This episode of Living Myth begins with a current controversy over mistakes made in baptism ceremonies in a Catholic church. Michael Meade then considers the origins of baptism and need for reconnection to “…the spirit of life and the transformative powers of nature that is more a matter of lived experience, than abstracted belief.”
A recent news article describes how years of baptisms performed at a Catholic Church in Arizona have been declared invalid. Church leaders discovered that a priest had misused the prescribed text by saying “we baptize you” instead of “I baptize you.” Although the mistake was unintentional, the result is not only that thousands of baptisms are now invalid, but also that all subsequent sacraments for those involved were also invalidated, including confirmations and marriages.
The religious ceremony of baptism can involve a prescribed creed or system of fixed beliefs that must be followed literally and precisely. Yet, an old idea contrasts fixed creeds with the sense of wonder and awe that has more to do with direct, conscious experiences of the spirit of life. By its nature, a creed is dogmatic and fixed, whereas awe and wonder involve immediate, revelatory experiences and epiphanies of the spirit.
Originally, baptism was not a one-time event connected to a religious doctrine, nor was it a matter of anointing the forehead of a newborn child. To baptize means “to immerse or dip in water” and typically this meant full immersion in a living body of water. Baptismal rites go back to ancient times and were intended to connect individual human souls with the spirit of life and the transformative powers of nature. And that is more a matter of lived experience, than abstracted belief.
The issue is not simply that we are in a fallen world that lacks the presence of the divine; but rather that we become caught in fallen visions that collapse the ever-changing wonder of life into that which is simply literal, factual, and historical.
Rather than a single formal event, ancient baptisms might be enacted whenever a person became stuck in life or suffered a disorienting loss. Water was universally considered to be the original source of life, an essential element for cleansing and blessing, but also the reconciling element of nature.
We are at the end of an era and in the midst of worldwide disorientation. As institutions collapse, people have less and less to trust in and believe in. It’s as if belief itself seems to collapse. That can be troubling and disconcerting; yet it is helpful to know that what we most need in times of upheaval is not another system of belief, but genuine felt experiences of the spiritual and soulful dimensions of our lives.
In a sense, we either drown in the splits, conflicts and confusions of our lives or surrender to something greater than ourselves in order to reconcile what divides us within. Like devotees entering the Ganges River and traditional people throughout time, we can immerse ourselves in something seen and felt to be sacred and transformative. We originally came from the waters of the womb and instinctively seek a return to the cleansing waters of reconciliation that can dissolve the hardness of the heart and allow our inner life to flow freely again.
Primary to the awakening of an individual soul is a felt connection to the heart of the living world. There is no one way, no single path for arriving at the point of transformation, that can involve both stillness and change, both loss and renewal. Once we surrender, the water of our deepest troubles can become the water of our own solution. In a mysterious way, our life is re-solved, reconciled and therefore renewed.
There's an old saying that we have each come to life to bring the wonder back. That implies that the wonder natural to life keeps being lost and also that part of our mission in life is to find it again. Of course, one of the quickest ways to lose the sense of awe and wonder is to reduce the living mystery to a system of fixed belief that takes us out of the flow of life, instead of deeper into it.
When the time of collapse and upheaval comes around again, something ancient in us longs to touch the origins of life. No one can prove it, and no one has to believe it, but something in us can return to a still point where our first breath once formed. In that invisible, inner center life can renew itself, and we can become imbued with a breath of wholeness and thereby connect to our original life potentials again.
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