Saturday, June 12, 2010

True Conversions No. 6: Irene Lape

Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey through Quakerism
Irene Lape
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.

Stockholm's Franciscan Heart: Riddarholmen

Over the past several decades, a number of attempts have been made to ‘plant’ the Franciscan order in Sweden, but have met with only limited success. It is unfortunate, because up until the Protestant Reformation, the Franciscans flourished in this country and throughout Scandinavia. In a very special way, the Franciscan ‘footprint’ is still physically present in the form of Stockholm’s oldest building—and one of its’ most distinguished cultural landmarks-- the former friary now known as Riddarholmkyrkan (the Riddarholm Church).

In 1268, just forty years after the death of St. Francis, friars arrived in what is now present-day Sweden. Under the patronage of King Magnus Ladulås (1250-90), they settled on a tiny island in the center of the Stockholm archipelago and immediately adjacent to the Old City (Gamla Stan). Here, on Riddarholmen (the island of the Knights), a large brick sanctuary in the early Gothic style and adjacent friary were constructed, then dedicated in the year 1300. Returning the courtesy of royal patronage, the friars provided for a burial place at the foot of the main altar for King Magnus. He was to be accompanied two centuries later by another Swedish king, Karl Knutsson. Both tombs remain in the sanctuary to this day.

According to historian Henrik Roelvink, himself a Franciscan, the friars flourished on Riddarholmen for more than 200 years. It is believed that the community consisted of up to 20 men who in addition to their other responsibilities, also served as chaplains to the nuns at the nearby monastery of St. Clare. The friars continued to enjoy royal patronage during these centuries, and the convent became famous for its scriptorium. In fact, the very first book ever printed in Sweden was the Dialogus creaturarum moralizatus/ The Moral Dialogue of Creatures, printed at Riddarholm in 1483.

With deep roots in the culture and continuous royal support, one might reasonably assume that the friars would continue to thrive, unmolested and unencumbered in their communal life and ministry. But the arrival of Sweden’s King Gustav Vasa (1523-1560) changed all of that. Under the battle cry (and cover) of the Reformation, Vasa proceeded to break the power and influence of the medieval Church in Sweden. Not unlike Henry VIII of England, he confiscated church property, appropriated altar silver (later melted down and used for the royal treasury), and closed most religious houses and foundations. For the friars, this was a traumatic event; we really don’t know what happened to the friars themselves afterwards. Following the closure of their convents (c.1527), it is assumed that most of them dispersed into the general community, either returning to their families or going into exile abroad. Now banned by law, the Franciscans and other Catholic religious orders were not to return to Scandinavia for more than 300 years.

The departure of the friars, however, did not mean the end of Riddarholm Church. While other religious houses were sacked and destroyed, Riddarholm remained relatively unmolested—physically, that is. For one thing, it contained the remains of one of Sweden’s earliest and most revered kings, Magnus Ladulås, a vital connection to Sweden’s past that it was in the interest of Gustav Vasa to preserve. For another, it had never been a parish church, so its sanctuary could quite easily continue in its role as the burial chapel for Swedish royalty and nobility—a function it has served well into the twentieth century. In time, the early Gothic structure of the church would be modified to accommodate the construction of additional side chapels for burial vaults. A large bell tower was erected, replaced in the nineteenth century by the ornamental metal structure which survives to this day.

The appearance of present-day Riddarholmenskyrka continues to reflect its Franciscan roots. For all the glory and opulence of its royal residents, this (initially simple) brick structure remains a surprisingly spare, even spartan environment. Only a collection of heraldic shields covers the wall; otherwise, the space is barren of superfluous ornament. Fragments of various frescoes can be found throughout the sanctuary, though, hinting at more extensive decoration during the Franciscan era.

It’s remarkable that after 700 years, this important memorial to the Franciscan presence in Sweden should have survived. Of course, it is just a building. One hopes for the day when the Order itself may be return, flourish once more, and leave its distinctive mark on Swedish life in terms of our presence and ministry.//

True Conversions No. 5: Me

June, 1980. I had just turned 30. My father had died suddenly the previous summer, and I was still coming to terms with his death. I felt confused, despondent, and overwhelmed. I was going through a difficult time with work and with some personal relationships. Spiritually, I was drifting. I was a mess.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I received a grant from the Swedish government to study and write about traditional handicrafts in Scandinavia. It was an unexpected opportunity; I had already done some freelance writing on the subject and was excited to have the opportunity to spread my wings as a budding freelance journalist. So off to Stockholm I went, with the intention of visiting for just a couple of months. I ended up staying in Sweden, off and on, for almost three full years. I went to Sweden expecting to become a journalist, and I left wanting to become a Catholic priest. No one was more surprised than I was myself.

Although I was a cradle Catholic, educated in parochial schools, and brought up in an especially devout family, I hadn’t been much of a churchgoer since I left home for college. I still believed in God and prayed on a regular basis, but I was ticked off at the church and stayed away from active participation and involvement, as did many people of my generation. But here I was in Stockholm, Sweden, of all places, and, after a few initially euphoric months, I began to feel like my life was coming apart again and that I was sinking. I was stranded-- isolated both physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Cut off from family, friends, work, culture, language, even food-- almost everything and everybody that I thought defined me as a person and supported my identity. I was lost and didn’t know how to get found. As all of these other supports dissolved, I realized that what kept me going was my faith.

I discovered a small Catholic church in the neighborhood where I was staying. Temporarily housed in a converted movie theater, St. Eugenia’s was open during the week, so I started to drop in for an occasional visit. I would just sit in the sanctuary and ask God for help and guidance; anything that would give me some grounding and direction in my life.

I began to feel more and more at home in church-- not just in the physical space, but also in the liturgy and prayer life of the parish. Cautiously, I started to attend Mass again, but I was careful to sit in the very last pew so I could escape out the back door right after the final blessing so I wouldn’t have to speak with anyone.
St. Eugenia’s served a broad international community and was staffed by German Jesuits. These good men made a lasting impression on me: they were intelligent, calm, prayerful men. I liked their style; they were welcoming and approachable, but at the same time discrete and a bit reserved. I screwed up my courage and approached one of the younger priests to ask for an appointment to talk about my life and spiritual search. Over the course of several ensuing months, that initial conversation developed into a more formal process of reconciliation and spiritual direction. I was now coming home in a more conscious and conscientious manner.

My prayer life was flourishing. And at the same time I was getting more clarity about what God was asking of me in terms of a vocational commitment. I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I realized that once I reconciled fully with the Church, I would have to put myself completely at God’s disposal-- to place my self and all of my gifts upon the altar. And I would have to have to come to terms with a growing desire for priesthood—a ‘secret’ I had kept from everyone, including myself for a very long time.

Eventually, all of my deepest fears were realized and I’m glad they were. I did become reconciled to the Church. I did ‘place my gifts on the altar’, and I did finally admit that I was being called to be a priest. But it’s not as if all the pieces fell into to place quickly or easily. The process initiated in Stockholm in 1980, took more than a decade to come to fruition. I moved back to the United States, found a job and apartment in the Bay Area, got connected with a parish community, sought regular spiritual direction, and began to do some volunteer work. Ultimately, in 1993, I was accepted into the postulancy program of the Franciscans in California. A lot happened in between, but my Swedish experience was the initial catalyst for my spiritual conversion, growth and development.

Over the past three decades, I have kept up my Swedish connection and contact with friends and former colleagues. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to spend time in this extraordinary place in the world. In and out of church, I have been nourished on so many levels by the hospitality, friendship, love, and acceptance I have received from people here. As I was leaving for this trip to Stockholm, one of my Franciscan brothers joked with me about returning to my ‘adopted’ country. But, actually, Sweden adopted me. Sweden gave me a home and it helped to bring me home. Amen.