Back to the Mountain

Pax, Ora et Labora: gateway to the organic farm at St. Mary's, Sewanee

Fran and I spent this past weekend in Sewanee, TN. “The Mountain,” as it is affectionately called, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, a college town on the Cumberland Plateau nestled in forested land filled with caves, hiking trails, waterfalls, a natural bridge, and other wonders.

It’s the first time we’ve been back since my friend Bob’s funeral, back in February of 2009. I lived in Sewanee from 1988 to 1993, running the campus bookstore at the University of the South. I left when Fran and I got married, and have been in Atlanta ever since. But even though it’s only about a three hour drive away, I’ve only been back to my old home three or four times since leaving. Not that there’s no reason to go back — Sewanee is beautiful, and almost without exception everyone I knew up there was wonderful. My staying away is partially due to the demands of family life (especially with Rhiannon’s health issues), partially due to a tendency Fran and I have to visit family before friends when we travel, and — here’s the juice — partially due to my own longstanding inner tension that first fully erupted when I lived in Sewanee — the tension concerning my love for nature-based and indigenous spiritualities even while I anchor my identity as a Christian. Sewanee, home to a liberal arts college and seminary affiliated with the Episcopal Church, is kind of a Christian company town; but there are plenty of old hippies and deadheads and magical-thinkers who live out in the woods, enough to make this small community the kind of place where enthusiasm for alternative spirituality can find nurture as well.

So why do I go back now? Mainly because a dear member of my current circle of friends has moved up there: Michael Thompson, one of the leaders of the new Ecumenical Lay Associates at the monastery here in Georgia, has begun a farming project on the grounds of the St. Mary’s Conference Center, near the Episcopal Convent of St. Mary’s just beyond the edge of campus. When I lived in Sewanee, young and rather lacking in self-confidence, I basically lived a double life: the Christian Carl, who was on the vestry at the local church and even flirted with the idea of going to seminary, and the pagan Carl, who participated in sweatlodges and Wiccan circles under the full moon out on a remote bluff near the natural bridge. Perhaps it’s only a relatively new friend, who knows my whole story and who knows me well today, who can most fittingly re-introduce me to the crucible of my youth where I discovered and deepened my twin loves: for the profound silence of contemplation, and the erotic mysteries of the soil.

The story of my subsequent life in Atlanta has been the story of slowly learning to accept myself in my entirety, that somehow there is no contradiction between the man who wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism and the man who wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. In the inclusive, all-embracing spirituality of my maturity, I can agree with Richard Rohr that “everything belongs” even while I now remain committed to practicing my spirituality in a monastic, and therefore Christian, context. But who I am today is the fruit of many years’ searching. In returning to Sewanee, I am coming back not merely as a prodigal son returning home, but as someone profoundly changed — changed simply by finally accepting who I really am, in my gloriously contradictory entirety.

So it seems that I require a new friend, someone intimate with me as I am in 2011, to reintroduce me to a place I knew and loved so well, but where, at least when I lived there, I never could just allow myself to “be.” Part of the experience of going back, however, has been the surprise of discovering just how much more at ease I feel with myself today — and that includes feeling at ease even with the mistakes I made two decades ago. Over the course of the weekend I was reminded both of how fully Sewanee has remained a part of me, and how much the people of this place knew who I truly was, even when I didn’t know how to fully accept myself. I surprised myself — and my companions — with how much of even the tiniest details I remembered about this my home from 20 years ago, recalling how to find a favorite waterfall tucked underneath a bluff at the edge of campus to spontaneously recognizing people I hadn’t seen in 20 years — and whom I barely knew, even back then. But when I did run into one of my closer friends from back then, the wife of a seminary professor, her first question to me was, “So, are you still listening to the Grateful Dead?” I wish I had been clever enough to say, “No these days I’m more inclined to play Dar Williams,” before humming a bar or two of “The Christians and the Pagans.” And in visiting with Sister Lucy, the matriarch of the small community of nuns, now almost blind and confined to a wheelchair but still with plenty of fire in her heart, I felt reminded of more than a few of the monks of Conyers, and felt filled with gratitude for all the holy people in my life, both past and present.

Back to my friend Michael and his organic  farm. See the accompanying picture of the sign he built at the front of his blackberry garden and vineyard. Peace, Prayer and Work it proclaims, in Latin as befits a student of the Rule of St. Benedict. Michael understands that contemplation means everything belongs — that there is no contradiction between the urge for transcendence and the celebration of immanence, that a healthy spirituality entails both toes curling in the dirt and fingers reaching for the heavens. Mother Nature and the mystery we call God lovingly pour themselves into each other, and I think it takes a farmer who prays to fully get this. I’ve always been a bookish nerd, more inclined to skulk about in libraries than to get humus under my fingernails. If it’s not too late to teach this old dog a few new tricks, maybe Michael and his agricultural oblation will invite me to an even deeper place where I can integrate the wisdom of the body with my noetic yearning.

And it’s for that reason that I hope to return to Sewanee, soon and soon again. Where I can see both new friends and old, and embrace all of my own story — the shy introvert who found meaning in the message of the mystics, and the middle class rebel who discovered in alternative spiritualities a way to reconnect with my body and the earth. Maybe Sewanee will help me to truly and finally embrace that these things are not-two.

  • http://www.nurturingspace.ca Evelyn Ward de Roo

    This post really resonated with my soul. I feel the same type of dualistic past with some folks in my ‘before’ life. Feeling more comfortable with just allowing myself to be. And I love Dar Williams.

  • http://complementary Grace Bezanson

    I like how you describe your being pulled in two seemingly opposed directions, “where I discovered and deepened my twin loves: for the profound silence of contemplation, and the erotic mysteries of the soil.” But I like to think of them as complementary–if you’re pulled in different directions, then that just makes your circle of experience bigger.

  • Mark

    “I think it takes a farmer who prays to fully get this.” Somebody like…Wendell Berry. For those who have not heard of him, Berry was a friend of Thomas Merton who long ago gave up a teaching position at NYU so he could move back to his native Kentucky to farm and write. His books set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, are superb.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes indeed! And I suppose it would come as no surprise that Wendell Berry is one of Michael’s heroes.

  • Anna

    You have enriched my own love of this place through your reflection. Our stories of meeting God, meeting others here on the mountain are good food for sharing. Glad you came and hope you and Fran return

  • http://pathways.squarespace.com elizabeth keith

    “Michael understands that contemplation means everything belongs — that there is no contradiction between the urge for transcendence and the celebration of immanence, that a healthy spirituality entails both toes curling in the dirt and fingers reaching for the heavens. Mother Nature and the mystery we call God lovingly pour themselves into each other, and I think it takes a farmer who prays to fully get this.”

    oh yes! amen and secret gardens. it took me along time to accept that i can energize quartz and love my Jesus without contradiciton. he made me who i am, a rancher’s daughter, a bareback tomboy on the plains and an earth mother who made all organic baby food and a bannering, worshiping fool for Christ. good post!


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