Floundering in a sea of undergraduates at Arizona State University, I found a group of friends whose main activity wasn’t drinking and throwing up. I was so grateful that I overlooked their Christianity as one overlooks the foibles of friends. Over time, I got curious. So I went to my first Anglican service. I was captivated. Here, I thought, was the religion of Chaucer and Shakespeare, of Donne and Austen. No cheesy rock bands leading “worship” music here. The liturgy was beautiful and had the feel of all that is old and sacred. I followed my friends to the front to receive communion.
Then it emerged that I hadn’t been baptized, and I was told I could no longer go to communion. After a few weeks being in a snit, somehow I gained a bit of sense and decided that organizations had the right to make rules and I needed to follow them. I called the Episcopal church closest to my father’s house and asked for the parish priest.
“Father, I’d like to talk to you about baptism,” I said nervously.
“Call me Jim,” he replied. “So, you have a child to get baptized?”
“No, Father, it’s for me. I think I might want to get baptized.”
“Then you’re getting married?”
“No,” I replied, puzzled.
“Oh,” he replied, more puzzled than I. (Why get baptized, then?)
“Oh, well—that’s fine,” he managed finally. “Why don’t you come down on Sunday: I’m doing a bunch at ten.”
“Okay,” I said, “but should I do something to get ready? Read something maybe?”
“You’re making too much of this. Babies do this all the time and they can’t read! See you Sunday.”
Sunday morning I put on what I thought would pass for baptismal attire and went to the kitchen for coffee.
“Where are you going?” asked my father, surprised.
“To get baptized?” I said, unconvincingly.
After a good look, he realized I wasn’t kidding.
“Shouldn’t I be there?”
“It’s okay, Dad. I know you don’t like church.”
“Seems like I should be there, baby. Do I need a suit?”
“I don’t think so.”
It was all over in fifteen minutes. Dad signed my baptismal certificate and we went home, neither of us sure what to do next. After a bit, he went out to putter around the yard. I figured I should try to do something spiritual, so I pulled down our big dusty Bible.
I knew that familiarity with the Bible was essential for understanding great literature. But to me the stories were bizarre and didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. I always lost interest rather quickly.
The Gospels seemed a good place to start. I flipped to Mark, gritted my teeth and dug in. This time, the stories and their meaning penetrated to the core of me. I read and wept and read and wept for the rest of the afternoon.
Soon after, the implosion of the Anglican communion sent me on the search that led me across the Tiber. I did learn from the Anglican church that good liturgy is the best apologetic tool we have.
Two things from my unconventional baptism guided me on my way to the Catholic Church: sacraments are not just symbolic but impart genuine grace, and the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent on the holiness of the minister.