A memoir of grace in waxed paper
One of the things I love about this life is how the most divine moments find us. Sometimes when we look for them they’re not there; then, surprisingly, they arise in the most unlikely of places. I was thinking recently about baptism and remembered a time when I was new in my position as the on-call multifaith chaplain in the local city hospital.
I had already had my trial by fire by the end of the first week: I had sat with suffering patients and families, the newly diagnosed and the newly dead. I’d borne witness to pain and peaceful joy. I had not yet done a baptism, and even my mentor’s instruction session on “baptism basics” was not booked until the following week. I wasn’t nervous about this, because I knew that I could do it. However, I hadn’t had time to ponder exactly how I would do it when called upon.
The call came on my first Saturday night on-call. My pager went off while I was in the middle of a deep sleep, as it had been wont to do almost every hour of my night shifts so far. Sometimes it was a question from staff, sometimes a request for direction to a member of a different faith. Sometimes it was a desperate call from a dying patient’s family member.
On this Saturday night, we had had fresh snow, and I had to will my car forward on the slick hilly streets to the parking lot, and then try to keep myself upright as I navigated the slippery hospital floors.
After taking a few calming breaths in the elevator to keep my composure, I arrived in the room and saw an elderly man lying in the bed, flanked by six or seven family members. One of them came forward and shook my hand, introducing himself. He said the patient, whose name was Jason, was his father, and that he had always wanted to be baptized. Was it too late?
I said no, of course not, and still holding his trembling hand, added I would go get the water and be right back to perform the ceremony. He smiled and seemed relieved.
So off I went, down three floors to the office, and began searching. But I don’t even know what I was looking for—something that said “baptismal water” on it with a big label, or … ? I frantically tried to remember everything I could about the sacred procedure as I searched for something that was meant to be used for the portable font and its holy contents. First the office, then the chapel. But I couldn’t find anything that looked like it should be used for baptism. Nothing seemed special enough.
Then I headed to the bathroom. By then I was hot and flustered, and I wiped my face with a cold water-soaked paper towel, leaned down into the sink and prayed aloud, “God, help me. What now?”
As I righted myself, I saw the Dixie cup holder with one yellow-flowered cup left hanging out of the bottom like a lopsided smile. I grabbed the cup, filled it with room temperature water and said a quick blessing over it. I took the elevator upstairs to the third floor again. My mouth had become so dry from all the running and cold night air that I found myself repeating to myself, like a mantra, “Don’t drink it! Don’t drink it!”
But then I looked down at the cup—really looked at it, with its waxed yellow and orange flowers. It suddenly became the most esteemed vessel in my hand, so perfect for its precious task, and my thirst vanished. That little paper cup humbled me, and the reminder of the everlasting light that is always there for us washed over me when I looked down at those joyful flowers frozen there in cardboard time.
When I got back to the hospital room, the man who had spoken earlier asked, “What now?” I said, “Let’s hold hands around the bed, then I’ll baptize Jason, and we can all say the Lord’s Prayer together. Even if everybody doesn’t know it, that’s OK—everybody can pray in their own way. Then maybe some of you would like to say something?” The man nodded.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I did what felt right. It was the quickest and most simple baptism. With my fingers wet from the Dixie cup font, I said my part and then: “I baptize you, Jason, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and made the sign of the cross on the man’s forehead and lips and his chest. Then we all held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer, and then the son repeated the Serenity Prayer, because he said it was his father’s favourite prayer, and we all bowed our heads.
I looked up. We all had tears in our eyes, and it was the perfect baptism.
Jason passed away quietly the next day with his family surrounding him. He never woke up or even knew that he’d been baptized, and yet when I look back, I still remember the grace that accompanied his baptism. I know that it wasn’t the container that held the water or even the words I said that made it meaningful. The baptism of Jason on that wintry night had been more about all of us being there together in that room, praying selflessly, each in our own voice, for a common cause. Knowing that was key to every hour of work I did in that position from that point. I worried less about the “right” way of doing things and focused on getting to that place of peace—which, I recalled, is why I had taken the position in the first place.
Jenn Ashton is an award-winning Coast Salish author and visual artist. Her book of short stories, People Like Frank and Other Stories from the Edge of Normal, was shortlisted for the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award. She worships at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in North Vancouver.