god didn’t mean much to me until i was twelve. then, for one summer, i thought about nothing else.
this was due to a sunday school exercise wherein we were told to close our eyes, breathe deeply and visualize the creator of the as-yet-to-be-created universe sitting in the dark all alone. this was supposed to inspire awe at the beneficent wonder that from nothing, god created the world.
but when i closed my eyes and breathed deeply, all i could see was darkness and all i could think was how lonely god must be. this did not inspire awe. rather, it made me want to cry; it broke my heart.
that whole summer, i could not shake this image. god, alone in the dark.
in church, we'd been taught that thoughts like these were indicative of a belief in god and there was a whole world of rigmarole around that.
first, you were supposed to tell someone, then you were supposed to walk down the aisle and tell the whole church. THEN, you were to be baptized in the big bathtub by the altar, after which you would be a church member and, therefore, entitled to the juice and crackers the adults enjoyed on special sundays.
you would also be privy to a sense of total ecstatic wonder in the face of the unveiled glory of the lord.
there was a phrase for the radical transformation your life was supposed to undergo through this series of events. ultimately, you were to be “born again.” (that's a whole other mess of business. we'll come back to it.)
thrilling as all this may be, i was twelve, awkward and afraid of public speaking. i believed in god, yes, but walking alone down an aisle and standing in front of 200 people was a nightmare for which juice and crackers seemed a terribly small reward.
coupled with this was an intense terror of baptism.
every week, smiling children walked up the aisle, beaming ecstatically, to commit their lives to christ. they would be led into the waters, which no one ever had the forethought to warm, and the preacher would hold a cloth over their nose and dip them backwards into the frigid bath in what appeared to me little more than a poorly executed drowning.
as ministers and not lifeguards were overseeing this exercise and it was performed on children in billowing robes and bare feet, mishaps were common. dizzied by the lack of air, the children frequently lost their footing, the feet kicked up and a wave of water went cascading over the baptistry’s edge, splashing the congregants in the front row as though we were spectators at sea world rather than witnesses to a sacrament. the children emerged from the waters sobbing as though fresh from a face-to-face with the devil.
it did not make me want to follow in their footsteps. it made me very wary of being born again.
but i did believe. and i believed that belief wouldn’t be real unless i told someone and walked down an aisle and did as i'd been told i was to do. and so i did that, in spite of a host of fears, including a dread of being singled out in public and a near-certainty that i was going to drown.
i remember absolutely nothing about that walk towards the altar beyond the image of god that had haunted me all summer and the fact that i cried like a baby.
after, as beads of water dripped from my newly baptized head to forever stain the collar of my favorite floral satin dress, a woman with burgandy lipstick on her teeth said, “this is the happiest day of your life! why are you crying?”
i told her i did not know. to this day, i don't.