“I have a question.”
These last few days I have been walking among the aspens of southwestern Colorado, just south of Pagosa Springs, not so far from the New Mexico border, listening to the questions of students who have taken a “gap” in their schooling. Some are just out of high school, some are in their university years, but all are young men and women who want to learn more than they have learned so far in life.
Having come to a similar place at age 20, I understand them. After trying to learn in college, I dropped out— and two years later came back, sure that if I had the right questions, I could learn about things that mattered, no matter where I was, no matter what the course was called.
Integral to my “extra-academic educational experiment” (which is what I called it at the time) was my time at L’Abri, a community of folk committed to honest questions, honest answers. There were no brochures, and there was no internet, but the word on the street was that L’Abri was a place of surprising integrity, where people mattered because truth mattered.
I had questions in my 20 year-old heart about the meaning of life, the meaning of my life, about what it meant to be a human being, about what it meant to be me. In those months of life together, with students from all over the world thinking and working and playing and eating together, I learned to learn, eventually giving me the confidence to return to college and find my way through my education— and strange as it is, years later even getting a PhD in the philosophy of learning.
The program at the Snow Wolf Lodge is based on the vision of L’Abri, creating an incarnational, intentional community of eager students who want to think more carefully and critically about life and learning. Drawn from all over America— from Vermont to California, from Florida to Minnesota, and many places in between —they are offered a semester of study about things that matter most. An intellectually rigorous experience that is just as concerned with who they become as it is with what they think, as concerned with heart as well as mind, they are here from early September through late November, until the snow makes it impossible to stay.
My being here comes from a conversation last spring. One Tuesday morning I received a letter from Dustin Jizmejian wondering if we could talk, and offering to fly to see me if it was possible. The next day he was on a plane, and we had lunch the following day. The longer I listened, the more intrigued I was. Yes, Colorado draws me, always. But more it was the vision for the good life and the good society, explaining his curriculum which in critical ways grew out of things I had written.
So I came, taking part in his hope for the last several days. I chose to speak on two themes, “A Whole Life for the Whole of Life,” addressing the habits of heart that form the vision of The Fabric of Faithfulness, a book which has shaped much of their curricular structure— and so speaking about the meaning of worldviews, of mentors, of communities; and “Four Questions, Four Conversations,” setting forth particularly serious, difficult questions, honest questions that need honest answers.
In and through it all we talked about a seamless life, a life of coherence between what we believe and how we life. For a thousand reasons that is harder than we imagine. In the last hour I reflected on my father and grandfather— good men, ordinary men, marked by their own glories and shames —and the ways that they had taught me about integrity, about the possibility of a more seamless life that was a more sacramental life, where “ora et labora” was threaded through their lives.
That both had loved the Sangre de Cristos of southwestern Colorado was important too, and I drew in that mountain range. Named “the blood of Christ” by Spanish explorers— so struck by the red-toned colors of sunset on the mountains —I ended with a call to sacramental living, where our deepest beliefs about God and the universe are woven seamlessly into the ways we learn. I long for that, I think we all long for that.
And even now, coming to the last morning, “I have a question” follows me wherever I go, walking up and down the hillsides, in and out of the dining hall. Remembering to remember my own life at age 20, they are words that I honor, words that I take to heart, knowing that twenty-somethings of every generation have honest questions— and they want honest answers. In the strange ways that we are perennial people, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, they are like me, and I was like them. Our questions are our questions, uniquely so, and yet, our questions are often the same questions, asked and answered in every century, in every culture.
(Photo of the San Juans of southwestern Colorado, near the New Mexico border, just across the San Luis Valley from the Sangre de Cristo range.)