"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

November 2, 2011


A tranquil ravine behind the Laura Ingalls Wilder farm in Mansfield, Missouri.

We all have experienced schisms in our lives: with friends, family members, ideologies, in companies, nonprofit organizations and even churches. Some rifts quickly fuse back together, some are narrow enough to hop over and others are so wide that they are impassable. Lately I've been troubled by the widening gap created in our local Old Order Mennonite community. It is sad and disheartening, so unnecessary to those of us who are on the outside looking in or who know many of them as friends or neighbors. While I can't go into great detail here or all of the history–much of which I don't know or understand–the usual cast of characters is involved: Ego, Pride, Righteousness (and I will add, Male, as their religion is set up as a complete patriarchy). As a friend of mine back in New Hampshire has observed, in any church split or religious issue the women are usually the ones who suffer the most. She couldn't be more right about that in this case.

Young Buddhist monks (photograph from the website ReligionFacts.com)

"How do you want to create peace
if there is no peace inside yourselves?"
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

I have friends on both sides of the divide and they, too, are also friends with each other. A couple, quite close to us, is even experiencing the divide within their own home. As individuals in the local community they are all friends or at least friendly and charitable with each other and community-natured. But when it comes to church rules and personal conduct, they are divided. So much so that the splinter group that decided to leave the original church several years ago (which is part of the larger Groffdale Old Order Mennonite Conference that settled here initially) have now been told to leave the area by a group of bishops in the established conference. It has reached a point where there is no resolution and the group that has left the original church–that has sought even stricter rules of conduct from how they all were raised in the church (or "man's law" vs. "God's law")–has been given a finite period of time to sell their farms and businesses and move away from those from whom they wish to worship separately. They certainly understand that they are free to worship as they please–which is why the Mennonites and Amish came here from Germany and Switzerland in the first place–but because their religion and lifestyle is so intricately meshed, church splits in their communities effect all areas of their lives. Thus, major whole-herd moves as the result of dissension are not uncommon. [As for the financial ramifications in this economy, I can't even begin to ponder it.]

Hay on the knob and the Morgan Cemetery, Hickory Nut Ridge, Summer 2009.
"I'm a Protestant atheist. [Philip Larkin's poem, Church Going, captures his attitude] to religion, tradition, faith, 
architecture, Englishness, Larkin's admirable stoicism. 
Larkin very much wanted to be a believer, and couldn't do it. 
And he was petrified of death."
~ Christopher Hitchens
[as quoted in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald]

I asked the other day, in the car, with several Mennonite friends that I took on errands, "Where is God in all of this?" Does God care where we worship or how, or even with whom? Even though we would like to find a church that works for us, I have believed for a very long time that we can avoid the middle man–the Church–and go right to the source: God. My favorite cathedral these days is among the open fields of our farm or in the quiet Kentucky woods. In nature do we see God's greatest glories and sometimes the very harsh realities and tempests.

Gertie and John, Valley View Farm, December 2010.
"Trouble no one about their religion, respect all in their views, 
and demand that they respect yours."
~ Chief Tecumseh

Church does serve a great purpose: it binds people in community and fellowship and it provides a place and time each week for pause, prayer and reflection. There are rituals and rites and there can be great beauty and comfort in them. Church, as a structure, can even provide the setting for magnificent music and great art and architecture. But it can also split and fracture and wound. The blood-letting can be gradual or immediate but there is pain either way. That pain doesn't come from a holy place but from the man-made and the mundane.

Exit gate at the Cathedral of the Pines,
Rindge, New Hampshire, June 2009.
"We must learn to live 
together as brothers, 
or we are going to perish 
together as fools."
~ Martin Luther King

The Bible provides a code of conduct for pre-Christians (especially in the The Old Testament) and later Christians with the word of Christ, but so much is no longer applicable, particularly in the Old Testament, to our lives today. There are too many examples to name here but we also know that the Bible does not explicity say that we are supposed to live separately but equally, while celibate (eg. the United Society of Believers, aka Shakers, who actually believed in a dual deity of Mother and Father); or to have many wives (Old Order Mormons); or live without electricity, modern conveniences, automobiles or tractors (eg. the Amish and some Old Order Mennonites); or to even have a Pope. Those differences are all from human intervention and decision-making. As long as no one is hurting anyone else, why not? I respect people's individual journeys, even if I don't always understand them.

Lupines by a Vermont brook, June 2009.
"Our view is that there is truth and holiness in other religious faiths. Our view is that there are many paths to God."
~ Rabbi Eric Yoffee

The Bible is a template for living for those who wish to follow it, just as there are comparative texts in other religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, to name a few. Some even share the same texts, such as parts of the Old Testament in the Bible, Torah and Koran. But I believe there is one creator and that he/she/it very likely came to different people throughout the world and in different times as the same entity or embodiment, only with different personas. In other words, religious pluralism.

My favorite mountain in the whole world, the Grand Monadnock,
taken from Sawyer Farm, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, June 2009.
"There are many paths up the Mountain, 
but the view of the moon from the top is the same."
~ Ancient Japanese saying

It would seem that there are so many schisms now in our society. Our political world has never been so divisive (and, ironically, because religion is often thrown out there into the mix). We are disconnected in so many ways from each other and with ourselves. The rise in drug use and substance abuse has never been greater. Our economy, and the world's, is a house of cards and collapsing everywhere. If ever there was a time to come together it is now.

Mount Monadnock from the outdoor altar at the Cathedral of the Pines,
Rindge, New Hampshire, June 2009.

"Why is it that when we talk to God, it's called prayer, 
but when God talks to us, it's called schizophrenia?"
~ Lily Tomlin

So why, in God's name, do we fight about what God says or represents or how we are to worship? Why can't we tolerate religious differences as long as there is a peaceful methodology and good intentions behind them? As long as we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, with all people and in all things and in all places and at all times, we are on the right track. The trick is in staying on that track and that is where we, as humans, fail miserably and fall hard. As long as we get back on it, and keep walking, we'll be doing the best that we can do.

You come back when you're ready!


The former Baldock Chapel interior.
Casey County, Kentucky, 2008.
...Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

The Baldock Chapel, pre-demolition.
Casey County, Kentucky, 2008.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

~ from the poem "Church Going," by Philip Larkin


  1. Catherine, you have outdone yourself with this wonderful dissection of our differences! I heartily agree with your viewpoint. I sometimes think that most of the conflicts are male-induced because of the need for power. It matters not if it's power in the business world, power in the military world, or power in the church.

    "We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace." ~William Ewart Gladstone

  2. Thank you, Michael. That's a beautiful quote, too. As someone else once said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely!" [I far prefer the adage "Well-behaved women rarely make history."]

    However, women have the power to heal or to bring things down, too. If they would spend more time working together, instead of infighting or being petty or envious or holding grudges, they could do great things. But, sadly, they have had little opportunity in many church situations to prove their mettle.

  3. Ugh... this grieves my heart.

    That picture of Monadnock from the Cathedral of the Pines, it makes my heart oh-so-happy.


  4. Destiny, I miss that mountain! I imagine that you do, too. There is no other mountain in the world like it.


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