A Swiss Mountain Shelter
If you are following this story primarily interested in puppetry you can probably skip this chapter without doing much harm to the narrative, seeing that it is more of a pause or detour into something else. Nevertheless in a way it is precisely the issues being dealt with here that feed back into my own interest in the value of puppets. For this is still on the journey searching for a stronger sense of reality. Exactly the reality that the malls and iPhones I keep running into seem so desperate to avoid.
Someday you might find yourself in the French canton of Vaud riding a bus up hairpin curves towards the tiny village of Huémoz in Switzerland towards a place called L’Abri. And if so its a good place to stop as many folks from all over the world have done for over fifty years. And as I originally did back in 1978. L’Abri means shelter in French. And in many ways this place has been and truly remains a shelter today. I have been back several times over the years and have far too much history here to actually convey in any short description. But I will say this: This is one of the formative places in my thinking and worldview. And so every few years I drop by and visit friends, give a lecture or two, meet the new students and have endless and fascinating conversations.
L’Abri is a Christian place. But it hardly comes down as either fundamentalist or liberal in its emphasis on faith. It is neither hidebound nor trendy. It is a place for questions. Difficult questions. Honest questions. Any questions. There are students who came here and the only thing that really happened is that they left knowing that they weren’t Christians. There are atheists who came here through some whim or recommendation who came to realize that not all who professed to believe in Christ were the narrow-minded folks the media loves to display. Every time I come it is a different world. The students of each period, not merely college aged, yet often refugees of the excesses of contemporary Christianity and modern alienation, come with different questions. And this time was no different.
Last time I was here in 2005 was a time of many subtle rebellions. It seemed that a majority of the thirty-five students smoked as their way of proving some sort of rebel cred. They were passing around Paul Tillich books, flirting with postmodernity. There was a certain amount of emotional damage causing a few students to freeze up or break into tears when discussing why they had come to this place. This time felt quite different. The students often felt a bit more secure in what they believed. Yet in a strange sort of way technology seemed more dominant in their lives, as it is in most of our lives. It was hard to find students who were doing simple tasks without something plugged into their ears. Yet I felt the quality of their questions was often quite impressive. At the same time they could easily be drawn into seriously abstract ideas, from which it was hard to find any sort of resolution. But involving give-and-take about the nature of reality circa 2012 abounded, dovetailing perfectly with my thoughts about puppets.
I had an excellent conversation with Caitlin, an artist from British Columbia, who had a very deep understanding of why she was doing what she was doing in this world. Daniel I found to be quite an honest fellow in his moments of clarity, which was most of the time. Aaron and Melissa were a couple slightly older than the average who were drifting through Europe and brought a wealth of ideas to the table. Jakob from Berlin was an eager participant in just about everything. Bethany had come in a state of confusion and found real peace and meaning. Then there were a couple of philosophical cats from Virginia, Kyle and Josh. Not to forget Becky also from BC who did an excellent imitation of a hockey player. And Oliver from Wales who had come to rethink some personal issues and asked some of the more thoughtful questions. Susanna from Philadelphia was like some bohemian prep school girl filled with a serious sense of art and life and yet had an imaginary joke fiancé named Juan. And somehow a truckload of Arizonans all descended on the place together. They brought plenty of questions and lots of bonhomie. And one of them, Austin, made an interesting filmed summary of his time at L’Abri which you can watch online if you want an excellent sense of L’Abri in the late autumn 2012. (Click here.) And whenever you turned around there was a card game, but hardly any smokers… times change.
Meanwhile L’Abri students went on as they have for years. Studying for half a day. Working around the various Chalets for half a day. Meal times were also full of conversation both formal discussions and more rollicking fare. They checked in with their tutors who asked how they were getting along with their questions and courses of study. Students dressed up for Halloween. Someone always seemed to be strumming on a guitar. Cows wandered the fields. Students wandered the trails. Bells rang in the mountains.
I was able to give two lectures while I was visiting: One on puppetry, which seems to have caught the students by surprise. There was silence after the lecture. At first I didn’t know what it meant. But the consensus appeared to be that the subject was so unusual and I guess what I was saying was new enough that they didn’t know quite how to react at first. And then they did. In the end decent discussions were to be had all round. The second lecture was something I made up pretty much on the spur of the moment about recovering a sense of reality in this very unreal age.
Besides the students I saw old friends, workers and family members and was reminded why L’Abri is a place where I feel at home, in a profound way. I left in the late morning to catch that bus down the hill. I had a train to catch to take me over the Alps to Chamonix. Or so I thought. But more on that next time.