We Are All Seekers

There are many ways to God. This is surely part of our Quaker tradition, and yet, like other believers, we feel most comfortable with our own way. There are times nevertheless when our experience can be broadened by sharing worship and sometimes living arrangements with others who have different ways. I would like to tell a little of my experiences with sharing worship and day-by-day living at my own "retreats" among Roman Catholics.

My association with Roman Catholics began almost by accident, some time ago. An illness had left me with damaged ears and excessive sensitivity to noise. Clearly I would have to spend periods of time away from the city where we lived. Some country inn, perhaps? Too expensive, and anyway, not a place where I would want to go alone. A Catholic friend suggested the Guest House at the Convent of Saint Birgitta in Darien, Connecticut. It would surely offer quiet, except in the summer when it became a haven for vacationers. And so, after getting lost in numerous byways, I arrived one dark November evening at the front door of the massive Victorian mansion that had been given to the Sisters as their Guest House. I was welcomed warmly by Sister Christina, who was dressed in long grey robes and a headdress fastened by a white circle and a white cross with a single spot of red (representing Christ’s blood). At the door to the central hall I read a sign: "Let each guest be received as Christ."

No questions were asked. Since the time of the Swedish Saint Birgitta, these Sisters, in various parts of the world, have welcomed the weary traveler. Vikingsborg was the name of this house, for the owner too had been Swedish.

For a modest fee I occupied a big room with a bay window overlooking a cove of Long Island Sound, where often I could watch a great blue heron catching fish at dusk. As a writer I welcomed the long, uninterrupted hours but also the companionship of mealtimes, when the guests assembled to partake of abundant food at a long oval table. The priest who took care of the spiritual needs of the community ate at a separate table, but we knew him as our friend. "Welcome home!" he would greet me after I became a regular visitor, and indeed Vikingsborg came to be practically my second home.

Once at Vikingsborg I was asked to say grace before dinner, as others had. I offered a Quaker grace, all of us sitting awhile in silence with hands linked together around the table. In silence each of us thanked God in his or her own way. Are we really so different after all?

Mass was held early every morning in the little chapel. No one urged me to go, but in time I did. The service was simple and modern, in English. At one point all of us, Sisters and guests, would take the hands of our nearest neighbors and whisper some such phrase as "Peace be with you!" How Quakerly! Communion, however, was denied me because I was not a Catholic. This was the only time I felt rejected. I had been to many churches before becoming a Quaker and I believed very deeply in the spiritual meaning of communion, though I did not myself feel I needed such symbolism to feel at one with God.

It might reasonably be asked why I did not sojourn at Pendle Hill or at Powell House in Old Chatham, New York. I am sure Pendle Hill would have satisfied my needs perfectly, but traveling was difficult for me; it was too far. I did sojourn several times, very happily, at Powell House, as well as taking in some programs, but at that time it was not available for sojourning as often as it is now. And, again, I needed something nearer.

When we moved away from the noise of New York City to New Paltz, New York, I still visited Vikingsborg at times, but I also discovered Saint Dominic’s, a Guest House in another Victorian mansion on a high bluff above the Hudson River. There, too, I was welcomed with love. Unlike Vikingsborg, Saint Dominic’s received only women; the permanent residents, all elderly, were well cared for by the Sisters. Some became my friends.

In time we moved to Heritage Village in Connecticut, a very busy adult condominium community, and I sought a place nearby where I could possess my soul in quiet, and write, for a few days at a time. A friend discovered such a place, Dayspring, for me. A Benedictine Brother, Aelred-Seton, had elected to go his own way rather than to belong to a religious community. He had set up housekeeping in a borrowed cottage only ten miles from me. This was Dayspring. There Brother Aelred-Seton welcomed individuals and small groups of people who felt inclined to share his life for a few days. He made his living, meanwhile, by doing and teaching fine calligraphy, bookbinding, and religious painting.

A query to Brother Aelred-Seton brought the reply, "Come and have lunch with me and see how you like it." Again, my being a Quaker was no obstacle. Thus began a meaningful connection that lasted for several years, until Aelred lost his borrowed cottage and began his plans, not then complete, for building his own house.

Sharing Brother Aelred’s life was quite different from being a guest at Vikingsborg. Five times a day, without fail, he devoted himself to prayer. Guests were not required to share these prayers and indeed were never expected to rise with him at 4 AM for the first of them (the best time of day, he said). But to me it would have been unthinkable not to share at other times. Before each meal, and again before retiring, often only the two of us, we sat on benches in the little chapel Brother Aelred had set up at one end of the dining room. In a clear voice he sang his mostly Gregorian chants; I read with him the service he specified, and we said the Lord’s prayer together. Surely God was no less present to me there than in a silent Quaker meeting. And when silence was wanted, there was the half hour of meditation in the late afternoon, in a little upstairs room furnished only with a single bench and round cushions for sitting comfortably on the floor.

Delicious meals, often with vegetables fresh from the garden, appeared miraculously after prayer sessions. Though to be true to Benedictine tradition we might have eaten in silence, we used this time for sharing our thoughts about different religious ways and about his work and mine. Then we washed dishes together and I felt, as I so often have elsewhere, that God’s blessing was with us in this peaceful domesticity.

When a visiting Father was to celebrate the Eucharist with Brother Aelred in the little meditation room, I was invited to share the service with them. There were just the three of us, and as we first sat in silence, I could truly feel that the meeting was gathered. Together we worshiped the same God, through the same Christ. The bread that was to represent Christ’s body was not white wafers this time, but tiny consecrated loaves baked in Aelred’s oven. And there was the wine to represent Christ’s blood. This is of course not my usual way of worship. But for many people this celebration of the Eucharist imparts a feeling of Christ’s presence, and I was glad to share this with Brother Aelred and his visitor.

I have found other places. At Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut, Sister Irene, on saying goodbye to me, said, "I ask of you only one thing—to pray for us." And so I have, mingling my informal Quaker prayers with the Sisters’ more formal ones.

I have heard that many people are now flocking to Catholic guest houses as a place for a quiet and inexpensive vacation. To what extent they share in the worship I do not know. And friends of mine spent several days at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, far at the end of a bumpy dirt road in New Mexico. There they shared the religious life of the monks. When they asked if communion would be open to non-Catholics, the answer was, "We do not ask."

I am not suggesting that all Quakers would feel comfortable with my way of sharing. I cannot say, either, that all Catholics, or other religious groups, would be as welcoming. But I feel that this willingness to worship together is a fairly new thing under the sun, and that it helps to bring us together in our seeking.

All this is not a matter of sharing beliefs, creed, dogma, or the lack of these things. Rather, it means sharing our search for the Light Within, by whatever name or by no name at all. As Quakers offering our special way of sharing, surely we include people of other religions when we say, in words that were used to welcome me to membership in New Paltz Meeting: "We are all seekers. May we help each other and never weary in the search."
This article was written in 1985.

Elizabeth S. Helfman

Elizabeth S. Helfman, who was a member of New Paltz (N.Y.) and Medford (N.J.) meetings, died in 2001. She wrote books for children and taught journal writing.