L’Abri, L’Abri! It’s the Commune Life For Me!
What’s it like when you’ve lived alone for years, and you suddenly move into creaky old English manor house with 30 other people—dorming in bunk beds like you’re back at Summer Camp, forced to think deeply and discuss daily, and spending half your day cleaning bathrooms, cooking, or doing laundry for the entire house?
In a word, fantastic.
I love living alone far less than my independent rep suggests. People teased me for wanting to spend my summer in a “commune,” but let’s face it, I wasn’t crying to leave a complex modern life whose incessant demands I manage (quite well, thanks) totally solo. Two weeks into life at L’Abri, and I’m amazed at the simple thrill of doing laundry and finding a hot meal prepared for me; back home, I finish the folding and then start cooking. Moreover, the roster here includes a good chunk of what I do anyway: read lots of books, mull over sticky issues, and come to the table ready to talk. I already work hard and think deeply; but at L’Abri, I have ready-made chums when I look up. Seriously, it’s like late-adult college, or Jesus Hogwarts. I’ve started to wonder why the whole world doesn’t just move in to a big manor house together.
L’Abri was started in Switzerland in 1955 by Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who ministered to students who were searching for meaning in the post-war tumult. Young people were especially adrift and were traveling the world exploring religions and asking hard questions about God and truth. At L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), students were invited to work and live together, and examine the truth of Christianity among competing philosophies and worldviews. The Schaeffers’ work was very effective, and L’Abri has grown to host branches across the globe, each one modeled on the same vision of warm community life and focused intellectual study.
My mom visited Dutch L’Abri in the 70s, and my sister has attended two terms at English L’Abri, so I was familiar with the format. After my fateful foot fracture, during which I’d delved into books by Francis Schaeffer, I determined that my brain needed food and my soul needed rehab. I applied for the summer term, and two weeks ago, I touched down at London Heathrow. After stepping off the train in the small town of Liss, I discovered three other L’Abri students, and off we went, lugging our suitcases the two miles to the sprawling Manor House that would be our home for the next three months.
A term at L’Abri is what I like to call a “study retreat”—a three-month stay where students participate in housework, personal study, communal meals, and lectures and events. Around 20-30 students attend each term, and about 13 full-time workers (singles and families) live at the Manor House in private quarters and lead the daily schedule and discussions. The day’s schedule runs generally thus: breakfast all together at 8am in the main dining room; then morning chores and afternoon study, or vice versa, depending on your shift. Lunch is at 1pm—students are split up and assigned to a worker’s flat for a freshly prepared lunch and a focused discussion on any topic a student might bring to the table. (So far: “Can atheism offer a genuine morality?”; or “What piece of art has had the biggest impact on your life?” I gave a thoughtful and lofty answer that wasn’t Titanic. People aren’t ready for the truth.) Dinner is at 6:30, and the day ends with an event, such as a guest lecture, movie night, game night, or a “free night,” in which many of us traipse down to the local pub for crisps and a pint.
But wait! There’s more! Haven’t had your fill of food and chatter? There’s always tea time! Twice a day, we take a break from polishing the staircase or studying Postmodernism and crowd around the wooden tea trolley out on the back lawn. You can pour a steaming mug of black English tea with milk and sugar and hash the finer points of a lunch discussion, catch a game of volleyball, or chat with Norwegian Hilde who loves American pop culture, speaks like a Texas sorority girl, and says things like, “Do I look like a soccer mom? I want to be a soccer mom!” People truly come here from all over. I can sit next to Canadian Eryn and New Zealander Steve at lunch, eat dinner with Singaporean couple Joanna and Kevin, and giggle with Puerto Rican-born-Cambodian-raised Lili in the room before lights out. But don’t worry—there are plenty of Americans, too, and we’re only mildly annoying.
The students at L’Abri aren’t all Christians, but they’re all searching for meaning in a modern age. It’s refreshing to talk about books and ideas and continually learn from each other. Also, you’re asked to leave your phones in the rooms, and it’s remarkable to sit down at a table for twenty and not see a single screen. The atmosphere really pushes you to be present.Yet even with regular chores and vigorous chats, the vibe is unhurried and peaceful—there’s more brain space for relationships and the simple joys of eating, yammering, and working with your hands for the good of the household. It truly is “l’abri”—a shelter for the soul.
I find good discussion invigorating, but I’m almost glutted from the bounty. One night at dinner, we began by comparing the British Officeseries to the American Office, moved on to discussing British humor vs. American humor, veered randomly into a rundown on the government of Singapore, and ended with a lively defense of vegetarianism from British Sheona, who regaled us with tales of the inhumane treatment of pigs and chickens. I hung my head respectfully, but after dinner, I snuck off to my room and ripped open a bag of beef jerky. All that meat talk gave me cravings. I am what I am.
When I start to feel claustrophobic in the house, I go for a run in the gorgeous English countryside. The BBC is not exaggerating. Spring here is as lush, verdant, and flower-speckled as any Jane Austen series. I feel like I’m jogging through the Shire, with cobblestone cottages, blooming gardens, and a charming nameplate affixed to every house: “Jolly Robins Cottage,” “Southdown Farm,” “Cherry Tree House.” In the country, it seems, every Brit names his house. My favorite road, Snailing Lane, is so narrow that I have to press into tall grass to let a solitary car pass. It’s a lovely sunshine lane that quickly shifts into thick shadows of leafy trees and wild garlic plants; it smells like I’m running through a breezy kitchen of fresh herb soup. Exquisite jewel flowers dot the ground, like whoever made them had lots of leisure and fashioned them for funsies. They look like fairyland. Maybe this is fairyland.
I was tickled, too, to encounter an odd English custom: the footpath. In the country, small wooden signs or quaint maps with squiggles and shadings will point you to public paths across private property. Yes, you are welcome to leave the roads and walk across your neighbor’s farmland if you stick to the official footpath (which isn’t always well-trod and might involve tramping your way through a field of waist-high grass). On our day off, Swedish William led a group of us on a footpath hike to Petersfield, a large town nearby. It was three hours of trekking across fields, climbing steep hills, and enjoying unreal views. There are still fences, but wooden steps have been neatly nailed in place to help you hop over them. You may have to sidestep a herd of curious cows, and you must remember to shut the gate behind you, but you have a right to pass through your neighbor’s property in equal enjoyment of “the Queen’s Land.” Now that’s the kind of eminent domain I can get behind.
Call it the honeymoon phase, but I’m filled with gratitude to be here. I came to England because I had nowhere else to go, dragging a scattered heart and a soul that was thin and starved. With fresh food, hard work, and the warmth of community, I can feel my soul expanding again. I wilt when I think about the loneliness of life back home. I try not to think too hard about it.
 I asked, did Kevin remember the American who got publicly caned in Singapore for setting fires to cars? “Of course,” he replied. “And in my country, you can also get the death penalty for dealing drugs.”