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Amish don’t wear deodorant: My 21st Century Monastic Experience Part 2

A river, the color of cold, slid quietly along the tracks.

Riding just south of the Canadian border in my thin Amtrak seat, the small towns flashing by my window look tired. The jagged peaks sheathed in snow are far behind, replaced by thin flat plains colored by dust. Spring emerges slowly here, with grey gusts from the north pushing back the color green. We pass “Dunkirk Cemetery” on the left. The weary stone grave markers lean toward the train. I tried to imagine a funeral there, but could only wonder at a black Hurst lumbering down the thin dirt threads of road, woven into prairie grass. A herd of Bison stand quietly, quite confident in their ownership of the land.

Somewhere during the night, as the train clambered across North Dakota, a group of young Amish travelers climbed on board. They add a distinct shade of black to our quiet grey car. It’s hard to pin down their age; they look beyond time, with faces fresh from hours outdoors, working with a mule to plow the rich soil of the North Dakota prairie.  

The Amish man sitting across the aisle is wearing a long sleeved dress shirt the color of the Dakota sky right before dusk gives in to blackness. He has flat-black pants, and a black vest without buttons. A broad brimmed felt hat rests in the overhead bin. He rummages through a plain black bag, which seems to fit him as well as his dusty black shoes, except for one thing: it has a bright yellow, “TV Guide” label on the side facing me. I wonder about this. Is it a joke? Does he enjoy the irony of the large yellow tag with block letters advertising the all-knowing guide to what he can’t watch? Is it a form of Amish resistance? Perhaps it’s his attempt to poke at his community’s strict guidelines. Are his parents embarrassed? Then again, maybe everyone knows he got it at Goodwill and no one really cares.

The other thing I was forced to notice, sitting in a cramped train car with a group of Amish men, is that they don’t wear deodorant. I wonder about that as well. What compelled an Amish Bishop to banish Old Spice? I suspect the smell, the heady scent from blue gel, seems too worldly, designed both to cover something up and to draw unwarranted attention.

What is this spirituality that worries about deodorant and mandates the width of the brim of a black felt hat (three and a half inches, by the way)? How odd it seemed to me, as I sat among this remnant determined to remain ensconced in dark colors of the past.

But then I thought again. How did I look? Not having shaved for days, sitting in a grey seat with my black biker boots and a Springsteen t-shirt. My ears plugged by white headphones with Wyclef Jean blasting from my MP3. And my Bible, with the worn fake leather cover, sitting definitively by my side. I suspect that he sat there and wondered at my own spirituality. “Who is this guy reading the Bible, but otherwise solely committed to the ways of the world? What makes him think he can have it both ways?”

Another lesson on my monastic journey: I have developed the habit of defining my spirituality by comparing myself to others. Some days it might be “I’m NOT that.” Another day it might be “I want to be THAT.” I read the New York Times, but he watches Fox, so we both know where we stand. Shallow and fixed on appearances, the comparative approach often pits us against each other, instead of encouraging us to cheer each other on.

I’m glad my brother wears a black hat. And it would be nice if he could wear deodorant. I hope and pray that he continues to pursue God in his community, as I pursue Him in mine, riding this swaying train.

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Mark has been working in higher education for over 15 years. He has served as a professor, a dean, and a college president. He has consulted and taught in over thirty-five countries.