Wissahickon Wit & Wisdom

Wissahickon Valley - Discovering a little piece of paradise

Kadosh – Kadosh – Kadosh                             10.28.12

It’s been a wild week in Wissahickon.

My wife and I had the opportunity to ride bikes through the Wissahickon Valley and we were amazed at what we saw.  We turned right off of Ridge Avenue by the bus station and began our ascent into the valley on a trail that parallels the creek, crossing it every now and then.

We were in awe.

Near Roxborough row houses and city trains, a Garden of Eden is tucked away close to the center of the city. When a minister discovers a hidden paradise like this in the middle of a city odd things happen. As I was riding my mountain bike I found myself singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.”  I know it’s NOT a normal response, but I felt transported out of the city into a natural sanctuary.

When I returned home I wanted to know more about this city sanctuary and I read. I learned that the valley was forged at the end of the Precambrian period, about a ½ billion years ago, and then the Wissahickon Creek slowly carved its way through Wissahickon Schist, Mica, Dolomite, sand and limestone to make one of the most spectacular little canyons in the world. Don’t take my word for it.  It was named one of the first National Natural Landmarks in 1962.

But its beauty was discovered long before that.  The Lenape Indians were drawn to this beautiful area for thousands of years. They were attracted to its spender and all that it offered. To the Lenape it had more than one name.  Some called it Wissamickon (meaning catfish creek).  Others called it Wissucksicken (meaning yellow colored stream).  Eventually the two names (Wissamickon and Wissucksicken – perhaps easy for you to say) became one, and the river to our east became known as the Wissahickon Creek.

This valley has been the home of Native Americans, local mill owners, industry, naturalists, religious sects and even military skirmishes. On October 4th, 1777, General John Armstrong and his Pennsylvania militia held off British forces seeking to squash the upstart revolution.  No victory was granted to either side as the British on the east bank and General Armstrong and his forces on the west bank lived to fight another day.

As my wife and I turned away from Lincoln Drive and started to move further up the valley, the sounds of cars screeching around the Lincoln Highway/Speedway quickly gave way to the sounds of the valley: children laughing, the noise of gravel under our bikes, rustling leaves, and a bird’s call piercing the air. We were now on the Forbidden Drive: an area where friends of the Wissahickon have fought through the years to ban the ubiquitous motor-car.  Time after time the friends of the Wissahickon have fought and won the battle against the car so the Forbidden Drive remains a wide trail that forbids all cars. 

As we meandered deeper into the valley, the words I was humming came back to me.  “Holy, holy, holy”   as we ventured deeper into the valley the meaning of the words took on more of their original meaning. This lovely song Holy-Holy-Holy takes its words from the 6th chapter of Isaiah.  Isaiah sees the Lord and he utters the same Hebrew word three times, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh.”

The church has taken Isaiah’s words and placed them in hymns of the church and woven them into songs for the ages. Now churches and nations let Isaiah’s word, Kadosh (that is Holy) adorn sacred gatherings.

Holy, Holy, Holy is sung for coronations and solemn, majestic ceremonies around the world.

But as I moved through this hidden paradise I was reminded of the deeper meaning of Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. The Hebrew word Kadosh is not a word of reverence, refinement or solemnity. It is a base vulgar, word in Hebrew. It is a word that someone might exclaim when they are worried for their life. The type of word you might hear when they are utterly furious or upset with abject fear. It’s the type of word someone might say from the center of Hurricane Sandy, looking at the power of its destructive force.  If our translation was consistent with the way people speak today, Isaiah 6 would read:

Holy blank, you can fill in the blank. It wouldn’t be pretty.  And it certainly wouldn’t sound like church talk.

And yet there it is in Isaiah 6 “Kadosh-Kadosh- Kadosh.”

As I looked in this hidden city paradise, Isaiah’s words seemed appropriate: “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh.”

Did you know that the great Edgar Allen Poe was so struck by the Wissahickon Valley that he had to write about it. He said, “Now the Wissahickon is of so remarkable a loveliness that were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue…” As my wife and I continued along the banks of the Wissahickon we found it easy to agree with Poe.  Loveliness abounded, people fed by the beauty seemed relieved of their worries, couples walked hand in hand, some jogged together, it breeds tranquility. 

It was Holy.

Climbing further still we came upon an inn that appeared like an oasis in the Desert.  It was the Valley Green.  Music reverberated from its walls, and then the smell of a fire and good food welcomed us like enchanted spell. Little did we know that a wedding reception was in full swing.  At first it seemed odd that a DJ led wedding would be sounding like a drumbeat  in this quiet valley but in retrospect it made sense.

For this valley holds many stories of sacred covenants and unrequited love.  Earlier on the trail we passed a dramatic cliff that we later learned was the site of a romantic death.  As legend has it an Indian princess and her lover leapt to their demise after they learned that she had been promised to another. Not far from this inn there is a Baptismal Font marking the sacred location where Baptist held a worship service on Christmas Day in 1723.  December 25th these new believers consecrated their love for the Lord by fully immersing themselves in the nearly freezing water.  Surely it was memorable, so memorable that it appears that this sacred Christmas morn ritual was never attempted again.  Other sacred vows were made between these valley walls.  The valley was so beautiful that a group of devout “Pietists” led by John Kelpius were convinced that the valley was the perfect place to wait for the end of the world.   There is even a cave near the Wissahickon where Kelpius himself was said to pray fervently waiting for the Lord.

So for all those who question the appropriateness of a wedding in the Wissahickon Valley they would be well served to brush up on their history. But I must confess that the DJ’s pounding bass reverberating from the inn (boom-boom-boom-boom) seemed inconsistent with the holiness of the place. We met dear friends there and reveled in the beauty of it all (amidst the reverberations).

A bridesmaid came out to the front of the inn and had the unique gift of being able to dance and use her cell phone at the same time.  Either the bar had been open for some time or her phone’s reception was horrible, because she talked so loud that she could be heard on the other side of the valley.  She told her best friend and everyone else in the tri-county area that she led the Makarana, the Congo line, and she even led one dance where everyone else stayed in their seats.  She said, “It was awesome, everyone was looking right at me.” Fortunately, the call of the DJ brought her back inside the Valley Green and we turned back to our friends and the warm, spiced Cider in mugs.

The beauty of the valley, coupled with the kindness in our friends’ eyes, the warm cider, even the reverberations of the DJ next door made me wonder at it all.

It was Holy. 

Time melted into time but it seemed to me that the presence of the Lord was there. I’m not sure how long we sat on the front porch near the banks of the Wissahickon, but it was long enough to see our Bridesmaid one more time.  She wasn’t walking as steady as before, but this time she was escorted by a friend who made sure she wouldn’t fall. They made it to the parking lot where there was a sound that had to be one of two things: either someone was getting sick or someone was performing an exorcism.  I think it was the former.

After a few moments I glanced over at the parking lot and noticed the friend gently helping the bridesmaid into the car.

And the words Holy-holy-holy came to mind again.

Sometimes the presence of the Lord is like Hurricane Sandy, and we (like Isaiah) are brought to our knees, and sometimes the presence of the Lord is like the sweet aid of a friend who helps us rise up from our knees.  Either way, “Holy-Holy-Holy” seems like an appropriate response.



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