This Easter marked an important milestone for Jerry Parker, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who completed the 2,160-mile trail before it was cool.
Communities across the mountains are rolling out the green carpet for the Easter bunny over the next two weekends. Check out the “Easter Events” section of the calendar for a full lineup Easter egg hunts, Easter services and even breakfast with the Easter Bunny.
For Christians, Easter is a moveable feast day — this year the celebration fell about as late in the spring as it possibly can — which sparks consideration of the resurrection of Christ and all that this resurrection means for them. Many congregations hold sunrise services. The Moravians of Winston-Salem are famous for sending brass bands throughout the city during the early hours of Easter Sunday to greet this special day with music. Catholics light vigil fires outside their churches on Saturday evening and end Holy Week with a service that begins in darkness and explodes into light. Easter is the time of year when many churches welcome new members, when the fullness of the possibility of resurrection is contemplated by believers.
Like Christmas, Easter can make those who are not Christians more acutely aware of their inability or unwillingness to believe in such a personal god. Passing by churches filled with parishioners or worshippers standing in a meadow at sunrise, these non-believers may experience many reactions: scorn, indifference, a desire to believe but without the faith to do so. Atheists, whose numbers in America have grown in recent years, righteously declare that God doesn’t exist, but many more who lack faith in God travel under the uncertain banner of agnosticism.
In Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (ISBN 978-1-57731-912-2, $22.95), English professor and public radio host Michael Krasny has produced a wise and gentle look at agnosticism and religious faith. In our loud, cacophonous time, this age in which it too frequently seems that those who scream the loudest, who throw off the most crass insults, who gleefully and ignorantly deliver ad hominem attacks, Michael Krasny may seem in his call for tolerance like the Biblical voice crying in the wilderness. His restraint in terms of criticizing religious faith — coupled with his own examination of his inability to believe in an immanent god — makes this small book worthwhile reading for believers and non-believers alike.
What is best about Spiritual Envy is its mix of philosophy, faith, literature, and personal example. Krasny is more interested in exploring belief and disbelief, why some people believe and why others find belief an impossibility, than he is in winning arguments or slicing up those who disagree with him. He argues in the broad manner of a good “liberal humanist,” bringing in literary figures from Ian Fleming to Flannery O’Connor, philosophers from Augustine to Peter Singer, psychiatrists from John Mack to Ian Stevenson, poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Jim Croce.
Krasny also displays the mind of a liberal thinker — here I intend the old definition, the meaning associated with a liberal education, rather than the politics currently linked to the word — in trying to understand those whose religious faith acts as the grounding wire for life. He does indeed envy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers, and writes that he has frequently longed for their ability to find a personal god in the universe. He also speaks well and with understanding of those who do believe in that sort of god and who can’t figure out why their neighbors have so much trouble finding that faith. In fact, the only group for which he reserves a good store of scorn is for those nonbelievers who “view those who have religious zeal as evil or simple-minded.”
In our time, when a few religious fanatics and a few more atheists and secular-minded folk gain most of our attention by finger-pointing, by trying to limit free speech with the barbed wire of political correctness or religious zeal, and in a few cases, by killing those regarded as enemies, the odds are likely that Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy will be little read or heeded. We have grown unaccustomed to calls for real tolerance, to nuance in arguments, to what Krasny calls “the power of asking the right, or most reasonable and compelling, questions….”
Many among us no longer seek to ask such questions, or any questions, of those with whom we disagree, preferring to paste our opponents over with labels and bumper-stickers. In losing all sense of proportion — and as is often the case, all sense of humor as well — a large number of Americans have bought into the argument that the political truly is the personal, that the atheist must axiomatically despise the believer, and vice versa, with little regard for their human personhood. Those whose beliefs differ from our own are no longer living, breathing fellow beings, but caricatures to be avoided, gagged, or driven from our midst.
This failure is unfortunate. Such rude judgment makes objects of our neighbors, stripping them of their humanity. Worse, and on a grander scale, it leads to the creation of armed camps, of us versus them, of labeling other Americans as our enemies simply because their vision of life and death is different than our own.
Near the end of his book, Krasny writes:
“I have been emphasizing a code of respect for others and for what they do or do not believe. It boils down to recognizing that what people believe, or how they worship or act or don’t act on their belief or nonbelief, is, as my Dad would have jauntily put it, their own damn business as long as they do no harm.”
Where’s Dad when you need him?
Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny. New World Library, 2010. 264 pages.
Plink plink plink.
A moment of silence.
Again – plink plink plink.
It’s 6 a.m. and the sky is still unlit, the color of chalky charcoal. But in a corner, a small orange light is on a steady, metronomic blink, flaring and fading at half-second intervals, indicating that there are three e-mails and two texts and another four calendar alerts vying for attention.
It’s the open laptop on the desk, declaring to the room at large that it’s 6 a.m. and its own ceaseless Web-trawls have gleaned more e-mails, more tweets, a few new blog posts.
Welcome to the 21st century, where every day is filled from open to close with a multitude of technological tethers that tie us, Gulliver-like, to our phones, computers and tablets. If we haven’t received an e-mail by noon, we suspect system malfunctions. We feel out-of-touch and somehow exposed if stripped of cell phone or PDA.
In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a virtual bazaar of non-stop information blasts, the ancient practice of spiritual devotion can begin to seem out-of-place, a reverse anachronism. We value the new and innovative and original, and juxtaposing that against quietude and reflection that are the hallmarks of spiritual development can seem nigh upon impossible.
But now, during Easter, what was once revered as a time of spiritual reflection is now another instance of busy-ness in the extreme. The children need to get Easter baskets and join 1,000 other kids to pick up eggs in public spaces. There need to be festivals. And hats. And runs. And chocolate. And cookie-decorating experiences. Angry Birds has even released a special Easter version, so you can spend your weekend slinging wingless birds at Easter-themed pigs on your iPad, if that’s your thing.
So is there value in clearing through the bursting spring schedule to make a space for spiritual development?
Scott Holmquist believes the answer is yes.
He’s the executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, a retreat near Asheville whose mission is to promote spiritual growth and retreat.
“It’s like the difference between going to a regular movie and a 3-D movie,” says Holmquist.
Sure, a 2-D movie is decent, but it sort of pales in comparison to the wonders of three dimensions, popping out at you from unexpected angles. And while the spectacle of modern life is wonderful, it can limit how we interact with our own third dimension, the spirit, the 3-D glasses of personal growth.
“I’m so glad to be in the 21st century,” says Holmquist, “but those things that are wonderful can keep us from stopping, from taking a deep breath.”
The ancient Sufi poet Rumi advised his students to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.” He was an Islamic Persian mystic who lived in the 13th century, and although that might usually qualify him for inclusion in the prudes-of-the-middle-ages category, the poet was actually an ardent believer in building spiritual life on love and devotion to God and others. Much of eastern Islamic music is built on the foundation he laid.
And ringing true eight centuries later, spiritual leaders from a plethora of faith backgrounds echo Rumi’s thoughts: spirituality in a modern world needs discipline, but more importantly it needs community.
The Rev. Michael Hudson is an Episcopal priest who leads St. David’s in Cullowhee. He says that, even after 60 years of life, he still sees the spiritual world as a mystery, and a good one. To him, it’s almost impossible for most people to experience that mystery alone.
“I think for 99.9 percent of us, it’s absolutely necessary to do that,” says Hudson of joining in a spiritual community. “I think we are diminished if we don’t do that.”
Heather Murray Elkins says much the same thing. She’s a pastor and professor and has also been a poet, a teacher at a bi-lingual Navajo school and an instructor in South Korea. And a truck stop chaplain. Next, she’ll be part of a spiritual growth retreat held in June at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a Methodist conclave in Haywood County.
Elkins’ seminars attract people from around the continent to talk and debate liturgy, and she agrees with Hudson that community is key, not only to sticking it out on the sometimes-arduous spiritual road, but to getting to that spiritual road in the first place. Like Rumi, Elkins sees value in closing physical eyes to open spiritual ones, but in this culture, it’s challenging to go it alone.
“In a culture where time is money, we just keep going faster and faster and faster, so I teach students to try to tell time differently,” says Elkins “How you go about doing that are little acts of resistance. You have to do it with some kind of community. You can’t keep holy time by yourself.”
Elkins gives the example of Orthodox Jews as impeccable holy timekeepers, holding one another strictly to observances of Shabbat, where all of the distractions and responsibilities that life necessitates are taken forcibly from the equation.
“They agreed to protect each other’s time,” says Elkins, and without that protection, holy time falls by the wayside in deference to the frenetic pace of the world clock.
She holds in low esteem the idea that spiritual life can be healthy without community.
“I meet people frequently who say ‘I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.’ That’s an absolutely nonsensical answer,” says Elkins. “It’s not a matter of going to, it’s a matter of being in. It’s community, and you can’t do that by yourself.”
But actual community in the 21st century – one that is comprised chiefly of people you see face-to-face, rather than in a virtual arena – is not only increasingly hard to come by, it’s apparently becoming increasingly undesirable, as well.
In a study done by the Harvard Business Review, people showed themselves to be far and away more likely to use self-service or automated options over interacting with an actual human. And this rang true on every level – from banks, to supermarkets to troubleshooting their glitch-ridden smartphones. People, increasingly, do not want to talk to or interact with other real people if they can possibly help it.
A National Geographic exploration of worldwide longevity found that we, as average Americans, had three close friends just 15 years ago; now, most of us say we only have 1.5. This is not the case among other groups — in Okinawa, Sardinia or even American Seventh-Day Adventist communities — where close-knit, lifelong personal communities are the norm, as is longer life.
When the Harvard researchers agglomerated customer service call center data, the information showed that a staggering 57 percent of callers had already spent a considerable amount of time on the Internet and company website trying to address the problem themselves. Thirty percent stayed on the site, continuing to attempt self-service while actually talking to the person who is supposed to be the expert.
The author’s tone in the article trended toward concern for the fact that people just don’t seem to want to talk to other people without the barrier of an Internet connection. The piece was even endearingly titled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” because, presumably, they are no longer interested in being delighted.
“Here’s a hypothesis that would be concerning if it’s right: maybe customers are shifting toward self-service because they don’t want a relationship with companies,” say Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff, who penned the analysis. And while that theory is certainly distressing to businesses trying to romance the spending public, it carries heavier implications for the spiritual life.
Nate Novgrod, a licensed acupuncturist who also teaches Chinese spiritual practice in Waynesville, says that he sees the lack of spiritual practice translating into negative implications for his patients’ health.
“I think it can definitely be very helpful to have a group of people that are of similar mindsets,” says Novgrod. “My patients that have strong spiritual direction or path, regardless of what it is, tend to be healthier than my patients that don’t.”
That thought has a thread in it that runs through Scott Holmquist’s evangelical Christianity, too. He calls it The Body.
“The vitality of our personal relationship with God is pivotal and is key and is really, really important,” says Holmquist, “but it is always in the context of the body of Christ, the church, the virtual church.”
What he means, he says, is that sure, your own knowledge and experience is essential, but only, really, when it’s up against other people’s. That’s why it’s called a body – hands are amazing instruments, but severed from the rest of the body, they just become grotesque.
And so this is the common denominator – community, being with other people, as Heather Murray Elkins says, not going to, but being in.
And all of these practitioners concede that taking the time to do this is not easy, and the modern, Western world is in no way structured to offer time out for spiritual pursuits. Even that phrase seems like it should be in quotes, almost sarcastic in its diametric opposition to our time-is-money culture.
But taking a moment to reflect and committing time to engage with other people spiritually is, they say, vital to spiritual growth. And, as Novgrod points out, it’s not bad for physical health either. Just look at the Okinawans.
Mary Teslow is a professor at Western Carolina University and also a lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin. For Unitarians, the guiding principle is to help one another search responsibly for truth. And for Teslow, that means that taking a minute to prioritize that search is a pretty important component to finding it.
“I think it’s easy for us to lose track of it, things get busy,” says Teslow. “I think being intentional about it and being willing to start small — if you can consistently carve out 15 minutes, 20 minutes — then you can build on that. You don’t have to make that ginormous change; even if you get started, that’s a good thing.”
At your law office, waiting in line for coffee, walking to work – engage your spirit in all of those times. If you don’t schedule at least a little time to nurture your spiritual life with others, it’ll fall by the wayside. At least that’s the advice of the professionals.
“It’s kind of like spiritual muscle tone. You use it or lose it,” is the way Episcopal priest Hudson puts it. Is it a challenge? Sure, he says. But that’s what makes it worth it, to you and the people around you.
Medical research has shown that leading a consistently stressful life causes something called the inflammatory response, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is a contributing factor to all manner of nefarious afflictions like cardiovascular problems and Alzheimer’s. Stepping back from that stress-fest for just 15 minutes a day can help reduce those effects.
In his congregation, Hudson says, they often refer to a quote by Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian theologian, to guide them to fulfilling spiritual life: “vocation is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Scott Holmquist says it’s really about taking the time you have, however small, and prioritizing it.
“The spiritual part of my life is going to require a priority that will need to have reflection in commitment of time and of resources,” he says. “Whatever we feed is going to grow.”
That’s a sentiment that hearkens back to our medieval friend Rumi, the love poet.
“But knowing depends,” said Rumi, “on the time spent looking.”
Places like Lake Junaluska Assembly exist to provide a respite and place to put in that quality time.
Jack Ewing, the director of the Assembly, says that’s what it’s been for him and his family for years; it’s what drew him to the job. He and his wife traveled to Lake Junaluska for 32 years to get away and recharge before moving there in 2005. Maintaining that spiritual space for other seekers is, he says, integral to what the Assembly is about, even as the church and world are changing.
“The reality is that we are in a world which is changing. What people want is changing,” says Ewing. “I think the mission of Lake Junaluska will always be to fulfill the needs of the church.”
That’s why, even in the action-packed Easter schedule they have going, the Assembly is carving out time for personal, spiritual celebration.
“We start Good Friday with what’s called a tenebrae service, which means a service of darkness, a relatively somber, quiet service of scripture reading and hymns,” explains Roger Dowdy, the director of ministry. That, he says, is followed by an Easter vigil, one of the most ancient ceremonies of the Christian faith that brings the church together to pause, in the darkness, and reflect on the sacrifice of Christ and their place in it together.
The lifestyle of our world puts pretty high value on speed, innovation and increased virtual connection. And as Scott Holmquist pointed out, there’s really nothing wrong with that. It’s led to some outstanding technological breakthroughs, like robotic surgery and nanotechnology and Post-It notes. But there is still, practitioners say, value in those little acts of rebellion against the clock. It’s a value that benefits our minds, spirits and even our bodies, and it is, they say, worth turning off the phone for, even for just a moment.
“Abraham Heschel said that if you had only one prayer to say,” says Heather Murray Elkins, “thank you would be sufficient.”
The cross on Mount Lyn Lowry still lies dormant, but repairs are under way with hopes that the bulbs will be shining again by Easter.
The 60-foot cross is a nighttime landmark in the Balsam mountains between Waynesville and Sylva. It went dark last November — the first time in its nearly 50 year history. Repairmen couldn’t make it up the road to the 6,000-foot peak until winter had passed. When they did, they discovered the culprit was a lightning strike that left the icon’s electrical systems damaged, said its longtime caretaker Marvin Bolick.
“The lightning strike, it just messed everything up,” said Bolick. Electricians have been working with Progress Energy to fix the components fried by the strike, as part of the damage was to the company’s systems.
Judy Meyers, who can see the cross shining from several rooms in her house nearby, said she feared the cross had shut off permanently.
“At first we thought it was due to clouds or fog coverage which sometimes occur, but then we noticed on the clear nights that it was still dark on top of the mountain. We kept watching to see if the lights would come back on but they didn’t,” said Meyers.
She was pleased, she said, to learn that the problems were simply electrical.
It was erected in 1965 by General Sumter Lowry, as a monument to his 15-year-old daughter Lyn who died of leukemia. It’s now maintained by the family through a foundation.
When the sun crests the mountains’ edge Easter morning, it will creep down through the hills and fall on Lake Junaluska, where more than 300 worshippers will sit awaiting it at the foot of the massive wooden cross that graces the lake’s edge.
It’s the culmination of a weekend full of Easter celebrations and the continuation of a tradition that has stood at the Methodist retreat for years.
Though the Easter sunrise service might be the spiritual climax of the holiday at the Lake, it will be the end to a weekend packed full of events that will draw Lake Junaluska Assembly’s second-largest crowd of the whole year.
The services themselves — and there are several, all commemorating a different piece of Christ’s biblical journey to the cross — have been going on for years, but the other festivities just got their start five years ago, says Ken Howle, director of communications for Lake Junaluska Assembly.
“We did this as a mechanism for reaching out to the local community, to build stronger relationships and to make people feel welcome at Lake Junaluska,” says Howle. And if attendance is the measure of success, the effort is working.
The retreat center will host a massive egg hunt in conjunction with Waynesville’s recreation department, one of the area’s most popular, where 10,000 plastic eggs filled with tiny treats will be hidden for children to find. The hunt, says Howle, drew about 300 kids the first year and has been steadily growing since. They expect 1,000 hunters this year.
Staff and volunteers at the Assembly have been readying the eggs, many of which are recycled from years past, for nearly a month now.
The 5k and 10k Bunny Run last year attracted runners from 10 states, and 300 to 400 participants are expected to run this year.
An egg decorating contest will also be on offer, with prizes donated by Mast General Store.
“There is really something for everybody this weekend at Lake Junaluska,” says Howle. “It’s a big process, but for us this is one of the funnest events that we do each year because it’s a way that we can really give back to the local community.”
As for the services themselves, there will be four, each with a different focus and atmosphere to reflect the differences in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The spiritual aspects of the celebration will start on Friday night, with a somber service, followed by a massive Easter vigil on Saturday evening and culminating in Sunday’s sunrise service.
The Easter vigil is one of the oldest services in the Christian tradition and will include five different churches from four denominations around the region.
Lake Junaluska’s events aren’t the only ones ringing in the budding spring this weekend, though. Just a few miles west in Dillsboro, locals and tourists alike are dusting off their bonnets for another round of the town’s famed Easter Hat Parade.
Now in its 23rd year, the parade invites guests of all ages — and species — to don their best Easter headwear and join the march through Dillsboro on the Saturday before Easter.
Vintage cars will join the procession and judges will pick the best hats from 20 different categories, from biggest and smallest to ‘poofiest’ and most spring-like.
Here, too, kids can spend the afternoon searching out Easter eggs before taking in and English tea at the Jarrett House Inn.
And for those who are, as yet, hatless, never fear; the Dillsboro Crafters will be on hand for a hat-making workshop ahead of the parade.
So whether it’s taking in the sunrise at the water’s edge or donning a festive chapeau for an afternoon stroll with a few hundred friends, there’s something for everyone this Easter weekend as we celebrate the fading of winter and the budding green of welcome spring.
April 16 — A visit from the Easter Bunny, arts and crafts, egg hunts, Easter bonnet contest, duck races and other activities at Stecoah. Activities start at 11 a.m. 828.479.3364 • stecoahvalleycenter.com
April 23 — Run the 5k or 10k Bunny Race, followed by egg hunts and decorating contests at Lake Junaluska. Run begins at 8:30 with Easter services throughout the weekend. 828.452.2881 • lakejunaluska.com
April 22 - 23 — Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad from Bryson City for an egg hunt, bunnies and photos with Snoopy. 800.872.4681 • gsmr.com
April 23 — Don your best bonnet for the Dillsboro Easter Hat Parade. Judging in 20 different categories as well as a hat-making workshop, egg hunt and English tea. Festivities start at 10:30 a.m. with parade at 2 p.m. 800.962.1911 • visitdillsboro.org
April 23 — See the Easter bunny and join in two separate egg hunts: one for infants through age four, and one for ages five to 10 at Bryson City Horse Arena Grounds. Egg drop contest and other events will be available. Activities begin at 1 p.m. 800.867.9246.
April 23 — Community pancake breakfast and egg hunt at Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm and Elf Village. Breakfast begins at 8 a.m. with egg hunt to follow at 10 a.m. 828.743.5456
April 23 — Easter egg coloring party for children ages four to 16 at The Waynesville Inn, plus a story reading, pizza dinner and ice cream. Activities begin at 6:30 p.m.
April 24 — Egg hunt led by the Easter bunny outside the Cork and Cleaver restaurant at The Waynesville Inn. Hunt starts at 1:30 p.m. following a brunch. 828.456.5988