When Molly Vass-Lehman, the former director of the Holistic Health and Contemplative Well-Being program at Western Michigan University, crafted her new book, she titled it GilChrist: A Place to Remember.
Certainly, the GilChrist Retreat Center, which she founded with her husband, Rob Lehman, is a memorable place. On 67 acres of majestic rolling land eight miles northwest of Three Rivers, its eight small retreat cabins and a central building called Wind Hill are constructed in the manner of dwellings occupied by “desert mothers and fathers” who lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the fourth and fifth centuries who existed in near silence and unceasing prayer in small separate homes called hermitages, near a common house where they congregated for group support.
But conversing with Vass-Lehman soon leads to the realization that it’s not just the surroundings that make the GilChrist memorable. It’s the energy there that she says invites people to mindfully “remember who they are, what’s important, what’s essential. Remember that we’re part of this Earth.”
GilChrist, published by Brown Books Publishing Group and released in October, is a coffee-table book of 72 pages, with 42 photographs taken by some of the 25,000 persons who have visited GilChrist in its 28 years of existence. Vass-Lehman says these photos “come from the most contemplative eye. They are pictures that couldn’t be taken unless being quiet with a great sense of peace while witnessing the surrounding beauty.”
Vass-Lehman reveals that she crafted the book to honor those who come to GilChrist to “seek to live in greater harmony with all creation.” Retreatants at GilChrist, she writes, “come from all walks of life — Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Native American, those who have no faith belief. They come in times of exhaustion, grief, loss of meaning and loss of hope, seeking a place of retreat, rest and healing They also come in times of celebration, commemoration, and threshold moments in their lives. What they find is a place for communion and contemplation where they can be alone or with others to see and recover a sense of the sacred.”
Vass-Lehman says that over the years before and after purchasing the GilChrist property, she and Rob spent many hours in the chapel at St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that shares a property line with GilChrist and can be reached by walking a forested path. The couple would listen to the monks chant and “listen to ourselves in order to go back out in the world to do the work we needed to do.”
For Vass-Lehman, that work was a career that had grown like a wandering, light-seeking vine. Born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, she traveled out of her home state for the first time shortly after submitting her doctoral dissertation at West Virginia University in 1978. Walking on a beach in New Jersey, she says, she met a man she describes as “the most peaceful person I’ve ever met.” He spoke to her of the great thinker and religious teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, yogic breathing, meditation and the wisdom of ancient traditions. Vass-Lehman remembers asking herself, “Why don’t I know of these things?”
There’s a serendipitous story behind GilChrist’s stone chapel that honors feminine energy and was largely constructed by women.
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She returned to her university, where she read Krishnamurti’s book Education and the Significance of Life. On the morning of her dissertation defense, her professor found her sitting lotus style on campus.
“He told me, ‘Molly, I don’t care what’s happened to you. I just want you to walk in the room and defend your dissertation because you’ll want this union card sometime in the future. Please do this whether you think it’s important or not.’” She followed that advice.
Traveling again to visit a friend in another part of New Jersey, she encountered a traffic jam. She, like other drivers, got out of her car. “The last thing the man on the beach (had) said to me was, ‘I’ll see you again soon.’ I thought then, ‘There is no way I would ever see this human again.’ But there he was, in his car stopped beside mine.”
As a result of this second serendipitous encounter, Vass-Lehman decided not to pursue a university position, but moved to New York City and traveled in Europe to study holistic modalities and spiritual traditions.
When presented with the opportunity to teach in WMU’s Department of Counselor Education in 1979, she replied, “I can’t teach the main courses unless you allow me to teach holism and meditation, the effects of nutrition on the mind and the body, and how the body’s condition affects thinking and imagination.”
WMU agreed, and she taught in that department for two years. Then the University of Wyoming in Laramie aske her to start that school’s group counseling program. She lived on a buffalo ranch near Laramie and taught for two years before taking a similar position at Barry University in Miami for two years.
Then WMU beckoned again, asking Vass-Lehman to direct the university’s soon-to-be-formed Holistic Health Program. She accepted even though only a handful of students had signed up for the courses. She knew the program would be dropped if it didn’t grow immensely in the first year, and the salary offered was half of what she was making in Miami.
“This was a pioneer program in the United States and the first holistic health curriculum in a state-funded university,” she says.
To attract the attention of students in mainstream health programs, promotion and content for the new courses had to use secular terminology. “We couldn’t talk of meditation because it takes on a connotation of spiritual traditions,” Vass-Lehman explains. “Mindfulness had to be placed into a more acceptable arena, not associated with religion.”
The program was a success, she notes, saying “thousands of students took the classes over the last 38 years,” of which she taught for 20.
In 1991, Vass-Lehman became a founding fellow of the Fetzer Institute in charge of the Educational Outreach Program and met Rob Lehman, then-president of the institute. “That’s how Rob and I really started working together,” she says.
Vass-Lehman became a collaborator on the Fetzer-funded five-part series Healing and the Mind, hosted by journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers, which aired on PBS in 1993.
Then, through what Vass-Lehman calls “a whole series of miracles,” she and Lehman developed a relationship based on their mutual desire to live in a contemplative environment. In 1994, they found and purchased the property that would become GilChrist.
“Rob said to me, ‘We have to get married; we’re having a child.’” That child was GilChrist, which they named after Sister GilChrist, a Catholic nun who had told Vass-Lehman she was destined to build an interfaith retreat center.
Of that time in their lives, Vass-Lehman says that even though they were overwhelmingly busy “flying around the country for Fetzer and speaking on different subjects,” teaching at WMU and operating a private counseling practice, she saw that she and Lehman “needed to anchor ourselves, especially when our work was about mindfulness and contemplation.”
“Listen with the ear of the heart,” she says, quoting the opening words of the Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written by St. Benedict in the sixth century for monks living communally. “One of the contemplative traits is learning to listen, and it’s a trait that many have lost.”
GilChrist, which the couple donated to the Fetzer Institute in 2000, is still open to the public as a place for people to go and listen and remember who they truly are.