The Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland
Ever since I was a child, I loved monasteries. I think it all started with wanting to be Maria in “The Sound of Music”! So I felt unbelievably lucky to discover one of the most welcoming and loving monasteries to visit in Europe: the Communauté de Grandchamp Switzerland.
There are so many beautiful monasteries in the world and more European monasteries than I can count, beautiful mountaintop monasteries in Spain, to converted monastery hotels throughout Italy, and some gorgeous Orthodox monasteries in places like Montenegro in Eastern Europe. Little did I know as a small child I would end up spending whole summers of my life living in a monastery — a monastery I’ve come to love and call a spiritual home.
How I came to the Communauté de Grandchamp
In 2012 I was struggling.
After sudden and major changes to where I was living, I was searching for a place to spend my summer and complete an important theological fellowship I was given that required international travel. Yet, that same year I was struggling with depression, exhausted and worn out from seminary, and the idea of a grand adventure terrified me instead of excited me.
All of my friends were heading off to exotic placees: Nepal or Alaska or Ethiopia. I felt sure that wouldn’t be me. I was struggling to get to the grocery store to buy milk, not sure where I would lay my head at night, let alone trek across the Himalayas!
Lost for ideas, I stumbled into my professor’s office. In halting words I explained my predicament.
He listened. When I finished, he was silent for a moment. Then, without saying a word, he handed me a postcard. It looked something like this – in French. I read it in silence.
“You speak French, correct?” He asked, in an almost nonchalant tone.
“Yes,” I said, still staring at the postcard. My last name is so French it’s totally unpronounceable in English.
“Then you’ll go there this summer.” He turned back to his desk.
“Um – where!?” I asked.
He explained there is a community of sisters living a Monastic life in Switzerland and that for years they had a very close relationship with Mennonites – my denomination. Unfortunately, due to the lack of French-speakers, that relationship tapered.
It turned out that my professor had been praying for years for someone who a) spoke French and b) had the time and funds to make the pilgrimage to Switzerland.
Exactly when I felt the most lost, it turned out I was the answer to someone’s prayer.
Totally unsure what I was getting myself into – I said Yes. My professor and I wrote to Grandchamp that day: they would be delighted to welcome me.
Trying to muster all the Faith I had: I bought a plane ticket, packed my bag, and headed to Switzerland.
Arriving in French-Speaking Switzerland
I stepped off a yellow tram that had jostled me from Neuchâtel, a University town outside of Geneva in French-Speaking Switzerland (not to be confused with the cheese: Neufchatel) to Boudry, a tiny town on a hillside.
The tram dropped me off at a little stop with only a concrete rain cover and what looked like a gas station.
I looked around. A woman dressed head to toe in a sky-blue habit stepped forward with a smile.
Sister Veronika shook my hand, took my suitcase, and led me through quiet back roads until we came to a sort of cul-du-sac surrounded by long three-story houses.
“Welcome to Grandchamp!” She said, with an accent I knew wasn’t French but couldn’t place very well – Austrian perhaps?
What had I been expecting?
When I thought of Monasteries, I thought of medieval cloisters and Romanesque domes. This looked more like a neighborhood, albeit an old one. A hamlet was the perfect word for it. I felt as though I had stepped out of a scene from my favorite childhood movie, Heidi. Only the mountains weren’t snow-capped, but green with rock outcroppings. Instead of the stone church I expected in a monastery, there rose a high wooden barn. I could just see stained glass carved into its sides.
The Story of the Communauté de Grandchamp
Grandchamp was founded in the years before WWII broke out in Europe.
The hamlet of Grandchamp, meaning “Large field”, has long been inhabited by the Bovet family, descendants of whom still live in apartments mixed right in with the Sisters today.
The Bovet family had a lucrative cloth-dying business in the 18th and 19th centuries. This explains why the Areuse river, which runs from the Jura Mountains into Lake Neuchâtel just behind the sister’s gardens, was diverted through a channel that now runs under the Grandchamp Library and up in stone fountains throughout the hamlet.
The Bovet family was deeply involved in pastoral ministry in the Protestant church of Switzerland and were active in a renewal movement that swept the church in the early 1900’s.
The Bovets lead retreats for men focused on spirituality in their library until a local women’s spirituality group asked to use the home to lead a silent retreat for women. The retreat went over swimmingly – with more and more women wanting to take part.
Eventually a core group of women formed, and two of those women wanted to live at Grandchamp full-time to explore a life entirely dedicated to prayer, silence, and service.
Many of you might have heard of the Community of Taize, or Communauté de Taizé, in France. This monastery welcomes thousands of young people every year interested in deepening their spirituality, exploring ecumenical dialogue (dialogue between Catholics and Protestants), and the unique style of sung prayers developed at Taizé – Taizé chant.
Why am I mentioning the Taizé community? Because many people don’t know that Brother Roger, or Frère Roger of Taizé, came to Grandchamp before he founded the Taizé Community in France. As the three sisters who were just founding Grandchamp began to form their community, Frère Roger asked if he could come for a time of retreat and silent prayer. At the end of his time there, which he found very powerful, he shared with the sisters that he felt God was calling him to monastic life, and suggested the fledgling Communauté de Grandchamp become co-gender that he might join them.
Long story short: they said no.
And I kind of love that!
The women wanted their spirituality to be distinctly feminine. And I can attest there is still a real sense of the feminine and the feminist there today.
They did, however, continue to support Frère Roger and offer him space to pray and plan. Eventually, he found his way to Taizé.
The relationship between Grandchamp and Taizé has been extremely close-knit from the start.
To this day the Brothers at Taizé often spend their personal retreat time at Grandchamp and the Sister visit there often. Many of the young women I met who were also spending summers volunteering there had spent extensive time at Taizé and had found Grandchamp as they searched for a more distinctive female spirituality that was still connected to the Ecumenical mission of Taizé. The Sisters of Grandchamp also have drawn their Rule of Life and style of prayer from that of Taizé – although their liturgy is distinct, you will hear classic “Taizé Songs” in their worship, particularly at Compline, or night prayers. Taizé chants are short songs, often drawn from Biblical texts, that are sung repeatedly so that the words and music have a chance to enter the heart deeply. Each night at Grandchamp, a Taize chant is sung gently and repeatedly until the final candle of the night is blown out.
A Day in the Life at Grandchamp
After Following Sister Veronika to the Hamlet, I slowly settled into a life with a distinct rhythm of prayer, work, and rest that I had never known before.
Everything at Grandchamp is the opposite of the chaos I too-often find my life slipping into.
Days follow a pattern.
It is not rigid. It’s not about rules or perfect conformity.
For instance, work is done in silence. Each day there are two 3-hour periods of work: from 9 am – 12 when mid-day prayers begin, and from 3 pm (after nap time!) to 6 pm. Of course, because to work together does require communication, communicating about what works needs doing is always acceptable. The reality I found, too, is that while working in silence is the ideal, many times sisters would take time to say hello, tell a quick story, or even end up in stitches over a joke or two! The Sisters speak French as their primary language, although most speak some English, many German, and you’ll hear many other languages spoken here and there as well!
The heart behind working in silence — that prayer is fostered in silence and yes we can pray while we work — is always there, but there’s no legalism or perfectionism.
For me as a volunteer, my days follow a rhythm of morning prayers (at a reasonable 7:15 am) followed by breakfast in the refectory – a room with beautiful stone walls and huge teal shutters opening out on a garden replete with fruit trees. Typically in the mornings I set the tables for the mid-day meal — a task I found surprisingly pleasant. In my first summer there, I gained appreciation for physical labor I never had before, and found my mind increasingly slipping into prayer and meditation during my work instead of frenetic, worried thoughts. A bell rings at noon to announce that it’s nearly time for mid-day prayers.
One of the core practices of the community is reciting the Beatitudes from Matthew each day at mid-day prayers.
After everyone helps to clean up from lunch, there’s a break that many use for a walk, or a nap! Rest is valued at Grandchamp and being there taught me to respect my need for rest in a way I never had before.
Every sister at Grandchamp has an area of work. Some primarily work in the kitchen, some in the garden, many doing administrative tasks.
Yet rest is also deeply valued. During each work period there is an area set out with coffee, black tea, and the most amazing fresh herbal tea or Tisane in French for refreshment alongside simple wheat bread with butter and jam.
Though these snacks, and all of the food at Grandchamp, are simple – after hours of physical labor (though always taken at a gentle pace), this food tastes more extraordinary than some of the finest dining I’ve ever experienced.
With Great Gratitude to the Communauté de Grandchamp
Grandchamp has completely changed my life.
Not because I feel called to become a sister there. Though I have done some extensive soul-searching, I don’t believe that is my calling, though I am so beyond delighted for my friends who have found their calling there. Yet Grandchamp, I realize now, is a place I needed back in 2012.
While I may have been an answer to my professor’s prayer, I realize now that Grandchamp was the answer to a prayer I didn’t know I was crying out for.
I return again and again, because this modern life is so filled with chaos and noise and busy supermarkets and car repairs and church committee meetings and facebook notifications and…and… I could go on.
None of those things are bad. Indeed – some of us are called to be in the world.
Yet I find that time at Grandchamp reorients my mind and heart in ways nothing else can. My schedule even in my home life has shifted because of my time there – seeking rhythm both in the Church calendar and in the everyday (yes! I do take naps now!). Grandchamp reminds me that even when every one of my physical and emotional needs are met (there I have food, fellowship, and a lot of hugs!) — I still have a desperate need for God.
And just by bending my knees on a walnut prayer bench, focusing my eyes on the beautiful flickering candle, and saying prayers that rise into the rafters of the barn – God is there, also waiting for me.
How to Visit the Communauté de Grandchamp
[As of July 2020, the Communities hospitality is closed due to the ongoing Pandemic. Many sisters are aged and vulnerable. In August of 2020 some places for visitors will be opened. Please contact to the Community for more information]
The Sisters of Grandchamp follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and providing hospitality is at the core of the community.
Hospitality is offered to those who desire a time of prayer, and to experience the silence and rest of the community.
Hospitality is not limited to Christians – the Sisters are delighted to welcome those of all faiths and no faith. Men and Women are both welcome.
Those making a retreat are asked to offer a donation to the community to cover the costs of their stay at the level they are able.
A period of Volunteering is also available for those who desire to share the life of the community for an extended time.
Getting To the Communauté de Grandchamp
For very thorough travel information on getting to Switzerland, particularly from the USA, see my Travel Guide to French-Speaking Switzerland.
In brief: Grandchamp is located outside of Neuchâtel, which is a short train ride from Geneva. It’s nestled against one of the gorgeous lakes Switzerland is known for and you can see both the Alps and the Jura mountains from the edge of Lake Neuchâtel.
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