‘Tis the gift to be simple

Damian Thompson has just published The Amish, Jews, Muslims and the future of religion. He writes about the Amish, who with certain groups of Jews and Muslims would represent the future of religion. It’s an interesting idea.

I visited Pennsylvania in a hired car back in January 1998 and followed the traces of Harrison Ford’s Witness and another film starring Gregory Peck as a mad Nazi trying to recreate his Führer by breeding little cloned Hitlers. The farmland sprawls wide and is punctuated by white clapboard houses, gambrel barns and wheat silos. One would see cattle and horses in the fields. Occasionally, I would see an Amish man travelling along the road with his horse and carriage. The countryside is rather lovely, not very different from some parts of the south of England.

Authors and researchers have written on this subject of people who take their religion very seriously in their whole lives, in their families and the wider community. They try to find reasons why some religions thrive despite modern times, and why others wither away.

As far as I can see it, the Amish is almost a kind of “monasticism for lay people” and families. They refuse modernity, but the line is often difficult to draw. Damian Thompson notes the parallels with orthodox Jews and Muslims: strict dress codes and isolation from the modern world. The accent is placed not on theological speculation but an eminently practical approach to Christianity – live it in our lives. Monasteries work because they are micro societies, fed not by procreation but by vocations, and they follow a rule under the direction of the abbot, just like a well-run ship with its officers and crew.

mission-1986This notion seems to characterise the Jesuit approach of Pope Francis: develop Guarani-like societies where the seed of the Gospel has been planted. Above all, put the Gospel into practice. Might this be the future? Look out for such communities coming into existence. I have already commented on communities like L’Emmanuel, the Chemin Neuf and others in the charismatic way. Such communities can easily fall victim of cult gurus and dictator-like leaders of narcissistic tendencies! That is the downside of isolating from the “real” world. There must be some relationship with the world, as Blessed Charles de Foucault in his hermitage maintained relations with his Muslim neighbours in the Algerian desert.

Most of us will never live in such a community or minister to such, but I have always shied away from modern urban life, preferring the country and the sea. Even though I am a priest, there is little one can do outwardly. The Christian Gospel then becomes something interior and an invisible leaven in our ordinary life. I would be interested in comments from readers who have decided on a simple life for the sake of Christian living.

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One Response to ‘Tis the gift to be simple

  1. Stephen K says:

    I normally disagree with just about everything Mr Thompson write (and I take an instant dislike to anyone who doesn’t do up their tie!). But there is insight in his brief précis of an author’s summary of the similarities of the Amish with Hasidic Jews etc: instead of spending time in excoriating anyone who doesn’t “believe” in every jot and tittle of different creedal systems, they set about trying to live, 24/7, a kind of Applied Christianity 101. Closer to my neck of the woods is a community of Eberhard Arnold’s Bruderhof. They have Arnold’s theology of course, but he himself was very influenced by his experience of the Salvation Army and his understanding of the radicality of Francis of Assisi. Thomas Merton identified a strong practical focus between Arnold’s vision and his own Benedictinism.

    My own view is that it literally “doesn’t matter” whether one thinks of Jesus as Son of God or not, or Mary as a virgin or not etc. etc. etc. These myriad ideas have the potential to nourish a mental and emotional attitude of love for God and neighbour. But it is the attitude to God and neighbour that counts and people of many views and cultures have striven to “do the right thing.”

    At the heart of the Amish rejection of modernity is a psychological desire to achieve a higher plane of life. It risks losing sight of the wood for the trees because some modernity does much good. But hurling epithets and condemnations from pulpits and lay soap-boxes may not be a case simply of losing sight of the wood, but of chopping the entire forest down.

    A great link, Father. Perhaps others might like to discuss the implications and angles of it further.

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