It's about as far away as possible from that little barn in Bethlehem. But it sticks with me all the same, symbolic and encouraging in its nature.
I can almost hear the hymns reflecting off the church's stone floor and block walls. There's silence, darkness. I'm barely able to see my wife and our college kids next to me. Then, ears tingle with the sensation of soft sounds; I almost feel the weight of airwaves slightly bending into my senses. It's peaceful. The hymns grow in volume, in celebration. Then, candles. Dozens of them. They illuminate the darkened church as the choir enters All Saints Chapel on the Sewanee campus near Nashville, Tenn.
I've written before about the Episcopal tradition of Lessons and Carols brought to perfection on this tiny college campus atop the Cumberland Plateau. Southern Living has featured it, as have other major publications. The ceremony, a combination of scripture readings and hymns in celebration of the Christ's birth, is a combination of High Church and Southern charm that characterizes Sewanee. In some ways, it's the story of the South encapsulated.
The campus is home to fewer than 2,000 students, boasts a thriving seminary, and sits on 13,000 beautiful acres. The landscape is breathtaking and one of the primary reasons my outdoors-minded children chose the school. The correlation between religion and nature, between education and mental peace, is profound.
Richard Allin, the Arkansas Gazette's Our Town columnist for almost four decades, often wrote about his time as an undergraduate there and is even buried in the campus cemetery. As he noted, Sewanee reveled in isolation before isolation was cool. I remember one of my children visiting Rhodes College in Memphis and hearing the admissions officer say, when learning of his interest in Sewanee, "Well, I guess some people like being in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do." The closest town is Monteagle with its Piggly-Wiggly (and its strangely impressive craft beer section), gas stations, and a Waffle House. It's a dot on the map, not known for much outside the area.
But, like any great present, the real value lies inside. Monteagle and Sewanee have some legendary restaurants, including High Point, where Al Capone stayed on his travels south to Florida. There's Jim Oliver's Smoke House, a home-cooked-meal restaurant with a motel and country store attached. Need a walking stick, homemade fudge, or local honey? It has everything.
Right down the road is the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, built as a retreat for the Southern elite and modeled after the Chautauqua Institution of New York. The turn-of-the-century Queen Anne and Craftsman styled homes form a barrier between the present and the past.
The Sewanee campus is stunning with its ancient stone buildings, extraordinary views, and chapel situated as the heartbeat of everything else. The architecture has an old European feel to it, a sense of grandeur mixed with the appreciation of natural environment.
Its real name is the University of the South, originally created pre-Civil War to rival the Ivy League schools and keep the bright minds in the region. Former Confederates helped it grow after the war, funding and populating it. Then, transformation slowly took root. The campus moved from honoring the Civil War to reveling in civil rights. Like most Southern institutions, it's a work in progress. But progress is a formidable word as long as it's a verb and not a static noun.
Reuben Brigety became the first Black vice-chancellor of Sewanee this year. An ambassador to the African Union during the Obama years, Brigety comes armed with abundant energy and a positive outlook. He's set about ensuring that the university embraces its unique academic position while answering the country's needs today. He looks forward. It's obvious he understands the moment. He's still an ambassador in so many ways.
At Christmas, it's hard not to think of miles traveled. It's been a tough year. We seem about as far away from Bethlehem as one can get. But perspective is vital. Depth is essential. The reality is that Christmas is the epitome of hope, the barn in Bethlehem its symbol.
The withering of the Old South, the rising tide of the new ambassador, the fact that despite its beauty, enchanting lure, and lasting, indelible mark it leaves on those who visit, the lure of Sewanee is much deeper than its superficial charm.
We missed Lessons and Carols this year on that magnificent Southern campus. Covid kept us away and moved the ceremony to the tiny screens in our hands. But we kept the memory of what we encountered. We could smell incense and evergreen and hear hymns mixing with the rush of wind through pine boughs. Christmas certainly is not less this year.
The South can be simultaneously forward-thinking and complex, gentle and angry, subtle and outrageous. Within it, we can skim the surface of our personal battles, especially those to which we surrender. We can choose to find the weight of the human soul, to hold someone fully and clearly and fairly. We can appreciate the man-made alongside the God-given. Because believing that a simple shed housed the son of God leads one to understand that underneath all turmoil lies truth. Hidden within all layers lies simplicity. Concealed within all distractions lies understanding.
This fact keeps us searching, keeps us finding, that little barn in Bethlehem.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.