Life Together

June 20, 2019

Luminous grace and radical commitment come together in the Bruderhof.

This text originally came from a speech given to the Bruderhof‘s Mount Academy in Esopus, NY, on the occasion of its high school graduation on June 20, 2019.

Commencement Address

Greetings and congratulations Class of 2019! It’s a complete delight to be here, inside your community, and on a day of culmination and turning of the page, no less. Welcome to this wonderful juncture of reflection and anticipation.

I’ve not been in your community long, but what envelops you as soon as you come up the hill is a pervasive fragrance of peace, purpose, gentleness, and love lived, concretely, in the range – the suppers, the morning strolls, the daily chores, the crises, the learning, the sharing, the teaching, the carving, the planting, the laughing, the storytelling, the enduring, the child-rearing, the healing.

I first learned of the Bruderhof Communities through a wonderful Lenten anthology entitled Bread and Wine, published by your very own Plough Quarterly. I was in New York City several years ago, facilitating a regular dinner of men and women of Christian faith who worked in mainstream, national media outlets – places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, BuzzFeed, Yahoo News, NPR. We were in the back room of this Italian restaurant, a dark cavern flickering with candlelight, surrounded by thick smells of tomato sauce and grilled meats, dried roses hanging all around us and several simple bouquets gracing the center. Easter had just occurred, and so I turned to the “Resurrection” section of this devotional sequence, landing upon the words of a longtime hero, Dorothy Day. Here’s some of what I read aloud to the 12 of us:

On Holy Thursday, truly a joyful day, I was sitting at the supper table at St. Joseph’s House on Chrystie Street and looking around at all the fellow workers and thinking how hopeless it was for us to try to keep up appearances. The walls are painted a warm yellow, the ceiling has been done by generous volunteers, and there are large, brightly colored icon-like paintings on wood and some colorful banners with texts (now fading out) and the great crucifix brought in by some anonymous friend with the request that we hang it in the room where the breadline eats. (Some well-meaning guest tried to improve on the black iron by gilding it, and I always intend to do something about it and restore its former grim glory.)

I looked around and the general appearance of the place was, as usual, home-like, informal, noisy, and comfortably warm on a cold evening. And yet, looked at with the eyes of a visitor, our place must look dingy indeed, filled as it always is with men and women, some children too, all of whom bear the unmistakable mark of misery and destitution. Aren’t we deceiving ourselves, I am sure many of think, in the work we are doing? What are we accomplishing for them anyway, or for the world or for the common good? “Are these people being rehabilitated?” is the question we get almost daily from visitors or from our readers (who seem to be great letter writers). One priest had his catechism classes write us questions as to our work after they had the assignment in religion class to read my book The Long Loneliness. The majority of them asked the same question: “How can you see Christ in people?” And we only say: It is an act of faith, constantly repeated. It is an act of love, result gin from an act of faith. It is an act of hope, that we can awaken these same acts in their hearts, too, with the help of God, and the Works of Mercy, which you, or readers, help us to do, day in and day out over the years.

On Easter Day, on awakening late after the long midnight services in our parish church, I read our the last chapter of the four Gospels and felt that I received great light and understanding with the reading of them. “They have taken the Lord out of His tomb and we do not know where they have laid H?im,” Mary Magdalene said, and we can say this with her in times of doubt and questioning. How do we know we believe? How do we know we indeed have faith? Because we have sen His hands and His feet in the poor around us. He has shown Himself to us in them. We start by loving them for Him, and we soon love them for themselves, each one a unique person, most special!

In that last glorious chapter of St. Luke, Jesus told His followers, “Why are you so perturbed? Why do questions arise in your minds? Look at My hands and My feet. It is I Myself. Touch Me and see. No ghost has flesh and bones as you can see I have.” They were still unconvinced, for it seemed too good to be true. “So He asked them, ‘Have you. anything to eat?’ They offered Him a piece o fish they had cooked which He took and ate before their eyes.”

How can I help but think of these things every time I sit down at Chrystie Street or Peter Maurin Farm and look around at the tables filled with the unutterably poor who are going through their long-continuing crucifixion. It is most surely an exercise of faith for ut to see Christ in each other. But it is through such exercise that we grow and the joy of our vocation assures us we are on the right path.

Most certainly, it is easier to believe now that the sun warms us, and we know that buds will appear on the sycamore trees in the wasteland across from the Catholic Worker office, that life will spring out of the dull clods of that littered park across the way. There are wars and rumors of war, poverty and plague, hunger and pain. Still, the sap is rising, again there is the resurrection of spring, God’s continuing promise to us that He is with us always, with His comfort and joy, if we will only ask.

The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you dod for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing gin our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.

As I finished this reading, the lot of us felt the hush of her observations reaching some deeper longing within each of us for encounter, for self-giving, for the single-minded life, for life itself, even, in one covenantal community — not a million transactional relationships. Not one of us had such a life, the journalist’s responsibility being to flit from one context to the next – often very discouraging, even foreboding contexts – to interpret these shadows for a world seeking to know and somehow understand. But somehow in this reading, in the call to lean in and consider each person – and especially the poor – as Christ himself, I think we each felt a temporary glimpse of what you all have structured into your life together here. An unlikely family, a village, daily tables, shared work, radical mutuality, personalism. And in this experience of togetherness amidst the candles and Dorothy’s incarnate insights from 70 years prior, we found nourishment for the trudge back out to the call to be salt and light in our newsrooms, alone yet not alone.

WHAT WAS IT that we experienced that evening? I think, at some core, we were dipping into reservoir. A reservoir given to us by a triune God we each had known in the unique contours of our respective life trajectories, but somehow now was becoming still more manifest, in the breaking of bread, in the encounter through Dorothy’s words of a surrendered way of life that wasn’t immune to struggle or incomplete understanding, in beauty, and in a space cultivated to be honest with one another, and even convicting.

That all may seem like sliced bread to you here at the Mount Academy, where community seems to me to be the air you breathe. But the world at large thirsts for what you live every day, even as most of us, when we’re honest, walk reluctantly away from a commitment that feels too costly.

I’ve spent a lot of time these last few years studying communities and institutions of all shapes and sizes and types, some Christ-centered and animated, many not, seeking to understand what makes for the kind of trusted, healthy and even beloved community that allows for the moral agency of individuals to mature. I’ve been everywhere – rehab communities for former criminals, schools, sports leagues, neighborhood revitalization efforts, racial reconciliation initiatives, churches, faith-based summer camps, adult learning communities, businesses, artistic collectives. And what I’ve realized is that for every coarse lyric and angry tweet out there, for every violent act, public scandal, and disturbing uptick in despairing attitudes and broken homes in the country at large, there are hundreds if not thousands of lily pads that have discovered a different way to live, compelling people to give their whole selves and be chiseled en route.

As I went around visiting all these different places, I often would think, “Why can’t my life be like this? How do I cultivate these conditions in my own home, my office, my neighborhood, every sphere in which I work, relate, create, and contribute? Also, why isn’t this everywhere? This level of intentionality, of attention to the other, of hard work without giving up, of radical honesty and relentless striving for the good?” It’s striking in a world of social decay and moral numbness when a community refuses the superficial and the cynical, and instead revels in wholesome delight in the good, and in one another. Each of the best community visits felt like a once-in-a-year special occasion, like the community must have been putting on a show for me, the curious outsider. And yet this is how they behave every day.

And what do the most beautiful, light-filled, morally contagious communities have in common? They have a very clear telos, a mission, an end that they’re serving. Often a transcendent one. They have communal rituals and liturgies built into their way of life, routines that express that mission and remind everyone what it is. They tend to have a particular fragrance, a very unique character, that is recognizable when you meet people who have been shaped by this community years later. They have a conscious conception of the whole person – head, heart, and helping hand, and seek to develop it. They provide opportunities for tests of character, and have established a level of psychological safety so that everyone feels free to be honest, to confront one another in the name of love and accountability, to be vulnerable, to struggle and to make meaning of that struggle. They are good at deep listening. They are often on a different clock than the frenetic pace of the rest of the world – focused time, Kairos time, time as gift, not prison. They tend to have a wonderful artistic sensibility, shared singing a regular thing. Most palpably, the most transformative organizations and community have that ineffable sense of JOY in the house. They are radically hospitable, beautiful, and flow in a dance of constant communion. They somehow understand that people are souls first.

So the fundamental question for you is, less what will you do with your hands and mind and feet, though that is important and hopefully a wonderful discovery process in the years ahead, but a still deeper and more important question is, how might you find a telos worth giving your life to, and a village that might embody it?

Years ago I discovered a university that gave me a quiet hope in a loud and graceless age. It’s called Nyack, and one of its campuses is actually just some hours south of here, on the Hudson River just north of New York City. It has another campus IN the city, whose student body is largely made up of men and women coming from New York’s outer boroughs, most of them materially poor, with siblings who’ve been killed, neighbors in prison. Nyack is a Christian university, and these students come with a kind of cultural vitality despite worldly poverty that combines with their faith to yield a community emanating joy and mutual care.

I was so stunned by the Christlike logic in every classroom and hallway that I asked the faculty, “When your graduates go out into the world and find jobs working in homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, prisons and daycare for children who have only mothers working three jobs at once, when your graduates go to these employers, what do the employers say about them?”

The faculty answered in unison, verbatim. “Employers tell us that our Nyack students create mini-Nyacks wherever they go.”

This was a powerful statement about cultural transmission – about the ability of one’s experience in one community rippling out and affecting so many others. How might your experience at the Mount Academy do that for you? How might all that you’ve learned here, been shaped by here, give you a discerning lens to choose where to go next, and then, wherever you land, how might the logic you’ve absorbed here – logic of relationship, of self-sacrifice, holistic treatment of others, integrated search for knowledge and truth – how might you break that open for the blessing of worlds far beyond these halls?

I offer this question because, having just been here for a few hours, a word comes to mind for someone in my shoes, who’s not in such a morally or spiritually coherent community day-in and day-out. And that word is “reservoir.” Already you have fed my soul and encouraged my own path of discipleship in this life. Also the word “witness” has been ever-present as I’ve walked around. You all – as a collective – are a witness to a way of life rooted in love of God, love of neighbor.

My husband is fond of saying that a culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. Thank you for witnessing something of the light-infused whole. Thank you for being a reservoir for me, a visitor in need of replenishing, in need of a reminder of an alternative way of being, in need even of conviction as to what’s required to mature to that more integrated existence. And, class of 2019, forget not who has held you here, and how they’ve held you, so you can go now and do the same for those in your midst, and those beyond your midst. For you are inheritors of a candle of counterculture, and are invited to carry it forward.


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