From my office window, I have a view of a small baptismal font. It stands outside without any fanfare, catching rainwater on most days and occasionally serving as a birdbath for feathered locals.
It’s not the font that most people associate with Holy Wisdom Monastery. That one is upstairs on the main level and immense. The musical trickling of its waters as it gently overflows is the only sound you will hear in the monastery on quiet weekdays. Its granite depths are cleverly designed with an infinity edge so that it appears to have no bottom, endlessly reflecting sunlight that streams from a large skylight above. This is the font where the congregation processes for every baptism, gladly singing around its waters to welcome new life into faith and community.
No one who enters the monastery through the main doors can fail to see this great baptismal pool, squarely situated before the entryway of the assembly. It arrests our attention as we go in and come out, a joyful symbol of the oneness we experience through our shared baptism. Light sparkles across the font’s brimming surface, delighting eye and heart.
The baptismal font outside my window, however, serves a different purpose as far as I can see. Tucked into an eave of the building, somewhat hidden, it stands before a columbarium—a place where those who have died in association with the monastery have had their ashes interred in small niches within the wall. Significantly, the columbarium also forms the outer wall of the oratory, where the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed and sung every day. To know this is to realize that there is a sobering symbolism to this second, smaller font on the lower level. Standing essentially before a graveyard, this baptismal font offers a stark witness to the fullness of our journey in Christ—a circle that encompasses life and death, joy and suffering. This baptismal font speaks deeply of the persistence of our hope, the resurrection of the dead and the everlasting communion of saints.
In chapter meetings after morning prayers, we have begun reading Esther de Waal’s Seeking Life: The Baptismal Invitation of the Rule of St. Benedict. While I had a dim memory of hearing that the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule was excerpted from a baptismal homily, I hadn’t grasped why this might be significant to monastics. I was startled to learn that in the 4th and 5th centuries baptism fonts were intended to suggest a tomb: “[a]t first these were square or rectangular, making connection with the cubic mausoleum which was common at this time, so that the image of the font is also that of a sepulcher.” (de Waal) It is this somber note that keeps occurring to me as I gaze out my office window. This is not a baptism for the faint-hearted, but for those who need constant re-bathing in stirring waters.
Each Sunday during Eastertide, the Sunday Assembly presider at Holy Wisdom Monastery takes a sprig of hyssop, douses it in a small bowl of water drawn from the font and walks through the aisles, sprinkling the assembly liberally, encouraging us to remember our baptism, our new life in Christ and our covenant to walk in the ways of Christ. Although baptism is traditionally only experienced once in a believer’s life–often as an infant—its richness unfolds through time. Much like one’s wedding vows, the meaning and tenacity of our baptism unfolds in the ups and downs of committed relationship with God and church—in sickness and health, richer and poorer.
Although our road may begin at the baptismal font on the main level before the assembly, as we mature our baptism must descend with us into the deep, hidden places of human experience. Through shadow, broken relationships, addictions, illness, loneliness, and inevitably physical death—our baptism accompanies us, yielding its full fruit, if we allow it, in daily resurrections from all that seeks to separate us from God.
Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts: Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey