By Steve Schlossberg
Many years ago, when I was a postulant of the Diocese of Quincy and a middler at Nashotah House, I did my quarterly duty and preached at my sponsoring parish. I did not know the church; I had gone to seminary without a bishop, and the parish picked me up, just as the diocese had picked me up, as an ecclesiastical vagrant. I showed up that first Sunday as a total stranger to the congregation. Wandering into the fellowship hall, I went unmet, if not altogether unnoticed, by the handful of parishioners who had gathered to share some coffee and small talk before the service.
There I was, a painfully introverted seminarian awkwardly intruding upon an intimate group of strangers; and there they were, a perfectly comfortable coffee klatch being obliquely intruded upon by an awkward stranger; and so we mutually agreed, as human beings mysteriously can without speaking or even making eye contact, to pretend we hadn’t noticed each other.
Welcome to the Episcopal Church.
Searching the room for a place to sit, neither too close to the others nor too conspicuously set apart (awkward introverts have finely tuned intuitions when it comes to social niceties like this, if nothing else), I spied another awkward individual sitting alone, and when he beckoned me with his eyes, I joined him.
Much to my relief, my fellow outcast immediately proved himself an extrovert, which for an introvert in a situation like this is a godsend: a traveling companion who will take full responsibility for dialogue. Introducing himself as Rodney Braithwaite, he happily announced that he was to be baptized that morning.
As a novice preacher utterly incapable of extemporizing, my first reaction was to panic, for the sermon I had prepared had nothing whatsoever to do with baptism. My second reaction, as Rodney cheerfully regaled me with his story, was to wonder why the extroverted baptismal candidate was sitting alone. The most obvious explanation was that he was a black man and everyone else in the fellowship hall was white, but I quickly realized an even simpler explanation for his shunning: Rodney was a vagrant. His hair was matted, his fingernails were long and dirty, and his clothes were a dissonant ensemble of formal and casual — he wore a ruffled shirt beneath a soiled windbreaker; his plaid slacks were accessorized with a pair of old sneakers — of the sort a man agglomerates at a Salvation Army thrift shop. The very picture of neediness, his beckoning eyes formulated not just a general invitation but a universal plea, from which we all, regardless of race, naturally cringe.
A few minutes of conversation laid bare what his physical appearance implied. By turns optimistic, self-pitying, and vainglorious, his meandering autobiography sketched a chronicle of jobs found and lost, apartments found and lost, family relationships lost forever, and great expectations just beyond arm’s reach. What role addiction may have played in any of that, I could not tell, of course, but after a few minutes of listening to him, I felt, as everyone feels when listening to an addict, that an angle was being subtly worked. It was not that Rodney seemed conniving; on the contrary, he seemed in many ways guileless, for he disclosed more about himself than I believe he intended or realized. It was only that, like a Mormon missionary or a life insurance agent, he was quite clearly a man with an object in mind, which is artfully unfolded rather than bluntly asserted.
Rodney was there for cash.
I was a stranger to the church but not the rector, who had interviewed me before adopting me. A very tall, slightly overweight middle-aged white man, Fr. A was the Biretta Belt Anglo-Catholic from Central Casting, save for one astonishing eccentricity: the ritualist was an extrovert. That helped the interview, because, completely cowed by the big priest, I did not know how to begin to represent myself. Sitting in his paneled study, encircled by his formidable library, I stammered. I felt like an imposter soon to be found out. I had to pretend I was able to appreciate the neat glass of old scotch he poured me, and I had to pretend I was able to understand his fully matured theology, to which mine was utterly unequal.
Even more uncomfortably than that, however, the big priest’s theology, as he amiably expounded it, increasingly repulsed me. Virtually ultramontane, virulently pre-Vatican II, he asserted a hopelessly elaborate but nonetheless airtight orthodoxy that presumed to settle all questions and extinguish all doubts, which only irritated mine. For me, a neophyte, Catholicism was an enchanted forest in which a soul could wander for a lifetime without striking the end of the frontier. But listening to the Puseyite pontificate, I felt myself slipping into a claustrophobic panic. The ceiling dropped; the paneled walls closed in; the unfathomable frontier, as Fr. A multiplied its credenda, contracted before my eyes. There was no mystery Thomas Aquinas had not fully elucidated, no knot C.B. Moss had not untied, no dilemma R.C. Mortimer had failed to anticipate, and no infirmity for which the cure was not the administration of a sacrament. If his stringent theology fully blanketed all the vicissitudes of life, then his rococo piety completely smothered the liturgy. A dissonant ensemble at once slightly effeminate and slightly misogynistic, underlaid by an utterly prosaic, extra-biblical male chauvinism, his representation of priesthood, to me, was suffocating.
If the piling up of aspersions here seems unfair, you read me correctly. The priest was an excellent pastor. If his theology seemed to impose a low ceiling against which I kept bumping my head, his charity was bottomless. Over the course of the year I spent under his tutelage, he was never anything less than exorbitantly generous to me, and he was even better to his people. Absolutely innocent of the cynicism, self-pity, and vainglory that parish priests tend to gain in middle age, he not only rightly and duly administered the sacraments, he celebrated them with palpable joy. He dogmatically believed that at the altar he was the Alter Christus, but the sign and the sacrament of that, for me, was this: he faithfully called on his parishioners, in the hospital and in their homes, no less than three days a week.
And that, after all, may have been the real reason why the extrovert made me cringe: the self-given example he bluntly set before me, to which I felt I could never even pretend, in which I could not feign interest.
It was not just his theology. Dressed in his black cassock and biretta, the towering Tractarian strolled into the fellowship hall that morning and, spying the two vagrants, bum-rushed our table with a roaring laugh of delight. He seized my hand with one of his enormous paws and gave it a vigorous shake; he seized Rodney by his shoulders and, hoisting him out of his chair, enveloped him in a bear hug.
Of the two, Rodney was the lesser extrovert. Physically dwarfed by the priest, somewhat discombobulated by the big hug, he could no more than stammer in reply to Fr. A’s torrent of cheerful questions.
“How are you feeling, brother? Are you ready for the big day? You’re about to be born again, you know. Isn’t that exciting?”
Almost exactly as I had had to pretend to appreciate old scotch and Frederic Harton’s Elements of the Spiritual Life, Rodney lamely pretended to share the priest’s enthusiasm for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Then, shaking off his sheepishness, Rodney said, “We need to talk, pastor. You didn’t forget, did you, about that thing we were talking about?”
“Of course,” Fr. A said, laying his big hands on the reedy man’s shoulders. “Right afterwards. Right after you’re born again, brother.”
I wondered at the time how much the black man was inwardly cringing at the white man’s repeated resort to the sobriquet brother, but I did not perceive the priest was affecting anything. I assumed he was speaking, as usual, in ecclesial language. And knowing what I did about the priest, and gathering what I did from Rodney’s autobiography, it was easy to guess how the vagrant had become a baptismal candidate. The needy man had wandered into the church one day seeking money, and the priest, supremely confident in the power of the sacraments, immediately scheduled the rite.
Fr. A had never given me any indication that he was a numbers man — he neither boasted of nor apologized for the size of his flock — but for a priest of his soteriology, I supposed, the baptismal candidate represented something like a scalp to be harvested. For the baptismal candidate, I surmised, the rite was his half of a bargain struck with a benefactor. Even then I knew how these arrangements work: the poor stranger asks the pastor for money, and the pastor asks him to mow the lawn or vacuum the fellowship hall in exchange. Serendipitously, this strange pastor asked only for the privilege of first baptizing him.
Apparently, however, the implications of Rodney’s half of the bargain were now sinking in. Maybe it was the Romish cassock; maybe it was the preposterous hat. Whatever it was, as the greater extrovert fearlessly intruded upon the coffee klatch, Rodney sank back into his chair with a stricken look on his face.
“Is this one of them churches,” he asked me in a hushed voice, with palpable dread, “that believes in Christmas?”
I was not a total stranger to that either: the storefront sectarianism for which Protestant is not quite the right word; a King James Version biblicism that abhors the festivals of Christmas and Easter, every bit as much as statuary and genuflections, as relics of heathen idolatry. Evidently that was the tradition, or the anti-tradition, in which Rodney had been raised, from which he had long ago strayed but never disavowed, and from which he now feared he was on the verge of actually apostatizing.
“Yes,” I quietly admitted, at which the extrovert closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and hung his head. In exchange for cash considerations, Mephistopheles was about to harvest his soul.
I was a stranger to the church but not to the lacy Rite One service, for which my junior year at Nashotah House had well prepared me; and the overwrought and (under the circumstances) irrelevant sermon landed not appreciably worse than most sermons do when delivered by total strangers. That is, it appeared to go unheard, if not altogether unnoticed, by the homogeneous collection of increasingly impatient faces, among which I could not help but notice the heterogeneous exception of the vagrant. His eyes, I saw, no longer beckoned, or even pleaded: they were rounded now with what looked like an agglomeration of total incredulity and horror.
No doubt Fr. A had rightly and duly administered the requisite pre-baptismal instruction; no doubt the disquisition had left Rodney feeling, exactly as my initial interview with Fr. A left me, feeling simultaneously benighted and suffocated. But unlike me, Rodney had no experience to prepare him for the florid ceremony, the scripted incantations, the ubiquitous icons, and the enormous, patently idolatrous statue of the Blessed Virgin overhanging the font.
He must have felt as St. Paul did upon his first visit to the Areopagus, his worst imaginings fully realized. He must have felt somewhat as Jesus did upon his first visit to Gabbatha, bound over to the heathens. But I imagine he felt most acutely what St. Peter felt when the cock crowed. After the sermon, he processed with the altar party to the font like a man on his way to the gallows, to forsake his faith.
Recruited at the last minute as a sponsor, my role was to stand beside Rodney, hold open the prayer book for him, and cue his rote replies. These he mumbled nearly inaudibly. He looked as if he might bolt at any moment; he looked as if he might faint at any moment. But as the terrible ritual unfolded and Fr. A chanted the hoodoo spells over the water, I saw Rodney lift his sickened face with a sad sort of courage. At this point, I imagined, he must have felt as Judas did, weighing his bag of silver, reckoning himself as having passed the point of no return. Taking a deep breath and expelling a long sigh, his face emptied of everything but total despair.
And when the high priest beckoned him with a wink, the utterly lost sheep hearkened to him. He obediently bent over the font like a martyr stretching his neck for the axe. No doubt he felt like an apostate paying obeisance to the statue of the pagan goddess. Arching his back, hanging his head, he looked like a man vomiting, I thought, as the big priest lifted his massive right hand and, beaming with joy, all but laughing in triumph, harvested the heathen’s foreskin.
Welcome to the Episcopal Church.
I never noticed if Rodney made the Communion to which he was now entitled. Panicking over my role at the altar (ersatz subdeacon), I lost track of the man until the Mass was over and the congregation, filing out to the fellowship hall, once more left the extrovert isolated. Spying him in the front pew, I was startled for a moment.
I think my jaw might have dropped. The man was visibly changed. His face was transfigured. Gone now was the pleading look I had first encountered; gone now was the sickened incredulity that had succeeded it; and dissolved now was his despair. As he waited for the priest to return from the sacristy, his countenance was drawn instead with smoldering impatience and something almost like rage: the face of a creditor made to wait by a debtor in arrears.
It took me a few moments to fully absorb that, on top of everything else I had absorbed that long morning. Rodney’s ordeal had been a revelation to me. Even as he miserably bent over the font, he materialized for me what I abstractly believed baptism is. It really does include a forsaking and a suffocating and a circumcision, and it really does entail a bewildering introduction to something for which no soul can be adequately prepared, something from which, if at the outset we were able to fully appreciate its import, we might appropriately cringe in fear.
Strangely enough, the sight of him now, patently unregenerate, failed to tarnish any of those reflections. It did not even shake my fledging faith in regeneration. Instead, even as I absorbed the terrible look on his face, I saw the shrunken frontier expanding in all its unfathomable breadth and all its ineffable mystery.
Of all the icons in that beautiful church, I found the embittered face of the vagrant most arresting. It was a window into the mysteries, I thought; it was a mirror to us all. The very image of human neediness, human stubbornness, and all the dissonant ensemble of pride and humiliation we gather in such circumstances, the angry man materialized for me my response to the exorbitant generosity of God, who almost never fails to deliver something other than the object I have in mind.
And that, I realized, is a part of the reason why I cringe at the sight of men like Rodney Braithwaite: godsends, they confront me with myself.
That was the last I ever saw of Rodney’s face, but not of his arched back. A short while later, searching for Fr. A so that I could say goodbye, I found the priest in his office, sitting at his desk with his checkbook in hand. When I saw his creditor standing before him, however, I stopped at the threshold. Muttering angry oaths, radiating a seething resentment, Rodney was renegotiating his fee.
“I want double,” he snarled, “for what you done to me.”
“You ain’t no father to me, you know.”
“I know, my brother.”
“And stop calling me your brother.”
Embarrassed, I slipped away, but not before taking in one last revelation: the ritualist was completely unchanged. Writing the check with his massive right hand, he wore the same beatific smile he had shown at the font. If the muttering complaints and imprecations his creditor poured out upon him had any effect at all, it was only to ever so slightly touch the corner of Fr. A’s smile with an impish little curl, a little dimple of knowingness, as if the pastor was privy to a truth Rodney had yet to see unfolded.
Of all the sacraments I saw that morning, that was the most effectual for me. Profligately distributing the treasures of the Church, the Alter Christus cheerfully made out a check to the man he had baptized, more than happy to pay for the privilege he had enjoyed.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.