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    alpine scene

    Growing into Manhood

    By Peter Mommsen

    March 30, 2015

    In this excerpt from Homage to a Broken Man it’s 1934, and Heiner is the twenty-year-old son of German theologian, revivalist, and pacifist Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof communities. Having fled Nazi Germany to escape military conscription, Heiner is now a teacher at the community’s school in the Alpine Principality of Liechtenstein and madly in love with a fellow teacher, his future wife Anne­marie. The political situation is growing more dangerous – the Nazis have infiltrated tiny Liechtenstein, and rumors swirl of illegal killings. But Heiner, formerly exuberant, is increasingly lost in an interior battle, oblivious of the evils threatening both his community and the continent at large. He struggles with doubts about his calling from God.

    Heiner was miserable, his world falling apart. He accused himself. How had he fallen so far from the faith of his childhood? Why had the fire that had flared in him at the time of his conversion died? For whole days at a time, he lost himself in morbid introspection. “I am a failure at everything, I can’t be trusted with anything. I have no idea how to go on.” He began to hate himself.

    Eberhard noticed Heiner’s gloom, and it disturbed him. His son seemed to believe that it was somehow meritorious to torment oneself. Perhaps he was trying to purge himself, or to prove his mettle. But it could not be allowed to go on – not if Heiner was his son. “When there is pus in the wound, it must be drawn out to heal.” And so one evening during the course of a community meeting, he prodded Heiner to tell everyone what was on his mind.

    Heiner rose and made the statement he had long been preparing. “I am co-guilty for everything wrong that has happened here. Because of my many mistakes, I am not fit to be involved in educational work. I ask to resign from the school.”

    Eberhard rose to his full height. “Heiner, you suffer from being in love with yourself. Do you think you are scoring points with God by continually talking about your failures? Our failure is a certainty to us, and so we go forward from it and get down to business. Your humble playacting is not genuine. You are perverting your youthfulness.…

    Heiner stood staring at his father with blank despair – he had known his father to shout, but never before like this. The circle of faces around him blurred, and only his father’s remained clear.

    “Heiner, go back to the starting point, just as if you were a child again. Is this the kind of person you wanted to be when you were eleven and so full of dreams for the future? Heiner and his little plans for a cozy ­marriage must disappear behind the big questions: What will become of the injustices all around us, which cry to heaven? What will become of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? What is your responsibility in the face of all this? You have a sound body and a sound soul; you have gifts and strength. Use them! With your melancholy attitude you are living in chronic suicide.

    portrait of Heiner

    Heiner, around age twenty. Courtesy of the Bruderhof Archives.

    “Why does success mean so much to you? It’s putting on make-up before God. You think you are not doing well enough. Then you analyze yourself to find the cause of your guilt. You think you have to make yourself still humbler, to evoke God’s pity. That is egoism! You want to make the Creator into your packhorse!”

    In the silence that followed, the only sounds were the clock ticking and Eberhard’s quick breath. Eberhard seemed to be waiting for something. Then he said, “Heiner, you have to recognize how utterly lost you are. What you said tonight comes from the abyss.”

    The meeting ended. Heiner was numb. As if through thick glass, he saw his father hobbling toward him, asking him, “How is it possible, Heiner?” His face was no longer angry so much as bewildered. “How is it possible that you let things go so far? Is this all we can expect from you after your childhood, after the Sun Troop, and after all we have experienced together? Why didn’t you tell me what was going on here?” Heiner stood abjectly, saying nothing. His father pressed him. “Heiner, why are you like this?”

    “That’s just the way I am.”

    “What?” Eberhard cried out, his energy back in a flash. “Do you know what you are saying? You are accusing God! You’re accusing your mother! You’re accusing me!” The anguish in his father’s face would haunt Heiner for the rest of his life.

    Heiner began to tremble violently during the pause that followed. Then Eberhard said quietly and with deep sorrow, “You are the son in whom I had the greatest hope. And now you say this to me?” Heiner could not answer. The two of them went out into the night, Eberhard on his crutches, along the footpath that ran from the chalet. Above the peaks stretched the vastness of a starry sky. Looking into the valley they could make out the faint line of the Rhine River three thousand feet below. The lights of the towns along its banks twinkled as if from another world. Suddenly Eberhard asked, “Have you ever thought of all the people who live down there, with all their loves and sufferings and sins? Have you ever asked yourself what meaning each of their lives ought to have? Have you ever thought of the day when God’s rule will break over this earth, and each of the little houses in the valley will be flooded with light? Has any of this ever concerned you or disturbed you?”

    Heiner answered. No, he had never really thought about this.

    “Then where is your Christianity?” his father said sharply.

    They stood side by side, gazing down. Heiner felt cold ripples up and down his neck. Gradually it dawned on him what it was all about. His father was saving him from something far worse than a life of failure or misery or even wickedness. He was saving him from choosing the comfort of pious complacency over a daring adventure. From denying his calling.

    As Heiner recognized all this, he was filled with gratefulness. The strength of his father’s love overwhelmed him.

    From Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold – A True Story of Faith, Forgiveness, Sacrifice, and Community.

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