There is a rhythm to daily life at L’Abri: breakfast at 8, work or study from 9.30 till 1, with a tea break in between, lunch for an hour and a half, work or study in the afternoon from 2.30 till 6 and dinner at 6.30, which is sometimes followed by a film or free time. As Denes from Hungary said to me, you don’t have to make decisions at L’Abri, they are made for you … what you eat, your daily chores, the time you need to be somewhere.
Saturday was really relaxed. Heather and I were not on the list to do chores – guests who stayed for just a weekend were usually let off the hook. So while the ‘students’ went off to prepare lunch, clean or do gardening, Heather and I went for a walk into the tiny village of Greatham and explored the grounds of the Manor.
In the library at L’Abri there is every kind of Christian book including ones about the history of L’Abri and how it was founded. L’Abri is French for ‘shelter’ and was initially set up in Switzerland in the 1950s by American pastor and theologian, Simon Schaeffer, and his wife Edith. The Schaeffers opened up their home to people wanting to find answers to life’s questions, especially concerning faith and spirituality. Further branches of L’Abri have been established in other parts of the world, such as Canada, Germany, Brazil and this one in the UK.
Lunchtime at L’Abri is a time of lively discussion and debate. Anyone can put forward a topic for discussion. I didn’t enjoy this so much on the first day. Maybe it took a bit of ‘getting into’ and perhaps I found the topic a little heavy going (‘what is human nature?’), so I found myself clock watching for most of it. On reflection, I can see how valuable the lunchtime discussions could be for people wanting to work through various questions. If I stayed longer at L’Abri I think I would really get into them.
In the evening we ate a southern American stew, cooked up by one the students, followed by a delicious homemade pecan pie. I don’t know why but I wasn’t expecting the food to be so good at L’Abri or there to be so much of it. Everything was homemade, thoughtfully prepared by the students. The stash of snacks that Heather and I brought with us remained in the car, uneaten.
Heather I stumbled in through the door of L’Abri, which is set in a Manor house in the village of Greatham, Hampshire, a few minutes before 6.30pm on Friday evening. It was all very relaxed – a group sat gathered by a big wood burner as we entered, talking and laughing. Sarah, an American girl working there, greeted us warmly and showed us to our rooms.
We were just in time for dinner. There were around 30 people, mostly Americans in their 20s and 30s, sitting round long candlelit tables. It was all very atmospheric and felt a bit like something out of a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery… we just needed some rain lashing against the windows and a sudden flash of lightning!
We ate soup and toasted cheese and fell into conversation with others at the table – most of whom were ‘students’ and were staying at L’Abri for a term. I noticed that most people were wearing coats. The guy next to me, Ellis, who was wrapped up in a blanket, explained that the house was often cold in the winter as it was so expensive to heat. He was over for a couple of weeks from the L’Abri in Switzerland, which he had been a part of for more than 25 years. He explained that people came to L’Abri to take time out to explore questions they have about their faith through living in community with other Christians. The daily rhythm of life at L’Abri is one of study and work.
Following the meal we joined in on the weekly lecture, which this week was on the topic of Calvanism through the eyes of Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper.
Initially I found the whole experience of L’Abri rather overwhelming. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. There were a lot more people there than I was expecting, all of whom seemed to know each other really well. It felt a bit like walking in on a gathering of old friends.
We slept in dormitories of around eight people. It appeared I had drawn the short straw. I was high up on a bunk that I could only get onto by either stepping on, and launching myself off a small, rickety wooden desk belonging to the girl beneath me, or by attempting to climb up the side of the bunk bed where a pile of clothes were draped. Somehow I managed to climb up onto the bunk and slept pretty well on the whole.
It’s been a long long time since I wrote here, and an even longer time since I went on a retreat. Two years in fact, during which time I have been living in Spain. While I had plenty of weekend getaways in Spain, and experienced some moments of rest (usually in between lessons while drinking a quick cup of tea) I never really factored in much time for reflection. It was all pretty frenetic.
So much has been happening since I returned that I now feel in great need of a retreat, in order to step back a bit, and get some refreshment. I also thought it a good idea to breathe some new life into this blog, which I feel has been stagnating rather.
So this weekend I go to L’Abri in Hampshire. I’m not really sure what to expect, as it doesn’t call itself a retreat house, and chores are involved (not too many I hope)… so actually it may not be a retreat at all. I hope there is space for some quiet and reflection though. All will be revealed here on this blog on my return. If you’ve visited L’Abri please comment on this post – it’s so great to have feedback.
I like dabbling in photography, although I’m clueless when it comes to photography technicalities and all I own is a rather old Canon Ixus compact camera. The shots it took were better when I first bought it, but now and then it still delivers some fine results for a basic point-and-shoot camera. An example is this photo of a tree I took in a wood just outside Pamplona in northern Spain. I was out walking at the time with some friends on a rather overcast day. I changed the settings slightly to create a blue effect, giving the tree and its reflection a rather mystical quality.
It has been a while since I wrote here. Much has happened since! The main thing being that I am now living in Spain, in a city in the north called Pamplona, and I have taken up a teaching job. It’s a refreshing change from London and I’m gradually forming friendships with other teachers and Spanish people living here.
I am blogging about my experience at www.ayearinpamplona.wordpress.com. Pamplona lies on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, that has various starting points across Europe, which all meet at the Pyrenees and finish in Santiago in Spain.
Tomorrow I set out on the Camino de Santiago for 2 days, begining at Pamplona, and heading for the towns of Peunte la Reina and Estella. I hope to do much of the pilgrimage while I am living here, over weekends and holidays.
Have you been on a retreat lately? Where did you go and what was your experience?
I’d love to include on this blog other people’s experiences of retreat-going, alongside my own personal reflections, and to cover more retreats across the country.
Maybe you had a life-changing experience while on retreat – an experience you’ll never forget, or was it the most boring weekend of your life with the worst food you’ve ever eaten?
Whatever type of retreat (silent, workshop based, a day retreat), and whatever the experience (amazing, awful, hilarious), it would be great to receive your comments.
You can write your comments here below, or if you’d prefer, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s true what they say about job hunting being a full time job. It’s pretty all consuming, and creatively sapping. It’s also never ending – there’s always another job around the corner to apply for, a further tweak to make to the CV.
So the other day I did something really brave: I turned off my PC off and decided to paint something. Now this was really hard: dropping everything and focusing for a few hours on a painting. I felt like I ought to be doing something really productive (like another application form) rather than messing around with paints.
But it’s been like this for roughly the past four years, which is the amount of time I’ve been in this London houseshare, and the amount of time our large kitchen wall has remained bare. From the day I moved in I said I’d paint something, and four years on, still a blank wall. The reason is maybe a mixture of procrastination and not being able to decide what to paint.
So I bought a large canvas and the other day and began to paint. After a couple of hours a blue bird began to emerge from the blank canvas (I’m copying a lovely Wedgwood design – The Orange Bird). It’s not perfect by any means, but it was satisfying. I’ve toned down the orange background a bit as this would be way to garish for any kitchen wall.
Quite often I find I’m waiting for a creative moment in order to be creative, whether it’s painting or writing. And the result is that quite often that creative moment doesn’t come, so I get on with something else.
I read this the other day and it helped a lot: “Don’t wait for the muse to inspire you, to put you in the mood. That comes only with doing. So do. Momentum is a lot easier once you overcome inertia… Move a little bit and the muse will get behind you and help you push” (Danny Gregory in the Creative License).