Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Go With the Flow: The Contemplative Baptism (Jan-Apr 2000)

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by Carmen Perry Beaubeaux

Regardless of whether or not one believes baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, believers of all faiths, from ancient times to the present, go to the water for sacramental healing, renewal, dedication, and confirmation.

The water has its ways.

As if for our education as well as our salvation, baptism leads us along a shoreline littered with the lofty constructions of our faith. Her wordless elegance summons us from these same halls where she is administrated, debated, defined and mandated. Baptism, and the solitary believer’s relationship to her, is perhaps the most ecumenical expression in Christianity. As rain showers down upon the just and the unjust, the water of baptism does not understand fences – or rather, denies them.

Beyond the Political … The Essence

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels
turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl
up like burnt paper.

-D.H. Lawrence

It is interesting that in the ongoing discussion about essentiality, the essence of baptism is virtually ignored. If we could focus on the substance of baptism rather than the corrupted exterior, then we might find that biblical baptism is the alchemy – the spiritual elixir – of the ages.

Certain Sufi works held that the task of alchemy was not necessarily to turn base metals into gold, but to make the elixir, a perfectly harmonious substance in which all elements are in balance. In the science of balance, the key to alchemy provided a method by which one might discover the relationship that exists in every body between the manifest and the hidden. To understand the alchemy of baptism we must first delineate the aspects – and they are few: God, Water, and Soul. But we must be careful not to take elemental simplicity for simplistic, methodological politics. Though baptismal water is by nature pure and unpretentious it is dismally polluted with words.

Why Water?

Nature is always hinting at us.
It hints over and over again.
And suddenly we take the hint.

– Robert Frost

We should not be misguided by the silent and primitive nature of baptism, for it is an intricate and inexhaustible stream of profundity. The precise depth of that stream is ineffable. Yet, echoing layer over layer, repeated in succession, we hear God … water … soul … God … water … soul. How are these interrelated? We know that God wants soul and soul wants God. Could water be a common thread? Is the created element of water a vehicle, a language, a meaning in itself? Is there truth hidden beneath the surface? What is the elemental essence?

When I was a girl I remember those seasoned country-wise preachers who drew wisdom for their sermons from the farm life. These weathered and unaffected naturalists understood the world, and were therefore entrusted with the essence of its secrets. After a well-scriptured sermon on baptism they would stir the waters with words like: “Come to the water!” “The water waits to receive you!” “Bring your burden to the water!” “Let the water carry your sins away!” “The water will deliver you up!” But, today, those words have a backward tone. Modern Christians are too informed to believe that water – creation – is a participant in salvation – that creation supports our souls as well as our bodies. The learned Bible student winks at the words of the ancient psalmist:
Let the heavens be glad
And let the earth rejoice
And let men say among nations
The Lord reigneth
Let the sea roar
Let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein
Then shall the trees of the wood sing out
At the presence of the Lord.

I believe there is a theme of moral tension that is not being addressed on the relevance of baptism for modern Christians. The anxiety within the baptism discussion hints at something that goes deeper than dogma and pleas for unity. I think a battle is taking place between the longing for biblical purity and the realization brought on by our spiritually bankrupt culture that baptism – particularly adult immersion – is awkwardly mystic.

So we hide the richness of the mystery in moral certitudes, or alternately, dilute the emphasis down to symbolism and render baptism a mere event – a quirky awards ceremony – rather than a spiritual translation and transportation by a spirit guide into a kingdom world. By imposing our intellect on something so primitive in expression, so ancient in the movement of water and the movement or impulse of a soul, we avoid the principles, ideas, and elements that God has provided us to explore. Baptism is a “holy place” in flux. It is divine performance art – yet, not absent of logic and method.

Jesus, as our High Priest, demonstrated a keen awareness of the essence, water, when he went to John to be baptized. At every pivotal point in biblical history water was a subtle but intriguing presence: the creation, the garden, the flood, the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land, the water to wine miracle, the ministry by the Sea of Galilee. Water flowed down the side of the convicted and executed Lamb; the River of Life flows through history and humankind from the very throne of God.

Jesus met John in the wilderness stream much like the ark met Mt. Ararat in the receding flood. The dove brought confirmation to Noah that a new life was just around the corner. A place was being prepared. The drowning, destructive water delivered Noah and deposited him safely on the new shore. Noah was transported from death to life, old to new, before and after in the water. Water has the ability to kill and the power to save at the Creator’s word. “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!” … Confirmation once again swooped down from above and lit upon the shoulder of the New World! To the soul with perceiving eyes and ears the baptism of Jesus startles us out of the reality of death to a new hope: “Take hold! I am the ark of your deliverance!” Navigating the Word by the created essence of water should make as much sense to the soul’s journey as navigating the seas by the stars makes to the sailor’s voyage.

Baptism is the science and technology of reconciliation and spiritual renewal. It propagates the species of the “new birth.” God’s expression of water unites with his hand to wash our sins away – to purify us. What other expression could be more appropriate? Water, like God, speaks to us in many different voices and has the capacity, like God, to both bless and terrify us; to be hot, warm, cold; vaporous or solid; to move in mysterious ways; to bear us up and to accept our weight without discrimination; to initiate life and to sustain it. Water delivers us to our destinations. It defines our space, and establishes our perimeters. Like the creator’s work in the “miracles” of science, baptism by water is a miracle in the continuum of grace.


Impulse is not a fourth element. Impulse is an attribute shared by the three – God, Water and Soul. By impulse, I don’t mean manufactured charisma in the emotional sense but rather impulse in the physical sense – pulse – the endless force radiating from the unseen but distinct pivot of creation – the persistent action from which originates the consummate acts of nature. It follows that impulse be the action, or compulsion, on which a new soul is born. The Spirit (heaven) and the water (earth) seduce the soul into unity and translate it into its own experience of childlike – Christlike – blamelessness. The Spirit reaches through the doorway of creation to capture the soul. This attraction, this impulse that carries us away is the “very moment” between the “straightway” the “and it was DONE!” Baptism is indeed a holy place – and it is perhaps the only place where passion and peace co-exist.

Compassion is often the action of impulse. Many of the miracles of Jesus appear to be moved by an impulse that is often called faith. The faith-impulse is a dimension we enter in baptism – it is a dimension that demonstrates the presence of the sublime. Faith-impulse is the submission of bulky human genius for elegant, graceful, divine genius to take us according to divine will. Baptism is anything but a work of the intellect! We must, like Naaman, exchange rational thinking for the solemn, dark murk of uncertainty. In that brief moment, irrational faith takes precedence over reason and we sink deeply into the Unknown of love and the soul dies to awaken in God. We are submitting to live out the remainder of our lives in a new land, to speak a new language, to live under a new government. It is logical that we would desire a preliminary visit in order to make investigations and preparations to sustain ourselves in the event of a catastrophe. We get caught up in details rather than the moment – the perfect divine moment – that has been arranged for our export. Sane people do not easily submit to immersion.

Denominations that nurture emotionalism often dismiss the intellect. But when religion attends only to the intellect and rejects or anesthetizes the emotions, it is also unfulfilling. The spiritual life is emotional as well as intellectual. In order to navigate all possibilities, the well-nurtured soul walks in a determined “pattern of confusion” that bamboozles the logic of demons.

Whose Baptism? … Whose Trust?

I stopped to hike a trail into blackwater swamp of tupelo and bald cypress … I had this powerful sense of life going about the business of getting on with itself … Things were growing so fast I could almost feel the heat from their generation: the slow friction of leaf against bud case, petal against petal. For some time I stood among the high mysteries of being as they consumed the decay of old life.
– William Least Heat Moon

It is interesting to hear Christians remark that they were not “saved” until years after their baptism. I think I understand what they mean. As the Spirit leads us on toward wisdom, we have difficulty lookng back on our infancy without a little embarrassment. I would imagine that many of the early Christians had the same experience when they looked back on the day of Pentecost. The long and painful process of spiritual growth and clarity seems so much more significant than one’s brief moment of faith-impulse. But we must be careful not to measure the dreamlike world of infant faith against rational mature faith. In doing so, we judge ourselves as failures as well as others who are in their first stages of growth. Who would look back on their birth and say, “Well I was a darling then but I wasn’t a real person until I was forty-one”? By rejecting any part of our experience and education in the Spirit, we also judge the wisdom of the Spirit who led us every step of the way. Also, by judging our spiritual development, we take responsibility for the process and the results, rejecting the Teacher. God will adopt and Christ will clothe and the Spirit will guide the drunkard with her slobbery confession; the young, passionate poet with unrealistic expectations of the spiritual life, and the old fool who has exhausted every possible alternative, and even those who are being baptized out of a sense of duty – for that may be the most “emotional” response of all!

To interpret the faith-impulse in baptism with the word “obedience” is only adequate. Obedience or trust, as some call it, is certainly a feature of baptism – but it is a feature that we exuberantly overemphasize because it is something we can get our human hands around – that we can dissect and reassemble into “steps”: Hear. Believe. Repent. Confess. Be baptized – steps that resemble the tapping, halting steps of the blind. And faith-impulse is no more work than accepting a drink of water is work when one is thirsty.

However, baptism becomes a work when we teach and administer it as a symbol or as an expression of our own faith and trust in Christ. Symbols are human genius and our own trust – much less the expression of our own trust, as some describe baptism – given the value of human trustworthiness is hardly worth the effort. It is through Christ’s trust we are saved in the expression of water, which is his grave of shed blood. If we exhibit trust and holiness, perhaps people will admire us, even love us. What trust I have is a gift turned into the soil of my humanness. We can’t make God more “real” by approaching him with our trust. God is revealed in his trust toward us. Our trust is at best a crude imitation of real Trust which we cannot know until we are conformed to it. In immersion the Spirit manipulates us – apprehends us from the lies and conventions that would own us. A thing must be immersed before it can be spilled out. God is Trust. I want to be filled with that Trust so that my own imperfect trust will be drowned in Grace.

Afraid of the Water?

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.

-William Blake

Do not say “Water! water is here, how can we go on further?!”
What! Did you think that you could see God and live?

-Babylonian Talmud

I think modern Christians trivialize the sacred in baptism because we are intimidated by the nature of what we are participating in. Rather than recognize God/Earth / Man as a divine system that is in constant movement, we shatter the biblical pattern and reorganize the fragments to serve our own static articulations. We want methods and patterns, but we don’t want them to be divine.

In our natural infatuation with denominations of believers who have evolved beyond the need for ancient or primitive expressions of holiness and have effectively archived baptism in cold storage, we, as a church, are beginning to see our “charming” practice of baptism as uncomfortably pagan and occult. We prefer to live with our illusion that the creation – the world – is an antagonist to our spiritual journey. Still, our strong sense of history demands that we honor baptism with at least sentimental homage. Some believers might refer to baptism as being “old-fashioned” or excuse it as a cultural practice of biblical times or apologize for its strange nature by calling it an “outward expression of an inward grace.” Again, by stressing “personal expression” we alienate God and his expression of creation and grace.

When we are baptized we are leaving an illusion of “the world” and entering into The World – into the abundance of God. We begin again. In baptism we acknowledge our youth and our likeness to growing things dependent on water.

The water has its ways.

The Gospel According to Water

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.
-William Shakespeare

Baptism is a spiritual, mental, moral and physical force. Combined with the numbing natural disaster of repentance, our senses are overcome – the moment forever surrendered to the care of long-term memory. The element of water has epic performances in the Old Testament, but it is interesting that most often the element of stone was used in memorial celebration of passages as well as the foundation for sacrament and rites such as circumcision. But the first miracles of Jesus reveal his relationship with water. Water transformed for him, held him up, listened to his voice, submitted to him, moved to suit his pleasure and will.

Baptism is not a creed or a human expression, rather, it is the Faith that underlies, borders, flows through, supports and showers its blessings on all through the one Lord, Jesus Christ. But baptism can never be the end of the quest. If it is, it becomes an idol.

Baptism is not a symbol that sets us apart in the world. Love is the attitude that defines us as Christians. Love, that comes to us in the invisible Person of the Holy Spirit in the water, is the action or work that marks us in the world as believers. In immersion the created essence of water perpetuates Truth. Unlike circumcision the mark we receive in baptism is hidden to human eyes, and beyond the moment of immersion, incapable of serving as a visual testimony of individual faith.

The water has its ways.

Until an individual can explain faith as well as he can explain the atmosphere – we must baptize on the compulsion of faith and grace alone. When, on the spiritual journey, humankind returns to the water – the womb of the Creator – she is returning into the Source of life. This process of the Spirit is no more symbolic than our births and deaths and just as compulsive and frightening. The laws of nature do not require us to “understand” everything about the atmosphere in order to receive life from our next breath and the laws of the Spirit, in a similar way, infuse the soul who longs to awaken in the arms of the Creator. Since we cannot know the fullness of the Spirit’s work in water immersion, we cannot “fully” prepare any soul for baptism. So baptism can be entered by anyone who recognizes the voice of his Creator and runs toward it.

Come to the Water …

Nature imitates herself. A grain thrown into good ground brings forth fruit: a principle thrown into a good mind brings forth fruit. Everything is created and conducted by the same Master, – the root, the branch, the fruits, – the principles, the consequences.
-Blaise Pascal

Immersion into the water expresses the purifying blood of Christ which covers us completely, hiding us in him and providing a way into the Family of God. The paradox of water being both an attraction and a danger implies that the mystical ascent of the soul is fraught with danger to both body and soul.

Therefore, since nothing about baptism expresses me or my affiliation to a particular denomination, arguments about the essentiality of baptism and the necessity of baptism are diversionary exercises that succeed only in distracting the contemplative seeker from the real truth – that baptism is not our method – it is God’s. And it saves us from ourselves.Wineskins Magazine

Carmen Perry Beaubeaux

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