Utopia

Christian family communes have developed only sporadically

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Community Faith

A recent convert to Catholicism and I met to discuss my personal experience with monks, celibacy, and community life, as I have lived in monasteries, health resorts, and communes.

Jim opened his Bible to Acts 2: 44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” He asked, “What went wrong with that first Christian attempt at utopia? Why was there nothing more written about it?” He put the book down, then rubbed his hands together as if our discussion promised to be a sumptuous feast.

“We know it dissolved not long after James the Just was killed in another purge of the Christians. Those who still had money and means, after donating personal property to that first intentional commune, fled in haste from Jerusalem.”

“We know they fled to Syria, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, even India. But why do you suppose after settling, no reports surfaced of successful Christian communes?” he asked.

“None condoned by an evolving Church hierarchy, anyway,” I answered.

“You mean institutionalized priests and bishops with church buildings, rituals, tithes?”

“Exactly. At first, Christian worship occurred in home chapels—no robes, altars, etc.”

“Thus began the separation of primitive Christianity into Church and State,” he said.

“As time passed, the Church had to protect its functionaries. St. Benedict of Nursia started the first approved religious order in 540 AD, that maintained the Church’s hierarchy, influence, and control. So it survived for centuries. Today, there are celibate monks and nuns in dozens of different orders living in separate communities. They own and share in common but differ greatly from the original Jerusalem commune. They have no families, and so no mass appeal, practicing austerities like celibacy.”

“Without a devoted spouse and kids to delight the human heart,” he added.

“In the 18th century Christian family communes developed, like the Amish of Switzerland who came here. America has had other imports from Europe that still flourish alongside the Amish, namely the Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Bruderhofs, each with their idiosyncrasies.”

“We had some homespun communes. Brook Farm in New England was attended for a while by author Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Jim said.

“Ralph W. Emerson knew of it,” I said, “but wisely stayed away. The farm disbanded because members were too lazy to work at what needed to be done. By then, in 1848, John Noyes had started his own perfectionist religious community in Oneida, New York, partly based on the Bible and Plato’s Republic.”

“How so?” he asked.

“Plato had Socrates proposing that marriages were to be arranged for the sole purpose of breeding high-caliber replacements for their warrior philosopher-kings.”

“So the Oneida commune practiced couple-swapping and eugenics,” he quipped.

“Yes. It survived for 30 years, attaining a membership of about 300 souls of all ages. However, when Noyes tried to pass leadership to his son, a dedicated agnostic, trouble erupted. Then younger members violated the Platonic protocol, preferring exclusive marriages. Finally, as if by the hand of God, a devastating tornado smashed its main building to pieces. Gone into bankruptcy, Oneida Silverware Ltd. was all that remained of that bold utopian experiment.”

“You’ve stayed in monasteries and taught meditation in Shangri-la resorts. In all your years traveling, have you ever found a workable utopia?

“Yes, I came close with a three-day probation at a Bruderhof commune in Connecticut back in 1969. It was a delightful experience. The whole community worked dawn to dusk. We all sat together in profound silence before singing a hymn, then came dinner. It was a self-supporting village of about 250 men, women, and children, singles and married folk, young and old. They did refrain from modern technology like TVs, but tolerated some machines for making wooden toys and farming. They have 20 communities, active world wide.”

“So why didn’t you stay on with them?”

“I wanted to, very much, but the Elder who quizzed me at the end of my probation told me that I had to renounce my Catholic faith if I was to be accepted among them. I made a difficult choice to leave, and I can live with that.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. They’re Christians, right?”

“Being an offshoot of the German Anabaptists, they’re not in union with our Catholic Church. Their baptisms can occur only after reaching mental maturity, not at birth like ours. That allows their Elders to avoid having to sweet-talk lukewarm, cradle Christians.”

“For sure. You must’ve been hurt by their rejection of you for being Catholic.”

“I wept that night. If I had renounced Catholicism, I could have joined up, married, and sired a dozen kids. Parents rotate jobs and work hard to prosper as a community, so they don’t have to worry about supporting their large families. I must confess, my staying there felt closer to utopia than any monastery.”

“The Church doesn’t offer utopian communes for married folk?”

“Not that I know of. I suppose those would be formidable threats to Church and State.”

“Explain.” He reached for his pipe, then decided not to smoke for my sake.

“The Bruderhofs have shown no respect for priests, bishops, and huge cathedrals; and for police, judges, and lofty courtrooms. They have given bold witness that moral, law-abiding citizens need not lock their doors, quite simply because they own nothing. They lived as Thoreau wrote, ‘Wealth is measured by the penury of a man’s needs.’ And also, ‘That government is best that governs least.’”

“Good point. Church and State have their functionary legions to push and protect. Such god-fearing communities get snubbed for making everyone else look bad,” he said.

“A sad indictment, as sinister forces haunt the marble halls of worldly institutions.”

“Well, it’s getting late. Thanks for the stimulating discussion — a rarity these days.”

I went back to my empty house, pretended to greet a wife and kids, and then wept.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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