I was baptized as an elementary school-aged child. I seem to remember expressing an interest in being baptized not long before the scheduled baptism service, which was held on a Sunday night.
My most vivid memory from the service is not the act of being immersed, as though time slowed down and I reached some deep mystical communion with the divine. What I do recall vividly is standing waist-deep in the tepid water before the Sunday-night faithful who stared at me like so many proud family members.
I haven't worshiped in that church for years. Since that time, I've moved a couple of times, married, and had a son. It did not occur to me that night that I had been baptized into a local congregation of Christians, (to say nothing of being baptized into a centuries-old Church), but that experience and those familial relationships have buoyed me up in ways that I could not have anticipated.
Having grown up in church, my story doesn't include much in the way of a dramatic conversion. In the absence of such an experience, the night of my baptism stands out to me as increasingly significant as I get older. Through baptism, I responded to the invitation to participate in the Christian life alongside those whose journeys involved remarkably visible salvation experiences. I could draw strength from the redemption stories that shaped that local community: stories of triumph over addictions that I never had to face; restored family relationships, the brokenness of which I had never known; supernatural comfort offered in the midst of some unspeakable hardship.
I don't claim to have grasped as a child the richness of community life that baptism signaled my entry into.
If I couldn't fully grasp the significance of the joy of new life that my baptism was meant to proclaim, I had even less of an idea that baptism was also an invitation to partake in sufferings that I may have easily avoided were I not part of this community with these people.
I am still learning that baptism--having been baptized--involves an interchange of joy and sorrow. Through baptism into a community of Christians, joy previously inaccessible is now available to me, but I'm learning that the same is true of the sufferings of others that I may have otherwise failed to attend to. When the disciples ask if Jesus will grant them the ability to sit at his right and left in his glory, he responds by asking if they are able to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. "We are able," they reply, and alongside them I am the overeager ten-year-old nodding my head, entering the water before I could possibly know what baptism might mean.
Baptism isn't an invitation to joy without the sorrow precisely because it's not an invitation to life without other people. Baptism is a recognition of our need for one another and our participation with those who have gone before us and who experience joy and sorrow alongside us.
I attempted to wrestle some of these reflections into a poem using a form called the pantoum, which repeats certain lines from preceding stanzas in a structured sequence. What appeals to me about this form is that it creates the impression that the poem's speaking voice, or persona, will have to reckon with how the pieces fit together while the words have already started issuing forth. "We are able," the persona seems to say, not yet knowing what such a commitment might mean.
I've returned to this poem regularly for years, perhaps appropriately, to dismantle and rework it, aware that there are answers about the where the poem is headed lodged in its previous lines, even though those answers remain hidden at the time they're first articulated. Whatever fresh alterations it might undergo in the future, its first line will always be repeated in the end. Befitting a poem about a centuries-old sacrament, its form dictates that if it is to carry on at all, it must draw upon previously uttered lines.
Having been baptized when we were just ten,
how could we understand the depth of it?
Words like solidarity, sacrament--
will the meaning come with years, bit by bit?
How could we understand the depth of it?
Even the devout are not always certain.
Will the meaning come with the years, bit by bit,
if they ask daily for re-immersion?
Even the devout are not always certain,
perhaps, concerning an eternal crown,
if they ask daily for re-immersion,
that in this realm, to live is to drown.
Perhaps, concerning an eternal crown,
our childhood mind can better discern
that in this realm, to live is to drown
before the devout could possibly learn.
Our childhood mind can better discern
words like solidarity, sacrament,
before the devout could possibly learn,
having been baptized when we were just ten.