Saturday, June 12, 2010
True Conversions No. 6: Irene Lape
Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey through Quakerism
Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, Michigan c.2003
160 pp. ISBN: 1-58743-054-1
It’s tempting to think of a conversion journey as a one-way street. A person moves from one spiritual “home” or tradition to another, either in terms of a natural evolution or as a response to some crisis. And then, presumably, they live happily ever after. End of story. Irene Lape’s excursion, however, is best described as a two-way street, a round-trip experience, even. Brought up by socially involved, but self-proclaimed atheist parents, she first converted to Catholicism (via the Episcopal faith) as a college freshman. Before graduation, though, she had opted out again, only to re-enter the Catholic community some decades later. But not until she had had first become thoroughly steeped in the Quaker tradition.
This short, but intense spiritual memoir also serves as a sympathetic and insightful introduction to Quaker identity, theology, and tradition. Lape clearly treasures her exposure to and involvement in the Religious Society of Friends (of Quakers) as well she should. She does not leave that tradition empty-handed. In fact, if anything, she enriches the Catholic environment through both her search and discoveries. That her search is marked by openness, intellectual rigor, patience, consistency, and integrity is evident in this dense and serious chronicle—one that never lapses into smugness or self-indulgence.
For Lape, Quakerism served as a much-needed antidote and alternative to the “broad way—the popular way—of my generation, the way of ideology and political theorizing, the way of psychology, and scientific ‘positivism’, the way of doubt and skepticism of all traditions.” Like others who came of age in the turbulent Sixties, Lape was attracted to the “simplicity, integrity, and plainness of speech” of the Quakers, to the strength and beauty of their silent worship. She also found the Quaker witness to social justice to be singular and exemplary. The Friends Service Committee, for example, was proactive early on in the struggle for a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War and consequently exerted an influence far beyond its limited membership.
That said, as much as she admired the Quakers’ stand on social justice, Lape is insistent that her decision to join the Friends was triggered primarily by her spiritual longing and search—most especially by her experience of the presence of Christ within her very self as well as within community: “My outward life was not suddenly different, but inwardly everything was changed. I saw differently.” Elsewhere, she notes that “ (The) Friends said Christ was in me. His Crucifixion was something to be joined with in the depths of my being… and he was inviting me to be joined to him, to trust as he did in the Father to bring forth something good in his own time.”
Lape’s conversion to the Friends led her both to deeper institutional involvement and to a relentless search to plumb the depths of the Quaker theological tradition. In her dogged resourcement, she pondered the writings of founder George Fox himself, as well as those of other Early Friends such as John Woolman,and Isaac Penington. She introduces the reader to the rich vocabulary used by Friends over time—a vocabulary marked by indirect discourse rather than confrontation. Quoting early Quaker sources, she writes of “leadings,” “clearings,” “motions,” “pressings” and openings” not as charming linguistic ornaments, but as apposite descriptions of the nature of the spiritual life and of God’s activity in that life.
As her own search and research into Quaker sources continued, Lape was surprised to find many of her contemporary Friends either indifferent to or ignorant of the early traditions of their own movement: “Missing from the modern way of understanding and articulating Friends’ testimonies is any kind of radical call to holiness, especially in relation to personal, sexual behavior…. or self-abnegation… (or) the sense of sin early Quakers found so important in coming into the sense of God’s new covenant presence.” Increasingly, Lape appears to have found a fundamental disconnect between the theological insights and intentions of those early Quakers and those of present-day practitioners, some of whom evinced only a hazy or remote connection to Christianity itself.
In terms of her own journey, Lape began to question the apparent rejection of both tradition and of a physically incarnate sacramentality within the Friends. This questioning, in time, led her to embrace Catholicism again in her maturity: “It seemed to me… that the Catholic Church understood better than the Friends and most other Christian denominations that Christ had not necessarily come to end outward forms and observances of religion, but to extend them in new ways that represented a real continuity of his physical presence among us.” Added to her sense of the incarnational aspect of Catholicism was Lape’s appreciation for the roots of the faith in apostolic tradition.
Grateful as she is to have found her own spiritual home (again), Lape nevertheless evinces no interest in scoring denominational points, however. On the contrary, she is emphatic that her experience and identity as a Friend were part and parcel of her process and journey: “I had come to Christ among them (the Friends). There was a dimension of the Gospel they knew about ,” she continues, “ that I had not found among Catholics, and (that) God did not want me to lose.” Elsewhere, she concludes, “ I went back (to Catholicism because I believed God wanted me to go back, and as a Friend I would have proved unfaithful had I failed to obey his voice.”
Ultimately, Lape is much more interested in the larger, more transcendent picture: “ I know that the message I responded to is a message anyone can respond to…. The work of redemption God performed through the Jews and brought to us all in Christ is a work we are all invited to be joined to. Open your eyes and see that God is in you… and acknowledge him. Serve him, obey him, let his life grow up in you. If you do, you will experience a delight deeper than any you have ever known, a depth of meaning in your life greater than you have ever imagined.” Blessed by the Quaker tradition, Lape extends and shares that same blessing with us.
Posted by Fr. Charles Talley, ofm at 8:15 PM