Swoosh! Away went 34 years of accumulated iniquity, cleansed in a moment by the priest's sacramental gesture. I was trying hard to concentrate on the momentousness of what had just happened, but I'm sorry to say that it just felt as though someone had spilled water on my head.
That was until the ceremony took an unanticipated turn, and I made a dreadful fool of myself. Like all freshly baptized Catholics, I was to be swathed in a white robe, symbolizing the grace and purity of my newly washed soul. "You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ," said the Rev. Winthrop Brainerd, as he majestically raised a length of heavy white fabric over my head.
As soon as he dropped the robe down, I knew something was amiss. My torso was quickly engulfed in cloth, and my face emerged slightly desperately at the top, but that robe wasn't going to slip down over my shoulders. I do not know exactly what happened, but I believe that Fr. Brainerd had inadvertently put my head into an armhole.
Now, Fr. Brainerd was not about to let a bit of recalcitrant cloth get in the way of the magnificent ceremony at hand. He began tugging at the robe, then yanking with some force, in an effort to get the armhole over my shoulders. Then my godmother, Cait Murphy, who was standing next to me, decided to pitch in. She and Fr. Brainerd began sawing back and forth with the uncooperative robe, rubbing it uncomfortably against my neck. This silent struggle went on for long, agonizing minutes. I was aware of the white faces of the two other priests in front of me, and of a packed and aghast church behind me. Sweat beaded on Fr. Brainerd's brow. The robe would not submit. I heard a distant snort of exasperation from someone in the congregation, and I began to panic.
"What an idiot I must look!" I wailed inwardly, remembering all the friends and acquaintances in the pews behind me. Some, I knew, were evangelical Protestants, who had come in Christian solidarity but with deep suspicion of Catholicism and its priests. Others were agnostics, and one a deist, whose skepticism of "organized religion" wouldonly be reinforced by this farcical display.
And then, as the battle over my baptismal robe continued to rage, the anxiety and shame suddenly dropped away and were replaced by an almost supernatural tranquility. Christ was there with me: above me, below me, surrounding me. I had nothing to fear.
So what if I looked silly? This was my baptism, for heaven's sake--for Christ's sake. He had been mocked by crowds, ridiculed by Roman soldiers, crucified while gamblers threw dice for his clothes. Here I was, by contrast, in the loving company of my husband, my friends, and the priests who had helped bring me into the church. If any of them thought less of me because the ceremony had suddenly taken a comical turn, well, that was too bad.
It was then that I began to laugh, shakily at first, then happily, almost giddily. Fr. Brainerd began to chuckle, too. So did Cait. The laughter dispelled the awful suspense. They at last lifted the robe off completely, found the neck hole, dropped it properly over me, and I turned to face the congregation.
Such joyous, amazed faces! Even the religious skeptics were beaming. As I moveddown the aisle with a taper, bringing light to the candles they held in their hands, I was grinning like a fool, suffused with the lovely conviction that somehow God's will had been wrought, that somehow I had been useful to him.
"You have joined a long and distinguished tradition," my friend Jody informed me later that night, at a celebratory party. "You've become a fool for Christ." The phrase, which rather startled me at first, in fact fit exactly my happy humiliation. The phrase is St. Paul's, from his first letter to the Corinthians: "We are fools for Christ's sake."
The idea of the holy fool, which was new to me last year, is one of Christianity's oldest, especially in the East, where ascetics roamed from town to town barefoot, sometimes naked, converting heretics and bringing lost sheep back to the fold. The Russian Orthodox Church honors St. Procopius, a medieval merchant in Novgorod who gave all his wealth to the poor and slept on church porches, and St. Basil of Moscow, who wandered around the city barefoot and bareheaded in all weather, reprimanding sinners, including the czar, Ivan the Terrible.
My own stint as a holy fool (and perhaps Fr. Brainerd's, too) was obviously not so onerous as those of the Eastern saints, but I feel peculiarly blessed to have belonged, if only briefly, to the tradition. Christ, in his passion, had a robe of purple mockingly thrown upon him and was made to play the fool. I was robed in convert's white. I do not know what God's purpose was at my Easter baptism last year, but, a year later, I hope a little speculation is forgivable. I was made a fool for Christ, I think, so that I and everyone present would see that the august ceremony was also human, just as God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became human. Our baptisms are, among other things, a recapitulation of Christ's crucifixion, the offer of salvation here and now, in this our imperfect world.