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A Good Dose of Cloistering Going On
Wednesday, April 15, 2020 by Dan Allen


This pandemic has introduced me to some new words including the title itself—pandemic. I had heard of “epidemics” and “plagues,” but wasn’t familiar with “pandemic.” Maybe because there was only three last century (1918, 1957, 1968) and, although I was around for the last two, I don’t remember them—I was two in ‘57 and thirteen in ‘68 — not news savvy either time.


Several other new words or phrases have been introduced: “coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” “hydroxychloroquine,” and “shelter in place.” On this last one, it is often used when chemical, biological or radiological contaminants have been released either accidentally or intentionally. That doesn’t happen too often around us, although perhaps an order to do so was given when a reactor at Three-Mile Island melted down in March 1979—I just don’t remember.

Instead of “shelter in place,” I, and several other writers, have employed the word “cloister” for the same effect. And that reminds me of the Ephrata Cloister—a semi-monastic, religious community to keep the believers separated or cloistered from the world, started in 1732 by Johanna Conrad Beissel in the town I used to pastor. 

Beissel had some strange beliefs that bordered on mysticism, as well as how he interpreted the Bible. For instance, he believed the Lord  would return at night. So the residents would get up at midnight until 2 a.m. to “watch” for the anticipated coming during separate services for males and females. This was preceded and followed by 3–hour naps (9 to midnight; 2 to 5) on wooden benches with wooden blocks for pillows. He believed in celibacy, which is one of the reasons the Cloister went out of existence, and no luxuries for the brothers and sisters.  It’s fascinating history and a fun place to visit with the actual buildings still standing. Of course, you’ll have to wait until we are no longer cloistered. Check out their letter-artwork and what they did during the Revolutionary War.

This also reminds me of my favorite story from the Cloister. A Cocalico tavern/inn owner and convicted traitor, Michael Witman, a Tory, was sentenced to hang because he either made traitorous comments to two spies staying at his inn, revealed military secrets to British General William Howe, or both. To his rescue came Peter Miller, a spiritual leader and resident of the Cloister, who, with his cane, walked from Ephrata to Valley Forge to plead for Witman’s life. Washington was acquainted with Peter Miller. He not only had visited the Cloister, but Miller was tasked with translating the Declaration into seven languages at the request of Thomas Jefferson. He was told by Washington, however, that the request for clemency could not be granted for his friend. “My friend!” explained Miller, “I have not a worse enemy living than that man.” And, indeed, Witman had treated Miller very badly. According to reports, he spat in his face, tripped him on the local footpaths, and at least once punched the saintly Peter Miller. This was in part because Miller left the church at which Witman was a deacon to pastor the Cloister.

“What!” rejoined Washington. “You have walked sixty miles to save the life of your enemy? That, In my judgment, puts the matter in a different light. I will grant you his pardon.”

Miller taught Washington and Witman a great lesson on forgiveness. And, supposedly, the two of them, Witman and Miller, with his cane, walked back to Ephrata together.

I do not support some of the other beliefs of the Cloister (experiential faith—earthly sacrifice in exchange for an eternal paradise, Saturday as the Sabbath, celibacy, only one meal a day and vegetarian at that, etc.), but I do appreciate their unselfish acts during the Revolutionary War and the story of Biblical forgiveness that Miller showed. On this we should consider as tensions mount in our own cloisters.
 


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