Life in Community

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Life in Community

Why My Vows Spark Joy

A letter to a friend

August 13, 2020 by

Dear Daniela,

Last week you asked me to describe taking lifetime vows within the Bruderhof, the family-based Christian community to which I belong, and why I told you this commitment is a source of joy for me. I love that question, even though it’s way too complex to answer well in one short letter! I’ll do my best.

You’ve already read our membership vows and understand that they reflect traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I’ll write a little more about these later.

We promise lifelong faithfulness to the church community and our fellow brothers and sisters. Of course this means that our vows are not made lightly. A person must be at least twenty-one years old to become a full member, and must first have undergone a trial period (typically over a number of years), so that both they and the church membership are convinced of their vocation to this way of life.

Marie Kondo has nothing on the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whose church communities inform and inspire our shared life today: for them, it was crystal clear that lifetime vows may only be taken “for the joy and delight of your soul.”[1]

I understand that many people might find it difficult to comprehend what joy has to do with promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I can only tell you what I know: through my vows, I have been gifted an abundant life, one I can only compare to the daily joy of being married to the love of my life.

couple standing in a sunset

I grew up within the church community, but left home after high school to explore life on my own and consider my future, as all Bruderhof young people are encouraged to do. (Staying on and joining “because mom and dad did” or because “it’s all I’ve ever known” would be a death knell for a church seeking to live out radical discipleship.) During this time, I experienced a conversion, gave my heart to Christ, and repented of my many sins. I was filled with a fresh and first love to Jesus, and knew I was called to give my life unconditionally in service to him.

The most natural next step for me was to consider a lifetime commitment to that calling.

But why make promises for an entire lifetime, you might wonder. After all, Christ’s followers are all part of the universal Church, the “body of believers.” So why tie yourself to one particular expression of the faith?

Well, have you ever thought what a wedding would be without vows? It would merely be a fun get-together with friends, family, and food to acknowledge that two people love each other at that particular moment in time. That’s it. No promises. No happy tears at the thought of “till death us do part” as the couple vow fidelity, come hell or high water, and embark on that monumental adventure of unknowns, the sum of which is married life. . . .

I knew I wanted the surety of vows, because vows hold us up when unfaithfulness threatens to bear down. And I wanted to be held. I wanted the security of a two-way bond, which supports and adds meaning to my commitment; which, rather than restrict and cage in, gives me strong, fully-feathered wings to soar.

Of course, if someone takes vows and later decides to leave the church, we don’t attempt to keep them against their wishes. If a consecrated life no longer sparks joy within the soul and a person isn’t interested in rekindling the flame, then there is no point in them being here, even if parting is painful.

So what are our vows? Here’s a snapshot. (For a fuller picture, the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, has many excellent resources, including books like Why We Live in Community and Discipleship, which explore these themes in depth.)

Poverty: We promise to own nothing and claim no personal possessions. Instead, our needs are met by the community, and wherever possible resources are used in support of missional or relief work. Understand the spirit of this: of course we don’t share toothbrushes or clothes. And our lifestyle, while perhaps simple by Western middle class standards, is hardly Spartan. But it does mean that nothing I have or use on a daily basis is mine – from the house I and my family live in, to the furniture in it, or the workstation I’m typing at. I am free from the burden of material claims on my life. And that’s an amazing feeling!

Chastity: We promise to strive for purity in our relationships with one another, and all people. We affirm the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman as the only God-given place for sexual relationships. Whether single or married, all members seek to relate to others in an honest and Christ-centered manner, so that we honor and celebrate what is of God in every person we encounter.

Obedience: We promise to proclaim Jesus. To me, our whole way of life is an attempt to proclaim Jesus’ teachings. We don’t proselytize, but we try to live out our beliefs. We promise to serve others (joyfully!), to give our best effort at whatever tasks are asked of us. This “obedience thing” might seem like a big deal. But as I see it, my faith in Jesus is the most important thing in the world, and naturally I want to devote all my energies in his service. I’ve also found, when I’m asked to do something I may not think I’m suited for, that it adds to the daily wonder and adventure of life. (And if I’m really not cut out for it, that’ll become obvious . . . and I can try something else!)

Within church community, each one places his or her gifts and abilities in service to the whole.Within church community, each one places his or her gifts and abilities in service to the whole. At the same time, the whole can compensate for individual weaknesses and failings. That’s important, because when you have an assorted bunch of people living and working together, weaknesses and failings are in abundance. Just as in an honest marriage there are typically more Mondays than Valentine’s Days, so too our community’s daily life is no “escape from reality” but a gift-wrapped opportunity to get up close and personal with human imperfection. And just as the relentless search for perfection can destroy the most “perfect” marriage, so our community is not even close to some utopian ideal (not that we’d want it to be, by the way) but rather a parade of joyous brokenness.

The great thing is, because we’ve vowed to remain loyal to each other, we are committed to working through any problems that arise.

A community only thrives when all members place the needs of others before their own. The rewards, which no monetary value can measure, are joy and abiding peace on sometimes the hardest roads I have ever traveled. In addition, there is lasting fulfilment; an extended, loyal, ever-present and patient family – and more laughter than I ever could have imagined.

With true commitment there is also the perpetual welcome of love. Each sister and brother and child is cherished regardless of circumstance, age, or ability, and no community member needs to worry whether they are good or worthy enough. There is no proving and pushing to be better or get ahead, but instead a daily, hourly commitment to rejoice together, sorrow together, speak in honest love, work and worship together, and live as fully consecrated equals.

That’s what lifetime commitment to a body of believers entails: come what may, you are carried, loved beyond understanding, known, believed, trusted, and always encouraged to rise to the highest and deepest levels of your calling. The harshness of the world doesn’t change, the day-to-day difficulties of life don’t go away; the past will attempt to divide, and bitterness try to rise up. But love and a solid commitment continually allow each of us the chance to live every day in grace, newness, and joy.

Somehow I still don’t feel that I’ve done justice to your question about why my lifetime commitment to the Bruderhof brings me joy. But I really look forward to our ongoing conversations, as we spur each other on toward an ever more abundant and joy-filled life!

All my love,

Norann

[1] “Ten Points: What the Church of God Is and How One Is Led into It,” church teaching included in the Hutterian baptismal instruction known as the Taufbüchlein (ca. 1528–1600).

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About the author

Norann Voll portrait

Norann Voll

Norann Voll lived in New York’s Hudson Valley until moving to the Danthonia Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia in 2002...

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