Now it was Lent, and we were just forty days from Easter. Heavy rains and rising temperatures washed the snow away, and on Ash Wednesday, when I drove to the church, the sky was crowded with clouds seemingly blowing on different winds—heavy cumulus clouds, and behind and between them lighter clouds like fine scarves that were darting and threading their way, like children slipping through a crowd of adults, hurrying toward the city.
Near St. Mary’s I drove around and around, trying to find a parking place. No Mass in the church year is as heavily attended as Ash Wednesday’s, when the scriptural readings are urgent and the time for excuses is over, and everyone is marked with the oily ashes of the burnt palms from the year before—the ashes of good intentions and human respect, premature celebrations and victories that turn out to be defeats because they haven’t the power of the Cross behind them.
In the church basement the night before, a somewhat lugubrious Mardi Gras celebration had taken place, with a few of us from the RCIA class in attendance. Tables had been set up and inexpensive necklaces strewn around. The Knights of Columbus were serving—watery gumbo and wilted salad—and several of the priests from the priory were there. Overall the turnout was modest, the food unpalatable, the atmosphere in the basement dingy and damp. Yet what I remember about that night is the intensity of the life that was beginning to take hold. Locked in conversation with Karen and Joanne, listening to their stories as they listened to mine, I felt myself being grafted into something whose life began to surge in my veins, a life that the dreary setting couldn’t discourage, that was vigorous and irrepressible as a baby’s cry.
Around nine o’clock Adrianna arrived with a young man from her apartment building who turned out to be Wade, one of the Yale students who used to join us in Dwight Chapel on Saturday evenings. So there were exclamations and embraces, which had to be repeated shortly afterward when my husband arrived. Wade wasn’t interested in converting, Adrianna confided to me privately. He was just lonely, so she had invited him along. Meanwhile the people around me had resumed their conversations. Karen and I were talking and Wade was sitting uneasily on my left, still visibly shaken by the news that I was becoming a Catholic.
“You call it conversion,” he said finally, after a private struggle with what I had told him. “But conversion is when you meet Christ.”
“True,” I agreed, turning back to him with a smile, “but Wade, what I’ve found in the Church is the whole Christ.”
At this point wobbly music cranked up and an elderly couple stepped out on the floor to dance. My daughter was playing with a group of children and my husband was gravitating in their direction, when Wade said something to me over the music that I couldn’t hear.
“I want to pray with you and Charles,” he repeated loudly, close to my ear.
Across the table, Adrianna was laughing delightedly. On the dance floor the children, draped with all the necklaces they had collected, had joined hands. I tried to pass over what he said but he took it upon himself to speak to Charles, who looked perplexedly in my direction.
Finally, as Wade was adamant, we went into the kitchen with him and stood together under a fluorescent light fixture, near a massive range. The kitchen was deserted and dirty. The sound of the gathering was far away. And then he prayed for us as I hadn’t heard anyone pray for a long time, with marked condescension and grandiosity, an air of superiority and self-importance, with a hand on each of our shoulders. I remember thinking he meant well and trying to enter into the spirit of what he prayed. But all I felt was alienation and the uncomfortable strength of his will, which had taken us away from the others whose activities, I belatedly realized, were prayers as well.
Schism in a nutshell, I wrote in my journal later that night, when I was still trying to identify the sensation that praying apart with Wade had produced, which was like the painful tearing of an invisible garment of unity.
Four days later, on the first Sunday of Lent, our class, together with all of the other RCIA classes from all of the other parishes in the archdiocese, went to the cathedral in Hartford for the Rite of Election, or the Enrollment of Names.
The night before, a terrific wind blew up over the state. Gusting almost to seventy miles an hour, it felled trees and crushed cars, snapped power lines and left outages everywhere. Comparable to a hurricane in its effects, it scoured the earth, pulling dead leaves out of their hiding places and hurling them in blinding dust clouds across the highways. I remember waking at five to the sound of our house thudding on its foundation, and I remember the drive in the afternoon and my husband’s struggles to hold the car on the road. In Hartford, on Asylum Street, in the shadow of the concrete cathedral that was as steep and forbidding as an ocean liner, I fought my way across the full parking lot, wrenched open a rear door and felt it shut out the wind with relief, only to have the silence immediately filled by a thunder of feet in the stairwells; a crush of humanity on tiled floors; the clamor of hundreds of refugees.
There were nearly four hundred adult catechumens and candidates for confirmation in Hartford that day, together with spouses and children, other family members and well-wishers. Downstairs, in a gleaming undercroft, we rehearsed in groups. And then we filed upstairs into the new cathedral, which was gloomy and futuristic, with an aluminum baldachino over the altar and leaden mosaics on the walls, metal stars on the ceiling and oversized windows in harsh colors—orange and red, bitter yellow and cobalt blue—that hung over us like vast icons, like enormous abstractions drifting behind steel screens.
Up to this point, I had little to compare St. Mary’s to. I hadn’t realized—though Father Keller had warned us—that a church like St. Mary’s was almost an anomaly now, as utilitarian architecture and demystified liturgical practices had taken their toll.
But it didn’t matter. The failure of aesthetics generally and even the dangerous marginalization of the tabernacle—a widespread misreading of Vatican II—couldn’t undermine for me the significance of what was happening. Far from my family, in a vast sarcophagus of echoing tile, I experienced a mystery of assimilation different from any assimilation I had experienced before, as Mass was said, intercessions were offered on our behalf, and then the whole group came in and embarked on the last stage of the catechumenate together, as if we were the Israelites in the Old Testament, crossing the desert en masse.
In the distance, as the rite continued, I saw a face that I recognized but couldn’t place.
Again, as our names were read and the lists from each parish were piled up together on the altar, I heard the name of a woman who had painted a sisal rug for me in the past, a Nancy Slocum from Newington to whom I hadn’t given a thought in years, but who was joined to me now, as the recitation continued, in the strangest intimacy.
It was like a dream I had once, about the gradual filling up of a city square. Shoulder to shoulder in the dream, those of us who were already there waited for the others to arrive, in an attitude of expectation and boredom, physical discomfort and shortened views. Standing on tiptoe in the dream, I strained to see whether the people from the Episcopal church in East Haven had come in. Losing my composure at the last, I called out names over the crowd—specific names—that I couldn’t remember upon waking.
Then it was over and we went out, and the wind snatched us and scattered us far and wide. Far into the night the wind blew—insistent, real—as if the wind that had overtaken me at Grace years before, a spiritual wind heard by no one but me, had breached a wall that restrained it and begun to make itself heard in the world.
Back in New Haven, at St. Mary’s, Lent began now in earnest, bringing me face to face with my sins. Every day in this fruitful, bewildering season I found myself in the presence of my failures and weaknesses. Every day I was dismayed and taken aback by my sins: sins of the tongue especially; the clever strategies of selfishness; the sin of force, to use Simone Weil’s word, that spends in excess of its resources and extends beyond what it is able to control. From the lectern, Isaiah upbraided me—“Do you call this a fast, / A day acceptable to the Lord?”—and in the pulpit Father Jones placed his finger on the deeper problem: not only sin in its specific variety, but what he called worldly ways of thinking.
Around me, in the pews, I was aware of the others struggling. Attendance at the various Masses increased, and the lines for the confessional grew longer. The Church is in the business of making saints, someone has said, and so it was the saints whose responsibility it was to come and help me now, taking hold of me with their strong hands and drawing me after them by their unnerving example: Dorothy Day, first of all; and then Therèse of Lisieux, to whom Day introduced me in a biography; and Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun whose seven-hundred-page diary Victor had given me as an RCIA present, the same Vic who had taken me to My Father’s House three years before.
Every night before going to bed I read a little of this diary, which was like the warp to the Catechism’s woof—one passionate individual’s response to the immutable truths of the Church—and hesitated over entries like this one:
O Jesus, I want to use every moment scrupulously for the greater glory of God, to use every circumstance for the benefit of my soul. I want to look upon everything from the point of view that nothing happens without the will of God.
O humdrum days, filled with darkness, I look upon you with a solemn and festive eye. How great and solemn is the time that gives us the chance to gather merits for eternal heaven!
In the past, as a Protestant, I had never really known any saints. In the evangelical world, the word “saint” is used loosely and the problem of sin often glossed over. But now, in the Church, I found myself close to something else: a whole community of individuals who had actually taken Christ at his word, who had made holiness a priority and taken up the cross as a key, and who looked back at me now in thoughtful anticipation, inviting me to take the same road.
Almost every day in the liturgy the Church held up one of these saints, as she held out the Host in the Eucharist—again, inviting the rest of us to choose the same road.
Sometimes, in the Church, when I looked back on my life as a Protestant, it seemed nothing but vaingloriousness and tumult, feverish ambition and display. Most of us, as Father Jones said in his sermon, want to follow Christ, but we want to be honored for it. We want the fruit, the evidence, the proof of our right thinking, here. I thought of the students in the Yale Divinity School, and their transparent hunger for vindication. I thought of Siafa and Hugh, the Bodines’ particular brand of ambition and my own. I remembered so-called Bishop Philpot flexing his legs and saying complacently, “I admire a successful ministry.” And against all of this I placed Therèse’s mild observation, as she lay dying at twenty-four: “My ministry will begin—after my death.”
On Thursday nights in the church basement Father Keller was leading us carefully through the commandments, laying the groundwork that I finally began to understand was the foundation of everything else; the work I had slid over as a Protestant; the agonizing, incremental struggle to make one’s first priority the state of one’s own soul.
Already, in the fall, I had begun to doubt, with John Henry Newman, “whether any religious body is strong enough to withstand the league of evil but the Roman Church.” But now, in the spring, I began to understand something else. Now, as Father Keller instructed us in the commandments, and the scrutinies and the minor exorcisms began to be woven together on a single loom, I began to understand that the Church’s authority over evil was inseparable from her moral authority. Now I understood that the deliverance I longed for would be inseparable from my own growth in holiness, and that this growth the Church would foster, by telling me the whole truth about sin.
“Why is it that the demons are so grievously afraid of you?” a man asks a monk in a small book I was reading by Thomas Merton.
And where in the past I would have expected a charismatic answer, a gesture of power or a flashing deliverance prayer, instead the monk says meekly, with the same terrifying simplicity as Therèse, “Because from the moment I became a monk I have striven to prevent anger rising to my lips.”
Now, in the church, when the magnitude of what was being asked overwhelmed me, I found myself drawn to an image of Mary in a high window over the altar, and to her statue at the entrance to the sanctuary. One Wednesday, when Father Keller had been called away, Father Jones came to our class and gave a teaching on Mary that went far beyond the potentially sentimental issue of her motherhood. “Mary is key,” I can hear him saying slowly in conclusion, “to the core Christian belief that all of God’s promises to us—that he will free us from sin and take us to heaven and glory—have, in a real sense, already been fulfilled.”
And as he said this and I received it, as if through an open vein, every Protestant difficulty I still had with the Immaculate Conception and the Dogma of the Assumption simply melted away, together with my anxiety regarding my own inadequacy and sinfulness. God asks nothing that he isn’t prepared to give, I finally understood, as I contemplated the shining humanity of his mother. And yes, he can fulfill his promises concretely to Mary in advance, because he isn’t bound by time. And so she becomes our hope, our great sign in heaven, our mother of mercy. . .
Leaving the church, a tall man in a ragged coat reached up and grasped the feet of Mary’s statue as he passed underneath: a gesture of aspiration and abandonment, concrete familiarity and filial love; a gesture quintessentially Catholic.
Other things, too, began to fall into place, the closer we came to Easter. One Sunday in St. Mary’s when my friend Flora was visiting and Mass was beginning, I heard the reading from the Old Testament: “From that day on,” the reading went, “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” And again, as in the case of Mary, my difficulties with the sacrament of confirmation simply melted away. There was no contradiction for me afterward, between the past and the future. There was no conflict or competition between what had happened and what was going to happen. God had done miraculous, life-changing, practically apocalyptic things for me already. He had found me in a wilderness, and sent the Spirit to me outside the Church. And still the Church waited—how to explain this?—as an even greater gift.
At home, that same afternoon, I reread the Catechism on the sacrament of confirmation—all about the seal of the Holy Spirit and the coming of age of God’s children—and paused when I came to St. Thomas Aquinas’s assertion: “. . . the confirmed person receives the power to profess faith in Christ publicly and as it were officially.”
And I remembered as I read this how it felt to do the work of ministry outside the Church. I remembered the smell of Dwight Chapel, its atmosphere of exile and improvisation. I remembered the feeling of being disenfranchised, and even somehow illegal, and I remembered feeling that we had to start from scratch and create something out of nothing, every time we gathered. And I compared this with the Church, where every time I came in, I came into the midst of something that was already there: not only the Eucharist on the altar but the whole community that has received it, a community that has taken root downward in history and borne fruit upward, like a great tree with many birds in its branches.
Quickly now, I needed a name of a particular saint who would oversee me, and also a dress, since Father Keller had decided that Karen and I should wear white. The name came easily enough. Reaching up, as if I had grasped her feet, I chose Therèse, after reading her Story of a Soul. But a dress! Finding nothing in New Haven, I drove to Westport, where again I found nothing, shopping not being my strong point in those days, until finally, as I was leaving Laura Ashley’s, I turned and saw the simple linen dress in the window, with the long jacket, that I hadn’t seen inside.
In the dressing room I tried it on, with the help of a saleswoman who turned out to be Catholic and who advised me as tenderly as if I had been her daughter. Staring at myself in the mirror, wondering whether it was the right dress, I became aware, when the woman left me, of the music that was playing on the sound system. It was Loreena McKennitt’s version of the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, about the soul going out at night to meet her lover.
And again, it was like a dream that I dreamed afterward over many years. In the beginning the dream was simply about shopping for clothes. Sometimes other people were with me, in places I recognized from the past. Other times I was alone, in strange cities, in crowded stores. Eventually the dream grew longer, with confused turnings, and more and more it was about the difficulties of the dressing itself: the challenge of the beautifully made undergarments, the struggle with stockings and shoes. Finally, last year, I dreamed I was getting dressed for a wedding, and I made it all the way to St. Mary’s, only to find the street cleared for a funeral. I ran up the steps; the funeral was over; the wedding was about to begin. The bride—a friend of mine—was nowhere to be seen. But I had her dress, I suddenly realized, in a long box like florists use . . .
Still, it wasn’t until the next day, when I was in front of the monstrance at St. Mary’s, that I remembered the dress lying in water in its long box, and realized that this dream, like all of the other dreams over so many years, was about my wedding garment, which I am gradually, arduously putting on.
In the days that followed I sent my dress to be altered, made arrangements for friends who were coming, and prepared my first confession. Father Keller confessed me, after a disagreement with Father Jones. Father Jones wasn’t sure that I needed to confess, since in my baptism all sin would be washed away. But Father Keller argued that if my earlier baptism had been valid—which was possible, and the reason my Catholic baptism would be considered conditional—then my sins in the interim needed to be confessed and absolved.
So I confessed in the priory, in a small dark room to the rear. I sat in a low chair and Father Keller made a large sign of the cross in the air, and instantaneously it fell on me—the grace to make a good confession. I began, and it was almost easy. I continued, and found that the more I admitted the more I was able to admit, without digressions or irrelevancies, excuses or blame. Taught by the Church, I was able to tell the chief truth about my sin—that it was mine, so that paradoxically, in the mystery of the confessional, it could be lifted from me.
Born to confess! That was also how I felt: as if I had waited my whole life to be exactly there, in that chair, disregarding my fear and leaping over my shame, like a goat whose feet the Lord has made sure in the high places.
In fact, it would be years before I would make such a good confession again—before I would enter, to the same degree, into the transparency of Christ on the cross, when he confessed everything to his Father, every betrayal, including those I was enumerating now. “It is finished!” I almost said when I came to the end of my list, and relief and gratitude almost choked me—gratitude for so much transparency and truth; for the astonishing availability of the sacrament; for the part played by the priest. Father Keller lifted his hand and spoke the words of the absolution, and they fell on me and burned me as if they had been living flames, so that for the next twenty-four hours there was a sore, red rash across my cheeks, something was streaming out of me, and my sinuses ran.
Afterward, there was a reaction. It was inevitable. The pitch couldn’t be sustained. At Mass the next day, when Father Keller mentioned how soon the catechumens would be able to receive, I suddenly wasn’t sure I wanted to receive. Anxiety seized me, and a feeling that things were fine as they were. I was used to not receiving the Eucharist by this point. I didn’t mind—!
In class, our last class, I noticed the same irritability and anxiety. Someone was upset about having to kiss the crucifix on Good Friday. Someone else—eventually an exemplary Catholic—muttered on her way out, “Father Keller may have taken a vow of celibacy, but I haven’t!”
Back from the tailor, my dress smelled of cleaning fluid and money. In the church, the sexton was refinishing the floor, and the powerful fumes of polyurethane flooded the nave. Driven out by the smell—my chemical sensitivities flaring up—I found myself falling into old feelings of isolation and shame, discouragement and grief, as if water were being poured on the wood of the altar at last.
Then came Palm Sunday and Holy Week, and I fell further, into physical pain. There was the familiar vise on my neck, the staggering weight across my back and shoulders. All of my old enemies were in place. Every one of them was arrayed against me. And the question was, what should I do? Staying away from the church didn’t help. By Wednesday I was no better. It was a question of holding on, I finally decided, my mind clearing a little the worse my situation became. Help me, I wrote in my journal, to turn on this a solemn and festive eye. And in the Bible, I read from Isaiah:
The Lord of Hosts has sworn:
“As I have planned,
so shall it be,
and as I have purposed
so shall it stand,
that I will break the Assyrian
in my land,
and upon my mountains trample
him under foot;
and his yoke shall depart from
and his burden from their
This is the purpose that is
concerning the whole earth;
and this is the hand that is
over all the nations.
For the Lord has purposed,
and who will annul it?
His hand is stretched out,
and who will turn it back?
By Thursday, my pain hadn’t lifted. The first Mass of the Triduum was that night, celebrating the momentous, interlocking sacraments of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. But I was still afraid of the refinished floor, and the incense that I had been warned could be tumultuous at St. Mary’s on Holy Thursday. So I decided to go to St. Thomas More instead, the austere chapel at Yale that I had visited in the fall with such uncomfortable consequences. And it was there, in the dark, subtly deviant atmosphere of that communion, that my cup of bitterness was finally filled up. Utterly desolate, I left, thinking that I would drive home, though St. Mary’s was more or less on the way. I got into my car—it was raining—and started to drive, and immediately my pain and my desolation began to lift. I suddenly realized where I was going—to St. Mary’s, which was drawing me like a magnet. And I began to sob—really sob—as I realized how literally, not just in heaven but on earth, Jesus had prepared a place for me.
I will never forget the drive across the city that night, in the rain, on streets that were running red and iridescent green. My joy grew and grew, as if it had been a wave that transported me—as if it had been a crescendo of joy that lifted me over my weaknesses and threw me on the steps of the church. I ran up the steps, pulled open a door and came in just as Father Jones was kneeling on the floor with a basin and towel, preparing to wash the feet of the other priests who were sitting in a row across the sanctuary, in white, in a haze of incense.
It was like walking into a painting. It was like walking into the past, or the place where the present and the past coalesce. It was walking into the truth: the truth that Jesus washed, not everyone’s feet, but the feet of particular men he had chosen.
Standing in the back, between a lay brother and a man with a baby, I took this in without breathing. And then Father Jones stood up and I saw the sign I had been promised months before. “The new pastor will be a sign for you,” the Spirit had promised me in the fall, which words I had understood, when Father Jones came to St. Mary’s, to refer to his status as a convert. But when he stood up on Holy Thursday and his tall figure unfolded above the other priests, I saw his extraordinary height as a sign of Jesus over his Church—over every priest who falls short, and disappoints, and yet remains a priest.
There was so much that I didn’t understand that night. The Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—is like a book that one reads again and again, understanding just a little more with each passing year. But one thing I grasped with clarity and gratitude from the beginning, and that was the specificity of the provision that had been made for me. God had chosen for my formation one particular parish, served by a community of Dominicans, watched over by Mary’s sorrowful, tender gaze. And the year I came in, Father Carleton Jones was her pastor; Father Paul Keller was the assistant pastor; Nicholas Renouf was the organist and choirmaster; Martin O’Connor was deacon.
Good Friday followed, like a dark rent in a mist: the only full day of the year without Mass. Arriving in the afternoon I found the sanctuary stripped and bare, the holy water fonts empty, and the pews full. Every pew was occupied, and still people were coming. The church was like a house that had been ransacked, with everyone crowding to see. The doors of the vestibule swung steadily back and forth; the doors of the tabernacle stood open. Coming in behind the servers, I found a place on a side aisle, behind a family in black, in the cold path of an opening door. And then someone read from Isaiah, in a ringing voice, in the empty air:
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his looks beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of men—
so shall he startle many nations,
before him kings shall stand speechless . . .
There was no organ or incense. There were no colors or flowers. The choir sang the Gospel in harsh intervals from the loft, answering Father Keller on the altar who was singing the part of Christ. In ascending and descending fifths they sang the whole Passion from John, while the congregation stood for the duration, with something like the stoicism and endurance of Christ himself. How many times I had had occasion to mark this already! The astonishing patience and resignation of Catholics. Even the children in front of me were strong through the long afternoon, with a strength I entirely lacked. Marie—my sponsor—came late, and squeezed in next to me in a black suit. And then we were so crowded together in the pew I was literally held up by the others, by the Church which has endured through so many centuries and dark hours.
The Gospel ended, and the Deacon led us in the Solemn Intercessions. Let us stand, he would begin, and everyone stood as the intercession was proposed. Let us kneel, and everyone knelt in an interval of silence on the hard kneelers. Let us pray, and the prayer was prayed in an identical formula all over the world:
For the Church, and the unity of Christians . . .
For the Jewish people, the first to hear the word
of God . . .
For those who do not believe in Christ . . .
For those who do not believe in God, that they may find Him by sincerely following all that is right.
Rhythmically, the whole Church standing and kneeling together, the intercessions went forward. And then there was a stir in the back of the church and a veiled crucifix was carried in, gradually uncovered, and carried in a three-stage procession to the altar, where it was individually venerated by the faithful, according to an age-old Catholic tradition.
The priests went down first, passing down the center aisle in their bare feet. Through the crowd on my left I caught glimpses of them, striding swiftly in their black habits, falling on one knee. In advance of the rest, each priest went alone to the altar, in the isolation of his vocation, in the renunciations that his bare feet represented. And as I watched this, and their obedience, something in me went down, too, seeing the submission I could finally submit to.
How many times in the past submission had been demanded of me by particular church leaders, and I couldn’t give it, because those who asked it were themselves in rebellion! . . . How I had suffered over this issue! And how strangely peaceful I felt now, watching the priests, after they venerated the cross, ascending the altar. As each one went forward, I saw his sacrifice and his self-offering. I saw what he had given up, which is to say, I saw the cross with its veils removed. And I understood then that not only the saints but every priest who holds to his vocation has made the choice of the kingdom over the world.
In their wake, we all followed: every one of us, children and adults alike. In the loft, the choir began to sing the reproaches in Latin:
My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom,
but you led your Savior to the Cross.
My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!
The center and then the side aisles emptied, and the lines wound around to the rear. Waiting in the back, I remembered Grace and her blessing lines. I thought of the great distance I had traveled since then—all the places I had been and the different things I had seen—and I understood that I was almost to the end. As I turned down the center aisle, my heart began to pound:
I gave you a royal scepter
but you gave me a crown of thorns.
I opened the sea before you
but you opened my side with a spear.
My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!
At the steps of the sanctuary, Father Jones and an acolyte were holding the tall processional crucifix aslant, so people could lean down and kiss the feet of the small corpus where they crossed and the nail drove in. Closer I came, and closer, to the doorsill of the actual wounds. Ahead of me, an old woman ran her hand along the wood, lingered and limped aside. Then it was my turn. And as I leaned down and kissed him—as I pressed my mouth to the painted wound—I suddenly saw his body life-sized, the day before I was incorporated into it.
Back in my seat, I was so shaken by what I had seen I couldn’t stop crying.
I cried for a long time that afternoon under Marie’s arm in the crowded pew: tears of stunned comprehension and shock, grief and a heartbroken gratefulness that I was actually passing into the Church at last, into that Body—so wounded!—in which we have been reconciled to God.
Bring to me the souls of heretics and schismatics! Jesus says to Faustina in the diary, and immerse them in the ocean of my mercy . . .
During My bitter Passion they tore at My Body and Heart;
that is, My Church. As they return to unity with the Church,
My wounds heal, and in this way they alleviate My Passion.
I cried, and eventually I laughed, and finally half hysterically I blurted against Marie’s ear, “I don’t envy you, being my sponsor!” at which point she began to laugh, too. I remember her tightening her grip on my arm, whispering something incoherent, and tapping on her missal with her free, manicured hand.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake almost until morning, waiting for the sun that finally drifted free of the trees, the rains and the mists of Good Friday having rolled away. I cooked in the morning for the people who were coming. After lunch there was a rehearsal in the church, on the shining floor. The deacon was in charge, a much-admired, ruefully good-natured man. Overhead the choir was rehearsing Mozart. The mood was vigorous and joyful, and the altar was beautiful again: salmon and gold, with lilies, and a clear glass bowl for baptism.
We had supper at home with my mother and sister, and with Paul, Randall, and Kirsten, former Yale students who had been part of the messengers. In West Haven, Flora’s family was gathering. In Chicago, my friend Lisa’s celebrations were an hour away.
I remember nothing of that meal. I remember dressing—dressing!—with Kirsten watching from the bed. I remember my silk stockings wrinkling and my new shoes squeaking as I walked.
I drove alone to the church, parked, and the streetlight blew. It was after eight and already dark. It was early April and the night was cold. I ran in in my thin dress, and in the time it took to get ready my last reserves were used up. By nine o’clock, when I took my place in the front pew on the center aisle, I was so cold and uneasy I suddenly didn’t think I could last.
And then they turned out the lights.
One by one the lights in the church were extinguished and we were plunged into darkness. In the rear of the church a brazier was brought in, and in it a fire was kindled, but I couldn’t see. By the light of the fire, Father Jones cut a cross in the wax of the tall Paschal candle with a trembling hand. He traced the numerals of the current year between the arms of the cross, intoning as he worked—
Christ yesterday and today
the beginning and the end
Alpha (above the cross)
and Omega (below)
all times belong to him
and all the ages
to him be glory and power
through every age for ever.
But I couldn’t hear. Another year and I would be in the choir loft overhead, watching all of this from above. Another year and I would be baptized, and the confidence of the Church would be mine. But now I was in the dark, and I could scarcely distinguish myself from the darkness.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the lit candle was carried in. I could see it in the distance, wavering above the congregation, its small flame bending in the wind. And then every small candle in every parishioner’s hand was lit from the same fire, setting off soft explosions in the pews that were beautiful when seen from above. And Father Keller sang the Exsultet, with a fervor that bordered on violence.
Then the candles were blown out and again we were plunged into darkness and, in my case, a debilitating fear. The readings began, in the acrid smoke from the candles—long readings from Genesis and Exodus, Isaiah and Ezekiel, describing the whole arc of salvation history. Were they going to read the whole Bible? I remember thinking in terror as the Frenchwoman with the hypnotic voice began describing the crossing of the Red Sea.
There was no heat in the church, and I was so cold by this point I might as well have been naked. I was shaking with exhaustion and suddenly drowning in fear. Across the sea, as the woman droned on—as Moses stretched out his hand and the Lord swept the sea all night with a strong east wind—it was as if I were the one pursued by something intent on destroying me, by those chariots and charioteers, between the waters that were standing up like walls.
When the readings finally ended and the lights were turned on, my fear subsided a little. Bells were rung and the Gloria was sung. But then Father Jones climbed the steps to the pulpit and the first words out of his mouth were the words of St. Paul to the Romans:
Brothers and sisters, are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
By now I was grasping that what was about to happen to me would surpass everything that had happened to me before. I was understanding that the economy of salvation history had been more or less recapitulated in my life, and all of those dramatic earlier events—everything from Grace to Toronto, like the flight out of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea—would be surpassed and fulfilled by what was about to happen in baptism.
But what did that mean? That everything would be surpassed and fulfilled?
Behind me, the congregation took up the Litany of Saints. I could hear Marie’s voice in the outpouring, importuning name after name, and again there was that note of violence, as if the whole Church were storming heaven. This was no child’s christening. The strongest impression was of darkness: the darkness of adulthood, and of long years without Christ. Father Jones prayed over the water: “Father, unseal for your Church the fountain of baptism.” He lowered the lit candle into the water, as if infusing the water with fire. And we rejected Satan, and chose God, and I went forward to be baptized.
Only then, at the very end, did my anxiety leave me. As I stepped into the sanctuary, I saw a door standing open, I walked through it, and it closed behind me. And as it closed and I disappeared, I understood that this would be different from all of my fervid imaginings. It wasn’t so much that baptism was greater than everything else; it was of a different order altogether. It wasn’t so much an experience to be undergone as an end of experience as I knew it. I bent down over the water and Father Jones fumbled in my hair. It was wavy and thick in those days, and he hesitated, searching for my scalp. And then he said quietly, “Patricia Therèse, if you have not already been baptized, I baptize you, in the name of the Father”—he poured a beaker of cold water over my head—“and of the Son”—another drenching—“and of the Holy Spirit”—a third.
I straightened up. He put oil on my head and Marie held a towel to my hair. Over her shoulder I could see the congregation: my friend Kirsten’s red hair; my husband’s pale face in a pew. Someone handed me a lit candle and I stepped down, and Karen was baptized in her turn.
Everything orderly and matter-of-fact! Including the feeling, as I waited to be confirmed: the feeling that a moment ago, I had been asleep, but now, having had cold water poured over my head, I was awake.
Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.