Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Brethren


Last night I had a strange but comforting dream. I was in a beautiful rural valley with my husband and the awareness that our three children were out there, somewhere (in the corn, perhaps). I was a bit anxious about that but knew they were likely in school or being otherwise cared for--it was a slightly nervous feeling of separateness. The subtext of the dream is that we were considering joining the Church of the Brethren, a group of people, whose religion has German roots and that is closely related to the Amish and Mennonites. However, they are more interactive within the world and certainly less agrarian than the Amish.

I knew my husband was out somewhere working in the fields for the day. I was in a common place, like a work room/dining room/kitchen building, where each family had their own pantry and the women gathered to prepare meals or items (some men, too). Women were dressed not unlike the Amish but in long calico dresses with aprons and bonnets, and married men had simple beards and work clothes. The hairstyles of women were long and gleaming, yet intricately woven with fanciful braids and adornments. One women pressed a good-sized baby into me, literally. The force was firm but gentle. My task for the afternoon was to hold it and keep it safe. As I did so I experienced a secret longing for another child myself, while also worrying about my three children "still out in the world" waiting to be brought home.

There was a spirit of harmony, unity and cooperative spirit amongst this group. Each family had their own house and piece of land on a larger whole, with shared agricultural lands and barns and a large shared kitchen/work room/community hall (which also served as a worship space). School was also a part of the community and children were raised to be peaceful, earth-loving, intellectual and cultural. People signed up for different chores. Families were separate and intact yet linked to this extraordinary group of beings...and I say beings because they did not seem human. They seemed angelic. I know no earthly group of worshipers can approximate the company of angels but in this dream I felt that I was moving amongst angelic beings and that everything would be alright. There was never an ominous presence in the perimeter land as portrayed in the movie THE VILLAGE. My inspiration for the dream was based on other experiences I have had and some never imagined or seen.

I awoke saying "Brethren", recalling our meeting a kind family from the Church of the Brethren at a dinner we had in Amish country around Lancaster, Pennsylvania several springs ago. These people looked Amish but not quite and were sharing their own family style dinner at one of those long hearth tables alongside our family. We struck up a conversation and they were happy to speak with us. They were visiting relatives before returning to their home in central Ohio, near the Indiana border, and they invited us to visit if we were ever passing by (with us, you never know--have Honda Pilot, will travel). The man, not much older than my husband, worked for a small oil company, as I recall.

We also know the few remaining Shakers of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Sister Frances is our youngest son's godmother. They have a community life and centralized spirit to their order and purpose (but you can't be married). There is something attractive about this "other" life, shielding our children from the larger world within a group of kindred spirits.

As a family we have been lacking in the spiritual department in the past few years. Each of us is forming our own ideology or has left one behind and is seeking--meanwhile, our young boys need some sort of spiritual exposure and nourishment. I think we need to find some common ground as a family and go from there. I don't know if it means something as extreme as becoming part of the Brethren or Amish orders (we have observed Amish-life, too, first hand at the farmhouse of some Amish friends in upstate New York), but something close, something shared, something communal. I have many friends who were not raised with any kind of religious structure and it has always seemed to me they have no backdrop, no base from which to launch their own belief system.

For many years I clung to the English church architecture and choral music of the Episcopal church in our own parish of Peterborough, New Hampshire--the rituals and pageantry, and pastor, were a comfort. As a child I was raised in the more minimalist trappings of the Presbyterian church, where choral music was an important component of a sparer worship service and communion came around every six weeks in tiny little cups full of grape juice and square bread cubes. As I've become older and more cynical I realize that all of the trappings of Christianity are just that. The essence is much deeper. But the music--I could never properly praise or worship without it. Today, in an office waiting room, I saw a picture of the recently deceased Pope John when he was in the cell of the man who shot him, almost fatally, in 1981. He was forgiving him and probably reassuring him, too. To me, forgiveness is the essence of Christianity--that amazing gesture on the part of the Pope seems to me angelic, extraordinary. How many of us are so easy to forgive, let alone a person who tried to kill? It certainly makes the less significant grievances we have with others seem trivial.

If I start to hear the corn whispering to me on our planned Western trip this July, I'll know we might have trouble. We'll avoid any dark-clad strange boys named Malachai at all costs but we'll always brake for angels.

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