Ninety years ago today (October 8), German theologian Eberhard Arnold delivered an address to members of The Bruderhof*, a religious Community he had founded in 1920 which continues to thrive today. The transcript of that address, translated from the original German, forms the text of this chapter entitled “Life’s Task”.
When I first read this chapter, I did not realize that the author was the founder of this specific Community and assumed that its subject was about the general concept of Community. Only after discovering that this chapter was originally an address to the Community Arnold himself had founded did his points make more sense. He was talking to HIS community about that community.
When Arnold delivered this address, The Bruderhof had existed for 13 years, long enough to have faced the challenges of forming and maintaining itself with its founder as its head. At this time, however, Arnold was in deteriorating health and died two years later. It seems, therefore, that his themes (who is called to the community and how to process the departure of seekers/members) were possibly foreshadowing how The Bruderhof would continue when he was no longer its leader.
Of particular interest is what he had to say about how the Community reacts to seekers.
Many people who have come to us have understood nothing at all of religious words, but they understood the social element. They understood true social justice, true brotherhood, unity, true social uniting, as their highest concern. … And they belong to us in spite of the fact that they had to reject religious words. Whoever seeks for that [love and unity] with his whole heart should remain with us and seek with us.
In contrast, when members depart
[the person’s reason] … is completely beyond our knowledge and understanding. … We do not know that, and we do not desire to know it. Jesus said, “Judge not.” … It would be a judging of our friends if we wished to discover for what reason their faith had not held out. That is not our concern.
These comments led me to think of how the Ecumenical Order of Charity and The Bruderhof have similar visions of community.
At first glance, we would seem to be very little alike, despite both being Christian and heavily focused on social justice. That Community is traditional (living and holding property in common) and we are not. They have a unity of beliefs AND expression (worship). We have unity of core beliefs (our charisms and vows) but not of expression and/or worship, the exception in worship being during General Assembly.
Yet in responding to seekers and assimilating departures we have key similarities.
How does the Ecumenical Order of Charity react to seekers? How do we process the departure of members? The rites for entrance to and departure from the Ecumenical Order of Charity as outlined in Grounding Prayer give us a common ground by which we as individuals can better understand and incorporate these changes in the composition of our Community. We are able, through our website, to respond to these changes as they happen which leads to Community vitality and bonding through spirit-led sharing.
Over the past 4 years, there have been several inquirers who left at various stages of inquiry, a few members who left after many years with the community and a few who “faded away.” Over the years, there have been many such events. Through the movement of the Spirit, The Ecumenical Order of Charity has survived.
Possibly our ability to survive (and The Bruderhof’s) lies in being open to work of the Spirit. Both communities trust in the Spirit’s leading by joining with the seeker to discern a call to religious life. But we, like The Bruderhof, respect the ways in which the individual understands that call. It seems that if an inquirer thinks they might be called to join us, we assume that is the case until they (or we) find out differently. How and when that discovery is made appropriately differs with each case.
When one of our members or seekers discerns a call in a different direction, we respect that discernment and acknowledge that it is not ours to understand, but to support.
Each person who comes and each who departs changes the composition of our Community but not its nature. We ground ourselves in the leading of the Spirit, ever embracing our vows and charisms.
*Superficially, The Bruderhof resembles Amish/Mennonite in dress and norms. But their extensive use of modern technology makes for some refreshing confusion.
For further details on The Bruderhof, check out YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/@LaurafromtheBruderhof
or website: https://www.bruderhof.com/