To the Beyond

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I just read the obituary for the fine barber I wrote about back in August.

It’s tough to find a good barber, and it’s tougher still, I think, to find a good man.

Rest peacefully, Barty. May your memory be eternal.

Blessing the Waters

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Members of the Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, gather at Furnace Dam Park on S. 10th Street in Emmaus to bless the waters during the 2010 Theophany season. (The building in the background is one of the main sites of the Rodale Institute.)

Christianity and Ecology: Lessons on Sustainability from the Early Irish Sea

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A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:

  • Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).

  • Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.

Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.

My Emmaus

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Furnace Dam Park
Canada Geese take one last respite in the late Fall next to the willows at Furnace Dam Park, Emmaus, Pennsylvania

I remarked to my wife the other day that I now really don’t want to live anywhere but in Emmaus (we live in Allentown for the moment but hope that that will change in the next few years). I have started referring to this place occasionally as “my Emmaus.” (The genitive case is, of course, not merely the possessive.)

I’ve moved a good many times in my life and grown fairly suspicious (and sometimes cynical) at interactions with any sort of organization that might be deemed “official.” My assumption is typically that the Great Machine, whoever its local representatives might be, is not really interested in us. This is why it wants from us only what can fill out blanks on a form.

But one of the reasons I have begun referring to our new home as “mine”—that is, it is becoming “mine” in the manner that my wife is “mine” or my father is “mine”—is that a lot of “officialdom” hereabouts really does want more from persons than just fill-ins for blanks on a form. One example of this is that the local community event organizing bunch, the Emmaus Main Street program, will gladly advertise events happening at churches.

And when I say this, I mean that they’ll pass on word about more than just the latest secular self-help seminar that happens to be meeting in a church. They’ll actually put out the word about my lecture series comparing various theologies with one another or an upcoming outreach seminar we’re having on Orthodox Christianity and the created world (with a healthy dose of localism, sustainability, etc.). With my long-developed cynicism regarding any sort of officiality, this has me wallowing in just a bit of incredulity. But they do it. Really.

I really do love this little borough.

Images of Emmaus

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The Shelter House (1734)
The Emmaus Shelter House (Zuflucht Haus), built in 1734, is the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the Lehigh Valley. It remained occupied by private residents until the 1950s.
The 1803 House
The 1803 House, the home of Jacob Ehrenhardt, Jr., the son of one of the founders of Emmaus. He was briefly expelled from the Moravian Church for joining the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War, but then welcomed back when the war was over. (Moravians are traditionally pacifists.) It remained occupied until 1975.
Traditional Barn
A traditional barn and home, now part of the Wildlands Conservancy
Wildlands Conservancy Trail
A trail at the Wildlands Conservancy
Emmaus Moravian Church
The Emmaus Moravian Church, founded in 1747
God's Acre
God's Acre is the site of the area's first multi-denominational community church, erected in 1742, and its original cemetery. The first burial here was in 1743. Simply-engraved flat stones mark the graves of Moravian Congregation original members, two Indian girls, and Emmaus men who served in the American Army in the Revolution. 'God's Acre' (Gottesacker, literally 'Field of God') is an ancient Germanic term for a burial ground and now is the traditional term used for Moravian cemeteries.

Barton Decker, barber

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USS Lenawee (APA-195)
USS Lenawee (APA-195)

This past Friday, I made another assay into the streets of and around Emmaus to find myself a decent barber shop. My first haircut experience in Emmaus, to put it frankly, hurt. I have no idea exactly why that gent had such a need to dig the clippers with such fervor into my neck, but, suffice it to say, once I did my fiduciary duty to the gentleman, I resolved not to darken his establishment’s door again. I’ve had many haircuts in my day, and, despite the ancient connection between barbers and dentists, I believe that association has now been firmly and properly severed. It does not have to hurt. (I won’t mention the establishment’s name, lest I turn away custom from a man who may simply have been having a bad day.)

Thus, when it came time this month for my haircut, I first decided to check out a shop on my usual route home, just outside Emmaus, titled simply “The Barber Shop.” I pulled up in my car and peered inside the window. I saw rows of shampoo bottles on shelves and immediately began to suspect I was in the wrong place. Then I saw a sign with the prices on it and was confirmed in my suspicions. This was not the old-school, small-time barbershop I’d come to trust on sight. This, despite the name, was some sort of “salon.” I did not go in but immediately got back in my car.

I turned back toward Emmaus proper and decided to try a place I’d seen on Chestnut Street not too far past the Emmaus Triangle. (We don’t have a town square. We have a triangle.) Barty’s Barber Shop was small, not very impressive on the outside, and thus, probably just right on the inside. Even the sign emblazoned with the proprietor’s name, Barton Decker, was not awfully visible from the street. There is, however, a barber pole, and that is quite enough. And one cannot go wrong with a name like Barton Decker. It is hard to imagine a more “barberly” name.

As I glanced into the window at Barty’s, I saw walls smothered in photographs, many black and white. Opening the door, there was a faint whiff of pipe smoke. I was in the right place.

Mr. Decker was clipping the hair of a customer in his chair, pipe snugly in the corner of his mouth. The two—barber and, ah, barbed—were jocularly trading mild jibes. I was most definitely in the right place.

Eventually, the gentleman left, satisfied with his haircut, and I took the chair. I removed my clerical collar and unfastened the neck button of my shirt. Mr. Decker and I introduced ourselves to one another. He told me he’d lived in the house which included his barber shop since the 1930s. To let him know what I wanted for my haircut, I told him, “I’d like to keep what I’ve got. Just less of it, please!” My standard line, which always gets a smile out of a good barber. This time was not an exception.

I spied a prominent painting on the wall amidst all the photographs, itself adorned with a few snapshots embedded asymmetrically in the edges of its frame. It was the USS Lenawee, a USN amphibious attack transport used in the Pacific at the tail end of World War II, as well as in the Korean and Vietnam wars. I asked Barton about it. He then regaled me with a fountain of tales of his time in the U.S. Navy. Was he an engineer, gunner, etc.? No, he was a U.S. Navy barber. Never fired a gun. Just clipped sailors’ hair. And he loved it.

He almost single-handedly raised morale aboard the Lenawee, stemming from a conversation he had with the captain. The captain, it seemed, liked to have a little more hair on his head than was the Navy custom in the early ’50s, because his wife liked it that way. But of course the men on board the Lenawee had wives, too. And Decker was the man for the job. He gave them a little something to run a comb through. Not a Hollywood haircut. Just a good, clear haircut. And it was one of the happiest ships in the whole of Uncle Sam’s Navy.

I told Barton about my painful experience at the other barber shop. He didn’t comment directly, but mentioned that he’d been cutting hair in Emmaus for 55 years (as if, perhaps, to suggest that the other fellow was “new” and thus, well, suspect). I asked him if he thought there was a future for him there in Emmaus. He laughed. He said he’d wanted to be a barber since he was in 6th grade. I asked him if it had been a family business. “Nope. I just knew that, ’cause I wasn’t too smart, a barber was a pretty good thing to be!”

By the end of the haircut, he’d done a fine job. (How could he not? He’d been doing this since before my father was born.) I thanked him. We both smiled. I tried to pay him. Nope. He’d have none of it.

Ancient History meets American History

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St. Paul Orthodox Church at the 250th Anniversary of the Borough of Emmaus
St. Paul Orthodox Church at the 250th Anniversary of the Borough of Emmaus

On Saturday the 15th of August, after we completed services for the Dormition, members of the Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, manned a booth at the festival marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Borough of Emmaus. One could say that we are a church obsessed with history, and so it is only fitting that we should make one small footprint into the history of the borough which has been the home of our parish for 25 years (22 since our official founding).

We’re contemplating putting something into the next time capsule.

A time capsule is rather a curious thing—an archive buried in the ground. I suppose it helps to keep those things archived from growing stale in a museum somewhere.

History is peculiarly significant for the Orthodox, who prize the Incarnation so very highly and make it the touchstone of all theology. That the immaterial, trans-temporal God should become material and temporally bound is still a contradiction the human mind cannot grasp, despite its familiar feel by means of the Christian tradition.

We sometimes need to be scandalized anew by this reality, much as the woman who visited the aforesaid booth and was scandalized by all the “stuff”-ness of our church life. Surely the God Who stepped into history and made crude matter capable of carrying divinity could not have meant to be worshiped by liturgy! Certainly, our visitor probably did not think of herself as a spirit-matter dualist, but that is of course the assumption underlying all suspicion and rejection of history, liturgy, virginity, asceticism, and—what is more—all that kissing of stuff that I didn’t get a chance to describe to her.

“This ancient and honorable name”

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The Knauss Homestead, Emmaus, Pennsylvania (1777)
The Knauss Homestead, Emmaus, Pennsylvania (1777)

The image above is of the Knauss Homestead, one of the founding family homes in Emmaus, established in 1777. It was the patriarch of the clan, Sebastian Knauss, who first donated land in 1759 on which Emmaus was to be built. The Homestead property borders directly on that of St. Paul Orthodox Church, where I am pastor. It’s probably a decent assumption that we now worship on what used to be Knauss land.

I ran across the following passage today which both amused and comforted in a curious way. It is from The Guardian: A Monthly Magazine for Young Men and Ladies, published by the Reformed Church in America. This particular issue was printed in 1881, and this text figures on page 88:


It is curious to observe how frequently the names of places are miscalled by railroad officials. On the North Pennsylvania railroad there is, for instance, a station called Bingen. The name is beautiful; derived from the old town in Germany which furnished the title for Mrs. Norton’s noble ballad, “Bingen on the Rhine.” Of course, it ought to be pronounced with the g hard: Bingen. Travelling that way, some years ago, we repeatedly heard the name announced: “Bin-jen! Bin-jen!” It put us in mind of “Old John Brown, who had a little Injun” It is, however, but just to say that this error has since been corrected.

On the East Pennsylvania railroad, near Allentown, there is a thriving town which was named by its Moravian founders after the village of Emmaus, to which the two disciples were going, on the day of the resurrection, when they saw the Lord. It should be pronounced in three syllables—Em-ma-us. We would like to know by what authority it is now spelled Emaus, and pronounced by railroad conductors, with an indescribable drawl, “Ee-maws.” Somewhere in that region there was once a guide-board, at a cross-road, which directed the traveler to “Amouse.” That was bad enough, but the modern form is hardly an improvement. We think the citizens of Emmaus should protest against the corruption of this ancient and honorable name.

In 1859, twenty-two years before this issue was published, Emmaus was incorporated as a borough of Pennsylvania (having been founded in 1759). Its original name was indeed spelled Emmaus, but one of the M’s was dropped in 1830 and the borough incorporated as Emaus (the Pennsylvania Dutch spelling), but petitions circulated in 1938 via the local Rotary Club, and the spelling was reverted back to double-M status.

I find it doubtful that The Guardian in 1881 knew the circumstances of the change which had occurred more than half a century before its publication. One might well also read some Anglophonic snobbery in the text above, especially since it is quite possible that Emmaus’s first hundred years or so probably heard a lot of German being spoken in her streets and fields on the north slope of South Mountain.

All that said, one has to take some small delight at citizens being encouraged (in a magazine for “Young Men and Ladies,” no less!) to mount up a protest against the “corruption” of their town’s “ancient and honorable name.” There is a certain honor that attaches to a name, and if you’ve ever had your own name mispronounced, you know what I mean. Names are something shared in a community. They not only mean something to individual people, but they also convey a common understanding and are an element of the economy of the place, the commerce of personhood that flows between persons.

Religion’s Changing Face in Emmaus

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My koumbaro (fancy Greek term for “ecclesiastical relative,” in this case, my daughter’s godfather) is visiting with us here for a few days, and this afternoon, he and I visited my favorite local coffeehouse to get a little caffeination and chat in. While we were there, we talked a bit with the proprietor, as well as with a fellow who stopped in and was distributing posters and pamphlets for a new church in Emmaus.

We learned that apparently there has been a decent amount of new religious exploration going on in Emmaus, often in terms of “alternatives” to the more established religious types in the area. This actually tells me a couple of useful things:

  • People are becoming more open to religious experiences that might otherwise be new to them.
  • Some of the church-growth-marketing types have probably researched, identified and targeted Emmaus as a potential growth area.

No doubt most of the targeting folks are probably looking into introducing Emmaus religion to the mega-church and/or “postmodern”/”emerging” types of religious practice. Orthodoxy has a major leg up on these types, mainly because it’s built for staying power. While the mega-churches and their spin-off ilk are often intriguing and exciting to people, they have no real roots to, well, root people. They are inherently non-local sorts of phenomena, connecting people mainly to an ephemeral sort of spirituality that interests but fails to transform. Folks may “have an experience,” but even the statistics produced by these kinds of groups show that those experiences usually are not enough to keep people in the congregation for more than a few years. Indeed, one demographic report that made its rounds in the Evangelical mega-church world admitted that the people most likely to be discontented in their churches were those who were regarded by those churches’ standards as the most spiritually advanced and mature in the congregation.

The upshot to all this is that there is likely a high potential in Emmaus for introducing people to Orthodoxy. On the one hand, it is something probably “new” and “exotic” to them—this is by no means a good reason to choose or stay in a faith (because the newness wears off), but it may well be enough to get people to give the introduction a chance. On the other hand, we offer something that these other groups by their very nature lack—an ancient tradition, deeply informed and comprehending of human nature, which is capable of powerful and lasting transformation. Orthodoxy is also the very stuff of true civilization, because it is built for staying power. Orthodoxy builds and transforms people and whole cultures, not target markets.

In our chat at the coffeehouse, I mentioned that while Emmaus was celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, the Church of Antioch (of which St. Paul’s is a part) is celebrating its 1,975th anniversary this year. The response from one of the baristas: “You win.”

We’re looking forward to raising the parish’s level of engagement here in Emmaus. A number of ideas are in the process of being implemented. The first will be something simple: hosting a booth at the 250th anniversary celebration of our borough. Another possibility might be a “theology on tap” series of events, where local religious leaders publicly talk about the differences between their faiths.

Whatever we end up doing, our hope is that we’re soon going to inaugurate a new period of real outreach and witness in our home. This is Christianity like most of these folks have never seen before, something they’ve never heard of, and it’s just down the street.

Like the saying goes: We’re not Jewish, but we are Orthodox. We’re not Roman, but we are Catholic. We’re not Protestant, but the Bible came from us. We’re not Denominational [or Non-Denominational, I might add], we’re Pre-Denominational.

In the world, but not of the world

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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2009

Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Emmaus, Pennsylvania

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Yesterday was the 233rd anniversary of our country. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the town of Emmaus and its 150th anniversary as an incorporated borough of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This parish is also 22 years old this year, depending on the starting point one chooses. And this year marks the 2000th birthday of our parish’s patron, the Holy Apostle Paul.

I mention all these anniversaries, because they have in common one thing: place. One cannot conceive of the birthday of the United States without calling to mind the continent which is its home or of the city of Philadelphia just south of us. Likewise, the borough of Emmaus has a geography and a history which define it. The same is true for our church, and even in remembering the birthday of St. Paul, it brings to mind his own home town of Tarsus, and it brings to mind this church.

Our modern society, however, seems to have an antipathy toward homes and places. Most people in America almost gladly move to any part of the country to follow their careers. We have no problem traveling to the other side of the Lehigh Valley to get the best price on groceries. If we want something unavailable locally, we simply get online and order it via the Internet. Most of us do not know the people who produce our eggs, beef or milk, those who grow our vegetables, those who build our cars. For many of us, the concept of a “home town” is almost foreign, since the place where one was born, the place where one lives, and the place where one works can easily be three separate towns.

This placelessness is nearly endemic to our world, especially as globalization turns the world not into a global village but rather into an impersonal monoculture which is piped into our homes through our television and computer screens, enabling us more and more to be alienated and separated from the people whose relationships to us used to be mediated by our basic acts of commerce and community. Though there are exceptions, and I hope that many of us are among them, Americans in general do not know their neighbors, even if they share a wall with them.

English is rare among languages in that it can make the distinction between a house and a home. When we think of “home,” what do we think of? Do we think only of our house? Do we think of a home town? Do we think about family? Do we think about our church? We might be tempted as Christians to say that we truly have no home here on Earth, because our true home is in Heaven. Stated like that, that is certainly true. But does this mean that our modern placelessness is somehow a theological good, that our society has evolved to such a state of detachment from the world that we are nearly ready for Heaven? I think any honest assessment of our culture would quickly and resoundingly deny our readiness for Heaven. Our cultural placelessness has not detached us from the world and prepared us for the Kingdom of God.

We know from the Scripture that God calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. Placelessness does not fulfill this command but rather denies its whole context. Placelessness is in fact the opposite, making us of the world but not in it. We as a culture are deeply attached to the pleasures of this world, all the while blind to the very place in which we stand. We know more about politics in California or in Washington, D.C., than we do in Emmaus. We know more about musicians born in Canada and performing on gigantic stages than we do those born in the Lehigh Valley and performing at the local farmer’s market.

So what is the proper relationship of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms and boroughs of this world? What should we as Christians be doing in and for the places where our homes are, the place where our church is? We know that, in the end, there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, that the kingdoms of this world will be baptized with fire and superseded by the Kingdom of Heaven. Does this mean that we should simply ignore this place where we find ourselves, just waiting out the Apocalypse?

As you may imagine, the answer to that question is “No.” We are called to be pilgrims in this world, journeying to the Kingdom of Heaven. But if you have ever gone on a pilgrimage, you know that the whole experience is dominated by place, whether it is the destination or the journey to it. One cannot be a pilgrim and be nowhere. The pilgrim is where he is. He is changed by the place where he is, and his presence changes it.

The very word parish comes from a Greek term meaning “sojourning.” We are sojourners here in Emmaus, here in the Lehigh Valley. We are taking up our residence here in this home for a while as we journey to our ultimate Home, which we shall not see in its fullness until after death or until Christ comes again. But in our sojourn, the Master of this home and of the Home which is to come has called upon us to do whatever we can to make this place reflect the Home toward which we are oriented.

Yes, we are surrounded by a world afflicted by entropy, the tendency to break down, to fall into corruption, both physical and spiritual. But especially here in this holy house, in this holy home, we are also surrounded by the divine energy, the creative and dynamic power of God which heals that which is broken and restores that which is corrupt. Though we find ourselves in a world of decay and death, we worship and participate in the God of resurrection, the God of the living.

Thus, we who are Christians wield a curious and awesome authority. We have the authority to participate in the transformation of this place, not to make it something other than Emmaus, Pennsylvania, something other than the Lehigh Valley, something other than America. History may well make those changes all on its own. Rather, we are called to make Emmaus, the Lehigh Valley, and America into what the ancient Christian Celts would have called “a thin place,” a place where the boundary between this world and the next is so thin that the divine breaks easily through the veil and touches those on the other side. If you have ever been to such a place, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the relics of St. John of San Francisco, or the tomb of Christ, then you will know what I mean. If you have never been, it is time to begin the pilgrimage.

Our calling is to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into the kingdoms of this world. We accomplish this by the authority given to us by God and through the power that He alone wields. If you know anything about the Biblical Emmaus which gives this borough its name, you know that when the disciples broke bread there with the Lord Jesus Christ, they saw Him for Who He was. It was in that Eucharistic moment that true communion, true community was possible.

Every Sunday and perhaps every day, we find ourselves on the road to this Emmaus. And in this one, like the first one, we are also called to commune with our Lord Jesus Christ, to know the dangerous possibility of real community by means of the one Cup and the one Bread. And in doing so, we begin to make the boundary between this world and the next just a bit thinner, so that at this place on 156 East Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, people will say that here is a holy place. Indeed, the boundary within ourselves becomes thinner, and when people draw near to us, they find themselves encountering Christ.

The degree to which we are serious about our own faith is the degree to which this can happen. It can happen if we pray every day, teaching our children how to do so and using our authority in their lives to prioritize not the passing pursuits of this world but rather what it takes to gain eternal life. It can happen if we put our money where our mouths are, giving back to God just one tenth of the abundance He has given us. It can happen if we are serious about worship, praying not just privately at home but also corporately in this holy house, not just on Sunday morning for 90 minutes but every time we can get away from worldly pursuits to plunge ourselves into Heavenly ones. What happens here, this miracle of communion and community, is not just “a part” of our lives—this is our life.

This past week, I moved for the 20th time in my life, and for those keeping score, it was the 21st move for my wife Nicole. I have lived in six U.S. states and one unincorporated territory, including fourteen separate towns and cities. We know well what placelessness is all about, and we are tired of it. Our hope and our prayer as we begin this new chapter in our own lives is that all the many relocations which have preceded our time here turn out to be simply the prologue to the story of our sojourn for the rest of this earthly life, here in Emmaus.

Our prayer also is that together as a parish family, for as long as God may grant to us, that we work together as co-workers, building and growing not only the quantity of people in this holy house, but also the quality of those in this holy house. We pray that we and this place may become thinner and thinner, more and more transparent, that people will come here, whether invited by us or more directly by the Holy Spirit Himself, and they will say, “There God dwells among His people. In that place, Heaven shines through.”

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.