Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.
So That's Baptism
My UU minister had been raised as some kind of Christian, although she had long since left that identity. But she suggested books that might help me find a Universalist and Unitarian Christianity. The first was Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus.
Like our Unitarian-leaning third president, Thomas Jefferson, Mitchell cut the vengeful, angry passages out of the canonical Gospels. Since these were inconsistent with Jesus’ inclusively loving message, he assumed they were interpolations of later writers. The authentic Jesus teaching lay in truly radical sayings like: "Love your enemies." "Help those who hate you." "Don't resist evil." "Don’t judge." "If someone takes your things, don't ask for them back." "God’s love is like the sun that shines on good and bad alike." "Do not fear.”
Wow! This was a Christianity I could believe in.
Mitchell also drew parallels between Jesus’ words and other religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. That helped a lot. I’ve never understood why people argue that theirs is the one true religion because their doctrines are unique - with counterparts in no other religion. Unique is weak. Singular events are anomalies. At best, unique doctrines might express some local, culturally limited experience of the divine. They can’t point to universal truths. The Gospels might actually have something to say about God if similar ideas existed in other faiths.
Soon I was eating up authors with diverse views of Jesus, or who lit up the dark corners of Christian history - like Elaine Pagels, Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and The Gospel of Thomas. Some saw Jesus as a great teacher of social justice, but not divine. Others saw Jesus as a living expression of pure, divine love, but this was a divine love anyone could express.
I began to think I could be baptized as that kind of Christian. The only question was how and by whom? After six months, I got up the nerve to approach my minister.
She met me in an old, Episcopalian building on campus where the young adult UU fellowship rented space. The fellowship gathered in a gracious room with arched windows, dark wood paneling and plush furniture. I found her there setting up chairs. She led me down a long flight of stairs to a poky office in the basement. She had to take a stack of papers off a chair for me to sit.
I said I wanted to be baptized, but as a UU. Could she help me?
“UUs don’t use baptism,” she said. There was a silence. I waited while she looked at me out of brightly intelligent eyes. Then she went on, “Yet I’m impressed by your sincerity. This doesn’t seem to be just a whim.”
I smiled and nodded.
She smiled back. “I’m willing to work with you on it. But I want you to first explore what baptism means to you. I have to be sure this is a real calling of your heart.”
“If it was, could you do it?” I asked.
She laughed. “Actually, yes. I went to a Christian seminary and they had a class on full-immersion baptism. I meant to skip the class because there was no reason for a UU minister to know that. Only a friend of mine said I ought to go. ‘You never know. You might need it,’ he said. So yes, I can do a baptism. Although I can't do it as an official function," she added with a little frown, "only as something private.”
“So, um, what now?” I asked.
“Well, why don’t you write about what baptism means to you, what you plan to say and who would be present as witnesses.”
I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to imagine witnesses. I left her office feeling energized.
It was almost a year after the notion of baptism first popped into my head and I’d finally answered those questions to my, and my minister’s, satisfaction.
In May, I was puzzling over what vows to say. Then I was inspired by an Easter Mass at the monastery.
When I realized the priest was about to sprinkle us with holy water in an “affirmation of baptism,” I wanted to duck and hide. The monastery folks might be very liberal Catholics, yet they were still Catholic. I didn’t want to get caught “affirming” words I didn’t believe. But as the priest intoned the vows, I was elated. With a little interfaith Universalist tweaking they were just what I was looking for.
I was still embarrassed to say “Jesus” in public, but on a Friday morning in June, I went with the minister and ten friends to a state park on a lake. A grassy picnic area fronted a pebble beach. It was empty except for some ducks, a couple mothers with toddlers and, in the far distance, a park employee mowing grass. We set up an altar on the last picnic table. Behind us, the grass ended where a low, stone breakwater tumbled out into the water.
Toddler cries made a homey background noise as we sang and chanted. Then I said the vows and it was time. The minister led me into the water, skirting a few big clumps of floating weed. When the water was just over our waists, she stopped.
“Take your time,” she whispered in my ear, “When you’re ready, nod, and then just fall.” She placed her hands at my back.
I breathed in and out, trying to take in the moment: the miniature, slightly oily swells of the water - murky green and smelling of algae, the sky where it showed pale blue between thick clouds, the distant sounds of toddlers and lawn mower, and the feel of my wet dress wafting about my stomach.
I nodded and fell. The minister moved so smoothly that I felt nothing until cold water closed like two hands over my face. Shocked, I burst up, arms raised, in a shower of spray.
And that was pretty much it. We waded to shore and shivered through a closing prayer. Then packed up and went home.
Baptism didn’t actually change anything. Spiritual dilemmas, work anxieties and relationship muddles all continued just as before.
© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick