It’s 4 a.m. and I’m in an eighteenth-century Swedish castle that has been transformed into an ecumenical monastic community run by Pentecostals. I gather my bags and descend a grand staircase, past family portraits going back generations, past neo-classical statues, past Coptic, Russian, and Greek Orthodox icons—their candles still flickering from the night shift. Then past a well-stocked patristic library, down another enormous flight of stairs, and through a foyer. I take one last look through the window at the rolling lawn lit by a full moon. Staring down at me is the portrait of a Pietist Lutheran, Hedvig Ekman, who married into this family in the late eighteenth century. Behind her head the artist painted a faint hint of gold threatening to become a halo, indicating that through her, holiness entered the household. Because of Hedvig’s devotion, a beautiful chapel was appended to the castle.
Still making my way to the exit, I pass a picture of influential theologians gathered on the castle steps a century ago. They include Gustaf Aulén, author of Christus Victor, and Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, an ecumenical pioneer who worked with Catholics to revive devotion to Bridget of Sweden, one of Europe’s patron saints. In the same image is the grandmother of the woman whose life, nearly a century later, would be changed by the Jesus People USA and Pentecostal Christians—sufficiently changed that when the Ekman family decided to give up this castle in the 1980s, it was donated to Swedish Pentecostals. Continuing the ecumenical spirit, the castle, now known as Bjärka-Säby, hosts Coptic, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians as well. The precision and beauty of their prayers rival the liturgical exactitude I have witnessed on Mount Athos.
But I’m still lugging my bags on the way to the door. I traverse the empty kitchen soon to be populated by volunteer members of the Pentecostal church who—at considerable effort and expense—keep this castle-turned-monastery in nearly spotless condition. Two mottos govern: Ora et labora (“pray and work”) and Esse non videri (roughly, “to be and not to be seen”). The man now smiling down a long hallway, gesturing toward me, lives them both. He is Peter Halldorf, Pentecostal minister, renowned writer, and the spiritual leader of the castle. Bearing a white beard, black cassock, and prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, his eyes radiate with life as if he’d been up for hours. He wants to show me something before I depart for my flight.
Down we go into the castle’s basement depths—through yet another hidden passageway—entering the subterranean bakery. “We call it Bethlehem,” Peter proclaims. “The house of bread,” I reply, proud of catching the reference. He pulls out the key and we enter the tiny kitchen. On the table are a Coptic icon of Mary and her son, two candles, and two Swedish Psalters. It is Sunday morning, and two members of the community will shortly be appearing to pray the Psalms while Peter and an assistant bake the Eucharistic bread for that morning’s liturgy.
With a luminous smile, Peter shows me the Coptic Orthodox seals that will shortly be imprinted onto the bread. There are twelve crosses in the center of the seal, eight on the outside and four in the middle. These delineate the holiest area—the Bread of the Lord (Asbodikon). Unlike in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, which uses a ceremonial knife, the Coptic ceremony, emphasizing unity, does not cut the bread—though it is indented and ceremonially pierced five times—once in each corner of the four central crosses, and once in the center, signifying the five wounds of Christ.
A few days before, I made precisely the same gesture with the five fingers of my right hand. I was fitting them into six-hundred-year-old grooves in the wall outside the pilgrim entrance to the monastery church of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–73) in Vadstena, just an hour drive from Bjärka-Säby. A cousin of the Swedish king, Bridget married at thirteen and bore eight children. Following the death of her husband, the revelations she had received since her youth intensified. Faced with the corruption of the Avignon papacy, she even predicted an eventual Vatican State, foretelling almost the exact boundaries delineated by Mussolini for Vatican City in 1921. Bridget—or Birgitta as she is known in Sweden—left her homeland and travelled to Rome, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, sending back precise instructions for the construction of the monastery I am now entering, known as the “Blue Church” after the unique color of its granite. Birgitta insisted that the abbess, signifying the Virgin Mary, should preside over both nuns and monks.
As we approached the Blue Church I saw some ruins, and braced myself for another case of the stripping of the altars. Like England, Sweden went Protestant during the Reformation. But the Lutheran pastor who met us there was not the steward of an empty shell, but instead oversaw a living devotional site frequented by Protestants and Catholics alike. (It does not hurt that Birgitta’s forceful critique of the papacy led some to see her as proto-Protestant.) After placing our fingers in the holes, my companions and I entered the complex, and were met with a beautiful cross celebrating Birgitta and her daughter Catherine, painted by a Pentecostal icon painter. Most remarkable was the vaulting of this massive Gothic complex. Brigittine nuns wear the “Crown of the Five Holy Wounds” with five red symbolic stones. In the same way, the five bosses connecting the Gothic ribbing are here painted red, causing pilgrims to momentarily become Brigittines themselves, their heads enclosed with the five wounds as they step under every vaulted bay.
Although there was some destruction and damage to statues from invading Danish soldiers, most here have survived. We make our way to the still-preserved relics of Birgitta, but are interrupted by a bell. Thirty pilgrims stop to gather in the rear of the church for a Taizé prayer service before a gorgeous Byzantine icon of Christ made by that same Pentecostal painter.
The tour resumes. We see a fourteenth-century wooden statue of Birgitta as an imposing abbess. “It is necessary to go after the world’s ugliness rather than its beauty,” she once insisted, chastising human pomp. Her vivid description of the crucifixion—corresponding to the gruesome reality of the Black Plague—lent crucifixes a new dimension of realism, ultimately generating images as famous as Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. “The dead body sagged,” she wrote. “The color of death spread through his flesh.” We then are shown another fourteenth-century statue of Birgitta—this time in ecstasy. Her visions of the nativity, received at Bethlehem, complemented her gritty Good Friday with a radiance that inspired Hugo van der Goes’s famous Portinari altarpiece at the Uffizi. “I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining.”
Martin Luther may have called her die tolle Brigit, “crazy Birgitta,” but there was her body—enclosed in a red casket, now tastefully tended by Lutherans. Nevertheless, leaving Birgitta’s monastery, we visited a recently constructed Benedictine convent populated by onetime Lutheran women who converted en masse to Catholicism. The abbess looked herself like the imposing statue of Birgitta we had just seen. “We converted to build bridges, not to burn them,” she told us matter of factly. She has visited Bjärka-Säby castle several times, and knows Peter Halldorf well. The abbess proudly boasted of the recently acquired relics of Sts. Benedict and Edith Stein—a piece of her veil—installed in the altar at the dedication. After returning home I learned that some of the bridges she hoped to build have already been constructed. My Wheaton College colleague Sarah Borden, an Edith Stein specialist, keeps a relic from the very same veil in her office.
Back at the castle, after a scholarly symposium with Swedish theologians who had gathered for the weekend, the group of us walked the grounds of Bjärka-Säby. Tensions should have been high in this group of Protestant and Catholic scholars. The week before, Sweden’s most influential charismatic pastor, Ulf Ekman (no relation to Hedvig), had announced his plan to convert to Catholicism. The group included the young theologian Benjamin Ekman, Ulf’s son, who preceded his father into the Catholic Church. The group also included Joel Halldorf, a Protestant theologian and son of the Pentecostal abbot.
Adjourning from our walk, we entered the main foyer and saw on the table an article covering Ulf’s conversion, with quotes from Swedish Christian leaders, including some of those present, responding to the news. There were some misquotations and typos, and the group laughed it off. What was causing a scandal for the rest of Swedish Christianity did not so much as ruffle the bonds of these friendships, and while global Christians speculated as to what caused Ulf to convert, those closest to him were reluctant to pry.
When I asked Abbot Peter about Ulf Ekman’s conversion, he exhibited the same reticence, and announced with a peaceful smile that he himself will remain Pentecostal. His response reminds me of Edward Pusey’s reply to the conversion of John Henry Newman: “I cannot unmake myself,” he wrote. “I earnestly desire the restoration of unity, but I cannot throw myself into the practical Roman system, nor renounce what I believe our gracious Lord acknowledges. And so I must go on, with joy at the signs of deepening life among us, and distress at our losses, and amazement that Almighty God vouchsafes to employ me for anything.”
It is the night before my departure. After festivities elsewhere with more Swedish theologians who seamlessly shift from Swedish to perfect English when the American arrives, we raise one last glass to Birgitta, and I get a ride home back to the castle. Having enjoyed some Scandinavian beer (which gives American micro-breweries a run for their money), I am all talk. My companion Simon listens as he drives. Overwhelmed by it all, I announce that whereas American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep, Swedish Christianity is an inch wide and a mile deep. Never have I seen ecumenical cooperation as I have here. I unfurl a grand analogy: Under secularism’s tectonic pressure, the continents of differing traditions are drifting closer together. As the landmasses merge, some jump to another side, while others remain. But the merging of continents is far more significant than isolated bounds, however athletically impressive. Personal conversions, despite the attention they can generate, are small change compared with the payoff of broader ecclesial union. And toward this goal, Sweden—thanks to the remarkable Bjärka-Säby—seems decades ahead.
Simon smiles at my theory, concedes its truth, but adds a personal dimension. He is converting to Catholicism with his fiancée this Easter, but his father—a former pastor in the holiness movement—has already refused to come to his wedding. The agony visited on this family feels like the pain of stitches necessary to heal a wound. “The mark of the Cross,” wrote John Keble in response to Newman’s conversion, “seems rather to belong to those who struggle on in a decayed and perhaps still decaying Church . . . than to those who allow their imaginations to dwell on fancied improvements and blessings to be obtained on possible changes of Communion.” Believing as I do that continental drift trumps personal satisfaction, I think Keble was on to something. But my friend Simon’s story is a reminder that there is frequently a cross for those who convert as well.
He drops me off and drives into the night. I enter the castle one last time and make my way through the winding hallways to my room, past portraits, past statues and flickering icons. I didn’t know it then, but I was walking over Bethlehem. “And if the priest be skillful and well taught after the elders,” reads one of the Coptic rubrics, “he shall break the Eucharistic loaf (qurbanah) regularly until it be broken yet remain whole, and he shall raise it with his hands broken yet whole, and this is also good.” I pack and sleep. I have to be up at 4 a.m.
Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.