“I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry. . . I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites . . .”
“And now our feet are standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
But that’s a sacrilege,” the priest said flatly, after I described taking the Eucharist at St. Mary’s.
Stunned and deeply offended, I didn’t know what to say. I was on the telephone with Father Keller, the interim pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, who was organizing the RCIA class for the coming year. I had introduced myself, and he had explained the mechanics of the class and the meaning of the acronym—Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. And then he asked me, routinely, why I wanted to become a Catholic. And I couldn’t help myself, I blurted out the whole story of my decisive communion a few weeks earlier.
Trembling, after our conversation ended, I picked up the telephone again and called My Father’s House, a Catholic Retreat Center in Moodus, Connecticut, and asked to speak with Father McCarthy.
“I’m sorry, he’s not here,” a woman’s voice answered. “May I take a message?”
“Could I—may I speak with Helen then, please?” I faltered, remembering the woman who had been kind to me, who had given me permission to take the Eucharist at the Center two years before.
A brief silence. “She’s not here either. Actually, Helen doesn’t volunteer here anymore. May I help you, dear?”
And then of course I broke down and told her everything—the history of my visits to My Father’s House; my experiences receiving the Eucharist there and at St. Mary’s; and then my shock, following the pronouncement of Father Keller.
She listened quietly, without interrupting, and only seemed to wince a little when I mentioned Helen.
“Oh, she shouldn’t have told you that,” she said softly, so softly I wasn’t sure I had heard.
“See, what I thought was,” I added, hurriedly describing my idea that Father McCarthy himself might bring me into the Church, that I could read what he assigned me and be confirmed at My Father’s House. But the woman didn’t seem interested in my inspiration. Instead, when she had my attention, she told me a story about herself, almost as if it had been an afterthought—a story about how she herself had been unable to receive the Eucharist for many years because of an irregularity, I think now it must have been in her marriage. For something like fifteen years this woman had attended daily Mass without communicating. And when I asked her, faintly, how she had borne it, she only laughed a little and said it wasn’t so hard.
After this second conversation ended—after the woman promised to pray for me and to give my number to Father McCarthy—I sat at my desk with my hand on the telephone for a long time, while the medicine of these paired conversations took its full effect.
I acknowledged, in other words, what the Spirit was saying to me. Remembering the passage in Scripture that begins, “Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?,” I understood that I had been allowed to receive the Eucharist at a time when not being allowed to receive it might have been more than I could bear. And I understood that I was stronger now, and something more stringent and exacting was being asked.
I also understood—with difficulty I admitted the evidence—that I had known when I did it that it was wrong for me to take the Eucharist at St. Mary’s. But of course it was one thing to admit such a thing privately to oneself. It was quite another thing to be accused by someone else—!
As it turned out, Father McCarthy never did call me back. I quietly dropped my idea about being confirmed at My Father’s House. And as for the Eucharist, I accepted that it wasn’t mine yet to receive. So the first crisis passed. I encountered my perennial enemy—not Father Keller but my pride. And with a little help I eluded him, gained a small foothold, and went on, like the Israelites entering Canaan, one contested region at a time.
Next was the class itself. We met on a Wednesday evening in one of two formal parlors in the priory, a yellow brick building adjacent to St. Mary’s, where the Dominican friars lived. Father Keller sat in a large chair in front of a fireplace, and the rest of us sat on a red sofa under a window, and on stiffly placed chairs in a circle. The room was somber and masculine, old-fashioned and dark. There was an Oriental carpet on the floor. There were leaded windowpanes and heavy drapes. On one wall was a large oil painting of the Church. Over the fireplace, which was walled up with black marble, was a freestanding, elongated crucifix.
There were maybe fifteen of us that first night: men and women, old and young. There was a black woman named Adrianna who worked at the Yale library. There were Yale students: a blonde girl, a stout young man. There was a woman whose fiancé had been raised in the Church. There was an Asian man, a female attorney, a middle-aged schoolteacher, myself. One by one we introduced ourselves, in stumbling uncertain phrases, while Father Keller sat in his large chair with his feet a little off the ground.
Normally, in uncomfortable situations, my instinct is to say something, anything at all, to break the tension and make people laugh. But not that night. There was a prohibition in the air that even I didn’t dare cross. There was a breathlessness that was almost dizzying, an impression of nerves strained to the breaking point. Finally, as if she had done it for all of us, Adrianna started violently from the sofa, wrung her hands strangely and protested that she had a fever, that she couldn’t breathe, and only after Father Keller soothed and reassured her, only after he brought her a glass of water and asked the rest of us if we needed anything, were we able to continue more equably, in an atmosphere a little less charged.
Still, it was difficult, at least I found it so. The priest talked and we listened, and my heart sank as I listened.
He was a small man in his late thirties, like a doll in his white habit, with a perfectly round, nearly bald head, protruding rash-roughened cheeks, pale eyes behind glasses, and a small downturned mouth. Speaking without notes, he spoke rapidly and well, playing with his scapular as he talked, alternately lifting and smoothing its wide white band. Sometimes he spoke gently, as when he brought the water to Adrianna. Occasionally he laughed: a loud, mordant laugh. But mostly he was disagreeable, confrontational, and unexpectedly sarcastic, and I noticed, among other things, how his face darkened at opposition, as if the enemies of the Church were in the room.
The others, though, seemed not to mind. They wrote down everything he said, and laughed nervously at his sardonic asides, and a few of them even seemed frankly delighted by his outspoken resentments, as if his militant orthodoxy were exactly the strong medicine they had in mind.
Eventually, he brought out the thick new Catechism and explained its four-part organization to us—how it was structured around the Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. And then he announced that, beginning on a Thursday in two weeks, he would be teaching a second class as well, on the Ten Commandments, or the Moral Law, that he strongly urged us to attend.
And again, my heart sank, as I wondered if this was his specialty. Why not a class on the sacraments? Or on prayer?
Before we ended he did pray for us, with unexpected fervor and warmth. But before he prayed, when people were paying for their Catechisms and an information sheet was being passed around, I leaned over and said quietly to the attorney next to me—a tall woman with a haggard face and wild, hennaed hair—that my husband was an attorney, too, and where did she practice? And in answer she threw me a look of such terror I withdrew in embarrassed confusion.
A week later, I found the second class even more discouraging than the first. There were more people in the priory that night—by the following spring, the class would be the largest ever received in the parish—but while Father Keller welcomed the newcomers and seemed on abrasively genial terms with everyone else, there was no avoiding the conclusion that he disliked me. Right from the beginning he seemed to suspect me as something subversive, and on my side I feared him as a kind of Christian leader I had seen before. Stung by his brisk dismissals when I asked a question or raised a concern, I noticed how his face brightened when others contributed. Registering his disapproval, I remembered Siafa and Hugh, their so-called International Church at Yale and its evangelical Board—so partial to the word Jezebel and a theology of female subservience—and my unhappiness and feelings of alienation intensified. Much of that second class was devoted to the subject of Catholic etiquette—in particular, Father Keller stressed with what respect and deference we should always treat a priest—and I listened to this in fear and alarm, with accelerating anxiety and a strong impression of déjà vu, again remembering former tormenters and their favorite themes.
Really, it was hard for me to understand by this point how I could continue on this path at all. Groping for alternatives—for another parish from which I could be received—I visited St. Thomas More, the Catholic Chapel at Yale. And after I spoke with the priest—a jocular, evasive man—he handed me over to a sister, a religious quite unlike any I had met before or since, who received me in a basement office in an elegant suit, and then drew back when I broke down on her sofa.
She was a woman a little older than myself, with carefully coiffed and colored hair, and she sat aloof and immaculate with her lips in a thin line while I macerated the Kleenex on her coffee table.
What a mess I must have seemed to her! Labile and vulnerable, shaken to my very core and absolutely ripe for conversion, but also terrified of being deceived and of surrendering, again, to what might hurt me. And on her side, she was so guarded and strategic in her relationship with the Church! She was so resistant and stealthily patient, and she watched me so warily as I wept, as if she were trying to determine, by the things I blurted out, if I were friend or foe.
Eventually she began to advise me, in carefully chosen, ambiguous phrases, and I listened confusedly and uneasily, trying to understand what she meant, almost as if we had been speaking different languages.
Much later, I would come to understand that there were many like her in the generation ahead of me in the Church: women waiting to be ordained; consecrated individuals expecting the rule of celibacy to be lifted soon. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that by leaving St. Mary’s and coming to the basement of St. Thomas More, I had taken a wrong turn. So I went back to St. Mary’s, like a nervous woman circling her spouse. I went back to the uncomfortable priory and its breathless, electrical atmosphere; back to Father Keller’s uncensored emotions and abrasive pronouncements and what seemed to me the alienating docility of the rest of the class. Someone asked Father Keller that night about attending other churches: Could we, or shouldn’t we? And when he said that we shouldn’t, that it wouldn’t help us and would only confuse us, the others accepted this good-naturedly, but I was offended and upset. Even though this was precisely the guidance I had received myself when I prayed, I had difficulty accepting the same advice, coming from him—!
That same night, in passing, he said something else, which almost finished me. He was speaking about the sacraments we would be receiving at Easter: baptism and confirmation for those who had never been baptized; confirmation for those who had been baptized in other churches. And he called confirmation the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. He described baptism as a new birth, and confirmation as the conferring of the Spirit. And I grew dizzy when he said this, and confused, as if the floor and my whole past relationship with Jesus had been kicked away.
Because had I not received the gift of the Spirit already? Had I not been familiar with the third person of the Trinity for many years?
He only mentioned this briefly; we weren’t studying the sacraments yet. He summarized the teaching and moved on to something else. The focus was on Karen that night, the attorney who was Jewish and would be baptized in the spring. But I sat distressed and disoriented as the class continued without me, because I couldn’t integrate this claim with my experience. And just as I felt brushed off already on a personal level, now I felt brushed off theologically, as if my past, and everything that had happened to me in the years before I came to St. Mary’s, had been swept aside.
But I didn’t dare say anything, or question him. Even small things by this point I was afraid to bring up in class, for fear of putting myself—so I experienced the situation—in harm’s way.
So I drove down to St. Mary’s the following day to say good-bye. I sat in a pew in the back by myself and I said that I was sorry, and I cried a little. But I was calm, too, because I had made up my mind. It was just too risky, I had decided. And besides, it didn’t make sense. And there was no one—
But the new pastor—the thought interrupted me silently—will be a sign for you . . .
The church was empty and dark, deeply shadowed, with flickering candles. It was late afternoon, and even the stained windows were dark, and the high arches overhead had disappeared. At the far end, near the altar, there was a light on a statue of Mary. And there were a few lamps in between, shining softly, like lights in a storm.
But of course the church was not empty, which was a problem with my plan. In fact, in the same pew as myself, Jesus was sitting that afternoon, in silence, as if he had come down from the Tabernacle as a merciful concession to my lack of understanding, and was waiting patiently, a little distance away. And as I realized this gradually—as I became aware of him waiting—he turned his head, fixed grave eyes on me, and said, Please.
That was all that he said.
But the way that he said it—!
That night, a Thursday night, was Father Keller’s first class on the Law. And though I had had no intention of going, I drove down again to St. Mary’s after supper, almost without emotion, in dumb obedience.
This class met in the unrenovated basement of the church—a vast, unventilated space that underlay the whole nave, and that smelled of mold, deteriorating wallboard, and natural gas. On the far side of an interminable wooden floor an old-fashioned blackboard had been set up, and a few exposed rows of folding chairs. Father Keller was there, with a piece of chalk in his hand, talking with two men in the front row. And on the blackboard was a single word: Beatitudino.
So I came in and sat down, in one of the many empty chairs. I crossed the interminable echoing floor and sat down in a chair in a back row, and within a few minutes of my sitting down, Father Keller turned and began to teach. And then the wind of the Spirit blew up suddenly and pressed me powerfully against my seat, so powerfully I couldn’t have left if I’d wanted to. It was like a great airplane suddenly accelerating after interminable taxiing and delays, so I was essentially strapped in my seat by the velocity of the wind and the Spirit’s power. Beatitudino was the word in front of me, and Father Keller was the person pointing—he was writing other words underneath, but kept referring everything back to this one word—and whether I was ready or not we were taking off toward this goal, by a route wholly unexpected: Happiness!
And in the wind in my ears, as we suddenly lifted and my old life fell away, I heard the words, like an echo infinitely reiterated over time:
This is my son . . . listen to him.
So I struggled on: temporarily elated by these supernatural encouragements; discouraged again as they faded from view and the difficulties of the class reasserted themselves. In early October the class moved into the nave of the church, which helped a little. But nothing helped for very long.
Week after week, I came to the church and I suffered, as the conflict or collision between everything I wanted and everything that still held me back, between my desire to surrender and my terror of being deceived, generated a friction so great it was as if I literally burst into flames and suffered a small portion of my purgatory here on earth.
Sometimes, coming in, I couldn’t believe how intense it was—this sensation of burning, as if I had been thrown, hand and foot, into a fire. My phlebitis flared up, together with other inflammatory illnesses, and an anxiety so overwhelming I could barely sit through the class. Sometimes it was something Father Keller said that set me off. Other times it was nothing, or anything: Just the question of where to sit could bring my anxiety to the surface. Should I sit in the rear, where I could disappear? But I didn’t want to disappear! And so on.
Sometimes, struggling to get through this, I came up with grandiose ways of understanding it: I was being asked to suffer at the hands of the Church, for example. Or I was doing this for Jesus.
Meanwhile, at home, my family was sick, too, with flu and complications from the flu. My daughter, that fall, had the flu and the chicken pox together, and an eye infection so virulent she actually bled from her eyes. And my husband, in the aftermath of this illness, suffered a crisis of his own, and began to see a psychologist regularly who lived a considerable distance away. So he was gone a great deal, and hostile and depressed when he was home. And home ceased to be—indeed I sometimes wondered if it had ever been—a place of safety and peace, mutual understanding and shared goals.
And my friends were gone, too, including the Yale students who had also survived the International Church and had been part of a small Christian community we called the messengers. The McCormicks, older Episcopalians whose discernment I had trusted for years, were literally in Siberia. The Bodines might as well have been. In fact the Bodines, Vineyard-influenced evangelicals who were anticipating revival at Yale, eventually returned to the International Church and realigned themselves with Siafa and Hugh. And I lost my voice and my music and even my way of prayer. I had a bad case of laryngitis that was a metaphor for that whole fall, like Ezekiel when he was bound and his speech was taken away. All those prayers, for example, that the messengers had been accustomed to pray—spontaneous, emotional prayers—and the music that we had loved disappeared into the fire, as if they had been something impure, or a species of showing off. If the messengers had been about becoming small, this seemed to be about disappearing altogether, losing everything and starting over on the lowest rung, in the last place.
And the Church, overseeing this, neither flinched nor apologized. She offered no short cuts and no premature consolations. She mitigated neither the difficulties nor the loneliness, and this was true even though there were many of us together in one place.
Sometimes, sitting in the class at night, facing the altar in rows while Father Keller taught from the aisle, I had the impression that each of us was alone with the doctrines he was enunciating. Each of us, by whatever route we had come there, was finally free to decide whether we believed them or not. There was no hustle or group think. The Church was dogmatic, I began to understand, but not coercive. Indeed there was little sense of a group at all in the beginning, but rather a horizontal abrasiveness that was an effective bar on our intimacy, as we repelled one another instinctively, like particles similarly charged.
In fact, not only was there no pressure and even little encouragement to come in, what pressure there was in the class actually ran the other way. “Which of you,” Jesus asks in a rough, cautionary vein, in words that might have been spoken by Father Keller in one of his blunt, discouraging moods, “desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? . . . So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
My husband’s sympathy, according to this calculation, I had to let go of now: his solicitude and his objections, both cut from the same cloth. I couldn’t listen to him—the voice of doubt!—or complain to him about Father Keller or the class, because anything negative I said he seized on and made of it something I wasn’t sure that I meant. So I learned to be quiet, and finally stopped complaining to him altogether, his ready concurrence was so confusing, and instructive, in a negative way. I could criticize Father Keller—maybe! But I wasn’t comfortable with the same criticism coming from my husband, who was outside the whole process and didn’t understand what was painfully clearer to me all the time: namely, that just because I was suffering didn’t mean the Church was wrong.
Late in October an older Dominican arrived at the priory. His name was Father Carleton Jones and he had been an Episcopal priest before, and he was as different from Father Keller, physically and temperamentally, as it was possible for a human being to be. He was the new pastor of the parish, and Father Keller was now his assistant, which was a great relief to me on one level, though not so great as if he had arrived a few weeks earlier. Because by the time he arrived I had progressed to a point where, when I met with him in the priory to unburden myself about the class, it was an actual trepidation I felt, and a curious protectiveness of Father Keller, as I began anxiously, “Father, I understand that what I’m about to say says as much about me as about Father Keller . . .” And he laughed silently—this supernaturally tall priest who gave an impression of being above every fray—and I realized with relief that he understood me better than I understood myself, that he was ahead of me on this road and would place no stumbling blocks in my way.
He didn’t intervene, or try to make my difficulties disappear. He didn’t commiserate or gossip, or make my problems greater than they were, or smaller. He simply listened and waited and finally ventured, as if it had been a non sequitur—and a door swung open as he spoke so I was able to see, with almost a sob of relief, a Church larger than the shortcomings of all her members—“Pat,” he said, settling deeper into his chair, “in the Church you will find such a home . . .”
That night, after this conversation in the priory, I dreamed a brief, vivid dream: that I was moving a crushed person from one place to another, a person so smashed and compacted she was more like a fire hydrant, or a suitcase. But unexpectedly, in the new location, the person turned out not to be dead. Somehow, in that inert, drastically reduced mass, life was stirring. And then the dream became a voice, and the voice said, “In the presence of the Eucharist, everything will come to light.”
Another dream from those days: I am wrapped like a mummy, lying in the bottom of a small boat, which my husband is maneuvering with an oar. And the horror of this dream is that, bound as I am, I can’t protect myself from even the smallest buffets and jars. But again, when they unwrap me, though I am one wound from head to foot, I am still alive.
Meanwhile, all fall, my dreams about having to cross water in order to get home, dreams that started when the messengers were meeting, continued as mysterious and unresolved as ever. There was still the same impassable water in these dreams, the same unbroken sea, as there was still myself in Father Keller’s class, still resistant and frightened, easily offended and upset, in the grip of a fear I couldn’t seem to relinquish, like a fever that wouldn’t break.
There was drought again that fall, carrying over from the summer. And as I walked the perimeter of our withered yard and calculated the depth of our well, I was aware, like a sleepwalker who knows that she sleeps, that I was as powerless to shift my state in Father Keller’s class and to wake myself up as to make rain fall from the sky. Still afraid of the Church—afraid that she was against me and not for me—I sometimes felt that I had traveled all the way back to childhood, where suffering had made me a pariah and an object of persecution, when Father Keller baited me in exasperation and tears sprang to my eyes.
Days passed and little changed, or rather things were reduced to their essences. It was November by this point, and still it hadn’t rained. I tasted dirt in our well water and there were grubs in our grass, which skunks tore up methodically, turning our pleasant yard to pasture.
And then finally something happened, which all of this difficulty seemed to be building toward: something sobering and a little uncanny that came with the late rain, when truth slipped into the open, like an animal flushed from its hole.
In the middle of November, Father Keller asked to see our baptismal certificates. All of us who had been validly baptized in other Christian churches were candidates for confirmation. But he wanted proof of our baptisms, in the form of a certificate or other written testimony. Predictably, this annoyed me: the literalness of the requirement, and its seeming condescension. Our word, in other words, wasn’t good enough for him?
“I was raised in the Episcopal church, Father,” I said irritably after class. “I have a photograph of myself being confirmed.”
“Do you have a photograph of yourself being baptized?” he asked neutrally, glancing at me briefly as he sorted a pile of books.
Flushing, I turned away.
The following Wednesday, the day of the next class, I realized that I had forgotten about the baptismal certificate. It had been raining all week—heavy rain, with flooding—and it was still raining that evening when I telephoned my mother in Maine. I was upstairs in a small bedroom that was partly a small porch made of glass, and I was standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows with the phone in my hand, waiting for my mother to answer.
“Mom? . . .”
Again I was waiting, watching the rain on the black glass, while she searched for the certificate in a drawer.
“Yes, I found it,” she said finally, coming back on the line. “I have it right here.”
“Could you mail it to me?”
But she was reading it out loud, though I hadn’t asked her to, which seemed strange. I was impatient and late for class, as she read slowly, “This certifies that Patricia Jeannette . . . child of John F. Snow and his wife Patricia Daley, born on the 15th day of September 1951 . . . let’s see . . . received Christian baptism on the 20th day of August 1952 at First Universalist Church—”
And then it hit me from behind, like the lash of a strong tail, and weakness flooded my lower body, a weakness I knew by heart.
“Universalist,” I repeated unsteadily, trying to understand. “Mom, what are you saying?”
“Yes, you remember Lily, Grandmamma’s friend at the beach. She had a son, Peter, who had a church in Providence.”
Was she nervous? Or defensive? I couldn’t tell. I was completely at sea.
“But Mom, we were Episcopalian. Why didn’t you baptize me Episcopalian?”
“Well, we didn’t know anyone in Boston. We had just driven back East. And then you were born, just a few weeks later.”
“But Universalist! Isn’t that like Unitarian? I don’t think they’re really Christian—!”
“Well, it says Christian baptism,” she said defensively.
“But I don’t think they believe in the Trinity!”
“Well,” she said after a moment, “I don’t know about that. It was a beautiful ceremony. Very simple. You didn’t cry, I remember. I cried. But you didn’t . . .”
Driving down to St. Mary’s in the rain after this conversation, I had difficulty seeing my way. I was so upset, and there was water everywhere—busting out of gutters, flooding the roads. In front of the church the bluestone paving was under water, and water was spilling down the stone steps and umbrellas were draining in the vestibule, where the fonts of holy water seemed superfluous, like a small signature of a general theme. And then the class itself was so difficult for me to sit through, for different reasons from before.
“Don’t worry about it, Patricia,” Father Keller tried to say to me afterward, attempting to reassure me. “If there’s a problem, we’ll baptize you.”
Meanwhile, at home, my husband had taken our small daughter upstairs to bed. They climbed the narrow stairs, and on the landing, as she ran off, he glanced into the room where I had been talking with my mother on the telephone. And on the floor in front of the black windows, lifting its small head, was a snake.
When I came home, later that night, my husband didn’t tell me what had happened. Upstairs in the room with the windows I smelled an odd fetid smell. But it wasn’t until the next morning that my husband told me about the snake, and how he had killed it—with books—while our daughter watched wide-eyed from the other room.
In the difficult days that followed, it was this curious detail about the books that kept me from losing my composure completely. It was this small element of the ridiculous—almost of farce—that undercut the horror, made me laugh unexpectedly, and so kept the crisis in bounds.
But that first morning, when I was alone in the house, my fear was great enough. I telephoned Christy McCormick in Siberia and reached her husband, Dan. But like my husband he was vaguely patronizing and also strongly irritated by my fear, and again, as at St. Thomas More, I realized that I had taken a wrong turn. Anyone can baptize you, was the point he seemed to be making, and Someone is lying to you, meaning the Church, I suppose, but I didn’t agree. So I went back to the Church. Where else could I go? A little before noon I drove down again in the rain and reascended the steep steps as a priest descended on my right, like a shadow in the drumming downpour. And I ran after him. I actually ran.
“Please,” I said, taking hold of his cloak from behind and bursting into tears, “Can you help me?”
In one of the parlors in the priory he left me, while he went to look for Father Keller. But failing to find him, he came back and sat with me himself for a long time. He was a relatively young priest named Father Shannon, another Dominican, since dead. May God reward him for the great charity he showed me that day! Just once in the three hours that followed he glanced at his watch, only to remove it very quietly as his last chance for lunch slipped away.
And on my side I tried to explain to him what I had been trying to explain to someone all fall, but missing this key that had been pressed unexpectedly into my hand. I told him about my marriage and mysterious illnesses; about sessions with therapists and healers, when things literally churned up from the depths; about the session with Solihan and its terrifying intimation of a curse, disclosed in a swampy, fetid atmosphere, the same that I had smelled last night.
And my dreams—! It was only as I was trying to explain all of this to him that I realized suddenly what my dreams meant, the dreams about having to cross water in order to get home: I had never been properly baptized.
And when I saw this, and how all of the locutions agreed (You need the sacraments; In the presence of the Eucharist everything will come to light), I wanted to be baptized immediately. I felt as if I were at the center of a carefully orchestrated, very cruel design, and I wanted to be extricated from this design as soon as possible, by a precipitous baptism, as a cure for fear.
But the priest didn’t agree. He listened to me patiently, but he didn’t respond as I wished, and again, as with Father Jones, I received the miracle of a right response, one I couldn’t have anticipated beforehand, because I had no idea what it might be.
“You’re in the RCIA class?” he said finally, turning his raw, suffering face in my direction.
He shrugged. “It’s the perfect preparation for baptism.”
My first thought, as I tried to consider this, was that he hadn’t believed me, or taken me seriously. Yet I had been sure that he had.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” he continued peaceably, “to be baptized in the Church at Easter. It’s how it was always done, in the beginning—”
“But Father,” I interrupted fearfully, as my anxiety broke out afresh, “I’ll never make it to Easter. I won’t sleep!
“Please,” I almost begged him, “I’ve always been afraid of snakes. I’m terrified of them honestly. And this was in my bedroom—!
“No,” I ended by whimpering, “it’s too much. I can’t wait any longer. I need this to end. It’s like a cruel joke. It’s like I’ve been running with weights on! And I’m afraid. Don’t you understand, Father? I’m afraid.”
“I do understand,” he said eventually, choosing his words with evident care. “But you have to remember, there’s nothing here that God hasn’t permitted.”
Again, I was taken aback, by a confidence so apparently overdrawn. But this time I caught a glimpse of the ground in which his confidence grew. It was as if we had been playing cards and he quietly flashed me the Church’s hand, a hand so excellent—so breathtakingly excellent—there was no way, I thought confusedly, as I stared at his cards, that we could lose.
“You mean—” I started to say, struggling to fix in my memory what I had seen—
“Personally,” he said quietly, “I’m very glad you’ll be baptized in the Church.”
“You mean—” And I really was crying now, as the ramifications of what he had said were beginning to light up whole stretches of my past— “You mean to say that you think that God has been over all this?”
“Oh, yes,” he said decisively, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. And as he said this, with a gesture that was almost flippant, it was as if the Church herself reached out and pulled me into a dramatically expanded, comprehensive world, where I touched a faith, and a synthesis, greater than anything I had encountered in Christendom.
We talked of other things, too, after I let the question of my baptism go: about the messengers and the International Church, Episcopalians and Yale, and about my family last of all, and their attitudes to what I was doing.
When I finally left, late in the afternoon, the rain had stopped and a pink light flooded Hillhouse Avenue. I pushed out through the heavy double doors of the priory that shut like a vacuum behind me, and stood for a moment on the priory steps, aware of the Church beside me, standing in a pool of light. The clouds had lifted. The waters in the heavens had separated from the waters below, leaving the Church in between like a great rock in the street: the Church planted by immigrants in the very heart of Yale; the Church planted by Christ himself in the very heart of the world where I had passed her for years without recognizing who she was, until she proved herself the good shepherd—to me.
At home, in the weeks that followed, I was still afraid, especially at night. But it was a different fear from before, narrower and more focused, as if my uneasiness had finally found its proper object now that I understood that the Church’s disconcerting authority and vigilance were on my side.
It wasn’t lost on me, I mean to say, what the Church had accomplished already: namely, that she had uncovered this deficit that had lain hidden for more than forty years, something no Christian community in my experience had come close to doing. Only the Catholic Church, apparently, took baptism seriously enough that she had mandatory procedures in place, objective strategies for determining the sacramental needs of people who came to her.
It wasn’t lost on me, either, the part played by the individual priest: by Father Keller in my case, doggedly doing his job, scrutinizing my situation and enduring my displeasure, as he made sure that I had what I needed.
The awkward truth is, when I first came to the Church, I came with an air of exhilaration and grandiosity. I came with a sense of myself as a gift, like the Queen of Sheba approaching Solomon with her retinue of camels and gold. Then, when things turned difficult—when I felt held at arm’s length and more suspected than appreciated—I still managed to salvage my self-importance by deciding that I was coming in sacrificially, to suffer at the hands of another misogynist church.
Then the snake appeared, and my imaginations were overturned. I recognized my real enemy, that the Church had flushed into the open, and I recognized the real Church, whose capacities absolutely exceeded my own. I finally understood, that day on the priory steps, that it wasn’t, this time, a case of a church or a ministry needing me, it was that I needed this Church. It wasn’t that I was doing her a favor, but she who was opening her treasury for me, and this wasn’t an intellectual conclusion but a life-changing shock of recognition, as powerful as the shock I received when I first encountered Christ at Grace’s services years before. I encountered him again, in the house where he lived, and overcome, like the Queen, to where there was no more spirit in me, I capitulated completely and became a beggar before the Church.
Years later, I had a dream that belongs here, I think: a dream about a dark mysterious figure, veiled and a little frightening, from whom everyone around me was drawing back, but I was quite sure that it was Jesus. So I ran to him. That was the whole dream—the decision to run, and set aside my fears—and then I was in his arms, and it was him.
Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.