Hiking the Glen Burney Trail with Norman and Genevieve

A hiking trip I took a week ago inspired some reflections on what constitutes a “sacred place.”  One aspect of the Church of Light which distinguishes it from most spiritual groups is the lack of any specific sacred places that are associated with its history.  The Coral Street headquarters in Los Angeles was the CofL’s home for several decades, but does not seem to inspire reverence or nostalgia.  No places associated with Zain’s early life, or those of his forerunners, are preserved or regarded in ways that typify most groups.  Recently I have written about Quaker history, and earlier about Theosophy, Edgar Cayce, Baha’i, and Radhasoami, all of which are marked by “sacred places” having some meaning associated with the movement founders.  But my own experience of the sacred is much more intense in natural settings than anything manmade; my hiking trips outnumber visits to churches etc. by more a hundred to one. My last hiking trip to was to a place with an intriguing connection to CofL history.

Attachment to specific places that define group identity seems to be almost crucial to spiritual groups.  Adherents of Mormonism, Christian Science, and Adventism have many historic sites associated with Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, or Ellen G. White to visit which document their role in American history.  Theosophists in America have several “home” properties which date to the 1920s or earlier.  The Association for Research and Enlightenment has its headquarters largely in a 1929 hospital built to put in practice the Edgar Cayce readings.  But by contrast the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor leadership seems like a group of spiritual nomads, uninterested in building institutions, and more oriented to appreciation of the natural world.  In CofL tradition, T.H. Burgoyne went off into the California mountains to write the Brotherhood lessons in the 1880s and 90s.  We know that Elbert Benjamine was leader of the Southern California Nature Club and led wilderness hikes from the 1920s through the 40s.  So it struck me as significant that the property owned by Genevieve Stebbins and Norman Astley in the 1890s and until 1904 was perched on a cliff with one of the most impressive mountain views in the Appalachians.

This deed in which the property was sold in December 1904 describes it as adjacent to “to the low edge of the Cliff Rock near the N.W. corner of Miss E.C. Prudden cottage.”  The Cliff Rock is what is now known as the Blowing Rock, described on its website as the oldest tourist attraction in North Carolina.  It was not developed as such until the 1930s, by which time Miss Prudden had donated a large parcel of land in the Johns River Gorge which includes several waterfalls.  The Glen Burney trail, which leads a mile and a half down the gorge and crosses New Year’s Creek several times, is one of the treasures of northwest North Carolina hiking.  The Glen Burney and Glen Marie Falls make the ardous climb rewarding.  While it is yet impossible to identify the “little cottage” that Norman Astley described owning in Blowing Rock, he did own this scenic building lot which was sold to Emma Reed Stewart for $265, around the same time they were selling holdings in nearby Burke County.

Peter Davidson migrated from the rugged Scottish Highlands to the equally rugged Blue Ridge mountains of north Georgia.  Burgoyne, according to tradition, chose mountainous terrain in which to live and write in California.   The Ohio-born Wagners moved throughout the mountain West before settling finally in Denver.  Although members of the Church of Light have no historic buildings or sites to which we can look with nostalgia, perhaps somehow that is appropriate.  The wilderness feels like a spiritual home to me more than any church ever has.  Knowing how my own consciousness is uplifted by hiking in mountains with sweeping vistas, I suspect that Stebbins and Astley chose to spend time in Blowing Rock because they needed just such a break from the urban lives.