There was a collective feral growl from the four corners of the 30-odd members of the Gallagher extended family.
“He’s doing what!?”
“Dad is attending a recruiting meeting next month,” announced the Gallagher family matriarch. He’s on the brink of renouncing Catholicism and becoming a Quaker.”
I swear, you’d think I was filing divorce papers.
The feral growl became a feral roar.
“HE’S DOING WHAT!?”
Now you must understand that I am 82 years old, the time of life when we senior citizens are subject to constant intense scrutiny for signs of slippage.
So the interventionists in the family were on high alert.
“Dad’s losing it,” they said.
Enough is enough. He’s writing bitchy letters to the editor. He’s playing Led Zeppelin in the study. It’s bad enough he did a half-marathon at his age, but he insisted on wearing compression stockings and those thin gym shorts that show your butt cheeks. We think he has a MAGA hat. And now he’s joining a cult.
No, enough is enough. It’s time to yank his driver’s license, take the wheels off his bicycle, and freeze his bank accounts. It’s time to monitor his sugar and his alcohol intake. It’s time to flush his Viagra. He’s a danger to himself and a complete embarrassment to us.
I, of course, exaggerate a bit.
But I understand the dismay. I understand the consternation. I understand the fear.
Our family has a long resume of Catholicism. It starts just south of St. Patrick.
I have a long resume with Catholicism. I was born to Catholic parents in a Catholic hospital. I attended a Catholic elementary school, a Catholic high school, two Catholic colleges, and a Catholic graduate school.
In elementary school I was the class’s designated contribution to the priesthood. Mother Superior branded me “Father Ed,” and my classmates followed her lead, a persona that got me beaten up on the playground but, curiously, around the onset of puberty, enhanced my popularity with the young girls. Go figure.
In high school, much like the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear a son, my reverend guidance counselor announced I would be a priest, and if I fought God’s plan, it would be spiritual disaster. I could literally kiss my soul’s butt goodbye. I did fight the call for two years but eventually entered a seminary where, among other spiritually noteworthy acts, I wore a rosary around my neck for the year as a symbol of my desire to remain pure.
Among the memorable moments on my long resume with Catholicism are the transfiguring experience of Mass on the bones of early martyrs in the catacombs and utter spiritual prostration before Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.
I taught in a Catholic High School.
I wept at Catholic Kennedy’s inauguration.
I cheered Pope Paul in his Catholic popemobile.
I married a Catholic woman, who, by the way, was also designated by her mentor-nun for the religious life. We are paragons of Catholic fecundity. We have six children and sixteen grandchildren – those of the feral growl and roar.
To top it off, I have a burial plot in a Catholic cemetery. I will, in a sense, die as a Catholic whatever I do after the so-called but mis-named “recruiting meeting.”
So, I, we, the Gallagher family, have a long history with Catholicism, and I understand the dismay at what may be considered my fling, my flirtation with Quakerdom. I understand the consternation. I understand the fear.
The growlers and roarers are wondering what this irruption into the placid status quo all means. Not just for me but for them too. If I become a Quaker, what does that say about their spiritual patrimony?
Why am I trading the pomp and circumstance and aesthetic magnificence represented, say, in the lavish ceremonies and architecture of a St. Peter’s for silent worship that sometimes occurs in vacant strip-mall storefronts?
But let’s face facts. To say I’m renouncing Catholicism is fake news. I drifted away a long, long, long time ago, though when formally called upon to identify a religious connection, I always maintained the fiction, often with a smile adding the category “LC” instead of “RC” – Lapsed Catholic instead of Roman Catholic — as if to qualify my apostasy and imply my ability to reinstate full status membership at any time. Hey guys, I was saying, all it takes is a visit to the confessional! I am still Catholic, I was saying, but on sabbatical. I am still Catholic but just on a long leash.
In reality, “I” never joined the Catholic Church. I was born into it. And passed along. Conveyed. From expert handler to expert handler. Damn, so written, my association with Catholicism sounds harsher than I mean it to be. Perhaps, ironically, even cult-like. But my association with Catholicism was in no way toxic or even close to that. In fact, it provided me with a deep and wonderful moral foundation. But I never really stood outside it. I never really got the opportunity to choose it. I relish the opportunity to choose in a matter so important to my spiritual wellbeing. And there was something missing in my Catholic environment.
What was missing? What do I see in Quakerism? What tugs me to the Meeting House?
The answer is there in the first premises of Ouakerism on the first pages of Faith and Practice: “We proclaim that every person has been endowed with the capacity to enter directly, without mediation, into an empowering relationship with God.”
Amazing! What promise! What reward! To be “endowed” not only with “unalienable rights,” as our secular charter would have it, but, of infinitely greater significance, to be endowed with an “empowering relationship” with God.
A relationship not generated by the artificial “heft of Cathedral tunes,” in Emily Dickinson’s striking phrase, but in organic stillness, the silence that enables us to sense the voice of God within. I love the silence, the “sacramental silence,” the “silent waiting,” the “expectant waiting,” the “living stillness.” Well before I experienced a Quaker meeting, I relished, with Emerson, “the silent church before the service begins.”
What was missing?
I want to feel God within.
Can there be anything greater?
And, as well, I want the camaraderie with Quakers past and present empowered with that unmediated divine relationship. I taught American literature and history for over fifty years, and I know full well the outstanding contributions Quakers have made to issues of and progress in social justice. And over the years, I worked with some members of this very Lehigh Valley meeting whose successful style and substance in improving our academic community I really admired – without realizing that they were Quakers, without realizing that their Quakerism is what made them admirable. It would be an honor to feel official fellowship with these Quakers past and present, living and dead.
As I have drifted away from Catholicism, so too, in the main, has my extended family. Therefore, the growling and roaring about my intention to attend the upcoming breakfast meeting is by and large a bit ingenuous. The extended Gallaghers, speaking generally now, are nominal Catholics. On the whole. we aren’t all that Catholic a family anymore, in practice anyway. A delicious anecdote from a granddaughter’s recent college admission junket will make the point about drift. While touring the University of Notre Dame campus, her younger brother was asked if he knew who it was on the famed Golden Dome at Our Lady’s university. He squinted upward to the dome blindingly blazing in the afternoon sun, stroked his smooth chin, paused thoughtfully – and replied, “Ben Franklin.” Not even close. That boy has drifted far downstream. There you go.
And, in any event, the notion of a necessary renunciation of Catholicism in my future, if only implicitly, is a chimera. Quakerism, with no rigid doctrine to assert or defend, is, as far as I can see, potentially compatible with all religious groups. Quakers come from all backgrounds, a spectrum, say, from Christianity to Buddhism to Judaism to Transcendental Meditation, according to one writer. Quakerism, like Whitman, is large, it contains multitudes. I am morphing from Catholicism not renouncing it.
But hold on. Renouncing Catholicism is a chimera until it isn’t. Just last week, I was asked to update my profile on my St. Luke’s Hospital MyChart. I came to the religion block. Why do they want to know that, anyway? But there it was: “Catholic.” Entered by rote some years ago. I paused staring at it for a long time. Trying to decide. You’d have thought I was choosing between fighting a cancer with a long and painful course of chemo or patiently and passively succumbing to the inevitable. You would have thought I was debating life or death. I could delete “Catholic,” leaving the space blank, and give the databank a hiccup. Or I could insert “Quaker,” for, though not a formal member, I am more Quaker than Catholic at this moment in time. But I let the block stand. I could not make a change. I clutched. I choked. I lied. I was a coward.
Why the paralysis? For what’s left to “renounce” after more than a half-century of drift? I root for the Fightin’ Irish not the Nittany Lions, which suggests my core institutional religious allegiance and can be fightin’ words in some areas of the Lehigh Valley. Ha! Now there’s a trace of Catholicism for you. In addition, I will always believe, as the good nuns taught me, that, facing certain death from a runaway car or freight train barreling at me, if I say the Act of Contrition – even just the first line “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee” – even if I say this, just this, Heaven is assured. Now there’s a winner of an idea. Gonna hold on to that one for sure. So there’s another geological trace of Catholicism for you. But that’s all I have at the moment. And yet I couldn’t delete “Catholic” on an impersonal computer form.
But now it’s time to fish or cut bait, as they say. Now – in the quiet, respectful, polite Quaker way – I am given the opportunity at the Attender’s Breakfast to engage in “friendly” discussion, to gather information, to ask questions, and, as a result, to consider becoming a member of the Meeting.
What’s holding me back?
Two or three years ago, pre-covid, I found the Quakers. For two or three years I have quietly squatted in the Meeting for Worship, both in person and virtually. For two or three years I have unobtrusively poached what I need from the Meeting for Worship. What do I need? At 80-ish years old, Death is very much on the table. A trip one takes alone. There’s nothing like making a will to focus one’s attention. There’s nothing like certain conversations with a doctor to focus one’s attention. I was, I am, in need of quiet religious space in which to think about death. Not morbidly so. But I have preparing to do. As Dorothy Steere says in Faith and Practice, “As I grow older, I seem to need more time for inner stillness.” My need is selfish, and I could continue to fulfill it — by the Meeting’s leave, of course — without becoming a member. By continuing to squat and poach.
In our “Quaker 101” classes, my antennae really perked up when facilitator George said Quakers don’t think much about afterlife. Quakers tend to be “here and now,” he said. But I am not in an “here and now” place at the moment. I have been in my fashion an activist over the years. In fact, I think I have acted Quakerish, even in style, virtually my whole adult life without recognizing it. I think I may have been a Quaker without the name. But I don’t feel those activist urges so much anymore. I’m withdrawing. I’m heading toward the Great Silence. Like a Samuel Beckett character, I’m making myself a memory.
For two or three years I have squatted and poached without paying “taxes” to the Meeting community. By unpaid taxes I don’t mean I haven’t contributed financially – I have. I mean doing the kind of work, the kind of business that keeps the community, especially a small community, going. For two or three years I have taken from the Meeting not given to it. I consider myself a giver. I ran a PTA, a Little League, an Academic Department. “Ran” – past tense. Because of other home healthcare responsibilities I have now, I don’t feel I have the ability to contribute meaningfully to the secular business operation of the Meeting in the way that every responsible member should. Faith and Practice says clearly and reasonably, “Members . . . are expected to serve on committees. . . . This service is essential.” I’m not sure the Meeting benefits from me being a member. I would not be a member who pulls much weight. I would not be “new blood” sharing the load. I don’t feel comfortable with that.
As I read what I have written, though, it sounds, even to me, as if I am stretching for reasons not to join the Meeting. Facing the Attender’s Breakfast is like staring at the already filled-in religion block on MyChart. It makes me wriggle. Who knew identity has such suction on one’s being?
This breakfast should be interesting.
*Title a bit pompous, I know, but with a nod to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864).
Edward Gallagher is a Professor of English, Emeritus, Lehigh University
Originally published at quakerbucks.org. Written by Edward Gallagher, Lehigh Valley