Many are unaware of L’Abri. And that is both a shame and an inevitability. It is a work that thrives behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. It never advertises or fundraises. It just keeps its doors open to all who come and need it. I’ve only ever spent time at the English L’Abri, but it is part of a family of communities around the world which all sprang from the original work set up by Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland (all the details are on their website).
L’Abri is a simple French word for ‘shelter’ – to my mind, that always evokes a remote bothy on the Scottish moors, and so is hardly very appealing (unless you’re marooned in the wilds of Rannoch Moor (where my grandparents honeymooned during the war, as it happens – lovely) and it’s sleeting and thundering. But as a metaphor it works OK – and it does live up to its name.
I’ve spent 3 short bursts of time there in the last 6 months during my sick leave/sabbatical. It has been a lifeline for a host of reasons. Here are just a few thoughts.
- It is in a beautiful place (the Manor, Greatham) set in lovely countryside. As such it is a perfect retreat from the chaos and cacophony of city life. But it’s not perfect. In winter, it’s absolutely freezing (making one overwhelmed by the wonder of log fires), and the house is constantly in need of tweaking and patching. All part of the charm, I guess
- It is the only place I know that manages to value deeply individual people for who they are as individuals, while at the same time taking the world of ideas very seriously. This is probably part of the explanation why there is no dichotomy between ideas, theology, the arts (in all their forms) and current affairs – it isall integrated because we are. Too often people and ideas get divorced (as in therapy at one end, or academia at the other). This is tragic and harmful. This is not to say that it is an academic hothouse, although it can get intense. But it’s not perfect – sometimes it can get a bit much.
- It combines the best of medieval monasticism without many of its hangups. It is deliberately a community (more on that in a mo), which entails rules and conventions, built around a deep-rooted commitment to hospitality and welcoming. There is a value given to structure in weekly life – no day is the same, but each day follows patterns of work (sharing jobs to keep gardens tidy, buildings intact and guests well fed), study (a wonderful audio and printed library, with resident workers who are committed to helping everyone grow and make progress whatever that might look like) and fun. There is a lot of laughter and lightness. There are no chains – no one is forced to stay but can come and go. But it is not perfect – it can become rather overwhelming. It’s vital to take a break every now and then.
- It never advertises for guests – but there are always extraordinary and fascinating people from all over the world. There have been wonderful people to get to know every time I’ve been, whom one would never normally encounter. There is a quiet acceptance that we are all needy, despite appearances or even ignorance of the fact. This gives the place a gentleness, an openness, a sense of safety. It is not perfect – because no one who works, lives, studies there is perfect. But it is unlike anywhere else I know.
An important book for the community is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which I’ve mentioned here before. And what I particularly love about that book is Bonhoeffer’s prior assumption, and indeed foundation, that Christian community will never be perfect. The issue is how one builds in expectations, structure and boundaries which are both safe and liberating for those who are not perfect.
For all its faults, I do think that L’Abri makes the best of that job of anywhere I’ve ever experienced.