Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ephrata Cloister

If you're considering giving up your secular life to become a brother or sister of the Ephrata Cloister, I have a few words of advice for you.

The sisters' dorm is five stories.

First, you might want to leave your aubergine zoot suit at home.  And your steak knife.  Leave that at home, too.  Oh, and never, ever get in a pillow fight with your brethren.

These things will help you get started as a follower of Conrad Beissel—a young baker who left the Palatinate region of what is now Germany to seek religious freedom in Penn's Colony in 1720.

Along his spiritual journey in Pennsylvania, Beissel joined a group of Anabaptists. But in 1732, he decided to become a hermit and find his own path.

He must have had quite a magnetic personality, because people followed after him and set up a camp nearby, and Beissel took on the role of spiritual leader.

He believed that men and women were equal, but should be separate and celibate—so the women had their own dorm and worship space, as did the men—and that all should wear white robes.

Still interested in joining the brotherhood?

As a new member, here's what you can expect. You'll start your day at 5:00 a.m. and work until 9:00 a.m. At that time, you'll stop to pray for an hour.  Notice anything missing? Yeah—breakfast.

At 10:00 a.m., you'll go back to work until 1:00 p.m., at which time you'll stop to pray. No lunch. Sorry.

Then you'll work from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and if you haven't fainted from malnourishment, you'll sit down to dinner. Hope you like vegetables.

Then it's work, work, work until 9:00 p.m. when you get to collapse into bed. Yep, now you can curl up on that cozy pine board measuring 18" wide x 6' long. Oh, and that 4" x 4" x 10" block of wood? That's your pillow.  Zzzzzzz

Up and at 'em! It's midnight, and we have to be ready for Christ's second coming.  So you'll worship for two hours, and at 2:00 a.m.—provided the Lord hasn't returned and whisked you off to heaven—you'll crawl back onto your board for three more hours and start all over again.

So why the harsh living arrangements? Here are Beissel's thoughts. God doesn't eat or sleep, so we should curtail our sleep and curb our appetites.  Deep sleep invites dreams where evil thoughts can enter our minds.  Regarding being celibate—each of you will "marry" God when you get to heaven, so why bother getting married here on earth?

At its peak, the cloister had 40 buildings, 250 acres, and 300 members.  The brothers worked a tannery and grain-, linseed-, paper-, saw-, and fulling mills. The sisters tended to the gardens, produced textiles, and drew ornate bible verses on large sheets of paper which were hung on the walls.

The buildings were built in traditional German style with steep roofs, dormer windows (that were randomly placed), and low doorways and ceilings. The shingles were tapered top to bottom and side to side.

The brothers and sisters were a benevolent bunch—feeding and giving (warm and comfy) beds to travelers for free. They also helped new settlers build homes and distributed goods to the poor. During the Revolutionary War, the sisters' dorm became a makeshift hospital where the brethren tended to 260 sick and wounded soldiers.

In 1813, the last celibate member died, and householders (non-celibate members who lived in homes near the cloister) took over caring for the property. In 1941, the state of Pennsylvania purchased the cloister and restored the buildings that remained.

Today, the cloister sits on 28 acres and has nine buildings that visitors can tour.

And if you're still thinking about becoming a brother or sister, you can even try out one of the "beds" during your visit. That might clinch your decision.