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.
I was looking forward to the Saturday evening vigil service at Grace Church when, about a week before Easter, Bob Massie telephoned. He had a favor to ask: Grace Church had had a call from a reporter from The New York Times who was writing a story about adults rediscovering faith--a return-to-the-fold kind of thing. It would involve several denominations: Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran. Eight or nine others had already been interviewed for the article, which would appear as part of the paper's annual Easter weekend coverage. Would I talk to The Times reporter, too? It would take only an hour, maybe less, and it would be great for Grace Church to be represented in a story about the renewal of faith at Easter.
"Why me?" I said.
"The editor said they needed someone articulate. You've got a book coming out, you're a writer, you're articulate."
I did have a book coming out in June--my second. I knew enough about the game of book promotion to know the power of The New York Times. My first book, which I had co-authored, had appeared during the newspaper strike of 1978. It was never reviewed by or advertised in The Times; it was as if the book had never existed. So here, I calculated, was a first chance, even a small one, for my new book to make a mark, get on the record.
Before Bob and I got off the phone, I asked him what he thought I should talk about to the reporter. I could not have been more startled when he answered, "Your faith."
Sixteen years later, I can still see exactly the way The New York Times reporter appeared at 12:30 in the afternoon and sat down on one of my roommate's grubby, chintz-covered sofas in the living room of our sublet on West 85th Street. In one motion, he pulled out a long, thin reporter's notebook, opened it onto his knee, cocked his head in my direction, and, all but licking the tip of his pencil, said, "So, Dave. Why baptism?"
It was Good Friday, the holiest day of Holy Week--as good a day as any to answer such a question. Yet suddenly, I had no idea what to say. I remember telling the reporter about my mother's death and about how alienated I had felt when I returned to New York after her funeral. I told him how strange grief can feel in the ordinary workaday world; how weird it is to find yourself for no reason at all just leaking tears in the middle of the cereal aisle at the Red Apple. I told him how welcoming Grace Church had felt to me when I went to hear my friend Bob Massie speak, how familiar and safe, how like my fond remembrance of morning chapel at St. Albans. I told him about my friendship with Bob and how, when he had asked me if I cared to join a confirmation class that spring, I had to admit I had never been baptized.
It was I, of course, who brought up the subject of my new book. He nodded quite vigorously. "That's impressive," he said. "At your age. To have a first book coming out."
I corrected him, saying I'd co-authored a book five years earlier.
He was surprised to hear it because he had run a routine check of the Times' back issues and hadn't found anything on me.
I explained how the paper had been on strike when my first book came out, and he nodded appreciatively. He remembered the strike. In a few minutes, it was as if we had been through it together. We indulged each other with stories of how the strike had affected our careers. Only later did I realize that by then he had already folded up his notebook.
The article was supposed to appear in the next day's paper. There was a newsstand near Times Square that I knew from first nights with a friend of mine who was a Broadway costume designer. That Good Friday night, on the way home from a late dinner with a friend, I asked the taxi driver to pull over at the newsstand. It was just like in the movies. As the taxi pulled up, a cinched bundle of the next day's paper fell from a delivery truck to the pavement with a thud. I paid for one of the fresh, inky-smelling papers, got back in the cab, and turned to the Metro section.
I still had fixed in mind's eye my first image of what the article was going to look like: several photographs of adults who had rediscovered faith alongside an omnibus article covering maybe half a page in the Metro section. My name and book title might appear somewhere down in one of the columns.
So, at first, even though I was looking at the reporter's byline on top of the article, which covered two and a half columns above the fold on page 23 of The New York Times for Saturday, April 2, 1983, my mind would not accept this article as the real thing. The headline announced: "Easter Signifies a Rebirth for Writer."
My throat twisted up as tight and dry as a ball of twine. For a split second, I was prepared to be flattered that the piece was solely about me. But when I noticed only one photograph (me, again), with not another new Episcopalian in sight, the Metro section suddenly felt like kryptonite in my hands. As I looked at--no, fixated on--my picture, a wave of seasickness passed through me.
It had been taken that afternoon. The Times photographer had said that he would have to shoot me in front of a church, but neither of us could meet at Grace Church on short notice. "Background's got to be religious," he insisted. "House of worship, religious doorway, window, or whatnot." We agreed to find something religious in my neighborhood.
It turned out to be a Greek Orthodox basilica at West 86th Street and West End Avenue. I posed outside massive doors. I had been dumb enough to get a haircut that morning. But that was not all. As the photographer pointed his lens at me outside the great Byzantine pile of stone, I looked directly into the camera. The photographer growled: "No, kid, you never look into the camera."
I asked where I was supposed to look.
He said, "Look over my shoulder. Look up."
No previous experience with newspapers had prepared me for the shock of reading that article. In fact, I could not read it--I handed it over to the friend I'd had dinner with that night, and he read it aloud as we taxied up Broadway:
"It will be dark outside Grace Episcopal Church tonight when David Michaelis is baptized," the article began. "But inside the church on Broadway and 10th Street, the Easter candle will be lighted as a symbol of the birth of faith. To Mr. Michaelis, the Easter vigil ceremony symbolizes the Christian faith that he says began to grow in him two years ago. 'The baptism is a renewal, a rebirth for me,' he said. 'In baptism, I'm offering a commitment to the church, to God and to my community.'"
"Oh, my," said my friend.
The article conceded that I was among a number of other "young adults" who were "turning to the church," and went on to say that "each convert has a particular story to tell about the awakening of faith, but Mr. Michaelis's touches on a number of common themes. His faith developed as he confronted questions about his own mortality, saw friends who believed, reflected on Christian doctrine and sought a fellowship that could overcome the problems of urban life."
"Each convert?" I said.
"Like many new converts," the article continued, "Mr. Michaelis found that he was inspired by the faith of others and by his friendships with Father Swanson and the Rev. Robert Massie."
"Convert?" I said. The idea that I was trading in one religion for another had not crossed my mind. I had never been one thing or the other in the first place.
The article mentioned that Bob Massie had conducted my mother's funeral and that that had been the moment when I began "the spiritual journey that is taking Mr. Michaelis to the baptismal font this evening."
My friend read the next couple of paragraphs silently. "It gets worse," he said.
"How could it?"
Baptism is the start of a new life. That Easter eve, I stood at the altar of Grace Church and assented to sacramental questions: Would I renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I would. Would I renounce all sinful desires that draw me from the love of God? I would. Would I turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as my Savior. I would. Would I put my whole trust in his grace and love?
I had to, because in my case two additional phenomena were making my new life in Christ a living hell. I discovered that if you are an Episcopalian living in New York City, you are considered normal if you say Christ's name aloud in church. You can also bring Jesus into a pastoral conversation with your priest or, as needed, with other Episcopalians in your parish but preferably during coffee hours or bake sales. If you go beyond these ordinary boundaries, if especially you are heard saying the name Jesus in public or in print, everyone, even your fellow Episcopalians, will think you have gone crazy.
The second phenomenon, which multiplies by 100 the effects of the first, is The New York Times Factor. In the world in which I lived in 1983, everyone I knew or had ever known read the paper every day, even Saturday. Maybe Anna Quindlen's popular "About New York" column drew additional readers to page 23 in the Metro section that Saturday. At any rate, by Monday morning, I had invitations to be a guest speaker at Sunday services at no fewer than five churches up and down the eastern seaboard. The headmaster at St. Albans School also phoned to urge me to come down to Washington to speak to the boys in chapel. Requests for radio interviews came in, too--that day and all through the week. At one point, sitting in my Upper West Side sublet, I fielded call-in questions from a Baptist radio station in Alabama. It was bizarre, yes, but sharing the good news with my fellow born-again Christians across the South turned out to be much more comfortable and comforting than going across Central Park to a party at a friend's apartment on East 68th Street.
No sooner had I walked in the door to that party than an old friend of mine from boarding school literally fled the sight of me. There was a noticeable stiffness as other friends said hello. No one offered a drink; I was now presumed to be sober. The first friend who said anything directly about the article offered me raised eyebrows. Her husband stood by her with a pushed-up lower lip. "I'm sorry," she said. "We didn't know you were having such a rough time. It's been, what, a year since your mother passed away?"
"Sixteen months," I said, nodding and smiling.
"We thought you were handling it," she said sympathetically.
Her husband, also nodding and smiling, added, "We thought you were progressing."
Within a few days of Holy Week, my mailbox, too, was clogged with advice and baptismal gifts. A selection of faux-leather prayer books and laminated sunrise scenes captioned with scriptural passages appeared almost daily, along with letters. A man in Ohio with a wife and six children (color photo enclosed) and connections to the vicar of St. Cuthbert's in Norwich, England, suggested we meet next time he was in New York. A man in Brooklyn sent a long, single-spaced "explanation" of Christ: "EXISTENCE exists infinitely and eternally. That is, IT just is and [is] self-existing. This is a mystery." Among total strangers, the one I liked best was a man called Clayton Funk, who said, "I know that being Christian is no picnic at times." Meanwhile, from Winnipeg, an old camp counselor of mine wished me Godspeed. "I don't know if congratulations are quite what are called for at a conversion," he explained. A friend of a friend from college wrote at length to share questions about faith in Christ, closed "in peace," and noted that she had sent the article to the friend we had in common.
Clippings passed quickly, too, among my mother's old friends, although most of them, being lifelong daily Times readers, read it right off the bat. Some phoned right away, expressing concern. Most, I think, were horrified, and saddened, and their renewed sadness about my mother's death made me sad, too. From several of them, I got the feeling that they were sure that if Diana had still been around, I wouldn't have gone quite this crazy. It was as if I had run off to the Times Square recruiting station and enlisted as a private in the army. Getting religion had dropped me from my class and culture.
I held on to one last hope that my book would cause this much stir and receive this kind of attention, but that soon died, too. "The Best of Friends: Profiles of Extraordinary Friendships" was published that June. It was never reviewed by The Times. The book went into paperback and then out of print, and almost no one ever mentioned it again. But for a few years, people would always ask me about my faith. It was almost as if, at a young age, I had aspired to and been elected to public office. "Hey," they'd say, as if I were still out there, still in the news, still running for vestryman, "how's your faith going?"
To myself I'd wonder, "What faith?" In my mind, I'd had no real experience of faith, only the McLuhanesque folly of appearing to be faithful. I had thought baptism would make me somehow inwardly more certain about my relationship with God. And it did; it sanctioned the relationship and gave it a name. But baptism, like a wedding, turned out to be nothing more than a start. Faith, like a marriage, proved to be the result of years of struggle, the work of thousands of days.
In 1993, I got married to a woman who, although baptized and doted on in childhood by devout Episcopalian grandparents, had, through her father's tragic early death and her mother's unbelief, become her own Little Red Hen. As an adolescent, she had gotten herself confirmed, and as an adult she had once again flown solo back to church, but only now and then. Her family were newspaper people, and when we first started dating I took her out one night and told her the story you've just read. I thought she ought to know that the man she was taking seriously had only 10 years earlier been naive enough to think that he could talk to a reporter about grief and faith and Jesus Christ. What I really wanted her to know was that we were both in the Dead Parent Club, and that though not quite as lost as I had been in 1983, I was still as brokenhearted as her.
A few years ago, while in a library doing some research, I happened to be reshelving The New York Times Index for 1984. I pulled down the great Bible-size volume beside it, The Times Index for 1983, and looked myself up. Of course, there was no listing for "The Best of Friends," but there I was, the new me: "Michaelis, David," it said. "SEE--Christians."