The Manor House – picture by Andrew Sherman
So, I have been away. Away from these pages, away from home, from work, from friends, from family. Life got too hard, too messy, too broken, and I shouted STOP! before I crashed. I quit my job, gave notice on my flat, and walked off into the unknown for a while…
What I found was a place of shelter; a manor house in the Hampshire countryside, the home of a community of broken, questioning people, looking to make sense of the world. l’Abri means ‘The Shelter’, and seeks to be just that. It is a Christian community, opening its doors three times a year to a variety of ‘students’, Christians, atheists, agnostics and none-of-the-above, who come looking for a safe place to find meaning in their lives.
For me, struggling to deal with the fallout of a failed relationship, a life that no longer made sense, and a gradual descent into alcoholism, that shelter was almost exactly what I needed. A one-week visit at the start of the autumn ‘term’ turned into a 7-month, two-term stay, as this fragile, thrown-together bunch of religious misfits became my family, and the draughty, almost-tumbledown manor house became home.
L’Abri is a place of contradictions. It has a free, open, almost structure-less programme, but a full, heavily structured week. It is very openly religious, with an American-Evangelical theology, yet refuses to push even the most basic of ‘Christian’ agendas on those that visit it. It seeks constantly to find answers to the questions of life and the issues of the day, and yet most people leave with more questions than when they arrived. It is a study-centre, but with no set (or even recommended) syllabus.
For me, the daily the structure of life at the manor was just what was needed. By August I was struggling to get out of bed in the mornings, and battling depression and a serious lack of motivation at work. At l’Abri, you get up in the morning, come downstairs and look at the notice board. The meal list tells you when and where you will be eating, and what other events there are in the day, and the work list tells you when you will be working, and what you will be doing. There was no choice, no need for deliberation. It was incredibly freeing.
Work, at the manor, means cooking, or cleaning, or gardening, or some form of maintenance. Simple, practical tasks, each with the minimal necessary supervision; you were shown what to do, and trusted with the responsibility of completing the task. Like I said, very liberating.
The rest of your time is spent ‘studying’, with a smattering of lectures, film discussions, tutorials and lunch discussions thrown in. This creates a heady atmosphere of debate, with many concepts and questions floating around. L’Abri specialises in questions of philosophy, theology and morality, but will freely discuss anything: science, aesthetics, art, ecology, food production, pop music. Whatever you can think of. It is an intense place, and I often found it difficult, but it was nice to be around Christians who were not afraid to think.
It’s a busy place. There were between 30 and 40 ‘students’ at the manor at any one time, many of them young Americans, but others from all over the world. For me, a quiet, introverted Englishman, it was an intense, difficult experience in many ways. But then, any form of community has to be. You live and work with people 24-7, people you like and easily get on with, and people who rub you up the wrong way. There is no escape.
I made some great friends there, some of which I hope to write about here in the coming weeks. L’Abri is a bubble, a world in itself away from the real world. The relationships are intense, but you can’t know how many friendships will endure, once the bubble bursts, and you are thrown back into reality. I really hope that many of the friends I have found there will stay so for the rest of my life, but none of us can know that for sure. We are all trying to build our lives again outside of the shelter, and we have to see where our individual paths will lead, and if they will ever cross again.
I’m realising now that I don’t know how to finish this post. There is so much that I could say about my time away, but for now, this will have to be enough. My time in the shelter was what I needed. I have no idea what comes next, but I know that I am better equipped to deal with it now than I was before. And I know that I have experienced a place, and a group of people, that are truly special, that have been home, that have been family, that have been healing.
I hope to see them all again.