actually someone's life? So I was intrigued when I found out that my baptism was going to involve interacting with The Bishop.

A couple weeks before I was talking with someone else who was getting baptized and she asked, "Oh- has anyone told you about the oil?"

"What? No."

"Apparently the Bishop gets pretty liberal with the chrism oil and it probably won't come out of your clothes so you should plan your wardrobe accordingly."


(Side note: you know you are becoming an Episcopalian when a sentence like "The Bishop is liberal with the chrism oil" makes any sense to you whatsoever).

Basically, after the baptism, the Bishop "anoints" the person with oil. This can be as minimal as just dipping his/her thumb in the oil and making the sign of the cross on your forehead (days later, the appearance of a cross-shaped zit identifies you as a Christian to the rest of the world) or can include pouring a bit on your head, letting some drip down, and then making the sign on your forehead.

So I planned. I wore a deceptively nice outfit that was comprised of seen-better-days pieces that I dug out of the back of my closet. Although part of me was like, "I am a textile person. I think I know how to get out an oil spot."

So, night of the Easter Vigil service I get baptized first and then I step forward toward the Bishop. He sort of smiles and says, "Did they tell you about this part?" and then the congregation audibly gasps as he lifts up a glass which had like TWO CUPS of oil and proceeds to pour it all over me.

It completely covered my hair, face, neck and dripped all over my clothes. It soaked through the sweater, the tank top, and even my bra. This is what my sweater looked like when I got home:

Sitting on the towel I was given to wear around my neck for the rest of the night

At one point I leaned over to side-hug the other woman who got baptized and I felt oil ooze into my ear as we squished together. When I got back to my seat I thought maybe my skirt had been spared, but then noticed that I had managed to spill candle wax all over it. Good job greasy genius I thought to myself.

But despite the fact that this man led me through a ritual in which an entire outfit got ruined, I ended up being a fan. Before the service we got a chance to talk with him and ask him questions. He was very funny, friendly and not pompous, and spouts intriguing progressive theology through a southern drawl. And he gave a great answer to a question I asked.

I asked about my devotion to material things. As a Mennonite, I absorbed some guilt about my interest in fashion and clothing. There is actually a verse in the Bible that warns against attachment to "treasures on earth" that can be destroyed by rust and moths. And I think SHIT. Stressing about stuff getting destroyed by moths is basically my life.

In response he told a story about when he was in seminary and one of his mentors made him help this woman clean out her house. He was annoyed and didn't know what this had to do with anything, but then as she went through her deceased husbands suits, and told a story about each of them and he realized this is amazing. She ended up giving him one of the coats which he wore for years and would always think about what a gift it was to have this thing that connected him to that woman and to her husband. I bet you have stories like that, he said. And I thought about my lecture last week and how I told the story of Helen Igoe and Louise Thiry to a rapt audience, and how the attendees gasped in awe and excitement as I showed them garments that Helen and Louise had worn. These are two people who have been almost totally forgotten by history, and here I had uncovered their stories and made them real and tangible again. Caring for the collection isn't about having stuff for stuff's sake. It is stuff that tells stories about people and creates relationships with the past and to each other.

So here is a photo from Easter morning of me and style icon Bishop Greg-- Here to offer fabulous, oily blessings to all. 

1 comment:

  1. Re the oil, Queen Elizabeth II had oil placed on her head when she was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1953. Not sure how much dripped on her (ridiculously expensive) dress. You are not alone.