Except for an intense boyhood immersion at an ultra-traditional church school in Washington, D.C.--St. Albans, the National Cathedral School for Boys--I had not ever been a churchgoer. I had certainly never known where I fit in. In high school, among my friends who were definitely Jewish or definitely Episcopalian or Catholic, I felt gypped. As I grew older, if asked by officialdom what religion I was, I invariably answered "Episcopalian" but without any conviction except the imposter's dead certainty that he will be unmasked. Whenever the religion question came up socially, I headlined with St. Albans and palmed the fact that my parents were so detached from their religious roots that they saw no reason to have had my older brother or me baptized in church, much less named in temple.
Then, in New York, in my mid-20s, a close friend from college, Robert Massie, was ordained an Episcopalian minister. In 1982, he got the job of curate at Grace Church, on Broadway and Tenth Street. You see its elegant, crocketed spire in 19th-century photographs that show the carriage trade on what was then Upper Broadway. I began to go hear Bob speak at the Sunday services when he gave the homily.
It was a strange time in my life--a time between times. A year earlier, I had lost my mother to cancer. She was 56 and we had been close, the emotional center of each other's lives. My grief, which at first had seemed raw but endurable, now baffled me. In the course of an ordinary day, without a thought about my mother, without any trigger whatsoever, I would find myself suddenly leaking tears. I dreaded sleep, avoiding it as much as possible. In the middle of the rare night when I managed to drift off during "Letterman," I would later come to consciousness, but no longer in front of the television. For a dizzying moment, I would have no idea where I was, no memory of getting off the couch, no idea what I was now doing here, on all fours, crawling to nowhere in the hallway of my third Upper West Side sublet in four years. Dawn was bearable only as the belated conclusion of the night before, never as the elated start of a new day.
I felt like the survivor of a shipwreck, only that sounds romantic, and I was not so much lost in the world as I was adrift in my own skin. I couldn't locate myself by any familiar boundaries. To stave off my dread of night, I would tear around meaningless parties at Midtown discos, thinking that drugs and sex would save me from my suspicion that all was now lost, not only my mother but the golden boy I had been as her son. Partly because of the cocaine I snorted whenever I could get it, and partly because of the teeth-grinding shame after those long nights, I began to feel extreme sensitivity to good and evil. I wanted to feel worthy again. I wanted to be whole, and good. Bob Massie was part of my image of what was good.
I agreed, without hesitation. I imagined that by taking a definite, clear step toward faith on my own, I would at last settle something important in my life. Bob signed me up to take instruction with one of the other young priests at Grace Church, the Rev. Ken Swanson, a gentle, understanding man with warm, truthful eyes and a smile that invited, well...faith. For a month, I had weekly meetings with Ken, reading a different Gospel before each session, and I enjoyed it. I identified intensely with the idea that through wrong choices, man had screwed up his original relationship with God and that through the sacrifice of his only son, God was giving mankind a second chance to restore that original, prelapsarian, relationship. This seemed an illustration of life as I now knew it, just as the liturgy of Communion, with its stripped-down language of remembrance and its haunting images of the Last Supper, took me back to harsh, sunlit scenes of my mother's weirdly graceful departure from earth.