I arrive at Swiss L’Abri two days after Ian has flown home to Australia, feeling bruised at the prospect of many months apart. It has been a rough few days. But I’m also excited. I’ve heard a lot about this place.
As the train from Zürich speeds south I realise that apart from punching my destination into the ticket machine I have given next to no thought as to where L’Abri is actually situated.
Well. It’s in the Swiss Alps.
I get off the train at Aigle and stare. These aren’t even the highest mountains in the Alps, but to me they are gigantic. Enormous. Mountainous. I grew up in remote, sandplain country and apart from a quick to trip to a snowfield on a high school camp, I’ve never been this close to real mountains before.
I buy a bus ticket – suddenly remembering “ein ticket für Huémoz bitte” won’t work here. French! Golly, I have even less grasp of French than German, and that’s not much. “Bonjour,” I say. “Huémoz?” He shows me the price on his screen: six euros for a short trip. This is Switzerland, baby.
When I lumber luggage-laden off the bus at the L’Abri stop a guy in a red shirt is standing there, smiling a welcome. “Were you waiting for me?” I ask in disbelief (I had no specific arrival time). “No no,” he grins. “We’re just moving furniture and I was waiting to cross the road.” All the same, he picks up one of my bags and walks with me up to the main chalet. A casually generous welcome that, it turns out, is typical at L’Abri.
Established sixty years ago by a Christian couple called Francis and Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri is a place where people go to ask questions, take time out to think, read, write, pray, or simply live in community for a while. Situated in a tiny Alpine village in French-speaking Switzerland, the name L’Abri translates to shelter. There are a number of these places around the world now, but the Swiss one is the original.
Over the next two weeks I feel how fitting this name is. I am enveloped into a warm and busy cocoon. The pace of life here is both busier and slower than normal. For half the day I am on a work crew cleaning the bathrooms or making pizza or weeding the gardens, and for the other half I am studying solo in the library. The meals are simple, delicious and wholesome; they run an incredibly frugal operation here, not wasting anything, using onions from the garden and wild strawberries. Internet usage is restricted to evenings and days off, forcing the habit of actually being with the people around you. The routine also forces a distinction between work and rest that I think is often lacking in modern society. Once your work is done and the meal is over, your time is your own. You can hang out in the lounge chatting to people, playing a little piano. If you need an introvert-recharge, there are mountain trails aplenty to seek solitude along.
Those mountains again.
On the first evening I stand out on the patio and just look. From my perch on the side of this mountain a forested valley dips down in front of me before soaring upwards into another gigantic mass of rock, ridges and peaks pushing into the never never. Grey stone turns to pink marble for a few moments as the sun sets. Through the valley, cloud swirls around a glacier. I can’t stop staring.
These jagged peaks are the backdrop for everything we do, literally – and, in a sense, metaphorically. In the face of sky-high rock you can’t help feeling small. And in the face of such beauty you can’t help feeling grateful. Each day I’m reading and thinking about what role art plays in Christian life, and right outside the window by my desk is a scene some might call God’s art: brilliant green trees shining in the hot sun; a distant mountain ridge filled with snow; weeds and grass and brambles as thick and deep as a river rolling down the slope; flying insects chirring and buzzing, zipping around like it’s festival time, sipping nectar, chatting to each other.
And it’s not just the insects chatting away in the summer grass. Conversation plays a huge role at L’Abri. It feels like a safe place to ask questions and make comments I wouldn’t feel able to in other Christian groups. Everything is on the table. My fellow students are here with questions varying from the practical to the existential, and I find amongst them people willing to think outside the box a little, respectful of difference but not afraid to offer opinions.
We have lectures twice a week from the workers (also our tutors) who live here permanently. On the philosophy of belief, on the joy of food, on the ethics of technology. They are richly referenced and thought provoking, and sometimes the discussions afterwards go on as long as the lecture itself.
It’s in discussions like these that I make new friends: sharing our life stories while pulling weeds, talking about relationships while watching people play ping-pong, conversing about travel while cooking a stirfry. There’s a lot of serious chat but there’s also a lot of fun. On our days off, we hike into the mountains, or go dancing at El Gringos until 3am, or hitch a ride in an effort to get to Montreux… in the back of a white transport van… something I wouldn’t do most places in the world, but in Switzerland it’s so safe even the locals hitch.
We’re all hitching in some way, all passing through this place, taking a little and giving a little. Some of us may see each other again, some may not. Some may come back one day, some may not. As for me, I’ll think fondly of my fellow travellers, people who left an impression, who pricked my mind with a new thought, who cared enough to ask real questions about me and my life.
And I’ll think about the mountains standing steady and unmoving, and how in some way we all took shelter in them.