By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 24, 2020
SANDY SPRINGS—The attraction of the forests surrounding Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center is spiritual, fueled by a sense of serenity and God.
One day in September, Steve Craig prayed on a bridge on the Inigo trail, barely able to see a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched hidden by a massive fallen tree and overgrown ivy.
“Just being there I can see 60 years of prayer and meditation and seeking God,” said Craig, who was at the retreat center for a five-day silent retreat. Craig, 59, who is Protestant and the founding pastor of His Hands Church in Woodstock, walked these trails daily as he stopped for contemplation in the small gorge.
Craig believed what was good for him spiritually would be valuable to others too. And as a hiker, he figured if the rough trails were redone the striking scene would be visible to more people. Craig made a donation to kickstart the restoration of the grounds and the trails.
The roughly 20 acres of woodlands surrounding the retreat house offer scenic views of the Chattahoochee River, leading people through a canyon and skirting a waterfall. The path circles the property for about a mile and a half as it passes beneath American Beech and White Oak trees.
Spiritual seekers can stroll to take in God’s creation and reflect on the divine from the natural world.
Encountering God in the woods
Rob McDowell, leader of the grounds committee and an earth science professor at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, said the project’s goal is to ensure nature is an integral part of spending days at the retreat center.
“We want the forests of Ignatius House to be an outdoor chapel as inspiring as our beautiful indoor chapel, and like a chapel built by humans in the city, an outdoor chapel in the suburbs needs to be tended to and occasionally repaired,” he said in an email. McDowell is a member of the Shrine of Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
Encountering God in the woods reflects the mission of the Society of Jesus, the sponsor of the retreat center. One of the religious order’s unofficial mottos is seeing God can be in all things, which includes nature. Ignatius House follows the direction set by the global Society of Jesus. Among its four missions is collaborating “in the care of our Common Home.”
The project reflects a movement of faith-based conservation. Five years ago the Archdiocese of Atlanta adopted an environmental plan for parishes to consider a more green approach to ministry. McDowell helped author it.
Tara La Bouff, the retreat center’s director of marketing, said this restoration respects the earth while nurturing it. The clearing with the help of rented goats and avoiding herbicides lets native plants and trees thrive as the forest evolves, she said.
Community joins the work
The retreat house campus sits on a ridge above the Chattahoochee River in a leafy, well-to-do neighborhood a few miles off of I-285. Jesuit priests have staffed it since 1961. It opens its doors to people seeking spiritual direction, including days of reflection for women and men who are homeless. It has operated since June with measures to keep visitors safe from the novel coronavirus.
A 2019 survey of the habitat explored the forest floor, fauna and its tree canopy. Naturalists from Trees Atlanta identified troubling areas. Trails carved out in the 1980s were too narrow with uneven footing. Invasive species of privet and wisteria choked the native groundcover. The aging wooden decks with water views needed attention. However, the survey revealed some good news. The conservation group found among the forest an abundance of Georgia’s wild mountain laurel evergreen shrub.
A master plan guides the trail renovations to be completed in two years. Experts with Top Tier Trees, Tailored Trails and Get Your Goat Rentals helped to envision what a new path system could look like.
The Inigo Trail is the first to get attention. “Goatscaping” relies on goats instead of machinery or chemicals to chomp through unwanted invasive species to clear the forest floor. Volunteers removed vines to expose the rockface, part of the millions of years old Appalachian Piedmont. Removing brush and fallen logs gave new life to the view of the waterfall and a statue of the Risen Christ.
Robert Holsten, the director of operations, watched as the work restored the water from a trickle to a cascade.
Holsten said in addition to revealing the natural beauty, the work has been embraced by the community.
“We have engaged some Boy Scouts troops. We have volunteer days scheduled. It’s great to see the groups with connections to Ignatius House come and restore the forest,” he said.
The first phase was estimated to cost about $30,000. Craig’s gift paid for nearly all of it. The other work will require special care to control riverbank erosion. The gazebos, wooden stairs and decks constructed over the years will also be touched up.
Craig, the Protestant retreatant, is returning to the center in January. He is bringing three other Christian leaders. He said it’s important for people involved in ministry to take time to pay attention to God too.
The noise from the waterfall filled the canyon, as drivers passed unaware above on Riverside Drive.
Craig’s surprise was to look from his prayer bench to the stone grotto in the hillside and the flowing water, parts of creation he didn’t know were there.
“It is even a more beautiful spot than I could foresee,” he said.