Published in the Winter 2012 issue of Communities
magazine - Issue #157
When does one leave community? For my partner Christian and myself the answer is now, or soon. We’re creators, not maintainers. The master plan we developed in 1989 soon after coming to the land is done, though not without modifications and adaptations along the way. Still, the Hermitage (even the name has changed) is the place we envisioned, more or less. It is “more” in the collections and buildings, and “less” in the people we hoped would inhabit the buildings and use the collections for pattern and inspiration. (For background on the Hermitage, located in central Pennsylvania, see “Creating Spiritual Community at the Hermitage,” Communities #154.)
There is irony here. For example, what we said we would never do, we have done. Never connect to the grid for example. And never turn the place into a museum. But electricity from the grid is powering the computer I’m using to write this, as well as the lights with which I can see the screen while writing this late at night, and the music I’m listening to at this moment. And no museum! No dead museum space filled with items no one would ever use again. That was the fate of so many once-vibrant spiritual communities we have seen and studied, such as Bethlehem, Ephrata, and Harmony in Pennsylvania, or Salem in North Carolina, or any number of Shaker villages. All have become museums with ghost buildings filled with beds no longer slept in, looms at which no one weaves, and potter’s wheels at which no one turns pots. No, that will not happen here at Christiansbrunn (our original name), we said. Here, the past will live again and guide us towards the future.
And so it did for years as we plowed with oxen, made candles for light, and brought old buildings to the property and reused them. Still, all the time our eyes were to the future, creating a community where loving brothers would return to the garden and make it bloom again. To that end, we collected the arts and crafts of the local Pennsylvania Germans among whom we lived, made insular and self-reliant by the surrounding walls of mountains. We sought beauty in everyday objects—in how a blacksmith beat out a spatula on the anvil, in how a table linen was inlaid with decoration, and in how a printed broadside was embellished. These objects brought joy to both maker and owner and so they brought joy to us. Eventually that joy in things was one of the few constants in our lives as it slowly became clear that “community” in our case would never mean more than the two of us.
Gradually even the joy of our animals changed as we moved from livestock to our beloved turkeys, ducks, geese, and chickens until most of them were killed by predators, human and otherwise.
It became clear that the collections would never actually be used for their original purposes let alone as inspiration for new styles by new craft makers. We decided to turn everything into a showcase for the valley’s heritage. After all, there was no place where one could see what made the Mahantongo Valley of central Pennsylvania so unique in its isolated development. Thus began the transformation of the barn into the Mahantongo Heritage Center with its room displays of furniture, clothing, tools, and crafts. And so we have become a museum after all.
Which brings us back to the question of knowing when to leave. As I said at the beginning, Christian and I are not maintainers. Keeping the buildings painted, the windows glazed, and the roofs waterproof are essential but take away time from our creativity. Nor do we know how to address the larger questions of providing the programming in crafts and spirituality or the public relations and social networking that will sustain the Hermitage into the future. Those questions are answered by others, those who keep the place going.
We built New Jerusalem and now we leave it. This happens all the time: Moses saw the Promised Land but it was Aaron who actually led the Hebrews to it. Christ left example and aphorism but Paul and Peter turned them into a church. Our custodian’s house will be inhabited by those who keep the dream alive. It is enough that we created a place where the spirit and earth unite to become one and whole. Our body of hymns declare that work, and the site shows it. Now the holy work continues, just not by us.
It is time to move on. Our Moravian brothers and sisters of the mid-18th century came to this country from Germany to spread the word as they understood it. Now it is time for us to return the favor by returning to Europe, specifically to the Brittany coast of France. This is not because we have anything to tell its inhabitants, but simply to recharge our creativity in new soil by returning to the land of our ancestors. We legally adopted German names to show our kinship with the founder of our brotherhood. Now we are legally adopting the name of our French ancestors, de Colebi and de la Graves.
As we prepare to leave by the end of 2013, our last task is to publish our book on the story of the Hermitage simply because it is a great story. After that, we’re gone. And the dogs come too.