I can’t remember the first time I learned about Chautauqua Institute. It may have been from Rev. George Wirth. George was pastor of the Sewickley Presbyterian Church, north of Pittsburgh, and was often on campus of PTS. I interviewed with him for a position coming out to seminary and knew that he had a summer place in Chautauqua, which I knew was somewhere in upstate New York, but beyond that I didn’t know much. Later, I learned it was the grandaddy of all places like Montreat and Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. Then friends started to come and serve as chaplain and sang its praises. It bills itself as a “festival for the mind, body and spirit.” A lifelong Chautauquan calls it “Disneyworld for Brainiacs.” After being here less than a week, I find that description apt.
The best definition I’ve heard comes from historian and author David McCullough:
"There is no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere in the world. … it is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat and village square — and there's no place — no place — with anything like its history."
Being here with ten Westminster friends – Kelly and Bill Christie, Catherine and Ken Garrison, Lane and Hugh Harvey, Linda Koon, Harriet and Bob Sewell, and Mary Wheeler – plus Bill Christie’s brother and sister-in-law and Hugh’s sister and brother-in-law, has made it a delight. Most of us are staying in the Presbyterian House, which is right across from the 4,000-seat open air amphitheater. As I write from the second-floor balcony, I am watching the Chautauqua Symphony play and can hear their glorious music as the cool breeze rustles through the leaves of the trees that surround us.
The morning starts with worship and Fr. Greg Boyle, the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Boyle). His sermons have been impactful and the worship inspiring. Afterwards, the Presbyterian House porch has a ministry of hospitality providing coffee and tea for anyone who would like to drop by for the break between worship and the first lecture of the day. My job is to be “on duty” on the porch, greeting and speaking to those who come and partake in the hospitality.
The theme this week is on the Future of History and our first two speakers, Eliot Cohen (“Patriotic History: Dealing with the Terrible, the Great, and the Complicated Persons in our Past” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliot_A._Cohen), and Annette Gordon-Reed (“On Juneteenth” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Gordon-Reed), have been exceptional. In the afternoon there are a variety of options, but also an Interfaith Lecture Series; yesterday Marilynne Robinson spoke on the topic of “Let There Be, and There Is: Creation and Reality” which was equal parts dense, lyrical, and impenetrable theology! Most of us were hoping to hear her illuminate aspects of her famous characters in the novels, Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack, but instead she chose to read from some of her non-fiction work.
There are also wonderful art and music options in the evening. Last night a number of our group went to hear the opera, Tosca, while others walked the grounds after a stormy day, while still others read and listened to a concert put on by the singer, Gina Chavez.
These have been wonderfully rich, full days, made even more joy-filled by having Amy, Westminster friends, and meeting others sharing the Presbyterian House with us. I am deeply grateful for the chance to spend my last week here. Chautauqua has more than lived up to its billing…and we’re only three days in!