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Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!

 

 

 

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