I have no memory of my baptism as an infant, when my parents and godparents renounced evil on my behalf, repented of their sins, turned to Christ and promised to foster the faith I had just received.
From the next phase, attending Catholic Mass with my mother when I was a little boy, I have three abiding memories. One is of the little illustrated book I used to read during the service, showing Jesus and John the Baptist playing together as young boys in Galilee. Another is moving seats away from the stink of dog-do on the heels of the man in front, which he kept clicking together as he knelt. The last is saying “Thank you” to the priest in response to his “The body of Christ” upon receiving my First Holy Communion. Polite, and in one sense profoundly correct – gratitude really is the appropriate heartfelt response to Christ’s sacrifice – I was supposed to say “Amen”.
As a bigger little boy, it was time for a more adult commitment to faith. I was confirmed at 10 years old. My abiding memory from this day was sticking up my hand when the bishop asked us what came down on the day of Pentecost. Out of a cathedral full of candidates, he chose me to answer and I told him it was a dove. Wrong again! It was in the right ball park, of course – the answer was tongues of fire. Both the dove and the fire are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, apart from, yet one with the Father and the Son, Jesus.
According to Catholic doctrine, confirmation is seen to complete Baptism and mark a person as a Christian with the seal of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of adoption that makes us cry to God as our loving Father, rather than as a distant deity.
Yet, I didn’t see the tongues of fire the disciples saw at Pentecost. I didn’t hear a rush of wind. From that point on, I remember engaging with the scriptures read from the pulpit. I remember letting the teaching affect my decisions and behaviour. Every night I prayed sorry, thank you and please. One evening, during a difficult period at school, I felt a powerful, reassuring presence of Jesus in my room as I wept and prayed. Yet still, I turned and drifted away from God throughout university.
Upon arrival at Ephesus, almost 2000 years earlier, the apostle Paul met some disciples who had accepted that Jesus Christ was God. When Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, they said they didn’t even know there was one. Remarkably, I had a similar blind spot until I eventually attended an Alpha course in 2002, and I learnt about the Holy Spirit and rediscovered my relationship with Jesus.
I have no doubt something spiritually significant did happen at my confirmation, but it wasn’t until I spent some serious time as an adult surveying my sinful life, surveying a broken world around me and surveying the cross of Christ, that I believed again and turned towards God wholeheartedly, vulnerable, repentant and genuinely grateful.
At this point, as he promised in the Old Testament book of Joel, God poured out the Holy Spirit into my heart. Again, there were neither fire nor birds, but this time, as I turned to him with the correct response, I received an overwhelming assurance of my Father’s love for me. I often think of this moment as his kiss of life to me and I haven’t been the same Christian since.