Lived Simplicity

In my utopian reveries, I dream about living a simple life focused on family, growing my own food from a ginormous garden, preparing sacramental meals for everyone around an antique table, and having time to commune with God through the natural rhythms of the earth. Deep down, I know this kind of life is a lot of work yet I tenaciously stick to my fantasies like caramel on popcorn, that is, until I travel to the Midwest and get a taste of reality.

While visiting my brother and his wife in Iowa last week, we drove the dusty roads to the Amish country, always a grounding for me about lived simplicity. Entering an Amish farm is like stepping into another world altogether: no power lines, no tractors or cars, no signs of modern civilization. Rather, black buggies are parked near the houses, horses graze nearby, and hand plows grace the fields. The women wear plain blue or black long dresses with bonnets and the men wear homespun work pants with suspenders, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and straw hats drenched in perspiration. Women tend the little “stores,” located on their properties where basic groceries, delicious homemade bakery items, honey, quilts, hand-crafts, and other goodies are for sale. They speak Pennsylvania Dutch to one another and seem to relish being stand-offish to us “English” folks. The foreignness is palpable.

I often wonder what must it be like to live Amish–an intentionally separatist, Christian communal lifestyle. When among them, all romantic notions are dispelled quickly– for sure this is not Harrison Ford in love with beautiful Kelly McGillis in the movie “Witness.” This is real-life simple, in all its complexity: hot summers without air-conditioning, cold winters without central heating, doing all chores by hand, no telephones, no technology. And if you happen to be born female, you are relegated to a quiet, submissive role of endless toil with only an eighth grade education and no choice of careers. As I pointed out to my daughter and granddaughter who accompanied me on the trip, these women have surrendered a lot more than we can ever imagine.

On each farm, I tried to onverse with the women running the little stores. Most would not maintain eye contact and gave only one-word responses to my smiles and queries, obviously signaling a desire for us to make our purchases and leave. I wanted to plead my case–that I am a mother too, a follower of Jesus who takes his teachings seriously, reads the Scriptures, shares their nonviolent values, and longs to learn how to live more simply. However, the invisible barriers between us might as well be made of brick and mortar. Sadly, without any real communication, we will forever remain strangers staring at one another with morbid curiosity and skepticism.

I find this a curious paradox during this divisive time in our history. How very sad that the Amish have chosen such an extreme, cloistered lifestyle that most meaningful dialogue with the “outside world”is not possible. But then, how different is this from our own provincial experiences? While we share the title of “American,” we tend to live out our biases as Californians and Minnesotans, Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Democrats, visiting each other amicably for a little while, then scurrying back to our comfort zones. If we truly are disciples, can we ever love one another purely, as Jesus commanded? Or will we forever be at a distance from those who seem foreign or have different beliefs? Admittedly, love from a distance is much easier than intimacy but is this really what Christianity demands of us?

Perhaps a simple lifestyle can yield a more intentional embrace of the spiritual life and that is definitely a goal worth pursuing. However, we also must also be aware that there is a cost involved in a process that completely separates us from one another. In truth,simplicity can also yield an interior spaciousness as wide and as far as the eye can see from an Amish Midwestern farm. Expanding our vision must never be crossed off the list.

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