I have just been reading a most inspiring book: uplifting both in the honest stories of the search for meaning and faith that fill its pages and in the superb photographs that accompany them. Titled Another Life is Possible (Plough Publishing House, £28.99), it has been created by Clare Stober, with photography by Danny Burrows. It is designed to celebrate 100 years of the Bruderhof community: evangelical Christian communities of married people, their children, and single people, who commit to a common life of shared meals, work and income.
Begun in 1920 in Sannerz, Germany by a Lutheran pastor, Eberhard Arnold, its members, now in 26 communities around the world, have all chosen to respond to the potent passage in Acts describing how the earliest Christians strove to lead a common life. As Rowan Williams writes in the Foreword, “The Bruderhof gently holds up a mirror to the Christian world and asks, “Why not this?” Is this radical form of lay discipleship possible? Yes; although not the usual way to fulfil one’s vocation as a Christian, outside religious and monastic communities, it is a deeply satisfactory one. It is also a creative Christian response to the loneliness of modern, atomised society, where people can literally die alone and where too many people hardly speak to another person for days or weeks on end.
In this beautifully conceived celebration of a hundred years of living together, 100 members describe their experiences: what led them, in their search for a meaningful way of life, to join the Bruderhof; the inner turmoil they sometimes left behind them; and how they longed for “a life of peace and unity”, as Bruderhof member Clare Stober writes in the Introduction. She is honest about her own conversion moment, when she admitted her failings and the failures of her former life.
A highly successful businesswoman, she sold all her material possessions when she finally made the decision to join a Bruderhof community. She concludes her account by reflecting, “Life doesn’t stop. No community is perfect…I’ve come to realise that if I’m going to live authentically, I must continually go through new cycles of repentance and renewal – that there must always be new beginnings. I look forward to them because that’s when I’m most alive.”
The stories include a cross-section of young and old; men and women; those who joined as adults; those who have grown up in the Bruderhof, who have made a mature decision to commit, after time spent in the outside world. There are memories and reminiscences of late members, whose gifts enriched the Community in its early years. All emphasise the powerful attraction of a shared life as a way of sustaining their faith in the midst of an uncomprehending secular society.
Kathy speaks for many members when she writes she was relieved to find that joining the Bruderhof “wasn’t just a holiness trip but a simple, practical life, open to anyone [and] the peace that points away from the self and towards community.” Bronwen, a nurse, feels that this way of life means “taking time to talk, to go the extra mile giving practical help to an older person.” Tom, head of the English department at The Mount Academy, a Bruderhof high school in New York, and also a sports coach, reflects that “Sports is one of the things that eventually led me to this community. The idea of each one doing his part with a great purpose in mind. The sense of camaraderie…”
Every recorded story invites a thoughtful response from the reader; for us in the Church it raises the serious question: how are we responding in our own lives to our vocation as Catholic Christians?
Image: A tea break at the Cotswold Bruderhof (Wikimedia)