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Gripped by the Infinite

A Young Woman’s Journey to Faith

Annemarie Wächter

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Born in a village in eastern Germany in 1909, Annemarie Wächter encountered ideas and people in her adolescence that unsettled her and disturbed the simple faith of her childhood. Like countless young people before and since, she spent her young adulthood trying to make sense of the world. Collected in the book Anni (ed. Marianne Wright and Erna Albertz, Plough), her letters and diary entries describe, with startling honesty and deep sensitivity, how a young woman who had been allergic to claims of absolute truth found her way to faith and a meaningful vocation within a Christian community.

Anni’s roommate at college was Emi-Margret Arnold, who described to Anni the Bruderhof, a community that her parents, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, had established near Fulda, Germany. Anni later recounted:

Emi-Margret told me some of the inner back-ground of the community she came from, but I could not understand it. I sensed that she had a real belief in God, a firm basis, and that is what we mostly discussed, but I was afraid of it. I wanted to be very sure that this really was the truth and that I would not find out, after a year or two, that it had given the appearance of being real when it actually was not. So I was somewhat critical, even though in another way I was attracted. I did not want to bind myself to any firm belief or to commit myself.

As she entered her twenties, Anni’s discontent and seeking intensified.

Diary, November 10, 1929

Tillich says, “Youth means being gripped by the infinite, and therefore youth is religion.” Who is it that is gripped? 

I would just like to know whether it’s really different for us than for mature people – I mean those people who really stand for something and who don’t simply exist. It must be strange to have a worldview. What does believing and not believing mean anyway? What is religion, and who has it? Where do great people get their beliefs from, their conviction? Have they had an experience of God? Tillich says, “Youth means being gripped by the infinite, and therefore youth is religion.” Who is it that is gripped? We can’t believe anything anymore, because we know too much. Everything has its name and is classified and arranged neatly in its place. Of course, people say that to be eternally seeking and not finding means an incomplete development, but to me it still seems the best option. Who can dare commit herself to a certain course for the whole length of life?

Diary, June 28, 1930

This is true objectivity: to be able to conquer your own self enough that you can acknowledge what is right, and then to fight for that with your whole inner arsenal. No one grows through neutrality; the only result is insipidity and nonsensical philosophizing. It just makes you stupid. This type of inner loneliness is the worst thing there is. Sometimes it could kill you.

Diary, April 3, 1931

It has been almost a year since I wrote in here. And what has happened since then? Much and nothing. It seems as if the world has come to a standstill for me because of the weakening relationships with those my own age and with other people in general.

A portrait of Anni as a young girl
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In spring of 1931, Emi-Margret invited Anni to visit her at the community. Anni processed the experience in a letter to her friend.

April 14, 1931

Dear Emi-Margret,

It is horribly hard to put things into words, and especially deeply held thoughts. I have a great horror of all emotional outpourings and public displays of the depths of the soul. So to be able to say something like this that is personal and yet objective is not so simple. You may have wondered why I was completely quiet while I was with you all. But you can’t say a lot when something overwhelms you completely. Since the time in my teens when I had a sense of fulfillment from true fellowship between people, I had never again experienced anything like that. That is now quite a number of years ago. There was always a lot of talking and reading and chattering about it, especially at school, but no one believed in it. ... And in spite of all you told me about your community, I really didn’t believe in it either.

The Holy Spirit was moving there. It gripped me, and I felt: I have to come back here! I have to stay here!

You say so simply, “We believe in the message Christ brings of the community of all people in one spirit,” and then you act accordingly. And it is actual and living – there is no discussion or babbling, no senseless philosophizing. This made me very happy. Do you understand what I mean? If you don’t believe in anything, it would be terrible to commit yourself to something. Life still wouldn’t have any real significance.

You probably thought it was strange that I don’t have any plans for the near future and that I am stepping out into the world in such an indifferent way. What’s the use of further studies? I have a holy terror of anything abstract, as much as I also unfortunately have a weakness for it, as you well know. Well, up to now my whole theory has been a complete washout. And what besides? I truly don’t know. But please don’t think that I am about to raise my voice in lamentation and pity myself a little. It is only a somewhat unpleasant fact.
Anni

Several months later, Anni visited the Bruderhof again. As she later described:

I had no understanding of the Christian basis of the community. I was a Protestant by birth, but inwardly the Christian faith had no meaning for me. On the contrary, because I felt that there was so much hypocrisy, I had turned against it. But during my visit, there was a meeting that impressed me. I do not know what the meeting was about, but I can only say that something of the Holy Spirit was moving there. It gripped me, and I felt: I have to come back here! I have to stay here!

Diary, June 26, 1931

When will I go to Emi-Margret’s community to stay? Nothing else seems important to me anymore. But I know that it will then be a matter of either-or. Since spring, I haven’t moved one step forward. Can I go this way? I believe that I have in some way felt the Spirit, and yet I haven’t found the courage to come to a decision. I feel embarrassed when people speak about the coming of and hope for God’s kingdom. I am ashamed of reading the Bible. I don’t understand any of it – I mean, I am not able to believe in it.

Anni in the simple garb of the German Youth Movement

Anni in the simple garb of the German Youth Movement

Anni arrived for an extended visit to the community in early January 1932. A month later, she wrote to her family.

February 6, 1932

My dear Mama, Hilde, and Reinhold,

It is a community of people from the most varied classes and professions, who have come out of groups with the most diverse world outlooks. They wish to live and work – and are even ready to die – for one common goal. The one and only thing to which they feel themselves bound is contained in the words of the Bible, especially the New Testament. They feel deeply gripped by and committed to what comes to us through the Bible from God, the coming of his kingdom, the sending out of his Holy Spirit, the life of Jesus, and what he requires of humankind. This compelled them to such a degree that they had to break off their former lives in order to place their entire lives and whole strength from then on into the service of discipleship to Christ.

Living by love implies a life of social justice, because love encompasses each person equally – it cannot show partiality.

This will be especially difficult to understand in our time in which there are so few people willing to live and die in a manner consistent with their convictions. The community members believe in God and his Trinity as an absolute reality. He is the first and the last Truth. He is reality; there is none greater. To them, he is neither a beautiful ideal arising from the affectations of the emotional life nor an indeterminate, problematic entity. God is love, faithfulness, grace, mercy, and justice. God loves all people as his children, and no one is greater than another. That is why all people should love each other as brothers and sisters.

It is not possible to create a life of love and brotherliness within the fragmentation of the existing social order. The communal way of life alone can foster such relationships. It is not always easy to recognize the brother in every man, and not believe oneself higher and better than another. Living by love implies a life of social justice, because love encompasses each person equally – it cannot show partiality. And economic injustice can be accepted just as little as human injustice. Such a community must reject capitalism and desire to live in complete community of goods, in the communism of the original apostolic church. Personal property and earnings are completely renounced.

And because all here are conscious of the difficulty and bitterness of the way, there is no sweetly gushing Christianity, no false enthusiasm that fades into thin air with empty phrases (as one may be tempted to think), but rather a Christianity of true conviction and faith, and therefore a Christianity of deeds. That is the pivotal thing. As part of its ultimate goal and through the strength of God and his spirit, this Christianity seeks to penetrate the whole of life right down into the smallest practical details. It is precisely in the most mundane routines of daily life – those that are not filled by the elation of holier hours – that this Christianity must be tested, lest it remain empty and useless.

I only hope that through this letter you are able to understand a little of how I came to this decision, and that it is impossible for me to return to the former way of life.

From your Anni

Three weeks later, Anni added in her diary:

Diary, February 21, 1932

What has happened during this time? It is all so tremendous and unfathomable. How to comprehend that the living God has come into life – into my life? We venture to ask him that we might be allowed to encounter him – to live a life of dedication and love after the example of his son, Jesus Christ. Who could ever have anticipated such a reality?

Bruderhof members take a break from work (1932).

“A community of people from the most varied classes and professions”: Bruderhof members take a break from work (1932).


Annemarie Wächter, a relative of the progressive educator Friedrich Fröbel, grew up at the country boarding school in Keilhau, Germany that he had founded. After escaping to England from the Nazi regime in 1936 with her husband, a pacifist, she worked as an educator and counselor in the Bruderhof community in Rifton, New York until her death in 1980. These abridged selections were compiled by Marianne Wright.

All images courtesy of Annemarie Wächter’s family.

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Contributed By Annemarie Waechter Arnold Annemarie Wächter

Annemarie Wächter was active in the German Youth Movement between the two World Wars and an early member of the Bruderhof community.

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