Thursday, June 23

Origins and Lessons: Amish, Mennonites and Quakers

During the early to mid-1500s, besides the Magisterial Reformation between Martin Luther, John Calvin and Uldrych Zwingli, another movement began known today as the "Radical Reformation." It is out of the Radical Reformation that the Amish, Mennonites, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) which we have today were formed. I grew up near a large Amish community in New York, and more often than not my mother and my grandmother would go to a Farmer's Market or visit the Amish herself and pick up vegetables, fruits, honey, baked goods, decorations and a hundred other wonderful such things. I remember being very young when I turned and asked my mother, "why do they dress different than we do? Why do they ride around in a horse and buggy and not in a car? What do you mean they do not use electricity, Mom? How do they live?" In my naivete, what I was essentially asking is - where did these humble groups come from? What is their story? Further, what life lessons can we learn from the Amish or the Quakers?

At the time of the Reformation, the Church was also dealing with the Turks - the Ottman Empire. But a group known as the Anabaptists arose. They believed that Catholics were “Turks in Spirit,” and that they were not true Christians. So they re-baptized people, because they also held that infant baptism - the standard form of baptism at that time - was not a valid form of baptism. In the early 1520s, there was enough animosity toward the Roman Church that anticlerical views, attacks on ecclesiastical practices and regulations, and attacks on clerics became quite common. For the Anabaptists, the call to preach the freedom of the Gospel and to preach the Word of God to the common person - were very important. Preaching was their primary emphasis. Anabaptist congregations also practiced "community of goods" - as seen in the early church (Acts 2:44; 4:32), something which various religious communities continue at varying levels today.

The origins and implications of Anabaptism challenged not only the lack of individual moral improvement, false doctrines, and antichristian ecclesiastical institutions, but the un-Christian social structures of sixteenth-century Europe. For an Anabaptist, only a commitment to Christ could be the basis of salvation. The movement is called “Anabaptist” (“repeated dippers”) because as aforementioned, they denied infant baptism, and upheld believer’s baptism. As a result, they held that Catholic baptism was not valid, and as the majority of Christians at that time were Catholic or Orthodox, you had to be re-baptized. This is very similar to the stance of the Donatists during the time of St. Augustine. They were also anti-clergy, held a Collectivist view, and held a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. They also attempted Theocracy - a government ruled by religion. After a rebellion, the Catholics and other Protestants suppressed them, and the movement became more pacifist, leading to the modern Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers and others.

Amish in Pennsylvania
The Swiss Brethren emerged in Zurich in 1523-1525 out of disputes with three individuals: Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz and Zwingli. This concerned the tithe, images in churches, and the nature of baptism and its relationship to faith. The earliest Anabaptist argued by justification from faith alone (sola fide). They believed that there was no mandate in Scripture for infant baptism. They felt that the city council should dictate the pace of the Reform. The government began to be the voice of leadership in the church, as opposed to the clergy. The Zurich City Council - with Zwingli - performed an adult baptism, and repudiated infant baptism. They were critical of Luther, Zwingli and others for emphasizing faith alone at the expense of social behavior. How would one deal with social behavior? Luther claimed that a true born-again Christian would act well. "But what if they did not?" - the Anabaptists disagreed with Luther.

Recent scholarship has shown elements in common between Anabaptists and peasant rebellions. Many Anabaptists were sympathetic to the common person trying to overthrow social order, so as Anabaptism spread, it overlapped with the Peasant’s Revolt and beyond. Prior to the Reformation, society had its great chain of being. God was at the top and peasants were at the bottom. The ideas being put forth during the Reformation, however, were very, very radical. They were rooted in the concept that the Gospel was a leveling power which has a social consequence. Numerous people who became Anabaptists became participants in the Peasant’s War. If we look at Anabaptism today - the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers - we would call them the “peace churches.” This came after the early movement, which included some radically violent Anabaptists, but it would not last, as Anabaptist leaders reflected on their views of war. When the Peasant’s War ended in failure, they felt that if the world rejected truth, then truth must reject the world - so they became separatists, and broke up into small groups. The most important early Anabaptist groups were known as the Swiss Brethren, and a group known as the Hutterites - all of whom were severely persecuted, and viewed with suffering and martyrdom in years to come. They felt they would follow in their master’s faith and be persecuted.

The first challenges to the new Protestant orthodoxy came from Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1480–1541) and Thomas M¨untzer (before 1491–1525). A colleague of Luther at Wittenberg, Karlstadt, during Luther’s absence at the Wartburg, increased the pace of reform by putting Luther’s teachings into practice. He also moved beyond Luther theologically. During the Wittenberg Movement (December 1521–February 1522) Karlstadt celebrated the first evangelical Mass, moved the city council to reorganize Wittenberg as a "Christian City", and had images removed from churches. He was critical, however, of the dreams and visions claimed by three "prophets" who appeared in the city at that time. Karlstadt agreed that the Spirit was needed to embrace true faith, but the content of that faith was to be found in scriptures. Despite elements of Spiritualism in Karlstadt, biblicism more accurately defines him. Karlstadt abandoned all academic and clerical titles and had himself called ‘Brother Andrew’. He even sought for a time to support himself by farming - a practice later taken up by the Amish and Mennonite communities.

In Orlamunde, all images were removed, infant baptism suspended, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was rejected as theologically sound. In 1524, Karlstadt went to take refuge with Luther, and actually wrote works on the Eucharist that led to the controversy between Luther and Zwingli. But he did not believe in violence - which made him differ from Muntzer. Munzter agreed on the Eucharist and baptism, but they were less important for him - he was focused more on the Spirit, and is by some considered more Spiritualist than Anabaptist. In response to the Spirit-filled radicalism of Thomas Müntzer, who claimed to receive revelation directly from the Holy Spirit apart from scripture, Luther replied that he would not listen to Müntzer even if "he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all". Luther’s reaction against the radicals only became more adamant after (as he saw things) Anabaptism ignited social violence.

Initially sympathetic with the demands of the peasants, he turned against them once their political protest grew into the Peasants’ War in 1524–25. The long-term consequences of Luther’s vigorous rejection of the Radical Reformation were profound and lasting, giving later Protestantism an aversion to any hint of what he called Schwärmerei (English "enthusiasm"). The root of Schwärmerei, according to Luther and later Protestants, was the belief in any unmediated experience of the Holy Spirit. To protect against this seemingly ever-present danger, they insisted that the only valid vehicles of inspiration were the Bible and the sacraments authorized by it. Apocalyptism was also prominent among many Anabaptists, and some at that time placed a date on the Second Coming of Christ at 1533.

Another branch of Anabaptism - the Mennonites - was founded in the 1550s by Menno Simon, an educated Roman Catholic priest. His followers came from Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. He started a new order of worship and set forth a series of rules for the conduct of those who joined in the movement. The Hutterites were led by Jacob Hutter, a pastor who was martyred by the Holy Roman Empire in 1536. They were founded in 1528. They practice communal living and hold firm to adult baptism. They and Mennonites share similar roots. The Amish came later. The Amish began from a late 1600s schism in the Anabaptist church by followers of Jakob Amman, a Swiss minister who believed that adherents should “conform to the teaching of Christ and His apostles” and “forsake the world” in their daily lives. The word “Amish” derives from his name.

Now, there are many interesting and wonderful things about the Amish. For example, the Amish follow a partially written yet mostly unwritten code of The Amish have an unwritten code of conduct called the Ordnung, which emphasizes virtues such as simplicity, humility, and obedience. Unlike early Anabaptists, they are also very strict pacifists and oppose violence of any kind. Also, similar to how early Christians met in house churches, the Amish follow suit and meet in each other's house week-to-week, not an intentional worship space or religious building. There are also interesting customs such as making faceless dolls - faceless so they do not make images out of pride and vanity - they do not generally let their picture be taken for the same reason (and that of not making any "graven images"), they are in school up until 8th grade, and they do not play musical instruments as they feel it would create feelings of pride and superiority.

The Amish can also teach us several life lessons. As blog writer Tricia Goyer pointed out, the Amish teach us that "Life isn't trouble free... when a barn burns down, they don’t dwell on why it burned, they gather together to rebuild. And then they praise God: for the lumber, the nails, the caring community that skillfully puts it together, the animals that will inhabit it, and for a chance to start again." They also believe that we should have "just enough for today and not a penny more. The Amish believe in hard work and frugality, but they strive to prevent affluent living, keeping up with the Joneses, and social status. In fact, they don’t even value the indicators of success that we prize: income, education, luxuries, and symbols of prosperity." This lesson of living simply so that others may simply live (to paraphrase St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) is an invaluable one, especially in a culture that places so much into consumerism, materialism and individualism, this kind of simple-living mentality can help keep the common good in our perspective.

Goyer also points out that Amish are also willing to "draw a land in the sand. The Amish want to be good stewards of God’s resources—time, money, material goods. They know that convenience comes with a cost. They don’t want to be dependent on outside sources (such as electricity or gas!). Convenience means loss of something valuable. For example, fast food means less nutrition. More stuff means more maintenance. They’re willing to say no." This ability to be good stewards of their resources is one that Pope Francis continues to remind us, as in his encyclical Laudato Si' released last year. The Amish also teach us that "Nothing replaces face-to-face visits. Back in the day when telephones emerged on the scene, the Amish bishops made a deliberate decision to keep the telephone out of the house. They didn’t want to interrupt family life. But they drop everything for a face-to-face visit." Developing a ministry of presence or re-emphasizing the importance of face-to-face encounters with other people is extremely valuable and necessary in order to foster meaningful and healthy relationships.

Another movement of interest is Quakerism, which began in the 1650s in England under George Fox as a late part of the Radical Reformation. Recently, I visited the Arch Street Meeting House for the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) in Philadelphia. It is a historic site built in the early 1800s, designed with simplicity and plainness in mind. The Quakers' form of worship is through silence - and thus it is considered a form of contemplative Christianity - yet their worship also centers on the movement of the Spirit. There are technically no appointed ministers, no podiums, no altars, no religious imagery, and what have you. When attending an individual will speak as he or she feels led by the Spirit, so that they open the way for "The Light that lighteth every man." The picture to the right was taken at the wall leading to the Meeting House, and it reflects the Quaker belief that the light of God is in everyone, which missions Quakers to each individual with respect, dignity and compassion. It also demonstrates the belief that we are called to action - to improve our world and our society. Quakers are also known for their pacifism just as with the Amish - a hallmark not seen in the early Radical Reformation.

One Quaker, Samuel Nicholas, is buried somewhere on the grounds of the Arch Street Meeting House. Nicholas was a Quaker who left the movement because he did not agree with pacifism in the face of the Revolutionary War. So he became what is considered the first Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. Each year the Marines come and place a wreath on his memorial stone in his honor - and by the end of his life, Nicholas had mended his relationship with his community at the Arch Street Meeting House. Each person has the potential for healing, reconciliation and justice. On another note, consider the simplicity of Quakers. As one sign in the museum at the House says, "Simplicity and plainness is a cultural and spiritual practice of the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers are expected to think deeply about their actions. This includes how they dress, talk, and behave as well as how they build and decorate their homes." As a Franciscan, this strikes me because one of the vows that friars take is a vow of poverty, or put a different way, a vow to live as simply as possible.

There is much that we can learn from our past, as well as our present. The way in which the Amish and the Mennonites are often lauded for their good quality clothes, their excellent carpentry, their dedication to their way of life, their simplicity, their close communal bonds and their desire to be faithful are very inspiring. The way in which the Quakers leave behind various trappings in order to remain open to the fruitful potentiality of the Divine is moving. Each of our denominations, movements, theologies, philosophies and traditions has a past - the question today is, how will we continue what has begun? Keeping in mind what transpired during the Radical Reformation, what we do today and how we treat each other is also of the utmost importance - yet it is always helpful to know our roots so that we can learn to grow.

“The Radical Reformation” by R. Emmet McLaughlin.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Volume II. 7-161. Print.

Ed. by Jim Fodor and Mike Higton. The Routledge Companion to the Practice of Christian Theology. "Experience in Theology" by Garret Green. 2015. Print.

"Amish: Out of Order". National Geographic Channel: April 10, 2012. Web.

Goyer, Tricia. "10 Things I've Learned from the Amish". NotQuiteAmish: 2012. Web.

Friday, June 3

Sacred Spaces: The Desert Experience

One of the most common sacred spaces found in all of the Abrahamic traditions is that of the desert or the wilderness. This is largely due to the majority of Biblical stories taking place in very arid geographical locations, but it has to come to take on a more spiritual significance. Many significant figures have often gone out to meet the Divine or to find themselves in the wilderness. Consider that Siddhartha Gautama discovered his inner self when meditating under the Bodhi Tree, the Muslim prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was seeking for the Divine in the caves near his home. In the Christian tradition, after being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the Judean wilderness for forty days, and it is only after this period that he embarks on his itinerant ministry. What is it about the desert or the wilderness that creates for such spiritually charged encounters with ourselves and with the Divine? What is it about the desert that pushes us to become our most authentic selves, our True Self?

Consider the many other examples in the Bible where we find the desert experience: Abraham, known at the time as the nomad Abram, goes out to commune with the Divine and while in the wilderness, God makes a covenant with him. In the book of Exodus, we find Moses in the wilderness for forty years before hearing the voice of God, which subsequently leads him to bring his people out of Egypt and wander the wilderness for another forty years. In 1st Kings, we find Elijah in the wilderness for forty days on his way to Mt. Horeb. Also, as aforementioned, in the gospel narratives we read of Jesus' forty-day period of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). Further, according to the New Testament, when Jesus is resurrected, he appears to his followers for forty days (Acts 1:3). The pattern here may already be evident: the number forty. There are several other uses of the number in the Biblical corpus - the initial rainfall from the Flood described in Genesis, the number of days God and Moses met for the giving of The Law (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11), the amount of time the spies searched the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25; 14:34), the number of days that soldier Goliath challenged Israel (1st Samuel 17:16), the prophet Jonah’s time in Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), as well as all of the aforementioned incidents. 

In most of these forty day periods of time, we find that turmoil, challenges and tests were involved - only the final set of forty days, that of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, are days filled with blessing and transformation. The number forty is significant in Biblical numerology because it signifies a long period of time. It does not always literally mean forty days or forty years, but it is a number meant to invoke a sense that great lengths of time are passing. When considering a desert spirituality this is important, because we can often get too caught up in the planning, the fulfillment of our plans, and the timing of our plans. When we are seeking to find our desert experience and foster a desert mentality or desert spirituality, we must begin to develop a sense of detachment and begin to let go of our desire for order, to be "on-time" and "on-schedule" in order to fully engage and fully immerse in our own desert experiences.

Many people are familiar with the idea of hermits living out in the wilderness or in caves praying and seeking solitude. The word hermit comes from the Latin word ĕrēmīta, which means "of the desert" or  a "desert dweller." The first known hermit in the Christian tradition is St. Paul of the Desert, a man from Thebes, Egypt in the mid-AD 200s. His follower, St. Anthony of Egypt (or Anthony the Great), is perhaps the most well-known and possibly most influential of the early Desert 
Fathers. Prior to his conversion, the renowned theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) actually read about the life of St. Anthony the Great and was inspired by his example. Now, the lifestyle of these hermits was very strict and difficult; the hermits mostly lived in caves, cells or hermitages in the deserts or forests. Also, as can be found in the collected sayings of these early hermits, these early men - and women! - would weave baskets which they would sell in town in order to buy food, so their life was filled with prayer and work.[1] A number of early Christian hermits did this very thing - Anthony, Pambo, Gregory, Evagrius, Macarius, Zacahrius, and many others.

Many people would often seek out the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers for their received wisdom, spiritual counsel or spiritual advice. There was also a group known as the Stylites who lived on top of pillars in the desert for years on end and preached to people from atop the pillars. All of these various pieces in the Christian tradition continued to develop a kind of desert theology or desert spirituality. It began with the nomadic Hebrews early on and continued up until the present day with the monks and hermits of the desert. But this kind of theology and spirituality is not meant only for monks or hermits. In the Biblical writings, God would send his people into the wilderness so that they may be tested and have a change of heart - a transformative inner experience that would then flow into their outer actions toward themselves and others. This is why Jesus went through a desert experience prior to beginning his itinerant ministries. We are also called to have our own desert experiences, though this does not necessarily mean we must leave our cities, our homes or our workplaces to do so.

Photo credit to Luca Galuzzi
Consider the further example of St. Paul. In Paul's letter to the Galatians we read, "But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus" (vs. 15-17). What is relevant for our purposes here is the interesting comment that Paul went into Arabia, even before he went to verify his teachings and his theology with the early Christian followers and apostles. Before truly beginning his ministry, he did not seek the highest ecclesiastical authorities, so to speak - he went into Arabia! But what could be in Arabia? There are some who speculate that Paul, following the tradition of the early Jewish patriarchs, went into the Arabian desert and had an experience of deep prayer and meditation, just as Jesus did. Experiences such as these do ask us to consider how or why this desert spirituality was so effective for these early followers.

It is important to note, however, that this desert experience is not simply found in antiquity, but still alive and present today. We still have hermits - consider Fr. Lazarus al Antony who lives in the Egyptian desert. Around the age of forty, Fr. Lazarus was actually an atheist college professor who taught philosophy in Australia. One day, he came upon the book Seven Storey Mountain by Catholic author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The book is Merton's autobiography written a few years after entering the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, and it was enough to convince the atheist professor. He eventually joined a community of monks, and after believing the Virgin Mary had appeared to him through a painting in his monastery, he left the monks and became a hermit, currently residing in the cave of St. Anthony the Great.[2]

All of this raises the question, then - why have all of these men and women chosen to go out into the desert or wilderness in order to encounter the Divine? Firstly, the intention was to seek God, who was easier to find, encounter and focus on outside of the business of the major cities. Around the advent of the hermit communities, Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity (AD 311) and a few decades later, Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). This meant that there was a vast influx of new converts from all across the known world at the time - which also forced more men and women who were living genuine, authentic spiritual lives to go outside of these major areas to seek God where there were less distractions and more of a personalized spirituality rather than an imperial-mandated Christianity.

One might also suggest that the other major reason for this kind of spirituality is the self. Perhaps these early Desert Mothers and Fathers sought God in the wilderness by also finding themselves, and saw the desert as a place of purification, of vulnerability and of nakedness. In other words, the desert has no preference about who or what you are, it will treat you just the same as anything or anyone else. By going into the wilderness, you are confronted by your true self and your false self. These men and women, in other words, were coming to the desert to deal with their demons. Now, the mythic association between deserts and demons can be found throughout the tradition - i
n Tobit 8:3, for example, we read that the "smell from the fish held the demon off, and he took flight into Upper Egypt; and Raphael instantly followed him there and bound him hand and foot." Egypt was known for witchcraft (cf. Exodus 7:11), and there was an ancient belief that demons were at home in deserted or far-away places (see Matthew 12:43; Luke 11:24; Revelation 10:2, for example). The stories of the early hermits are also riddled with hordes of demons roaming the barren desert landscape. The wilderness was believed be the dwelling place of the forsaken.

But on a more psychological, level, these men and women were going out not to face some personification of evil, but their inner demons, or as noted, their false self. When you are in the desert, you are tempted in the most difficult of ways - hunger, thirst, lack of power, cravings, desires, frustrations, anxieties. All of these things and more come to the forefront of one's mind. The hermits saw these inner demons as spiritual aids in their journey, because among all of the challenges and need for growth and change, they found the Divine. Developing a desert spirituality or a desert theology does not mean that you must go out and become a hermit in an actual cave or desert. We can find both literal places and inner sacred spaces where we encounter the Divine. For some people, this manifests itself in the form of centering prayer or a Welcoming prayer. For other people, they find their desert experience by going on a spiritual retreat, a pilgrimage, and what have you. Some delve into contemplative prayer.

Sometimes we choose not to spend time in quietude or silence because we are simply uncomfortable with being by ourselves. When we take time to be alone in silence and not confronted with so many distractions, we become so unsettled because we grow increasingly aware of our baggage, our stressors, anxieties, fears and insecurities. During the forty-day Christian season of Lent, many are encouraged to have their own "desert experience," modeled after that of Jesus. Jesus also had to undergo this period of trial and testing before he was ready to start his work. The desert may be brutal and unforgiving, but in the desert we can face our False Self in order to find and become our True Self.

Again, facing our False Self or our inner demons does not require a trip to the arid places of the world. Each person can develop a desert spirituality in a different way - sometimes our desert experiences are lived out as periods of spiritual dryness or aridity, of every kind of challenge - financial, social, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc. Sometimes we face difficulties that are so numbing, so painful and create so much suffering for us that we go through a negative desert experience and cannot seem to find a way out. Sometimes, our addictions lead us into the desert. In the desert we confront our fears, our loneliness, our own identity needs. Most times, we go out to the desert - to our own inner wilderness, perhaps - to rediscover ourselves. But even in the midst of chaos, their is still hope.

Consider the ancient words of Isaiah 35:1–2: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom... the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Each of these places was known to its audience for being places of beauty and abundance. The desert, most known for being a barren wasteland, can still blossom, grow and teem with abundant life. The time we spend away from ourselves, when we detach and allow God to work within us and through us, can help us to blossom and grow and help us to enable others to do the same. Sometimes the best way for us to accomplish this is to simplify our lives - whether by ridding ourselves of "stuff" we do not need, or simply un-cluttering our heart and mind and making room for everything else. The desert can be the harshest teacher of all... but if you pay attention and you listen carefully, you may just find your True Self, move past your inner demons and encounter the Divine.

[1] In the Middle Ages, hermits often lived near major cities in order to work as ferry-men or gate keepers to earn wages, so that they could continue their lifestyle when and where possible.
[2] Magdy, Kero. "Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony." YouTube. YouTube, 07 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 June 2016. .