Sunday, August 5, 2012

Reflections of a Catholic in Amish Country

On a visit to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania last week, my husband and our younger son bought  combo passes to ride the historic Strasburg Railroad and visit the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania next door. From the train, the views of the verdant farmland were spectacular.    (Above is one I took with my iPad.)  Still, the two most powerful moments of the visit came when I least expected them.

Tourism in Lancaster County depends heavily on the Amish influence: you can take Amish buggy rides, pay for a 24-hour stay in an Amish farmhouse, take an Amish V.I.P. or Visit in Person tour to three Amish properties, watch a 40-minute movie about the Amish at the Amish Experience Theater or tour the farm where the 1985 movie "Witness," starring Harrison Ford, was filmed. Experiences such as these, it seems to me, reduce the Amish to caricatures. They put a wall between them and the rest of us. Really, this is no way for humans to encounter one another. A larger-than-life statue like the one here, which we saw outside a restaurant, made us cringe.

And then on Thursday, I was sitting in our family minivan in the Target parking lot off Route 30 while my husband and son went shopping for some toiletries we had forgotten. I was playing a game on my iPad when I heard a clip-clop-clip sound. I looked up to see horses pulling a buggy through a covered bridge, past the Panera Restaurant, and around the corner to a farm next door to Target. Just like that. It was a moment that provoked me into thinking about how Christ nudges us into a deeper awareness.

The second moment was longer than the first. It happened on Friday, as we were waiting to board the Strasburg train. I became fascinated by a man installing a wrought iron fence on the property. He didn't have an especially attractive face; and his clothes - dark green shirt, suspenders and brown pants - were not well fitting. His hair was bowl shaped and his beard was graying. The truck beside him, which bore the name of a custom metal manufacturer, told me he was Mennonite.

Something was so intense, so quiet and focused about the way he went about his business while the tourists rushed past, smelling of sun tan lotion and sweat. When we returned from our ride nearly an hour later, the metal worker was still there, talking quietly with his crew. Still later, after my family had refreshed ourselves with some bottled water, I saw him eating lunch next to his truck with two of his workers.

The "plain people," the Amish and Mennonites, share the belief that religion is not something reserved for Sundays, but should inform their whole lives. The sects arose in Europe in the 1500s as a reaction to the perceived corruption of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.

As a Christian, it's easy for me to reserve Christ for church, for my prayer time, for my parish friends who share my way of thinking and praying.

But Christ does not limit Himself, does He? He is irreducible.

He disregards the boundaries of place, or space or time. Christ bursts into our lives, much as the horses trotting interrupted my game if Bejeweled Blitz. Christ is a presence amid the hurly burly of life. He is in every moment of our lives, not separate or apart. We don't need to seek Him, He is, as my friend John told me the other night at School of Community, as present to us as He was when He was in His mother's womb. He's not separate or apart.

Consider how the metal worker persisted in his focus, on his gaze upon his work, whether anyone acknowledged him or not. This, it seems to me, is the way we need to gaze upon the Mystery that called us into being. To understand there is a whole other dimension of reality within the one we are living.

And yet: how can we know Him? How can we fix our gaze upon Him?

I am reminded, once again, of what Father Luigi Giussani says about how best to know God: be human.

Be human, live your humanity as aspirations, as sensitivity to problems, and risks to face; live your humanity as faithfulness to what urges within your soul, that God makes urge within your soul from its very origin; and this way–according to your question–reality will present itself to your eyes in a true way. For God to respond to me, to correspond, to satisfy, I need to be what He created me to be.

And so, I came home from Lancaster County blessed by those moments, the unexpected encounters, grateful for the reminder that Christ infuses our lives.


  1. Thank you, Allison. The last sentence in the quotation from Fr Luigi Giussani echoes the words of St Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, 'Perfection consists simply in doing his will, and being just what he wants us to be'. During the week I was giving some classes on the history of the Columbans to some of our seminarians in Manila. I quoted the late Archbishop Patrick Cronin of Cagayan de Oro, a Columban who spent all his life as a missionary in Mindanao, from 1939 until his death in 1991. He said, 'I won't get into heaven because I went on the missions. I'll get there because I stayed'.

    1. Thank you for the context, Father Sean. I need to read St. Therese's writings!

    2. Allison, you might enjoy Heather King's "Shirt of Flame" --both the book and the blog if you haven't already discovered them.

    3. Shannon: What a great recommendation. Thank you!

  2. Lovely post and a great comment from Fr Sean, Ive seen some programmes about Amish/ Menonnite groups and they seem to have some wonderfully fulfilled and simple lives, but I know like all of us there are snakes in their Edens!

  3. I missed this post before- thanks for sending it to me. I think I would really like to stay with the Amish for 24 hours :)
    I felt the same way that the simplicity of their lives had much to offer us in our rushed lives.

    Lovely countryside, isn't it?

    1. Yes, it is. I want to go back and do some antiquing!