I had the great good fortune to be in the French Alps for the tenth time and I learnt a new Hebrew word that neatly summed up the multitude of gifts that were given.
It was the ninth time I had been invited to be on the team that organises a Walking Retreat for L’Arche assistants, and I had also stayed once with Yim Soon in that picturesque mountain village of St Pierre de Chartreuse to show her some of the walks we do. And they are serious walks! Following a ‘tester’ hike on the Monday we ascend, the following day, a mountain called La Scia, whose summit is just under 2,000 metres. The route to the top, besides a lot of going uphill, involves a stretch along a virtual cliff edge and it would surely not be allowed in the UK due to Health & Safety! Neither would our Wednesday trail which includes clamouring a few feet up a sheer rock face into a large cave on top of a waterfall! In the twenty-five years that the retreat has been going, nobody has fallen yet! Thursday’s walk takes us to La Grande Chartreuse, a monastery founded in 1084 whose monks live a semi-hermit lifestyle. The final hike on the Friday has more walking up and more walking down, and there are some spectacular views, including over the valley to the monastery where we’d been the day before.
It’s a wonderfully international group of sixty and I’ve simply lost count of the amount of fantastic people I’ve met there over the years. And as anyone who has done a pilgrimage like the Camino will know, there is just something about walking together that leads to deep encounter and the telling of one another’s story. Music helps as well, and singing is a key aspect of the week. I’m there with my Ovation guitar (given to me in 1995 by a stranger after I’d had my guitar stolen), and Emmanuel is there with his two guitars and a banjo! We also had this time Jim with his tin whistle and, one of the greatest gifts of the week, a lovely young man called Vitek who had a mandolin, and was always playing it.
I had first met Jim in 1989 when I was a new assistant at L’Arche in Canterbury, and I was delighted that he would be there again as part of a mainly French team. During the week, as we were marvelling at all the good things that were happening from day to day, he told me about the Jewish concept of Dayenu, which literally means ‘enough for us.’ It is a song, over a thousand years old, which is sung each year at the feast of the Passover and which gives thanks for all the things that God did for the Jewish people: taking them out of slavery, giving them the Torah, the gift of Shabbat etc…If God had given only one of the various gifts mentioned, the song goes, it would have been enough. Jim was saying to me that if we had only had the beautiful walk on the Monday it would have been ‘Dayenu’, it would have been enough. If we’d had as well Tuesday’s climb up La Scia in the glorious sunshine and with the stunning views from the top it would have been ‘Dayenu’. And so it went through the week.
One of many highlights for me is singing in the cave on the Wednesday and one of the songs which must be sung is the Proclaimers classis 500 Miles. I had introduced it on the previous evening and I’m always struck by how I have only to start strumming that first E chord and something magical happens. Usually Emmanuel arranges for some of the young guys to carry a guitar up the mountain to the cave but it got forgotten this time. No matter: Vitek was there with his ever-present mandolin and Jim produced from a pocket his tin whistle. We did a couple of warm up numbers and I danced round the cave with Rita from Hungary, one of many lovely young women who I had the pleasure of meeting during the week. It was time for 500 Miles. Three years ago it had been played on the mandolin one day by Annika, a gorgeous young German woman, so I knew it worked. For the ‘da da da da’ in the chorus I create a call and response, and there in that large cave I created a double echo, with a group to the right doing one response and a group to the left doing a second one. I also, mid-song, noticed a couple of young French women behind me who were dancing. It was a scene of PURE joy.
Dayenu! But there was more. On the Wednesday evening the group presents the famous biblical story of the prodigal son in a variety of creative ways, with groups for music, dance, mime, picture and photos. The groups have a short time to prepare and each year it is completely different and each year it is absolutely incredible and SUCH fun. This time around I was especially touched by the dance group which was like a professional performance. I also enjoyed the song that my group created in French and English which had a great sing-a-long chorus with the words ‘freedom of love’ repeated over and over. That was my little contribution, and I had sort of been thinking main stage at Glastonbury and the crowd singing those words over and over again!
Dayenu! But there was more. The day at La Grande Chartreuse, the Friday walk, the post-walk visits to the river for a baptism-like immersion in the cool mountain water, a huge group of us sitting and having a beer one day outside ‘Le Hibou Gourmand’ (whose owners proudly display a flag of County Kerry behind the bar!), more singing, more meeting lovely people, more laughter, a great party on the last night with more dancing than I’ve done in a very long time, and a final international sing-song.
Dayenu! But there was still more. A bus takes us back down the mountain to the station at Grenoble on the Saturday morning. Vitek was on the back seat, mandolin in hand. I joined him and Pierre, a young French man, and we sang some of the hit songs from the week. And on arrival at the station we took out our instruments for one last time. When we got to the chorus of 500 Miles a young homeless man came by and started to dance and was clearly touched by the music, as were others passing. We said our sad goodbyes.
Dayenu: it would have been enough for us. But I still had my Korea trip to come…!
To be continued…