WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2021
PRAYER / WORSHIP: The Community of Grandchamp
Written by the Community of Grandchamp
In the 1930s, a group of women of the Reformed Church of French-speaking Switzerland known as the “Ladies of the Morges” rediscovered the importance of silence in listening to the word of God, taking as their model Christ, who often retired alone to pray. They hosted spiritual retreats, which they opened up to others, and gradually found a regular home for these retreats in Grandchamp, a small hamlet near Lake Neuchâtel. Subsequently, the need arose for a permanent presence for prayer and hospitality. Thus, a woman who would later become Sister Marguerite settled in Grandchamp. She was quickly joined by two other women. Geneviève Micheli, the initiator of these retreats, led this modest beginning in prayer and encouraged the first three sisters on their journey. At their request, she became the first mother of the community in 1944.
Lacking experience and having neither a service book nor a monastic rule, and since at the time there were no monastic communities in the Reformation churches, the first sisters turned to the monasteries of other confessions for guidance. The opened themselves up to the treasures of these other traditions. They had to learn everything: how to live a life based on the word of God and daily contemplation, how to live in community and how to receive others in hospitality.
The first sisters suffered over the divisions of Christians – particularly Mother Geneviève, who therefore understood the full importance of ecumenical and theological work. However, this work had to be founded on that which was essential for her, prayer in the light of John 17:21: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” She sought to give her life for unity in Christ and through Christ, until the day when God would be all in all. The ecumenical calling of the community was therefore not a choice but a gift, a grace received from the beginning and born of poverty.
This grace was confirmed and stimulated by several decisive encounters. One such encounter for the fledgling community was that with Father Paul Couturier. A Catholic priest in Lyon, he was one of the pioneers of ecumenism and of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as we know it today. Deep bonds developed between him and the first sisters, and he accompanied them faithfully on their spiritual journey, as evidenced by their correspondence. In 1940, he wrote Mother Geneviève:
…No spiritual retreat should take place without having Christians leave it with acute suffering over separations and the determination to work for unity through fervent prayer and progressive purification …For me, the problem of unity is primarily and fundamentally a problem of the orientation of one’s inner life. Thus, you understand how much importance I attach to your request and to the work of spiritual retreats. Let us pray fervently, in other words, let us freely let Christ into us.
Another very important encounter was that with Roger Schutz, the future Brother Roger of Taizé, who visited Grandchamp in 1940. His own search was encouraged by that of the sisters with whom he would keep in contact. Bonds of communion developed over the years and these deepened in 1953 when the Community of Grandchamp adopted both the Rule of Taizé and the Taizé Office immediately upon its publication. Brother Roger wrote:
The constant search for unity harmonizes the human being: it provides thought with deeds and being with action. This equilibrium is acquired to the extent that we strive -- in successive steps – to be consistent with what is best in ourselves and what is at our innermost core: Christ with us.
Very soon, in conjunction with the brothers of Taizé and the Little Sisters of Jesus, the sisters of Grandchamp were also called to live out the simple presence of prayer and friendship in small communities often in underprivileged areas, particularly in Algeria, Israel, Lebanon and in working-class areas in various countries of Europe. The deep ties established with local neighbors and churches allowed them to discover a diversity of liturgical rites in the universal church and opened them up to encounters with other religions.
Grandchamp’s ecumenical vocation commits it to the work of reconciliation between Christians, within the human family, and with respect to all creation. As a community the sisters of Grandchamp discovered very quickly that this vocation requires them to embody reconciliation, first and foremost within themselves and among themselves. Immediately after the Second World War, German and Dutch sisters (influenced by recent events), followed by sisters from Indonesia, Austria, Congo, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Latvia belonging to different denominations, joined the first sisters from Switzerland and France. The community numbers about fifty sisters from different generations.
Like all the baptized, the sisters are called to become that which they already are at a deeper level: beings in communion. How can we be such beings if we do not learn first to accept ourselves with our differences? Differences are both a gift of God and a formidable challenge. With a diversity of confessions, languages, cultures and generations the community faces the challenge of living unity in diversity in its own small way. The diversity also entails different ways of praying, thinking, doing, being in a relationship, as well as a diversity of characters.
How then can one work for reconciliation except by living forgiveness day after day? Above all, this requires work on one’s inner self and then work in our relationships, trusting in God’s mercy. It all starts inside one’s heart, where the root of all division is to be found, the deepest wounds waiting to be visited in order to receive God’s healing peace. The unity between us is thus the fruit of the slow and patient transformation of our lives which the Spirit accomplishes with our consent.
Liturgical prayer is the backbone of Grandchamp’s day and gathers the community four times every day. The various times of liturgical worship help the sisters internalize the life of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The icon of the Trinity in the center of Grandchamp’s chapel welcomes the sisters in silence. It invites them to enter into the communion of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to let this love grow within and flow among them and toward those who come as visitors. Then there is often an exchange of gifts. The sisters like to say that they always receive more than they give!
This welcoming has enabled surprising encounters with people who have sensitized the community to the non-violence of the gospel: Jean and Hildegard Goss, Joseph Pyronnet and Simon Pacot, who initiated the “Bethesda” sessions, a profound evangelization. At the same time, the sisters’ awareness of ecology has increased in a very palpable way through the development of an organic garden, their use of environmentally friendly produce, and careful consideration of the way they feed themselves, travel, the management of goods, and what it means to live in solidarity. This is why the sisters take care to forge links and exchanges with other communities, groups, movements and committed people, particularly with the networks of religious and/or monastic communities at the local, regional, international and ecumenical levels, with ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, movements for reconciliation, justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
Despite a renewal for which the sisters are grateful, like many other communities in Europe they are also confronted with the weakening of their lifeblood – ageing, which forces them to be creative. Just as the first sisters had to depend on help from others, so the sisters today depend on outside help in order to welcome others. The volunteer work that they offer is a sharing of their life of prayer and work. It is first and foremost open to young people, but it is also without age limits and open to people from all continents who are looking to give meaning to their lives, to Christians of different denominations, sisters and brothers from other communities, sometimes Jews, Muslims and adherents of other religions, and to people without any specific religious attachments. In this way the community wishes to become a house of prayer for everyone, a place of welcome, dialogue and encounter.
The poverty of other religious communities has opened up a new ministry, one which forces the sisters to listen with other religious and to discern how to respond to the calls that are being addressed to them. It is a new grace to be able to be a place of prayer and a sign of reconciliation together. Thus, for seven years, one of the Grandchamp sisters has lived in France in an ecumenical sisterhood comprised of sisters from four different communities. For several years now sisters have made simple journeys, for the duration of a three-month visa, to experience life in Israel. One of the sisters joined a sisterhood of the Little Sisters of Jesus in order to share their everyday lives. A little later two other sisters experienced life in a community of Carmelites of St. Joseph. Today, some sisters are present in Taizé on an informal basis. These new experiences bring new gifts into the community.
The work of the World Council of Churches occupies an important place in Grandchamp’s prayer. Every Monday evening, the sisters pray with the intercession of the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle proposed by the WCC. The sisters have had the privilege of participating in several WCC assemblies – in Vancouver, Harare and Porto Alegre. For several years, the sisters were present at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, a small community of prayer, hospitality and friendship during the months of the graduate school.
Religious life occupies a privileged place – although very hidden – on the path of reconciliation of the churches. It sings of the risen Christ, the gift of a communion that is always being offered, which the Holy Spirit causes to blossom in a multitude of faces and gifts. It can serve as leaven in the dough, a ferment of unity, because it takes us to the depths of the mystery of faith, on a path of continual conversion, of transformation. And in some circumstances religious life can help individuals to transcend themselves. Sometimes, and unbeknownst to us, this can have repercussions in some other part of the Body of Christ. André Louf expressed this in the following words:
In a divided church, the monastery constitutes the “no-man’s land” of the Spirit. The monastery should be an ecumenical land par excellence. It can prefigure communions that exist elsewhere only in hope. Wherever it may be, a monastery does not fundamentally belong to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, to the extent that they are still temporarily opposed. It is already a sign of the undivided church toward which the Spirit is powerfully driving us today.
For more information visit: www.grandchamp.org