The community members were, at first, a bit reluctant to speak with me. Understandably, they didn’t want me to think that a true impression of what life for Bruderhof is like could be gleaned in just a few short hours of sitting and talking. The mission to which they dedicate their lives is surely worthy of much more time than I had to spend, and more words than I have space to write. Naturally this is true of anywhere. The impressions I get from the places I am visiting for the purposes of this blog are just those, impressions, small sips from a deep bucket. That said, the value in these impressions ain’t nothing. At least I hope they’re not. At the very least from the Bayboro Bruderhofs, I got a glimpse of what a truly peaceful existence can look like. And, toward the work of this journey, I found myself confronting one of the fundamental tensions of a believer’s life, that of balancing submission to, and argument with, God, whatever you might take such a thing (or un-thing) to be.
First a word on…
Perennial Wisdom: The Conceptualization
I’ve read it at times as “radical monotheism,” what is considered by its proponents the mystical heart of nearly all known religions. I’ve been calling it “the oneness,” to the extent that what I’ve been talking about is the same as the Perennial Wisdom.
Alright, so this calls for some deeper investigation. What does it mean?
In his book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Yossi Klein Halevi describes it as the belief that all conceivable existence is, at it's most fundamentally real, a single body in which all that we are and see and experience are something like individual cells. Really, it supposes just what Allen Ginsberg did when he realized that “everyone knows everything all the time.” That there is something deeper in which we are all contained. That what we see, what we can measure, is not all there is. That what really is, is some singular all-consuming, unending, un-beginning, substance, a word I’m borrowing from Spinoza who used it to describe the singleness of God and Nature. Different traditions use different metaphors for this singularity. The single clay that we’re all molded from, a wave which is bigger than us but not separate from us, a single body, a single mind, a science project in the closet of some being beyond our human conception. In that cosmology, the world we see and live in is, in its essential nature, something like an illusion. The Oneness in various fleeting states of disguise. In Hinduism this disguise is called “Maya.” The veil.
The So-Called “Big Mainstream Argument:” Science vs. Religion, a Quick Word on Utility
To a strict empiricist, naturally this is all bupkus. To the true believer in only measurement and the laws of science, it is even worse: a downright lie. I’m not here to judge the non-believer, but I’ll say this. It seems that what often begins as a rejection of mainstream religion, of a God-idea utilized through the centuries by institutions hungry for power and control, ones that use the dictum of “saving souls” to advance their (what I might call) un-Godly desires, is often extended to become a rejection of the very notion that there is value in exploring that which cannot be measured. The unprovability of something experienced subjectively becomes reason enough to call it a lie. This happens without a whole lot of investigation into just what is being rejected after the TWeRI (that’s “Traditional Western Religious Institutions” although this applies to the East as well), are out the door. Reject the God that “requires” religious leaders to punish those who wear the wrong kinds of fabric together, and you won’t hear much complaint from me. But to reject the notion of a God that calls to individuals to feel deeply the vast interconnectedness of all existence? The one that, with the face of an elephant or a slim, bearded, cloak-covered white man (…”why is Jesus white?” seems like a good question to throw in here? I know people bring this up from time to time, and the response is usually “yeah, that’s weird,” so this is just a small reinforcement of the criticism of what seems like a tired historical mistake. The dude is from the Middle East, right?), the one that gets human beings to strive for betterment? Reject that kind of utilitarian God? It seems hasty. Maybe ill-conceived. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.
I use the word “calls” above with some intention. To the Bruderhof, a calling from Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for membership. When you join a Bruderhof community, a decision you can only make as an adult and which involves a long probationary period, an adult baptism, as well as a membership ritual, it is a lifetime commitment. It is not something to be taken lightly. Nor should it be.
For a few hours, I sat with two couples, one younger and one older, and we talked a little about what brought them to the Bruderhof and what kept them there. Out of respect for their privacy, I didn’t record our conversation, so the only direct quotations will be ones I wrote down immediately afterword, and I’m going to refrain from using their names.
Both couples were relatively new to the Bayboro Bruderhof, though not to the sect. They wore simple traditional clothing, the women in bonnets and long skirts, the men in slacks and T-shirts. They were warm, friendly, and very open to speaking with me. They live in a large house across the street from a beach, and the day was sunny, not too warm, and relaxed. From our spot on the porch, we could see people fishing and pulling out sailboats into the bay.
Some history of the sect: The Bruderhof began in Germany following World War I. They were, and remain, strictly committed to pacifism and, when Hitler came to power in the 30s, they were quickly run out of town. They went to Lichtenstein and then Paraguay, which became their base for a few decades, though it is now in New York state. The younger man I spoke with was born into a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, to a German Bruderhof-born father and a Paraguayan mother, who joined the group later in her life.
So just what is that they do? This is what I gathered from my visit, and a little research: They are committed to acting with “one heart and mind” and to sharing all things. All money is distributed from the central community in New York, which is also where the community elders live. Their mission is, simply, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. To this end, they spend their days practicing the lessons of the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount, with all it blessings for the unfortunate, is central to their daily work.
While the younger couple were born into Bruderhof families and never really left (though they did take sabbaticals as adults in order to decide for themselves whether they were called to be Bruderhof or not), the older couple, who looked to be in their sixties, came to the Bruderhof through prayer when they were in their twenties. They were living on Long Island at the time, and he was an up and comer with the Frito Lay Corporation. “They paid for my college,” he tells me, “I was on the fast track.” So what stopped him? Prayer, he says, and the observation that those who continued on his path simply didn't appear happy. Rich? Yes. Big houses? Check. He saw in his work his future, and he was aghast. A change was needed, and through friends and outreach, they found Bruderhof. “There was no ‘event’ that started it,” he says, “just the growing dissatisfaction.” They have eight children and sixteen grandchildren now, some of whom are also Bruderhof, and some of whom have left the community, with their parents love. “It’s not for everybody,” they tell me. They are currently in St. Petersburg for about a month or so - there’s no set timeline - “on mission,” which means that they spend their days out on the streets of Florida looking for those in need and helping them with food or money or prayer.
I asked the four of them if they ever felt in conflict with God, and they appeared a little taken aback by the question. “Our flesh is in conflict with God,” said the elder woman, “if that’s what you mean.” It was not really what I meant, though I logged the answer as something of note (why I’ve included it), and I explained that I meant it more in the realm of confronting evil in the world. I told them of my own family history of having Holocaust survivors as grandparents, of the trauma of events of mass horror like that which send ripples of pain across the world and down through the generations. They didn’t have an answer, but they understood the difficulty I was presenting, and warmly sat with me in silence for a few minutes.
The younger woman then told me quite openly about the grief she’d experienced losing a child twelve days after he was born. She and her husband had six children, she said, and five of them were still living. She explained: when people asked how many children she had, she always said six, even now, some years later. The support of the Bruderhof community, much prayer, and the deep uncompromising belief in the goodness and wisdom of God and Jesus let her and her husband find comfort in their grief. The child was waiting for them in Heaven, she told me, through her tears. In that moment, whether or not such an idea was "true" or not was beside the point. Her honesty and willingness to talk about such a tragedy was quite moving.
It might be easy for some to dismiss the Bruderhof as a semi-cultish, perhaps delusional, fringe group of God-slaves that’s of little matter to the rest of the world. Their fringe-ness aside (after all, “fringe” is really the target of this project), I’d urge those who would so easily write off the Bruderhof not to. Or at least to reflect on them for a minute or two. For all our Western liberal ideals of doing right in the world, by ourselves and others (naturally there are political arguments as to how to properly do this, and where the balance ought be between “ourselves” and “others,” and I'll let the candidates for president talk on those issues), for all our Western ideals, the Bruderhofs are the ones living the moral mission of our best intentions. They use their small wealth to send their missionaries to the far flung remote spots of the world in which there is great suffering to bring food, medicine, and comfort. They have missionaries in all the hotspots of the Middle East, in the Ukraine, throughout Africa. And just in case you’re inclined to shrug off this work with a “yeah, but then they expect you to turn to Christ for all their help,” remember that the Bruderhof do not proselytize. Their missionary work comes from the adult-made commitment to make the world better, not to strengthen their numbers.
So, Submission and Argument
It’s easy to feel the pull to the submissive life. To the life in which self-consciousness is not a daily mill about the neck. In which work, and food, and clothing are set out for you, and there aren't the worries of life's grind to plague the mind, because it is occupied with its obligations to the group and to God. I imagine it’s somewhat similar to the life of a soldier or a mystic, albeit with very different daily obligations and goals. For the few hours I sat with the Bruderhofs, I have to say, it was pretty blissful. And maybe a life dedicated wholly to God would provide this. While Bruderhof Christianity and its regiments may not be particularly resonant with me, I do wonder if this kind of submission can be extended to, in this case, the Oneness. To sit and study and meditate on all those myriad and beautiful conceptions of the Oneness, the Clay and the Wave and the Way and the Body and the Experiment, and to be free of the worries of the day-to-day grind…I get it, I feel it strongly sometimes, the draw of that life. And I know too that there are places for this in Judaism, communities and schools for fervent study, centers where Kabbalists teach mastery of serenity and the peace of mysticism. And in other religions, other paths to the same end. The Sufis of Islam (a group of which I’ll hopefully be visiting), the Vedantists of Hinduism, Zen and Tibetan Buddhists, they all give space for finding some kind of true peace through, if not submission to, a deep submersion into the specifics of their ideas, ideas that become portals to the vast unseen reality beyond the veil.
And yet I can’t do it. I won’t do it. The rational mind intrudes on the mystic's peace, and I have no intention of pushing it away. There are too many enticements in rebellion, in the dynamism of argument at the Cohen's holiday dinner table, in finding and raising the questions that too often go unasked and unanswered in the human world, in being the ass in the back of the class who makes the fart sound when things get too serious or singularly-focused. I come from a tradition of argument, of feeling the heavy responsibility to, yes, cast invective against God, when, through humanity’s ugliness, God just plain sucks. Maybe it's kind of like screaming at the moon, but sometimes, let it be said, maybe the moon has to be screamed at. To strive for moments of peace? Days of it? Months of happiness? Of course, these are gifts to be cherished, states be sought after, chased. But not alone. And I just don’t see a way around it: to commit the time and space to perfect peace within is to willfully ignore the lack of it in the rest of this world. There is only so much time in a single life. The rejoinder of Eugene Debs (“While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”), the unfinished dream of Martin Luther King Jr., the pleas and prayers of all who seek not spiritual, but physical, justice in this world, all the way back to the anger of Abraham at God's decision to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah! These are the fires of struggle that humanity can’t give up, the fires that require kindling and cultivating in a world so oversaturated with visions of cruelty that it’s gone numb. In the universe of the Oneness, there may be nothing that is incorrect, but that doesn't mean there's not a whole lot wrong.
So where does that leave us?
In At the Entrance to Eden, Halevi recounts seeing a rabbi grow angry at a sufi mystic who’s come to Jewish West Jerusalem in an extraordinarily brave gesture of spiritual boundary-crossing. The rabbi is upset at the lack of vigor in this man’s speeches, the lack of anger at violence born of religious rhetoric. “This was a time for angry prophets, not serene mystics,” Halevi interpolates from the rabbi’s distress.
I wonder. Is it a time for angry prophets or serene mystics? From where I sit, there’s no abundance of either in this world. So let’s say we could use some of both. After all, in a vast Oneness, they’re flip sides of the same coin, reflections from different angles of the same essential thing. A is A and Not A.
A note to readers (mom, dad, Agent Thompson, Comrade Ling, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google security teams): This is a long post, so it’ll be the only one this week. To come on Sunday: A Word on Some Words. And then next week: An eco-village in North Carolina, and Community (that’s with a capital “C”).