Getting up early in the morning to take my children to the baby sitter in Harpers Ferry, and then hurry on to the train in Brunswick finally made me decide that it would be better to live in the District, if I was going to work there. In the meantime, I rode the MARC train. Often a man who lived in Tuscawilla Hills would sit beside me. He was pleasant and friendly. We both worked for advocacy organizations on Capitol Hill, so we often spoke about our work; as it happened, we were both writers and publications directors for the associations we worked for.
One day he said, “I was behind you all the way from Summit Point Road to Harpers Ferry. We must live near each other.” I told him I rented a farmhouse on Summit Point Road. “Then you must know about those crazy people, those Moonies, who live at the Claymont Mansion, right?”
“I know a group that runs a seminar program and weekend retreats owns the place,” I said noncommittally, because I wanted to hear what he was going to say. I was, at that time, a part of the group that helped to operate the Claymont Society for Continuous Education.
“Did you know that those people worship snakes in the octagonal space that used to be a show barn?’
“No kidding,” I said.
“Yeah, and they are all on welfare. They just call it an educational not-for-profit corporation so they can live there and do nothing.”
“Where did you hear this?” I asked.
“My kid told me. One of his friends went and shot a gun through one of the front windows, so the police made him go and work there on their so-called farm.”
“You mean it’s not a real farm?”
“Well, they have a dairy herd, and an orchard, and truck gardens, and they raise chickens and bail hay, but that’s all.”
“Sounds like a farm to me,” I said. “Excuse me now, please; I need to write some testimony for one of our members who is appearing before the Senate employment and training subcommittee, and I need to work on it this morning.”
“Sure thing,” he said.
At the time, the chairman of the board of the Claymont Society was a doctor in the emergency room at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson. A nurse who lived nearby and served on the board was the head OB-GYN nurse at the same hospital. The man who kept beehives at Claymont was on the planning staff of the town of Berryville, Va. I was a writer and publications coordinator for an employment and training advocacy organization on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The president of the Claymont Society managed a woodstove store in Charles Town. Two potters and an artisan blacksmith had studios on the grounds, and three dairy farmers kept a herd of 75 Holsteins fed, bedded and milked each day. I didn’t know anybody at Claymont who was on welfare. People like me, who had jobs in Washington or nearby towns, often spent the weekend at Claymont working as support staff for the seminars, concerts and retreats that happened there. Society members with experience in construction, plumbing, architecture and carpentry worked hard to keep the 1840s-Washington home and its surrounding land in good shape.
The Claymont Society for Continuous Education hosted groups from many religious traditions. Followers of Jesus Christ came to hear Cistercian Abbot Thomas Keating speak about centering prayer. Sufis came to learn the ancient Mevlevi turning ceremony known as the sema. Bhante Dharmawara led vipassana meditation retreats. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught seminar attendees about mystical Judaism.
However, to my neighbor, what he was saying was the absolute truth, because he had heard it from his teenager, who heard it from another teenager, who was not without his ax to grind.
The members of the community had the privilege of practicing the complex and beautiful sacred dances created by George Gurdjieff, with music played by concert pianist Elan Sicroff. There were Roman Catholics (many of them attended mass at Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville nearly every Sunday), Jews, Buddhists and many varieties of Protestant Christians involved in the community. None were followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean spiritual teacher claiming to be the new Messiah. None used snakes in their worship or devotional practices. The participants in the Claymont community shared an interest in the philosophy of Gurdjieff, whose approach could be summarized in the words, “Wake up!” and whose techniques, from the sacred dances to observation of oneself at work and at rest to inner exercises designed to concentrate attention and focus awareness, had been gathered from the world’s great spiritual traditions. Rather than seeking blindly obedient followers, Gurdjieff said, “Question everything, and especially me.” His encouragement to maintain awareness of body, mind and emotions as a path to psychological wholeness, anticipated late 20th and early 21st century neurobiology and psychology by 70 years.
Pontius Pilate asked derisively, “What is truth?” My view of the Claymont Society was based on personal experience. My train acquaintance had decided what the place was like based on third-hand testimony from an angry teenager, who had added interesting, and false, embellishments about “worshipping snakes” to his already colorful version of what happened there.
I thought of my acquaintance’s account as I learned of the death of West Virginian Pastor Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, who died as a result of a rattlesnake bite at a service in a southern West Virginia state park. His life work—and death—were chronicled by a Washington Post writer and photographer. Like many people who had never experienced worship involving snake handling, I had my own ideas about what such worship might be like, as well as the kinds of people who practiced it. The photographs and writing of Lauren Pond changed my perceptions. She had actually been there. She wrote with clarity and compassion of a person whose practices she would never try, but whose motivations and faith she came to understand better, and to respect.
The pilgrimage to “Truth” is a long one, and it is useful to understand that all of us see that elusive quality through the lens of our own family experience, upbringing, education, and cultural and spiritual influences. No one worships snakes at Claymont. People who worship with snakes in Appalachia, following their interpretation of words in the Gospel of Mark, are not the stereotypes that some of us, myself included, carry around with us.
Some of the wisest words I ever heard are, “Reserve judgment; observe directly before you speak or act.” It’s useful advice for life on the pilgrim path.
—The Rev. Georgia DuBuse is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.