Browsing the bookstore’s religion section or the offerings in your parish gift shop, you might wonder what spiritual writers Catholics are reading. Living ones, that is.
The fact is, that when it comes to spiritual reading and writing, Catholics’ favorite authors, are, for the most part, dead. That’s not surprising, considering our entirely praiseworthy appreciation for tradition, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” but one still has to wonder where the life in contemporary Catholic spiritual writing is when one of the most popular authors, who still makes the Catholic best seller lists with “new” books, no less, - Henri Nouwen – has been dead since 1996!
Observant readers might have noticed, however, one particular name of a living person that frequently appears on lists of books that Catholics are reading: Johann Christoph Arnold.
Not Afraid : Overcoming the Fear of Death is Arnold’s most recently-published book, but many others have preceded it, at a pace of about a book a year: Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped In Life’s Hells , Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World , A Plea for Purity: Sex, Marriage and God, and others.
Arnold’s message is a essentially a simple, common-sense, pastoral presentation of solutions to the modern world’s problems and pain. His writing seems, on the surface, to come out of a generic Christian perspective. He challenges readers to root their lives in Christ above all, living in fidelity, joy, trust, and love. His books are simple and easy to read, interweaving his own pastoral and spiritual insights with stories of the struggles of others, garnered from his decades of pastoral work.
But pastoral work where? With whom? Who is Johann Christoph Arnold?
It’s a rather interesting story – a story of how the leader of a tiny Christian sect has grown into one of the country’s more popular spiritual writers.
Johann Christoph Arnold is the leading elder of the Bruderhof, a small Christian denomination closely related to Anabaptists and Hutterites, Christian groups devoted to living simple Christian lives in community, modeling themselves as closely as possible to the ideal Christian church described in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Bruderhof (which mean “brotherhood” in German) was established in 1920 by Johann Christoph Arnold’s grandfather, Eberhard Arnold. The members, devoted from the first to radical Christian living, were thrown out of Nazi Germany in 1937, moved to England, then to Paraguay (where Johann Christoph Arnold grew up) when the British government started interning German citizens. Today, there are ten Bruderhof communities around the word: seven in the United States, two in England and one in Australia.
Arnold’s writings are expressive of Bruderhof values, particularly those calling humanity to lives of simplicity, peace and community. The Bruderhof also vigorously espouse traditional values in regard to sexuality and abortion. In Purity: Sex, Marriage and God, Arnold presents these values in a non-threatening, reasonable way that would be quite useful for anyone seeking a reinforcement of what Catholic tradition teaches about sexuality from a slightly different perspective.
The guidance that Arnold offers in his books is not earth-shattering on its face, but speaks rather with a subversive, counter-cultural voice that echoes whenever the Gospel is clearly preached. What gives his books added power is the wealth of stories from his own lives and from the scores of people he’s counseled over the years. This combination of common-sense pastoral wisdom and the affecting stories of men and women who have found peace and healing through faith in God’s love is undoubtedly the key to Arnold’s popularity.
In his most recent book, Be Not Afraid, for example, Arnold takes various aspects of the human contact with death - fear, despair, reverence, anticipation, readiness, suffering – among others, and shows us how the dying and their families have coped:
“In my experience, there is a definite correlation between fear and the “hardness” of a soul. For a person who is conscious of his weakness, it is a relief to admit his limits and ask for help. For an independent person who sees such vulnerability as defeat, however, it is terrifying, especially if he has steeled himself against the idea of “giving in” to death for a long time. Suddenly he sees his self-reliance as the illusion it always was, and realizes that even the strongest man is helpless whe confronted with his own mortality.”
The Catholic reader might want to be aware of a couple of caveats before plunging into the Arnold oeuvre, however. First is that of course, he’s not Catholic, which is not a problem, considering the broadness of his approach, but it is a limitation. An explicitly Catholic spirituality has something more than what Arnold offers – the sacramental life, of course – the connection with the Living Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through Eucharist, and through the Anointing of the Sick.
Potential readers of Arnold’s books might also be interested to know that the Bruderfhof is not an uncontroversial community. More than a few former members of the Bruderhof have come forward with accusations of cult-like activities on the part of the community, some implicating Arnold himself with issues of unjust wielding of power.
Finally, Arnold's choice of role models for the reader can be off-putting, to say the least. Che Guevera might present a problem. The Bruderhof's involvement in the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Arnold's frequent use of his words in Endangered (sic!) will definitely lead some readers to set Arnold's work aside.
Hardly any spiritual writer is perfect, however. Any one of them can take us a certain distance towards deeper intimacy with God, and we read them for the wisdom they offer us at specific moments in our lives, mindful that while God may work through the writer’s words, the writer is not God.
Johann Christoph Arnold’s call to greater simplicity, trust and sacrificial love offer an another, better way to a world immersed in materialism selfishness, violence and despair, and the many inspiring stories he tells of people who find peace in Christ assure that this hope is grounded in reality, not in dreams.
What does it mean to “die,” be transformed, and experience rebirth? First and foremost, I believe it means letting ourselves be dismantled – not partially, but completely….Equally vital is letting go of our goodness. Not surprisingly, that is difficult. In fact, having talked with countless people at critical moments in their lives, I’ve found that this is often the biggest sticking point. We all want to change, to become better people, to get rid of the negative baggage we drag after ourselves. But when it comes down to the brass tacks, most of us are just as eager to preserve every inch of our old selves, or at least our good parts. Having gladly dropped everything we didn’t like about ourselves, we still cling desperately to the rest, refusing to believe that it might be tainted, and hoping that it can still be rescued. Yet the fact is that even the most sincerely held virtue can be a great obstacle to transformation. That is because a subjective view of our own goodness is rarely in line with reality; that is to say, few of us are really as pure as we might imagine ourselves to be.
From Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped in Life’s Hells