Alexander Schmemann is so wise. I first discovered him (well, not Schmemann, but a book of his) in the Desert Wisdom book store, a little Eastern Orthodox church with a store at street level in Kansas City. I bought his book Of Water & the Spirit: a Liturgical Study of Baptism. In it he talks about the history and liturgy of baptism. It has done a lot, as much as Rob Staples, to shape the way I think about sacrament and specifically baptism. On page twenty Schmemann writes, "Conversion is not an event in the realm and on the level of ideas, as so many people think today. It is not the choice of an 'ideology,' not even an answer to 'problems'-a word delightfully ignored by the early Church and the Holy Scripture. It is truly an escape from darkness and despair. One comes to Christ in order to be saved and because there is no other salvation."
Sometimes people ask me how old I was when I was saved. I think I was three, but I don't know for sure. I have always been Christian, that is, a follower of Christ. I have always, as long as I can remember, confessed his Lordship. When I was thirteen I experienced a 'strange warming of the heart' that I have always thought of as sanctification. I grew up politically conservative, rigidly so, a real Republican in the editorial sense of the word (think Limbaugh). I always assumed myself on the right path. When I was seventeen, my youth pastor introduced me to Soren Kierkegaard (what seventeen year old isn't interested in 19th Century Danish philosophy). I've been hooked on such things since.
However, everything changed the next year. I attended Edison College in Ft. Meyers, Florida for my freshman year. I met with a group of Christians almost every week for a time of worship and devotion in this little room with no air conditioning. The windows were open, but in the afternoon in South Florida even the wind is naturally heated. There was a retarded boy on campus and he was fat. Before I'm arrested for not knowing better than to speak in such a way of another human being, I am painting a picture of offense that must be painted (I'll allow this counselor, go on). He was retarded and enormous and he didn't wash his clothes often, he had holes in his shoes. Not only were his clothes not washed often, but they didn't fit properly so there was a good 5 inches of crack showing. Worse than all of that, he smelled wretched, as though he didn't really have a good concept of what it meant to wipe.
As the stuffy wet air in that room wafted around, gaining strength each time it passed the retarded boy, it would accost me and those around me, holding us up for our lunch money. I looked around at my friends and they would wince everytime they smelled the retarded boy. I've never seen such faces (except maybe in the church). They would turn their heads, scowl, and move away from the smell. It was a small room and it was crowded, but no one stood within three feet of that fat retarded boy as we sang songs of worship and praise.
The last time I remember a hot breeze blowing and smelling the boy is when it happened. I have thought a lot about it since then. I can't stop thinking about it. But when that foggy smell hit me, I looked up. The retarded boy turned and looked at me and smiled at me. In that moment, not figuratively, but literally and mystically I saw the bloodied, beaten, spit on, pissed on face of Christ smiling at me and I died. I don't know who I thought I was before that, but in that moment I was saved. To this day I don't know how to talk about it except in terms of mysticism. This was no imagined event, it happened. And I never looked at the boy the same. I wish I could talk to him now. I wish I could thank him. I wish I could give him a hug and smell him.
Years later when I read what Schmemann wrote about salvation not being in the realm of ideas, I understood. It was the Christ of Our Lord who looked at me and smiled as a retarded boy, and I was saved from darkness and despair. Thanks be to God. Now, you'll know what I mean if you ever hear me say that Jesus was a retarded boy because that day he was.