Review: “A Catholic’s Journey through Quakerism*

Reviewed by Jeffrey Gros

This fascinating pilgrimage will be of interest to all Friends and to Christians beyond the boundaries of Quakerism. The author offers her text particularly to those traditions that have nurtured her own very full life: “I hope that Catholics who read my story may find in the message and spirituality of Friends an approach to the gospel that is both challenging and complementary to the faith they hold and practice; it is also my hope that Friends who read it might find their way back to the outward testimonies and forms that I believe are necessary to sustain the gospel truths on which their vision rests.” (Lape, p. 9)

Ironically, Quakers will find this Catholic author rests most of her spiritual journey and strength on the Spirit-filled history and literature of their tradition. It was the classical Friends approach to Scripture, discernment and continuing revelation/tradition that brought her to reassess Catholicism and finally rest her journey, for now, in that community. She came to a deeper appreciation of Christ’s presence in the community, and the centrality of the Church through her life as a Friend. However, for her, the sacramentality of Catholicism in its visible and tangible form completed the Quaker spiritual vision. In this Catholic appreciation, she hopes never to lose the Quaker critique of being caught up in externals and rituals.

Quaker insistence on the Spirit’s leading of the Church in history seems, for her, to be worked out most adequately in the Catholic understanding of Tradition. The focus on continuing revelation helped her to find in the development of Christian doctrine in the Catholic Church an approach to history that was most adequate for her understanding. While both Quakers and Catholics insist on the Spirit’s continued action in the Church, she finds the Catholic sense of discernment of the truth to fill out this common understanding of the Spirit’s action. For her, Fox’s sense of the trustworthiness of Scripture is fulfilled in the promise of fidelity realized in the Catholic Church, including the trustworthiness of the promise to Peter.

The journey is a fascinating one. Lape grew up in an atheist, Marxist family, where she was separated from her parents at a young age after their divorce. She experienced a variety of religious influences, Episcopal, Catholic and agnostic; the dissolution of a painful marriage; and a long period of secular searching. For moments in her life peace and social justice activism was a rich, but never sufficient, nourishment for her spiritual life. She was enriched by her reading of poetry, literature and finally by the Quaker classics as she was drawn by God into the Friends community for nurture and healing, and for deepening her faith in Christ and experience of the Spirit. Figures like T. S. Eliot, Isaac Pennington, Francis Howgill, George Fox, Mary Dyer, Robert Barclay, Mary Fisher, James Nayler are among the many figures that contributed to her spiritual journey. Lewis Benson’s New Foundation Fellowship was particularly influential in her mature life as a Friend. It was through this movement that she deepened her understanding of Fox’s vision and its implications for her life, as she came to understand it.

The core of the book reflects on her experience of God, Friends use of the Scripture and the debates among contemporary Quakers around Christian identity and the role of Scripture, and the richness of Friends’ testimonies and their influence in her life. At one moment, a particularly troubling marriage dissolves, and it is the Meeting which gives her the strength and outlet for undergoing the transition and taking control of her own destiny again. The crucial chapter for her is the one on continuing revelation, discernment and her analysis of modern Friends. She spent a good portion of her Christian life among Quakers both deepening her appreciation of the traditional testimonies, and seeking to ground her witness in a thoroughly Christian understanding of their implications for today. She did find that, in some Meetings, the culture wars of the 1960s held more sway than the classical biblical faith that she found so nurturing in George Fox and other testimonies. She also found continuing revelation was being used, in her judgment, to erode the community discipline of discernment and continuity with the Friends’ core testimonies.


*Irene Lape, Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey through Quakerism, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003, pp. 160, $13.99.

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