Alps Retreat 2024

The walks were a bit different this year due to the weather but just as there remains something unchanged about the spirit of L’Arche 60 years after its foundation, there is something reassuringly familiar about the Alps retreat some 25 years after it started.

I first joined the team in 2011 and this was the 11th time I had assembled, guitar in hand, at the bus station in Grenoble trying to spot the L’Arche people who would be taking the bus up into the mountains. They were an expectant if slightly nervous looking bunch, mainly from the L’Arche communities in France but with a sprinkling of people from Ireland, the UK and Germany. The hour-long journey took us to the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse which is at an altitude of 900m and which has spectacular views of the mountains in every direction. We were given the usual warm welcome in Montbruno, the big old house run by the Focolari, and the Alps Retreat 2024 was underway.

It struck me this year how much the retreat is like a pilgrimage. You pack your little rucksack in the morning, and you walk! And there’s something about that simple act of putting one foot in front of the other for long distances that brings people out of themselves and into relationship with one another and which brings forth people’s stories.

Everybody is out of their comfort zone and in a kind of liminal space, the word liminal being defined as ‘a threshold or boundary to a new experience.’ In this liminal space the most remarkable things can happen. A woman in one of our communities in Ireland who did the Alps retreat some years ago says that it changed her life. There is indeed something transformative about the experience. You are not the same person when you return. In most cases, we will never again see the people that we spend that week with. And yet, as I was already explaining in my small group on the second day, those people touch and fill my heart. And it happens year after year.

There is a pleasant and predictable rhythm to the week. There is a little ‘spiritual time’ at 7.15 a.m. and that’s followed by breakfast at 7.30. We gather in the meeting room at 8.30 and Emmanuel and I, the retreat musicians, play a few songs. Music is such an important element of the week and it’s gratifying for me to hear retreatants singing little snippets of the ‘hit’ songs of the week as they start walking. There is a talk each morning from an experienced L’Arche member and then at 10 we set off, rucksacks on backs, into the mountains. We walk in our little groups and the first hour is in silence. We stop at a certain point for our picnic lunch and then to share together in our group on a certain question. We get back to the house in the late afternoon and there follows then a fine tradition on the retreat, bathing in a nearby mountain river. It’s very cold but it’s totally worth taking that plunge! The main meal is at 7 and then each evening has a different activity. Probably my favourite is the ‘Prodigal son’ evening, where five groups present this well-known bible story in mime, dance, photos, pictures and music. There are thirty minutes for each group to prepare and every year the presentations are completely different and completely amazing. It’s testament to the power and creativity of a group. It’s also great fun, as is the whole week, and there is a lot of laughter: just as there is on pilgrimage, and there’s just something about the experience that brings out the playful child in us.

After three sunny days, it rained almost all day on the Thursday so we decided to spend the morning in the house and it was an opportunity for each person to be in silence in any of the available ‘sacred’ spaces. I took a bit of time to stand in the meeting room looking towards the stage area where the speaker sits (I’m usually positioned to the side of the stage in the ‘musical area’). It was lovely to just stand there, listening to the gentle sound of the rain outside and sort of soaking up all of the goodness from all of those years that I’ve been in that beautiful place with yet another beautiful group of people.

There is a big celebration on the Friday evening, and I was tickled that someone in the table setting team had (inspired by the prodigal son story) made cute little origami pigs as a decoration! And then, as usual, the week has flown by and it’s Saturday morning and it’s time to leave and go our separate ways. The bus takes us back down the mountain to Grenoble: only this time we are now a little community, united in our joys and our struggles, brought together by our stories and our laughter and our tears. Pilgrims whose paths have crossed for one fleeting but magical moment in time, who have touched one another in some profound and wonderful and indelible way.

It’s never easy to return from such a ‘peak’ experience. But return we must; except that, surely, we go back to our day-to-day realities seeing the world and those around us with slightly different eyes, hearing with slightly different ears; and hopefully with a heart that is a little bit fuller and a little bit more open.

Eddie Gilmore

PS I hope this is one of the hit songs of the retreat!     Pilgrimage Song