In the spring of 2014, something good happened in our quiet corner of rural Canada. It’s something I’ve been hoping would happen for a long time and it’s taught me things you might find interesting and useful.
Three Amish families moved onto two old and forgotten farms near our place while winter was still lingering last year, and these are the first Amish ever to come to our area. I’ve long admired the Amish faith and way of life – at least from a distance – and over the years I’ve learned all I can about Amish life from books. Now that I’ve gotten to know my new neighbours first-hand, they’ve reminded me of five important things. They’re worth thinking about, regardless of where you live.
The Amish trace their roots back to 1693 when a man named Jacob Ammann and his followers left the Mennonite church that had been established more than a century earlier. Ammann felt the Mennonites were becoming too worldly, and today the Amish still live a community-based lifestyle that aims for simplicity, limited technology, and fidelity to biblical teachings – especially those found in the Sermon on the Mount. Each community makes decisions about lifestyle and technology based on how it will affect their community-based, faith-driven approach to life. I’ve made it a point to get to know my Amish neighbours better, and here are the things they remind me:
Hard Work is Good
This is no surprise, of course, but I do find it especially inspiring to see people who are so motivated. More than inspiring, it’s also energizing. Six days of work each week, followed by solid rest on the seventh day. This is the pattern I follow at my own homestead, but it’s not typical, even in rural areas these days. The life of the Amish is not spent in the pursuit of pleasure or leisure. As far as I can tell it’s about community, the value of honest work and the living out of a very ancient view of purity. My Amish neighbours see work as an opportunity, a gift, that they get to practice every day.
Frugality and Simplicity Are Virtues
One of the things I admire about the Amish families who’ve moved to my area is the fact that they’ve done it despite the very long time it takes to get to town in a horse-drawn buggy. The Amish have no vehicles, and they use nothing with rubber tires. That’s why it takes nearly two hours for them to drive to town on their own, and two hours to come back. To help ease this challenge I regularly offer to buy things for them when I’m in town, and their shopping lists tells me things. They always look out for specials at the grocery store (they know the advertised specials better than I do), not that they buy many groceries. But when they do they favour organic things whenever possible, even if it does cost more. I’m reminded that if any of us want a simpler life, then it starts with frugality. Simplicity and frugality are first cousins.
Welcomes are Worth Extending
When we invited our new neighbours over for dinner, I wasn’t sure if they’d accept. Not that I expected them to be unwelcoming, but the Amish do sacrifice a lot to keep worldly influences away. Were we too worldly for a dinner visit? I didn’t know until I asked, and I would have held no ill-will towards my neighbours if they had declined our offer. As different as we are from most modern people, we’re still much more plugged into the world than the Amish.
As it turns out, my family and I spent a lovely evening around our kitchen table with our nearest Amish couple, asking questions and getting to know them better. In many ways they come from a different century, but it other ways they don’t. And as it has turned out, we’ve just been invited to come to their home for supper in a few weeks, after a horse-drawn sleigh ride they’ve offered us. I’ve never eaten a meal from a home where all cooking is done on a woodstove, in a kitchen without electricity, lit by naptha lanterns. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Hand-Made is Heart-Made
One of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen in my life was a full line of clothes billowing in the summer breeze against the backdrop of a blue sky as I dropped off some shopping for my Amish neighbours. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I’ve always found any full clothesline a beautiful sight. This one even more so. What else can I say about so many skillfully home-made shirts, pants and dresses rounded and full in the wind, proclaiming such a plain and simple beauty? Solid colors, simple fabrics – black, blue and orange. No logos, no corporate slogans, no fancy buttons, emblems or modern nonsense. Each item made by the loving hands of a 30-something year old woman who keeps alive a sewing tradition that goes back hundreds of unbroken years. Mother, grandmother, great grandmother, great great grandmother . . . Am I the only one whose breath is taken away by such simple beauty and loving service to a family?
Trust is a Beautiful Thing
Since my Amish friends are often working in the forest or the barn during the day, they’re not always indoors when I drop off their shopping. I used to keep track of store receipts for them, dropping their order off on their kitchen table after letting myself in through the unlocked door. They’d write a cheque for me sometime later, though that’s now changed.
Just before Christmas I found an unusual envelope on their kitchen table with my name on the front. The envelope had been made by hand using paper salvaged from an old calendar. The cuts and folds and joints were done by someone with a lot of practice at making envelopes from scrap, and the paper had been arranged so the image of a horse’s head from the calendar was front and centre on the envelope. Sure, it was just an envelope, but for someone who loves to make things, it was also a very beautiful object. Inside was a signed blank cheque for me to fill out as I saw fit to pay for their shopping. Trust like this is stunning, and it’s my privilege to live in a place where it can still exist. Next to the envelope was a big bag of home made donuts, cooked over the woodstove that crackled away as I stood there in the empty house of two brave new pioneers – people who aren’t so different from the original pioneers who settled my area in the 1880s.
The more I learn about my Amish friends, the more I know that I could quite happily live like them in their community. Not many of the rest of my family would want to follow me, so I don’t suppose I ever will become Amish. At least not officially. But I can still learn something from my new neighbours and perhaps end up living a life that’s closer to something that’s always been attractive to me.
Does any of this strike a cord with you? Let me know.
Extra: Amish or Mennonite? What’s the difference?
Viewed from the outside, Amish and Mennonite people sometimes look similar, but there are differences worth knowing about. The Mennonites get their name from a man named Menno Simons. He started out as a Catholic priest, but rejected the faith in 1536, in part because he believed that baptism should be a conscious choice made by a person old enough to realize what they were doing, rather than the baptism of infants for whom the event could mean nothing. Those who followed Menno Simons became known as Mennonites. In addition to adult baptism, Menno Simons believed in avoiding violence and separation from the world – all in the pursuit of simplicity and fidelity to God’s ways and designs.
Fast-forward to the year 1693 and you’ll find a Mennonite man named Jacob Ammann. He’d come to feel that the Mennonite communities of the time had drifted too close to the practices and lifestyles of the wider world. Those Mennonites who followed Ammann came to be known as Amish.