On Being a Catholic Quaker

Thirty years ago, driving home from a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting, I heard the inner words, "I want you to become a Catholic." I protested that I was already a Quaker, that my Catholic friends in the Body of Christ were happy with me as a Quaker, and that it would upset my wife, Betty, who’d had enough trouble getting used to my Quaker peculiarities. But the voice persisted; and eventually, after taking instruction, I became a Roman Catholic. About the same time, Dick Taylor, a friend and longtime Quaker activist, was also baptized into the Catholic Church. After withdrawing his membership from his original meeting because he could see it was causing unrest, Dick was invited to join another meeting, which he gratefully accepted, becoming a full member of both faith communities. That’s two of us. With Drew Lawson, another friend and an Australia retreat center founder, poet, and spiritual director, that makes three Catholic Quakers (or Quaker Catholics) I know of.

The issue for us isn’t about dual membership and the precedent we might be setting. In each case it’s been about being faithful to the leading of the Spirit and listening to the Inner Voice.

For years I have not been led to say much about my dual allegiance. I’ve been a Quaker among Catholics, not hiding but not pushing my other faith community. (The faith itself is about the same: same God, same voice, same love for the sisters and brothers and the wider world.) I’ve also tried to be an unobtrusive Catholic among Quakers. When I’m in my plain Quaker meeting I find solace in the stillness and ways of God in Quaker practices. When I’m in a more elegant, more cluttered Catholic church with saints, processions, feast days, sacraments, and the like, I’m also at home. Of course I puzzle over the differences, feeling like a child torn between divorced parents. For 29 years I’ve gone back and forth between two homes, honoring the customs and sensibilities of each; but at times my heart aches as I endure their separation, a separation that by now is second nature for them. Each is happy with its own life, and the two faith traditions are generally polite and sometimes cordial when they meet for common projects; but something in me yearns for reconciliation between these estranged and beloved "parents." I’ve lived in two worlds, been nurtured in two spiritual homes, and I can live with that if it’s God’s will and the best we can do. I’ve lived with it this long and I can certainly continue.

But after 29 years I don’t think it is God’s will, and I don’t think it’s the best we can do. In short, I don’t believe the problem is with Dick, Drew, and me. I don’t think it’s a question of our having to decide where we belong. Nor do I think it’s an organizational or a dual-membership problem, but a deeper one that emerges only as the Holy Spirit is allowed to express its will for the relationship between the two groups. I don’t think in wider terms—Catholic-Protestant, or Christian-Jewish-Buddhist, for instance. I don’t have any special ecumenical wisdom on healing the deep divisions within Christianity, or between the world’s religions. All I know is that I long for my two spiritual parents to talk to each other again, to share their lives again, to listen to the still small voice that brought them both into being in the first place. For years I thought that longing sprang from a childish fantasy to unite separated "parents." Today I believe I share that longing with our common Creator.

Without openness to God’s intrusive word—for God’s prophetic utterances always interrupt our plans in place—the venture to explore a closer Catholic-Quaker relationship is futile. I don’t mean there’s no room for discussion, for getting to know one another’s spiritual styles, for utilizing our God-given reason; but unless there’s a hunger for the Spirit to revive the fellowship of those who would be one in Christ, our efforts will be futile and probably even more divisive.

A few days ago, while I was pondering and trying to articulate the similarities and differences between my divorced spiritual parents—Catholicism and Quakerism—my good friend Jay Clark interrupted me, saying, "John, I can read about the theological differences, the different histories, the differences in doctrines and practices. Just tell me what you experience. Why are you a Catholic?"

Remembering my last visit to church a few days earlier, on Ash Wednesday, I blurted out, "Because I can cry in church, which I can’t do in Quaker meeting. I can cry for my sins, for the sins of the Church, for the sins of the world."

"Why there and not in Quaker meeting?"

"Because I kneel in church. On my knees I can look up and see my savior portrayed in front of me on the Cross. I know it’s just paint and wood, but he’s still there. I sense he listens to my tears; he cares for my sorrows; he understands my confusion. After the singing, the prayers, the readings from Scripture, and receiving the presence of Jesus in bread and wine, I sit back in my seat and I am so grateful. My heart again weeps, but now it’s tears of joy and thankfulness. I offered God everything I had when I came in, and God responded to my need and the needs of a bleeding world I carry with me. I can’t say ‘bleeding’ among my Quaker friends, but Catholicism allows room for that. Catholicism doesn’t insist I use passionate language, but it’s available. The Church is my mother. It lets me be a little boy again. It cares for my infirmities. It lets me sin, and it forgives me when I ask for forgiveness. Quakers don’t mention sin very much.

"I can celebrate in church, God and Jesus first of all; and also Mary, the saints, and one another. I don’t have to ponder the nature of the Deity: to endlessly wrestle with how much of Jesus is Divine—if any—and how much is human. That’s been settled before we come into worship together."

Jay interrupted me again, "And why are you a Quaker?"

"Because Quakers listen for the words of God. They wait for the voice that spoke to Abraham and the prophets to speak to us as well. Catholics don’t do that. In church I hear God’s word through Scripture and I receive God’s body and blood in the blessed sacrament, but I don’t hear prophetic utterance, where God uses everyday English to tell us God loves us, and wants us to change this or that, or do this or that. When I leave meeting I’ve heard what the Spirit wants to say to us. If Catholicism is my mother, Quakerism—with its prophetic voice when it is used properly—is my spiritual father. All the rest of my experience of Quakerism flows from that voice: the pacifism, concern for injustice, etc. I go to Quaker meeting to listen in stillness for God’s presence, and occasionally God’s very voice, articulated for us by one imperfect Friend or another."

It comes to me now that Jay might have asked, "What do Friends share with Catholics that gives them a reason for coming together?" I answer to myself that when I worship with Catholics I experience the same Spirit I do in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting. When I worship in church I know I’m in a holy place because God is present in the bread and wine that I receive in the blessed sacrament. Even without the sacrament, God is present in the gilded box above the altar—or, more often, since Vatican II, on the side. That’s what makes church holy for me; Jesus is always there. In Quaker meeting a group of people sit quietly in an unadorned room for an hour waiting on the Spirit of God to nurture their souls in silence and periodically to speak to the whole body. We expect God to be with us in silence and in the spoken ministry. An old painting shows "The Presence in the Midst" with Jesus as a comforting figure lightly etched among the bowed heads of the assembled gray-clothed Quakers. Knowing that this figure—the Inner Teacher, Christ—is still available in our worship makes our meetinghouse, like a Catholic church, a place where I expect God to find me. Churches and meetinghouses are sacred places for me, places where Wisdom reveals itself in a special way.

I am also drawn to the value both traditions place on the lived life. As a young Quaker I read the journals and testimonies of notable Friends: George Fox, William Penn, John Woolman, Thomas Kelly, and others. The lives of Margaret Fell; Mary Dyer, the Quaker preacher martyred in Boston; Bayard Rustin, the gay black civil rights activist from the 1960s; and especially David Richie, founder of Philadelphia Weekend Workcamps, my first boss, and Douglas and Dorothy Steere from my days at Haverford all told the story of Quakerism for me. Catholics, of course, have all those wonderful saints: the scruffy beggar, Francis; cloistered Clare; nomadic Patrick and Columban; Martin of Tours; Philip Neri, the holy fool of Rome; Teresa of Avila (my favorite); Dorothy Day; Mother Teresa; and Catherine of Siena, scolding the young Pope Gregory XI when she felt his leadership was misguided. It wasn’t just what you believed, it was what you did that counted; and I felt at home in the common tradition that valued putting faith into action.

I felt both traditions were utopian in their aspirations. Both honored the eventual coming of God’s peaceable kingdom, as a spur to present action. If Jesus was Lord, then Caesar, or any political authority, was not. If the peaceable kingdom was God’s will for the creation, then nationalistic lions, who’d savaged one another in bloody rages of tooth and claw, would have to learn new lamb-like ways. Swords would have to be beaten into farm implements; enemies would have to reconcile. If theologians like Augustine and Aquinas wrote survival manuals for Christians trapped in an ongoing "winter" world, the saints were impatient for the coming of spring. Patrick and the irascible Celtic wandering saints, Francis, Clare, Dorothy Day, and a host of others couldn’t wait to begin living out the kingdom on Earth. Like the sooners of Oklahoma they crossed the starting line early to occupy the promised land before the whistle blew. They hungered for a new creation to supplant—to complete— God’s flawed first creation.

In addition to being drawn together by a love for God, the saintly life, and God’s coming kingdom, Catholics and Quakers share an appreciation of stillness and contemplative prayer. While Mary of Bethany in the Gospels, if she were alive today, might settle easily into silence in a Quaker meeting, her restless sister Martha might gravitate to one of American Friends Service Committee’s peacemaking projects. In a Catholic setting the rich drama of the mass might resonate with Martha, while Mary is on retreat at a Norbertine hermitage in Albuquerque. I find my Quaker friends often cherish the contemplative resources of the Church, while a Norbertine priest friend, echoing the sentiments of many Catholics I know, tells me if he were not Catholic he would be a Quaker.

There are differences between my divorced spiritual parents, Catholicism and Quakerism (not, I think, insurmountable in light of the calling to be one body, one faith, one baptism, under one Lord). One is plain; the other fancy. My Quaker "father" is a plain-speaking man, with simple ways. He has few close friends. He lives on the edge of the human family, admired yet suspect for donning old armor to tilt at windmills. My Catholic "mother," living near the center of town, is more festive and outgoing; she entertains a plentitude of friends and acquaintances. She keeps an elaborate, even cluttered house. Hospitable to the point of pandering to the public, ignoring at times the radical demands of her founder, her ways are less direct, more nuanced, more convoluted. She can appear austere and forbidding, grounded in archaic dogma and ritual presided over by a patriarchal royal court. (A "mother" church run by men—a prime example of convoluted Catholic logic.) On the other hand, my spiritual father is egalitarian, delegates authority, and values doing over doctrine. One parent, numbering well over a billion souls, represents the largest religious body on the planet; the other, with several hundred thousand, is one of the smallest.

While Quakers can’t agree on who, or what—or sometimes even if—there is a God, they find unity in silent worship and in their vision of the peaceable kingdom. If we as a body won’t identify ourselves as friends of the risen Jesus, we do seem to be good servants. We honor the Sermon on the Mount, we turn the other cheek, we try and love our enemies, we’re mindful of the poor; like Jesus we’re not afraid to take a public stance on controversial issues. We’re good people as far as I can judge, and we do love the higher Spirit; however, we differ on terminology. As I’ve indicated, we are Abraham’s and Hagar’s descendants; we address the sacred Spirit openly one-on-one, listening for the voice that redirected the lives of the prophets and their followers, from Abraham to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr.

Catholicism, despite all the scandals, cover-ups, sexism, and undemocratic decision making, takes me into the very presence of God. In church I’m in God’s home, God’s space, where signs of mighty saving events from the past, and the future of God’s emerging springtime, are all around me. God comes very close in bread and wine, in teachings, kneelings, and songs of praise, and in the fellowship. In Albuquerque, at daily mass at St. Therese of Lisieux, people wave to one another, shake hands, or embrace when they come into the church and at the kiss of peace, even to strangers—because they’re from a friendly Hispanic culture, and because they are trying to be Christians known by their love for one another. That’s the song we sing at the end of mass almost every time: "Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love."

O Lord, bring us together. Take us to prayer, to silence, to stillness, and tell us You love us. Let Your love come among us, and unite Your divided people, that we may again be one people, one body, one faith, that the world may know You are the Lord, the Gracious One, the Prince of Peace, the Holy One come to Earth for our salvation. Come Lord, come soon.

John Corry

John Pitts Corry is a member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., with strong ties to Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pa. During most of the fall and winter he regularly attends Albuquerque (N. Mex.) Meeting, and regularly goes to daily mass.