Pat Shaver

Mennonite/Catholic Bridging Retreat
Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, 20-22 August, 1999

July 12, 2002

The sentence seemed to jump off the page at me: “Sometimes we do things not because we can program their outcome or even begin to understand their meaning, but precisely because we cannot.”  It was in invitation to an exploratory gathering of people who are fed by both Catholic and Mennonite traditions.  It asked, “Do you feel somehow at home in both traditions-and for that very reason, not entirely at home in either?  “Do you find yourself longing and working for a bridge?”  It said they expected to do 4 things that weekend: to share stories; to ask why the Mennonite-Catholic bridge is becoming so heavily traveled; to explore ways to support one another in the future; to support those in both churches who are engaged in ecumenical dialogue.

My spirit soared when I read these words because they described my personal experience so well and affirmed that others shared that experience, which had so often felt so lonely.  For years I have said I find myself theologically Mennonite, but spiritually Catholic.  The possibility of meeting with others who understood the quandary inherent in feeling the need for both traditions, but not entirely at home in either, filled my heart with longing, hope and gratitude to God.  The invitation went on to say that the hope was that the gathering would have some of the feel and informality of a family reunion, with time for telling our stories and informal chatting, and that’s just what it felt like — an invitation to a family reunion to meet a family I didn’t quite realize I had — other people who shared the experience of living in multiple spiritual homes, with the passion, joy, depth, frustration, loneliness and gratitude it seemed to entail.

Once we had committed to attending, we were asked to send in a one page spiritual biography tracing our interest in Catholicism (or Mennonitism if we were Catholic).  This would serve to give us a bit of an introduction to who we would be meeting, as well as cover some ground that we then would not have to repeat in our spoken stories.  When the biographies arrived, I read them hungrily, amazed at the myriad ways God had worked in each of our lives to bring us to this point, and surprised at how much of my own story was shared by others.

The written biographies shared much about people’s experiences.  For the Mennonites, Catholic authors such as Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were frequently mentioned as first introductions to Catholicism, as was Taize, either the actual place, or the music and worship.  Gene and Mary Herr were the first Mennonite connection to spiritual disciplines for a number of Mennonites.  The desire to go deeper with God brought people to retreat centers, guesthouses, abbeys and classes where we were introduced to: silence, mystery, contemplative prayer and praying the scriptures, spiritual nurture and direction, ritual, liturgy, artistic holy space and the Eucharist, mystics and saints.  “My contemplative spirit was aroused,” said one man.  We realized we desired a deeper spirituality than we had known.  We experienced the power of ritual, liturgy and Eucharist, particularly for some, as one man expressed it, “the moment in the liturgy when I experience the grace of confession as we pray, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.'”

The Catholics were drawn toward Mennonites by their quiet but strong presence in the peace movement, their gentleness and down-to-earthness.  They found Mennonites to be a flexible, hospitable group who were good listeners.  One man said that his time with Mennonites enabled him to talk about the Lord, something he was unable to do previously.  He valued the solid scriptural foundation, discipleship and nonviolence he found in the Mennonite Church and was reminded time and again by Mennonites “that there was more to the Catholic Church than bishops, magesterium, pontificates, doctrines, institutionalization and mediocre homilies.”  He is now back in the Catholic Church, but “the Anabaptist part of my soul has been awakened, bringing a much needed balance to my life of word and sacrament.”  In fact, both groups said that sojourns with the other helped them to understand their own heritage more deeply, at the same time that their appreciation expanded for aspects of the other church.

Another strong theme was the yearning to follow one’s heart and God’s leading, yet acknowledging the loneliness and opaqueness that can involve.  One man asked, “Is there a place for monastic spirituality alongside my attachment to the Mennonite Church?  I live at the margins of my tradition and at times wonder what holds me there.  Is it faithfulness or fear?”

A woman who converted to Catholicism wrote:

It seemed to me that I was either following a strange journey of Faith, which was of God, or that I was really going “over the deep end” into much emotional instability.  In my heart it seemed that I was indeed following the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But to my logical mind and my Mennonite heritage it looked like I was moving toward an emotional breakdown.  As I entered the Catholic Church it was a pure act of faith, moving in spiritual surety but in much darkness of not knowing what the outcome would be.

One man described the desire…

to find some way to be, with integrity, both Mennonite and Catholic.  In the last few years the only question for me with regard to my church identity has been whether to be a ‘Catholic Mennonite’ or a ‘Mennonite Catholic.’  On a bad day, both combinations seem preposterous and I either a little crazy or a lot lonely.  But on a good day, the future of the whole Christian church seems to lie in the mutual nourishment of these two traditions, through sacramental sustenance and active discipleship.

There was a lot to chew on in those biographies.  I read them a couple of times, both to try to begin to put names to stories, as well as because it was so healing to hear others’ descriptions of so many of the types of feelings and experiences I’d had.  I looked forward to the actual retreat with great anticipation.

The weekend finally arrived and, after worshipping together, we began to tell our stories.  Part of everyone’s story was what had brought them to this retreat.  A strong sense that “the Spirit is at work” was coupled with a sense of seeking.  As one person observed “None of us set out to be here.”

The spiritual hunger, which is the foundation of each story, presented itself in different ways.

Some were working overseas or in urban or intercultural settings that were exhausting and draining and realized that their idealism couldn’t sustain them over the long haul.  Others had more personal crises or revelations.  For one, it was answering the question, “What is the passion that is deepest within you?” and discovering it was to be in spiritual ministry.  One man’s healing and journey began when he opened to “the possibility of letting the risen Christ into my feelings.”

A woman didn’t think she would be considered Christian by the definitions of the conservative conference she was in.  “But,” she says, “I was so spiritually hungry.”  For another, it was a question of following his heart and needing to live the questions.  He said it was “literally a decision about whether to live or die”: for him, to be an evangelical Christian would be to deny his intellect, but living without faith led him to despair.  He realized “you have to take truth wherever it leads you, whatever the cost.”

Some Mennonites’ find the Mennonite Church a nurturing place to begin one’s faith, but find that it nurtures the mind better than the soul.  “There is no room in the Mennonite Church after you pass the conventional stage of faith.”  In contrast, they find the experience of the Catholic Mass stunning.  The space, smell, liturgy, etc. are invitations to the mystery of God that nurtures the spirit as well as the mind.  They are thirsty and want to drink deeply at that well.  Additionally, for Mennonites, the experience of the Eucharist as life giving, sustaining and a place where one meets God, is life changing.

Spiritual hunger led most to spend time on retreat at Catholic retreat centers and abbeys, where they were introduced to silence and contemplation, discovering their own desire to honor the contemplative in themselves.  Not only was the idea of silence novel, but a place which provided full permission and structural support to enter the silence was a new experience for Mennonites who tend to be doers.  Some embraced contemplation to sustain their activism; others felt the call to convert from being an activist to a contemplative.

Those practicing and/or studying spiritual direction expressed the frustration of feeling called to something that is little understood in Mennonite circles and their dread of having to explain what they do.  “I feel so called to spiritual direction, yet my mouth fills with dust when it comes time to explain it.  Is it safe to tell the truth?  Do I have a place here?  Will I be honored?”

Catholics found their spiritual hunger fed by Mennonite simplicity, community, discipleship and church support for peace activities, a contrast, they felt, to deadly bureaucracy and the issues compelling priests and women to leave the church.  One Catholic lay chaplain expressed frustration at the lack of recognition and validation for lay ministers in the Roman Catholic Church.  After his “sabbatical with the Mennonites” (studying at AMBS) his understanding of the priesthood of all believers affirms his authority as a baptized Christian and he holds his head higher.  He spoke of the empowerment he experienced when he was asked to share his gifts in Mennonite settings, including teaching, preaching, and leading an Ash Wednesday service.  “I have received recognition in the Mennonite world, even though I’m not even a member.”

Mennonites who had converted to Catholicism expressed a variety of thoughts.  One felt the need to be in continuity with all the saints.  “St. Francis,” he pointed out, “said the church was crummy, but stayed anyway.”  Another voiced the difficulty of feeling called to be celibate in the Mennonite Church.  One said, “Mass at its best is theology as poetry, poetry of the centuries and it is better to leave it there than to try to explain it.”  Another reflected, “I don’t know what kind of bridge we are building, but with Mennonites involved it will be sturdy, functional and beautiful.”

One man spoke of seeing huge statues at the Cathedral at Wells, England and then other places, which were empty where the Puritans had pulled down the statues.  He thought,

Maybe Mennonites wouldn’t have pulled the statues down, but we would have applauded.  It was devastating to think about.  I began to get in touch with the fact that Roman Catholic history is my history.  It is us.  This was liberating and frightening because I’d thought of myself as different.

Another expressed the need to “confess my self-righteousness for Roman Catholic treatment of us.”

Some expressed difficulties being part of both traditions, including congregations who don’t want any “Catholic” influence in worship services.  The temptation to share the best of the other tradition and the worst of one’s own was acknowledged.  Those who are Mennonite spiritual directors find needing to always function outside of structures, such as the church, retreat centers and religious orders, is isolating.  Structures are important and it is very painful to have a vocation but not the structures to help support it.

Marriage and families posed another set of difficulties.  One partner’s interest in and need for another tradition is hard on a marriage.  “It’s damn hard to stay in a marriage with this.  You want to be together,” said one woman.  Her husband added, “That’s the great question of our time, can you be holy and married?”  “While a couple may be able to negotiate differing paths when there are only the two of them, once kids come along it gets messy.”  Another added, “Some of us have submerged our needs for spirituality in order to parent.”  Difficulties with extended families included dealing with family members who are fundamentalist, being considered an outcast, and being disinherited.

Statements about where we fit included:  “Almost all my significant spiritual experiences have happened in Catholic settings outside my church community.”  “Is the search for one truth, one church or for how God is at work in all?”  One observed of another that he was an outlaw, never appreciated by any tradition because “you remind them of what is missing, yet you are at the heart of the tradition.” “As I’ve found myself needing to become more Catholic in order to stay Mennonite, becoming Catholic has inevitably become imaginable.”  “I came to know I could never not be a Mennonite… I came to know I could never be only a Mennonite.”

It took at least 4 hour-and-a-half rounds of story telling for everyone to be heard, and I think we may even have added one more session.  Meals offered a time to talk with those we had just met, or pursue questions we had about what someone else had shared.  Saturday evening there was an opportunity to reflect on what we had heard and Sunday morning we worshipped together and then talked about our hopes.

There was a hope for safe places to continue the dialogue seriously, where people who are seeking don’t have to experience the loneliness we have.  We expressed hoped that others on the journey could have the experience we had had that weekend, and with far more Roman Catholic participation.  We expressed hoped for: a movement, a safe and honored place in the Mennonite Church for Catholic Mennonites, a Mennonite order, a Mennonite Benedictine Abbey.  We shared hopes for oneness in diversity and that we might find more intentional ways of working at worship that include communion, ritual, etc.  There was hope that the peace witness of the Mennonites remain strong because we recognize that part of the connection between the two traditions is through the peace witness and the Eucharist, through worship and discipleship.  Bridges need to be built from both sides and we don’t know what this one will look like.  We do know, however, that Christ is the bridge and we pray that God will continue to work to make it sturdy, functional and beautiful.

It was a wonderful family reunion.  I met all kinds of fascinating relatives and was privileged to hear their stories.  For the first time in my life, I felt spiritually at home and although it only lasted for a weekend, I have found that that sense of God’s Spirit at work, of understanding and being understood, of validation, has stayed with me, encouraging me to keep deepening, to follow my heart and to live the questions.