Monday, August 18, 2008

On Pilgrimage with St. Stephen's Youth: Among the Amish

In the latter part of July, 2008, I was privileged to accompany St. Stephen’s J2A Youth Pilgrimage. Along with 12 high school youth and 3 other adults, we traveled to the Amish country in Pennsylvania, the site of the Episcopal Church’s founding in Pennsylvania, the cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, and St. Paul’s Chapel at the 9-11 site. What follows are some observations regarding the two days we spent as the guests of Amish farmers in the vicinity of Intercourse, PA.

There is a kind of sweetness that hangs about the gatherings of these gentle people, and a restrained dignity that is evident even in the young, barefooted children. Their fields and animals are carefully tended to and, in full summer, at the height of vitality and health. Their houses are unadorned but immaculately clean. Their hospitality is generous but offered with an eye to the priority of work. They laugh often, but not, apparently, at church.

At church, the men and boys sit on one side and the women and girls on the other. When bidden to pray, the entire congregation rises (rather alarmingly) as one body and kneels backwards in the pews, with foreheads pressed down upon the benches. When invited to sing, however, alarm gives way to four-part harmony, and the sweetness returns to flood the gathering like the smell of new-mown hay. The women’s clear, unified voices carry the main tune, while the men’s growly bass, accented by a few tenors, follows along behind. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, reminiscent of the “shape-note” tradition in the southern USA. At several points my voice broke and I thought of heaven, of passing over into a strange yet welcoming place where unknown songs become instantly familiar, like melodies from some unremembered dream, or infancy.

The resemblance to heaven was diminished, however, on the many occasions where one of the worship leaders (all male) would remind us of grim justice of God and the eternal consequences of failing to fully accept the gift of salvation. The main preacher (chosen by the congregation from among their own membership) spoke at length about the “unacceptable offerings” that misguided Christians bring to God. These included such thing as guitar music, cell phones, divorce, and immodest dress (especially for women). The only “acceptable offering” is the inward surrender of one’s soul to Christ, evidenced outwardly by obedience to the community’s standards of dress and behavior. Had these been “Old Order” Amish the list would have included the driving of automobiles, but this church was part of a “reformed” group that worships together in English in a church building, rather than in “High German” and in people’s homes. They also drive cars and undertake mission work in places as far away as Romania.

It is disconcerting to find a kind of spiritual ferocity lurking just beneath the surface of this gentle community. I long to reach out and connect with them, celebrate a spiritual solidarity with them, but it is clear that I am an unacceptable ally. Like so many other fundamentalists, the only valid story for them seems to be one that is told in their own accent, by someone wearing clothes just like theirs, and adhering to the same unquestioned certainties.
In this respect the Amish and conservative Mennonites resemble some of the Anglo-Catholics I met in England, as well as many evangelicals in this country. The same could be said of Muslim extremists, and some secular radicals. I wonder, how can any version of Puritanism know if their particular interpretation is correct? They can’t all be right. And if God’s will is so plainly discernable, why are there so many different varieties of Amish and Mennonites? Yet in everyday practice, there seems to be an overarching unity among all the Plain People. It is only when religion enters in that the barriers come up. What a shame.

Our principle guide was an inspired advocate for the Amish/Mennonite way of life, but when asked if any members of their community ever became doctors, he told us that “hospitals and medical schools are not considered a suitable environment for Christians.” Yet this is a community that readily takes advantage of hospitals and advanced medical technology when an emergency arises. But is it not inherently risky to follow Christ into the world? Indeed, following Christ will bring us to places far more “risky” from a spiritual standpoint than a hospital. To hold back from the world, to sanitize one’s discipleship from any possible contamination is, first of all, impossible, and even more, contrary to the gospel. In catholic Christianity, God is understood as one who reaches out from the purity of heaven to share the vulnerability of human life in the world. Discipleship, even in its most extreme monastic forms, seeks to recapitulate this redemptive engagement, undertaken on behalf of the world God so loved.
It is true, of course, that a community with porous boundaries and diverse occupations will lack the cohesiveness and solidarity that are the cornerstone of Amish life. But would it necessarily lack the sweetness, and the gentleness, and the simplicity? Those qualities are, I believe, gifts of the Spirit, not the results of strictly enforced rules and boundaries.

Despite the contradictions, these Plain People have something that is essential for others to understand. They can help us see how we are being enslaved by idolatrous forces of greed and violence. They can teach us how to rely more upon each other and our local economies, and how to seek rational limits to our consumption and our misuse of the environment. They provide an example of a loving, supportive community in which children can grow and flourish. They can show us how to “live simply, so that others may simply live.”

The future is likely to show that human beings cannot go on expanding their economies without restraint. It is likely to show that we must become more cooperative, less violent, and more in harmony with our environment if we are to avoid a descent into chaos. As this becomes more evident, we may have to reorganize ourselves into simpler, more sustainable forms of community. Should that time come, we may find ourselves looking to the Amish and Mennonites for prototypes, as well as to Native American tribes and to monastic communities. Each of these provides an alternative model to the hypercompetitive, self-indulgent, addictive, violent forms of social organization that predominate in our world today.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

MORE PSALMIC VERSES: Quam delicta # 4

1. How hospitable is the sacred place of pilgrimage, Lord of Pennsylvania mountains and Amish farms!* my soul carries a great weight of longing for what pilgrims in former times have sought,

2. At Mecca, at Jerusalem, or other holy places;* my heart and my whole being resound with Living Silence.

3. Happy are those whose trust is in the healing power of God, * whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way.

4. Observe how the pigeons roost above the mighty doors of St. John the Divine, and how the seagulls beg for French fries on Liberty Island, * just as pilgrims are drawn to sacred places, seeking refreshment for their souls.

5. Mirthful and musical are those who walk all the way to South Street in search of Philly Cheesesteaks!* they will never run out of songs and stories.

6. When their paths lead by scenes of desolation at the 9-11 site, * they remember St. Paul’s Chapel, and draw on deep wells of memory and hope.

7. Lord of secret power, hear this prayer; * take notice, God of our future and our past.

8. One day on pilgrimage is better than a thousand spent watching TV at home, * and to cross the threshold of these sacred precincts is worth more than all an empty world can offer.

9. No blessing will be withheld from those who keep faith with such sacred places, * and those whose feet have walked upon the path of wisdom will keep their integrity intact.

10. O Lord of Amish farms and New York subways, * happy are those who have

learned to trust from you.

St. Stephen’s J2A Youth Pilgrimage, July, 2008