"...Whereby he read what man ne'er read before,
And saw the visions man shall see no more,
Till the great angel, striding sea and shore,
Shall bid all flesh await, on land or ships,
The warning trump of the Apocalypse,
Shattering the heavens before the dread eclipse..."
~John Greenleaf Whittier
"The Pennsylvania Pilgrim"
Once upon a time, on the banks of a wild creek in an endless forest, there lived an exceptional
young man. The young man was a hermit and a mystic, and he spent his days in inward meditation even as he gardened
herbs, composed hymns, and looked to the skies, watching and calculating the motions of the planets. You see, the
end of the world was drawing near, and the young man and his thirty-nine brother monks and hermits by the creek
sought heavenward for the impending trumpets of Judgement. As it turned out, the young man, whose name was
Johannes, was quite correct. The end of the world was near... for him at least.
I had long ago heard rumor that in terms of occult and metaphysical heritage, Philadelphia is
second only to Washington DC as far as cities in the historical United States go. However, the origins of
Philadelphia and its spiritual lineage go back in time much further, and it might be said that much of the deeply
esoteric symbology and lore incorporated into Washington DC was gestated and birthed by Philadelphia.
On our 2006 vacation road trip, we had roamed across Pennsylvania in search of the Fortean
underbelly of that green and beloved state. I had dragged the family down back roads and lanes in search of mounds
in the Juniata Valley. We had followed the path of Meteor Road into the hills near Kecksburg, where something very
queer had whizzed out of the sky in 1966 and is still debated among UFO literati. We toured the Ringing Rocks
along the Delaware, and communed with ravens at Ravensburg. However, it was the three days we spent in the
Philadelphia area that afforded me the most auspicious and genuine opportunity to explore synchronicity, arcane
mysteries of psyche and spirit, and cheese steaks.
In preparing for my tour of "Occult Philadelphia", I came across an on-line reference to a place
called "The Cave of Kelpius." Said to be in a large metro-park, and rather difficult to find, the cave was
supposedly the retreat of an infamous hermit or mystic by the name of Johannes Kelpius in the late 1600s. At
first, I was content to add it to my list of "really-neat-places-to-explore-if-time-permits."
However, in the weeks before our trip, I found myself compelled to keep searching for more
information on Johannes Kelpius. Every foray that I made turned up more fascinating history - not just about
Kelpius, but the foundation of Philadelphia and the very unique and mystical Wissahickon Creek that flows into the
Schuylkill River on the west side of the city. I couldn't say initially which held my attention more firmly - the
story of Johannes Kelpius or the lore of the valley where he and his order settled. Both began to levy
synchronistic events upon me in my daily doings. There was something in this blended tale that was beginning to
loom larger then life like a shadow at sundown. It would have been a novel vacation trip without Kelpius and the
Wissahickon, but with those, it was now taking on the guise of a real Quest.
As an example of how this was wrapping itself around me, consider the following. About two weeks
before our trip, I had become involved with a peculiar bit of anthropology. By way of some mutual friends, Pat
Mason and Deb Twigg, I became aware of the story of an unusual artifact from Pennsylvania - by all appearances a
piece of an ancient petrified human or humanoid! In 1985, a rock collector and amateur historian, Ms. Ulla Nass
discovered a peculiar stone in a ravine near a large creek. Under closer inspection, the stone appeared to be the
petrified upper jaw and nasal cavity of a human being! Ms. Nass spent the years since trying to coax mainstream
anthropologists to at least examine her stone... and I was brought into the loop with hopes that I might be able
to help find some analysis resources. There exists the potential that, if genuine, the Nass artifact could upset
the apple cart of understanding of the history of human occupation of North America. At any rate, when I inquired
into the details of the Nass find, I was informed that the location where Ulla found the "nose" was very close to
the same creek I was discovering had played a role in the story of Kelpius the Hermit - the Wissahickon! If I
didn't visit the fabled waterway for one reason, I surely had to visit for another.
The geology of the Wissahickon Creek gorge is unique in itself. It is said that the area contains
some the oldest exposed rock in North America, south of the Canadian Shield. Wissahickon Schist, a curious looking
gold-black stone made of compressed mica is found nowhere else in the world except along the creek and the nearby
Schuylkill River valley. If Nature has the ability to place an invisible bell jar around a geological and
ecological system from primeval times, preserving its idiosyncrasies through the ages, the Wissahickon is such a
place. Maybe it's fitting that all humans who have walked the creek - from ancient Native people to European man
have felt the pneuma of the rock and water there. The Indians preserved stories of sacred boulders along the
creek. Since the coming of the whites, that same water has also summoned the free-thinkers, mystics, hermits, and
magicians from among them.
Creek" by Thomas Sully 1783-1872
(click pic to enlarge)
This was going to be a different one, as Quests go. It was at one level a quest within a quest -
Philadelphia contained many other stops I desired to make, such as the old Masonic Temple, Christ Church Cemetery,
Edgar Allan Poe's house, and the Antiquities and Rare Books Department at the Philadelphia Library. At another
level - one that I confess that I consciously resisted - the mission to find the Cave of Kelpius was the
objective...and the rest was sightseeing and fact finding. I began to feel a deep resonance with the story that
was playing itself out before me. A resonance with this hermit Kelpius.
Who was Johannes Kelpius, and how did he end up in Pennsylvania?
It began in a town called Sighosoara, where in 1673 a boy baby named Johann Kelp was born.
Sighosoara was at that time part of Transylvania, in the Tirnava Mare valley. It was also the birthplace of
another very famous man who was the exact metaphysical antithesis to the man young Johann was to become. This
other famed native of the same village was born two hundred and forty two years before Johann. His name was
Vladislav Basarab, but you would know him as Vlad Tepes Dracul the Impaler - the historical tyrant Dracula.
Johann's father died in 1684, and the boy was sent by town patrons to school in Bavaria, at the
University at Altdorf. For the next eight years, young Johann - who accepted the customarily Latinized scholar's
name of Johannes Kelpius - studied in a number of disciplines, and was granted his Doctorate. While in Bavaria,
Johannes became deeply involved with the Pietists - a mystical movement originating as a fringe Lutheran offshoot
that incorporated elements of alchemy and Western Mystery tradition into a Christian framework. Kelpius joined a
small group of mystics called The Order of Perfection, headed by famed astronomer and mathematician of the era,
Johann Jakob Zimmerman. Like Zimmerman, the members of the Order of Perfection tended to be advanced scholars in
the physical sciences, music, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics.
Some have speculated that Zimmerman's order was in fact sponsored by and was a part of the secret
"Invisible College" of the Rosicrucian tradition that had blossomed in Europe, beginning at the start of the
1600s. Without a doubt, The Order of Perfection incorporated the Rosicrucian tradition in its own beliefs and
writings. Modern Rosicrucians are fond of considering Zimmerman's order to be one of their direct spiritual
In 1692, The Order of Perfection received an invitation from William Penn to come to the New
World and settle in what was to become Pennsylvania. The offer was accepted and a sense of destiny and excitement
certainly swept the mystics into its wake. However shortly before leaving for the Colonies in 1693, Johann Jakob
Zimmerman took ill and died. Johannes Kelpius - barely 20 years old - was elected by his brethren to be the new
leader of their group. With their convictions firmly set, and their new young leader still doubtlessly coming to
grips with his role, the band of men (and some sources claim that a few female scholars had been members as well)
set out for North America. The group first made a stopover in England to meet with some other high ranking
personalities in the Rosicrucian movement before crossing the Atlantic.
Whether by intention or as a result of the deep subconscious drawing by the old spiritual energy
within the land, the group, numbering forty, arrived in Philadelphia, and soon moved to the ridge overlooking
Wissahickon Creek. Auspiciously, the group arrived and consecrated their new home on June 24th, Saint John the
Baptist's Day, a highly significant date in Masonic, Templar, and Grail traditions.
A Tabernacle, with communal living quarters attached, was built near a spring above the
Wissahickon. No drawings exist of this structure, although it was acknowledged that the edifice was built with
sacred geometric proportions in a Solomonic fashion. The Tabernacle was said to be 40 feet by 40 feet. The
mystics moved in quickly, with time nipping at their heels. You see, they also shared a belief that their
vantage point on the ridge above the creek in the wilderness was soon going to be a box seat for watching the
End of the World - the hellish apocalypse of the Revelation to John coming to pass. Kelpius felt that their
invitation to come to the New World was perfectly in line with prophecy as well as his astronomical calculations
that said the end times were about to start. The wilderness of the Wissahickon was to be a sacred and divinely
ordained refuge, far from Babylon the Great, embodied in the corrupt kingdoms of Europe. The alignments of the
stars and planets declared the End would begin in 1694. The mystics had arrived with only a few months to
What better day to arrive in the Philadelphia area than the 4th of July. We descended from the
Delaware River country and found our motel in Fort Washington by late afternoon of that day. My head was aching
from spending too much time in the hot sun at Ringing Rocks, earlier.
Not knowing how the next two and a half days would be filled, and unaware of how difficult it
would be to physically find some of the locations I wanted to visit, we checked in, unloaded, and began driving
around the area to get an idea about where we were. It was a good time to start the search and scope out
potential suppertime chow as well.
Fate had placed our motel less than two miles from the little drainage ditch or creek bed where
Ulla Nass had found the mysterious petrified human nose and jaw years ago. From notes and a map made by Ms. Nass,
I felt that visiting the location would be a good start to the checklist of the strange. A few minutes and some
turns down side streets brought us to the shady, tree lined little gorge, filled with old stream gravel, where
the mysterious stone was found. Fierce nettles and my bare knees prevented me from engaging the torments of
exploring too far into the creek bed, however I snatched a souvenir rock, whipped off some photos and headed back
to the van parked a short distance away.
From the piles of both hastily scribbled and printed out notes that I carried with me, I realized
we were only another couple of miles from Fairmount Park, where it was said one could visit the remains of
Kelpius' monastic cave. However, the street directions I found online seemed to be in error, and for a solid
half-hour we drove up and down the wild fringes of West Philadelphia until finally Hermit Lane appeared. Hermit
Lane is the name given to a small paved drive that runs west from Henry Avenue and eventually loses itself in
housing projects outside of Fairmount Park.
Having located Hermit Lane, I proceeded from another set of cryptic directions that indicated a
series of paths or trails into the nearby woods had to be followed. Certainly Fairmount Park couldn't be
that big of a place! I was wrong. It covers many hundreds of acres. It's huge - literally a National
Forest. Deb and Peter agreed to wait in the van parked along Hermit Lane for an hour before panicking. I plunged
into the vast park.
Up and down hillsides and through ravines I trudged, panting and puffing and forcing back the
paranoia that one really could get lost here. I went down to the Wissahickon itself and found remains of
more old park roads and trails. How some place could be so wild and primeval and be surrounded by urban
civilization was surreal to my senses! I kept my eyes peeled for a flash of gray in the form of a tall granite
marker erected by the cave in Kelpius' honor by modern day AMORC Rosicrucians in the 1960s.
Thoroughly exhausted, I found my way back to the van in a state of defeat. The directions I had
were useless. I had been gone for almost an hour. All that we had to show for the effort was the blue and gold
ornate sign placed near Hermit Lane by the Fairmount Park commission. Maybe that was all the closer I would get
(click pics to enlarge)
As I re-hydrated with a couple
bottles of water, a pretty red haired woman with a pair of brown dogs the size of bears burst from the woods,
apparently on the return leg of a dog walking work-out. Ah for such youth and energy. I waved and asked her if she
knew where the Hermit's Cave was down there in the park. The Maiden of the Two Brachets (as she existed in my ever
present Arthurian alt-reality) replied she lived nearby and had never heard of such a place. Nuts. I thanked her.
We left and found some supper.
The next morning, we left Fort
Washington on the expressway and found some decent parking downtown near Independence Hall. Our tour for the day
took us this way and that around the heart of the Spirit of '76 country - Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell,
Christ Church, Christ Church Cemetery, Betsy Ross' house. We bought and munched down some Philly steaks from a
street vendor, along with a million other tourists. There was some amount of Templar-ish fun to be had as well, in
the way of looking for and calling out specific spots from the movie "National Treasure." In Christ Church,
otherwise oddly devoid of esoteric symbology, there is indeed a Secret in the windows... but it's a very subtle
In lichen encrusted Christ Church Cemetery, I paid my respects to Brother Franklin and his modest
yet unique memorial slab. We meandered through rows of curiously shaped stones - some like pyramids or arks. I
began to realize there was an almost unnatural lack of Masonic regalia and symbology. For a city as
deeply steeped in Masonic tradition and Rosicrucian mystery, why were the stones of all the mystic firebrands of
the Revolution missing what I had expected would be a fabulous chronicling of esoterica?
We did not travel back to the west side and Fairmount Park that day, instead choosing to follow
Broad Street - Route 611 - north through the various cultural and ethnic layers of Philadelphia, outward into the
predominantly white-bread northern suburbs. Interesting - aligning closely with Broad Street (as well as the
center of Philadelphia and the great Masonic Temple) is the far northern suburb of Rosslyn. Broad Street
apparently is indeed the "Rose Line" of the city.
That evening, I mapped out our walking tour of the western and northern downtown reaches for the
next morning. Included would be the Mutter Museum of medical oddities, the Philadelphia Public Library antiquities
and rare books department, Edgar Allan Poe's home, and the Masonic Temple. The Temple, with its Gothic - yet
disturbingly asymmetrical - architecture and numinous draw promised to be for me the most exciting stop. Still, I
also found my imagination walking back to Fairmount Park again, and I realized that the morrow would also be my
last chance to try to find Kelpius' Cave. I had to descend into the woods once more...
The next day my inability to
correctly gauge map distances took its toll on my feet and my family's. On our drive home later in the week, the
spouse calculated that we hoofed somewhere around 8 miles over the sidewalks of Philly. The Mutter Museum, proudly
sporting the world's largest preserved human tumor, belongs on any itinerary of the strange and unusual. At the
Philadelphia Public Library, we were buzzed in and escorted into the antiquities department by a prim but very
attractive young female researcher whom I must confess invoked the bookish wonderland of my way-serious librarian
fetish. The goal of our pilgrimage to that haven of history on the third floor was something one wouldn't suspect
might lurk among 15th century treatises and Colonial era diaries... it was a stuffed bird. However, not just any
old taxidermy - whoa nelly, no - standing eternally in his glass case, at the far end of the department archive
hall is Grip the raven - once the beloved pet to Charles Dickens... and none other than the actual inspiration and
Muse for Poe's famous ode to the Nighted Lurker... forever immortalized in the poem he called "The Raven."
After paying homage to Grip, we made it back to the center of downtown in time for the daily
public tour of the cyclopean and brooding Masonic Temple.
The atmosphere in the building
contained the vibe of another dimension entirely. Outside was the hustle and rush of Philadelphia. Inside was
something - an aire - that was far more serious and ...well... arcane. Masons of measured pace and hushed monkish
tones in matching blue blazers manned the Temple, and they seemed to have the unnerving ability of vanishing and
re-appearing around corners and columns in my peripheral vision. As one might imagine, every square inch of the
gilded halls, rooms, and
décor was filled with ancient themes and Hermetic symbology. So much for the paranoia about Masonic secrets. To
the eye of anyone with even a hint of scholarship in Western Mystery tradition, the stories of millennia had been
encoded in the Temple. They merely awaited recognition by the diligent seeker or adept, hidden in plain sight. As
it ever was, I guess.
Our guide was a cheerful but deadpan chap with a humor that reminded me for the world of John
Cleese. With a well practiced routine, we were shuttled down this hall and up that stairway, and shown into each
of the Temple Halls with their "time" themes. There were the Oriental Hall, the Gothic/Templar Hall, the Egyptian
Hall, the Norman Hall, the Ionic Hall, and the Renaissance and Corinthian Halls. I tried to take mental notes of
certain juxtaposition of symbols, but found it futile after the first couple of Halls, so I gave in and just
flowed with the tour.
I brought up the matter of the missing Masonic regalia from the stones in Christ Church Cemetery.
The tour guide appeared genuinely perplexed and claimed he had no idea. He had never noticed. I however, noticed
that after that point in the tour, the guide, as well as a young woman guide-in-training who was tagging along,
appeared to keep a bit more of an eye on me, and my occasional deviating off of the tour path. After the tour, I
approached the guide and engaged him in some conversation as we drifted toward the front doorway. He seemed
pleased and impressed with my knowledge (such as it is) of Masonic history and symbology, and we talked briefly
about such matters as the 1606 Goat Island Stone from Nova Scotia and the Van Buren, Arkansas Masonic mystery
grave. As would be properly expected, he did not inquire as to whether I was a Mason, although I offered
lightheartedly at the end that I was not... and that perhaps it was because I just hadn't "asked one" yet...
The afternoon was winding down. We made a hurried walk of about 8 more blocks to visit Edgar Allan
Poe's home, which was as wonderfully decayed and bleak as any darkly romantic heart would hope for. The late rush
hour traffic subsided as we made our way back to our parking lot on Broad Street, and as the streets grew quieter,
an ill defined paranoia came over us and our quickstep was hopped up to double-time. Nearly spent upon our
arrival, we fell into the van, and took off west toward the river.
I followed the Schuylkill northward into the Park region. Grudgingly, my spouse accepted that the
day would have to last just one more stop longer before supper and a footbath. I had to return to Hermit Lane,
descend into Fairmount Park, and try with what fading wind was left in my middle aged sail to find the sacred
Johannes Kelpius and his brother (and possibly sister) mystics apparently integrated smoothly
into the sparse and mainly Teutonic pioneer populace of the Philadelphia and Germantown areas. It is recorded also
that they quickly befriended and began a cordial trading relationship with the Native Lenape people. Still, to the
rugged Swedes, Germans, Swiss, and Celts in the colony, as well as the Indians, the Order of Perfection must have
seemed queer and anachronistic, dressing in magus robes, and looking a lot (in my own mind's eye) like Tolkien's
Istari. Those who in later generations became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch referred to Kelpius' group
as hexmeisters - wizards, spell-casters, and healers. The Order came to call itself by another name, "The
Woman in the Wilderness." Some have felt that this was a reference to a particular verse in The Revelation to
John. Others have felt it was a tribute to the Divine Feminine. I suspect it was both at the same time. In many
respects, the Order of Perfection resembled the ancient Cathars of the Grail country in southern France. Celibate,
vegetarian; forever looking away from the doomed earth of solid matter - the realm of Rex Mundi - toward the
distant lights of Heaven.
The Order ingratiated itself with the local inhabitants, Native and otherwise, by providing a
wondrous array of services - all while awaiting Doomsday 1694. They became teachers, musicians, herbalists,
medical doctors, chemists, practical engineers for the community. Whether by intent or by the secret design of
the spirit of Hermetics itself, the members of the order also began to perform an even more important task - the
transmission of Western Mystery to yet another century.
There exists a faded, time
cracked oil painting that purports to depict Johannes Kelpius sitting at a table. Painted by Christopher Witt,
one of the last remaining members of the Order in later days, it is considered to be the first oil painting
executed in North America, and is on display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Despite the primitive
style, the seated subject in the portrait is startling in an almost alien way - a strange, clean shaven,
androgynous young man in a robe and ancient style turban or hat. One delicate hand is placed pensively by his
brow, and Johannes' wide eyes seem to penetrate into the soul of the viewer.
Picture courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
(click pic to enlarge)
It's hard to imagine the nearly ethereal scholar Kelpius being able to survive in the wilds on
the Wissahickon. But he and his Tabernacle brethren did, and they became an integral part of early American
Colonial life as well as the esoteric history of the United States.
Of all the services and occult studies that the Order of Perfection engaged in, astronomy was
considered the highest of their sciences and their arts. Astronomy and Biblical interpretation spoke clearly to
them about the end of the world coming soon. Yet the months ticked by, and 1694 passed into time. The end of the
world came and went with no trumpets of doom, no blazing horsemen across the sky. No matter, a mere
mis-calculation. The real end would be soon.
The hillside that extended from the Tabernacle down to the Wissahickon became the location of a
number of meditation cells or huts for the mystics. Near the artesian spring on that hillside, Kelpius built a
stone block lined meditative cave for himself, and it is said that as the year 1694 passed with the material
world still intact, Johannes spent more of his days in meditative retreat, composing prayers and essays on deep
The Order became more integrated with life in the Philadelphia area, and some of the brethren
were elected to local political offices. Kelpius himself rejected numerous offers for local positions of
authority. Communion with the Lord of Light, communion with the spheres above, was his only political
Some members left the Order of Perfection after 1694, but more European newcomers to William
Penn's Promised Land joined and became active in the lifestyle. The 18th century came, and the stars wheeled
above. In the Tabernacle and common house, the brethren of the Order continued their explorations in alchemy,
herbalism and occult studies that blended Christian mysticism with Rosicrucian structure and lore. Records exist
that suggest some of the telescopes used by the Order were eventually passed down to or acquired by Benjamin
There is another legend passed down by way of fragmentary lore that claims Johannes Kelpius had
succeeded in either synthesizing the famed Philosopher's Stone, or he had somehow been the inheritor of the same
mystical object from earlier Rosicrucians, or otherwise shadowy figures in Western Alchemy, such as the
historically elusive Nicholas Flamel. The aeon deep vales and glens of the Wissahickon would not have been an
inappropriate backdrop for such a fabulous treasure...
I've been often times scolded for doing what was once referred to by Robert Anton Wilson as
"whistling while you're pissing." That is to say, letting my mind get divided into multiple tracks at once while I
am trying to accomplish some unrelated physical task. Yet sometimes it's been during those whistle stops that
epiphanies will arise out of the depths and I will have a genuine glimpse of illumination. During our stay in
Philadelphia, and all of the Fortean and occult touring that I was trying to get in, I found myself obsessing on
the obsession. Why was the tale of Johannes Kelpius resonating so strongly with me, and why was I hell bent on
finding his dank little meditation cave hidden in the woods? Was it just the challenge of a quest? A sheer love
of history? Did I expect to have some revelation burst forth from the heavens like the divine light beam that
bushwhacked Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus? I certainly was in no mood to go talking to spirits or try
necromantic summoning of the shade of a 300 year old mystic and hermit. I think it was that very afternoon as we
drove through west Philly, though, that I settled the matter to a degree in my heart and mind.
The past couple of years, with all of the hustle of everyday "normal" life as well my ongoing
pursuit of the "life less ordinary", was leaving me tapped out. On more evenings than not anymore, I was feeling
tired, withdrawn, and drained. The criss-crossing roads in the forest of Avalon - once ridden with passion and
fervor - had been making me saddle sore, and my metaphorical (and metaphysical) back hurt like hell. I felt myself
beginning to tire of chasing the Questing Beast. The light and the fire seemed spent. I was once rightly accused
of acting like an irritating little Energizer Bunny or a wind-up toy knight. And once upon a time I was those
things. But the battery seemed finally drained and the clock-spring had nary a quiver left in it.
The point was this. I realized in that hour that the tale of Kelpius resonated with my being
because I felt I was standing there on the threshold of the Hermit's place in life. In Arthurian tradition, when
the Knight errant finishes his career of maiden saving, monster chasing, and Grail hunting, and if he has
not been offed in some dramatic fashion for his King or Lord, then his final years were often spent as a Holy
Hermit, scribe, or recluse. Such was the famed Sir Lancelot's fate, as well as Sir Bors, who was one of the three
knights to achieve the Grail in Mallory's tales. It is the quiet sunset phase - symbolized in the Tarot by the
card of The Hermit- leading to the Four of Swords, and final repose. The place in life where the former knight
reflects, does his penitence in silence, and writes his memoirs.
I needed to find the Cave of Kelpius because I needed to see how it fit me.
We parked again along Hermit Lane. I took with me my camera and GPS, as well as a small prayer
bundle of sage and a crystal. It was the last of three that I had prepared for the journey in the days before.
The first two had been gifted by me at the remains of an ancient mound in the Juniata valley, and at a sacred and
secret little whirlpool in a brook, in the woods at Ravensburg.
Not far from Hermit Lane, down into the woods a short drive, there is a curious old house - a big
place with an architectural style somewhere between Greek Revival and Federal - white with a deep pillared porch.
Though not in bad shape, it appeared uninhabited, and the windows looked to be filled with a jumble of stored
furniture and antiques. I glimpsed a sign that suggested it was a performing arts center of some sort. I thought
little more of it, other than musing on its enviable placement on the same ridge where the old Order of
Perfection once likely raised their Tabernacle, and the wizard brothers plied their arts.
I descended one of the trails down to the modest bike path along the Wissahickon. Perhaps if I
wandered at the water's edge for a time, I would either spy the cave marker up the slope through the trees, or
maybe some bicyclist could give me directions. None appeared, though - the park seemed totally devoid of other
humans, even though traffic whizzed by merely a few hundred feet away on the other side of Wissahickon Creek. I
walked the cracked aging asphalt of the bike path. As I rounded a bend, I spied a couple of figures fly fishing
from rocks by the creek. It was a bearded graying fellow in his 50s or 60s perhaps, and a young boy whom I took
to be a grandson. Feeling a bit like young Percivale, I waved at the Fisher King and asked if he knew where the
Hermit's Cave was. The man replied that he did, approached me, and proceeded in a quiet voice to give me
directions. I had to walk on up the path maybe an eighth of a mile, and look for where a tiny stream came down
the hill to empty into the creek. Beside this little ditch or rivulet was a trail, that if followed up the
hillside would take me to the Cave. I thanked him with a heart full of hope, and scooted up the path.
As the fisherman had promised, I soon came to the little trickle of water coming down the hill,
and the path beside it. I turned and began the trek upward. Could this have been water from the spring said to
have been near Johannes' cave? Still trickling after 300 years? The trail headed this way and that, always
hugging the rivulet. At one point a large tree that had fallen across it some decades earlier, had been carved
out to provide access!
The woods grew dense and
sounds became muted. I climbed up a washed out bank of schist and mud. As I regained my footing, I saw ahead of
me a little plank bridge over the nearby rivulet. Beyond the bridge, maybe another fifty feet, I discerned an
upright shaft of stone and a dark rectangular void. I had found it. I was at the Cave of Kelpius.
(click photos to enlarge)
I paused on the little
bridge to take in a histrionic breath and absorb the moment before crossing. Did I expect some archetypal
challenger, like a black knight or troll? Hard to say. I crossed, and with an oil and water blend of excitement
and reverence, approached the cave.
The AMORC stone marker had long ago been defaced with graffiti. Some of the colors scrawled on it
seemed to be fairly fresh as well. It was my presumption that nobody from AMORC had been here in a long time to
clean the monument and memorial to their "First North American Grand Master." What a shame. Et in Arcadia Ego.
Local kids knew of the Cave apparently, and periodically had tagged it with the mystic spray-can runes of a new
The handiwork of spiders hung
down part of the way over the doorway to the cave, which in the subdued light of late afternoon looked as inky and
dark as a void. Doing my best Indiana Jones, I brushed the cobwebs aside, ducked down low, and entered squinting.
I allowed my eyes a couple of minutes to acclimatize to the gloom. Finally, enough light entered to afford me a
look around me.
The interior of the cave resembled an ancient cellar, composed of roughly dressed stone blocks
with a shallow arched ceiling perhaps seven feet high at the crest. It looked like it was maybe eight feet wide
by perhaps 10 feet deep. I was surprised at the lack of litter or graffiti inside, considering how the outside
marker had been tagged. The walls and ceiling were dripping and cold, and while no evil vibes or hair raising
energy assaulted me, I could not think of a more cheerless place. Maybe in another era, a hermit might have
found a cozy spot in winter here, with a blanket and a fire-pit. But three centuries later - it had the charm of
a tomb with no denizen.
Still... here I was. Now
what? I squatted down and propped myself against the wall for a few minutes of silence and repose. I took the
prayer bundle out of my pocket and placed it on a flat stone that made me think of a low altar or maybe a seat. A
curiously out of place white pebble on that same stone told me that I had not been the only pilgrim to seek the
Cave of Kelpius.
It would be tempting to say I had my spiritual epiphany, or I heard a ghostly whisper, or some
doleful shade materialized out of the walls. But no - nothing really happened in that moment. I merely sat as
quietly as I could for as long as I felt the need to, and my silence was rewarded by an early evening cricket
chirp outside, and a faint drip of water on wetted earth. As I arose to depart, my question for the quest was
This was not my place. Not yet. It was not time for me to turn over the Hermit's card. I did not
feel the Hermit's call after all. Not yet.
Of course no further answer was forthcoming, as far as just where was I to find the energy and
fortitude to continue my journeys and pursuits in those hours and days when I felt the weight of miles upon me,
and my footsteps slowed. No answer; that would have been too easy. No answer - other than it wasn't time for me
to become Kelpius yet.
I left the Cave of the Hermit and re-entered the sunset tinted woodland scene round about. I
walked back to the wooden bridge, and looked down into the little ditch where the spring water trickled. I had
not seen it before, but I saw it now; the detritus of humans. Bottles, a beer can, a potato chip bag, a rusted
frame of a broken trail bike. Even here in the shadow of the Hermit's ridge. Even here in Arcadia. The spell was
broken. I was no longer in a mystical glade in Avalon or Faerie. I was in a metro-park in Philadelphia, PA. It was
time to go back to my van and begin the journey home.
As I walked away from the
Cave, it occurred to me that I should take a set of GPS coordinates to help others find this place. I tried to
triangulate, but under the dense tree canopy, satellite reception was nil. I gave up, let it go, and put my GPS
away. I'd remember how to find it again, as I knew inwardly I would be back someday. The directions of the Fisher
King were enough.
I followed a different path back up the hill, and to my surprise I popped out of the dense woods
only scant yards from the mysterious white manor house. How strange. The old place was truly very close to the
cave after all... and as usually happens in my life, I had taken the long way around without intending it. Ah
well. It means more that way, I suppose.
As I had done two nights before, I arrived back at my van just short of an hour after leaving.
This time, I was noticeably quieter. We left Fairmount Park, and the Wissahickon, and drove back to Fort
Washington. Neither Deb nor Pete asked me much about what I had seen, and for the time being I was fine with
that. I had accomplished my quest. I didn't yet know what I would have to say about it.
The story of Johannes Kelpius came to an end in 1708. The exact date is unknown and not formally
recorded in any municipal document. Young Johannes, it is said in some stories, had been laboring heavily
outdoors into the fall of that year, helping newcomers to the community to get settled in before winter. He
developed pneumonia, and he died. The world ended.
One of the traditional tales from the local area claimed that as Kelpius' illness worsened, and
he knew his end was near he retreated into deep meditation and prayer, believing he would achieve physical
transcendence at the last. Like Enoch or Elijah of old, pulled bodily into the realm of Heaven. Echoing the story
of Arthur and Excalibur, Kelpius directed one of the other hermits of the Order to take his shard of the
Philosopher's Stone, and cast it into the Wissahickon. The acolyte at first could not bring himself to do the
deed, stowed the stone away and returned to his dying Magister. However, Kelpius knew of the ruse, and sternly
ordered the hermit to cast the stone into the water. This time the task was grudgingly accomplished. It is said
that when the Philosopher's Stone hit the water of the creek, a mighty eruption of fire and thunder resulted.
Whether the shard was un-made, or whether it sank to a timeless grave, who can say? Perhaps the aging fisherman
and his grandson whom I met were casting their lines just scant yards from where one of the strangest and most
coveted artifacts of human history lay buried in three centuries of gravel and mud. Oh, probably not. It was only
a story, just a myth... although to quote a line I recall from a certain treatise on the Mormon faith, "Just
because it was made up doesn't mean it isn't true..!"
But Johannes Kelpius did not ascend bodily in a burst of inscrutable cosmic radiation and divine
light. He just closed his eyes, and the breath of life departed him. T'was ever thus, even by the eternal
The remaining members of the Order of Perfection buried Kelpius in an unmarked grave, somewhere
on his beloved hillside, while the spheres above rolled onward un-altered in their courses. With every passing
year, more of the original Order died or left to assume secular lives. While the physical world did not come to
an end, in the subtle worlds of Man's spiritual evolution, a certain era did end when Kelpius passed. A time of
wizards and alchemists was fading, and a new era had come. It was now time for a new Carrier for the symbols,
rituals, and formulas of Western Mystery tradition to take up the burden and move into time. A new torch-bearer
for knowledge so arcane that its ultimate origins were long ago lost. New philosophical schools, magical lodges
and the explosion of Freemasonry in Europe and North America were bearing down on the world like the Four
Horsemen Kelpius and his brothers looked forward to so fervently. Philadelphia became a city and a crucible for
the American independence movement. New Age becomes Old School becomes New Age again.
As Johannes Kelpius' health dwindled, he also named a successor as the chief spiritual advisor
and Magister of the Order of Perfection - The Woman in the Wilderness. Kelpius' chosen was a young fellow named
Johann Seelig. Seelig soon yielded his role to Conrad Matthei. Within a few years, the number of members of the
old Order had diminished to just six. Matthei and his five remaining Brothers kept the candle flame of the Order
alight until he himself died in 1748. With Matthei's death, the Woman in the Wilderness passed into legend. The
Tabernacle and the hermit's quarters on the hillside were reclaimed by the elements and forest. Matthei and the
other final members of the Order were buried in a small unknown cemetery to the north side of Hermit Lane, now
long gone under modern buildings and Henry Avenue. An account is recorded in the memoirs of Lutheran minister
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg that upon Matthei's burial, local townsfolk witnessed strange blue fiery lights that
danced over the last hermits' graves.
In some ways, the Order of Perfection was a template or experiment worthy of a few more attempts
at replication. Other Christian mystics saw Kelpius as an inspiration for their own yearning and desire for a New
Jerusalem. In 1720, Conrad Beisel and some followers left Germany to join the Kelpius colony. They were unaware
that Kelpius had been dead for over a decade. Upon arriving in Pennsylvania and finding the Order in decline,
they joined with the German Baptists for a time, before founding the long lived spiritual commune of Ephrata in
The echoes of Kelpius may have served one other legendary function. In the 1930s, a story by an
unknown author was found by historian Guy Ballard in the Library of Congress. It was a romantic tale that told of
how on New Year's Night in 1774, General George Washington became lost in the woods near the Wissahickon, and was
taken in by an unknown hermit living in the ruins of the old Kelpius Tabernacle. The un-named recluse had
supposedly been a European nobleman who had come to Philadelphia with his two children, and who had taken up
residence on the hermits' hillside after Conrad Matthei's passing. As Washington stayed the night with the hermit
and his grown children, he underwent a spiritual initiation, and was anointed and blessed to carry out his destiny
as leader of the new country soon to be born. Years later, Washington returned to the hermit's lodgings, only to
find that the hermit and his children had died in the Revolution. Perhaps Conrad Matthei had indeed passed the
torch of the Woman in the Wilderness to one final successor, forever unknown in name, but one to whom it was
designated to carry out a last task at the dawning of the United States. It is of course known that George
Washington was a Freemason, and there is some evidence he was initiated into the Rosicrucian mysteries as well.
Thus we would not and should not be surprised at the heartfelt plot of the sad and whimsical story.
In the weeks after my visit to the Cave of Kelpius, I continued to learn more of the lore of the
Wissahickon hermits. I discovered that the odd and forlorn white manor house in the woods is called Hermitage
Mansion, and had been built in the 19th century on the site of Kelpius' Tabernacle. A brief history of the
Hermitage can be read here: http://www.dvopera.org/about.htm and here: http://www.schuylkillriver.org/Detail.aspx?id=530
I recently managed to get an ironic and somewhat synchronistic chuckle out of the fact that the
owners of the property where the Tabernacle stood, in the years after the Order of Perfection came to an end,
were the Righter family. The name is an Anglicized variant of my own Germanic family name, Reiter.
Sometimes in the past, when a fevered quest would evolve out of a chance discovery in a book, or
on-line, or over the course of a road trip, the ultimate lessons or meaning of the quest - the closure - would
come abruptly and with finality. Not so with this one, as it appears to be continuing to play out at several
levels at once in my life.
I had felt resonance with the story of a young savant now dead three centuries, a savant who
became a mystic Master and who in turn became a hermit of the Apocalypse. In the form of an initiatory psychodrama
littered with coincidence and synchronicity, I found my way to the cave of the hermit, and asked a question there.
The answer - hard as it may sometimes be for me to bear on the dusty Peregrine Road of my life - was revealed to
my heart, and I went home. And yet even on a daily or weekly basis, new elements and discoveries continue to
cross my path concerning Kelpius, the succession of Western Mystery, the Rosicrucians, Freemasonry, and
I wish I knew where it was leading, but that is a dangerous and naïve wish for any of us,
because the answer is already inside us if we dare to look. It doesn't matter anyway. We all, each of us, share
Johannes Kelpius' ultimate fate. There will be no Enochs or Elijahs in this age of the world. Most Christians who
seek inspiration and meaning turn ever to the four Gospels for their answers. For me, though, the purest truth in
the Bible, mixed in a tonic of beauty and unutterable sadness, lies instead in the book of Ecclesiastes:
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing
befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no
preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust
I sat on the rough wet stone in Kelpius' cave and I realized in the silence by the Wissahickon
that it was not yet time to become a hermit of my own inevitable personal apocalypse. Despite the autumnal
weariness, ennui, and the more than occasional difficulty in finding the incentive to put one foot in front of
the other, the Hermit's card has not turned over yet. I'm not sure where the next tank of gas will come from, but
suddenly that hermit looks a lot like Robert Frost, standing by the roadside in my soul. He nods and points
onward... so I guess that means "move along, son." Fair enough.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
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