I WOULD recommend this book to three different kinds of reader. First, evidently, to enthusiasts of ecumenical ventures; second, to people from a Catholic world who need insights into the lived experience of Protestantism; and, third — and possibly most important — to those who are experimenting with making religious community or rediscovering the prophetic role of monasticism. This could be in grand contexts, such as Lambeth Palace, or, more simply, in parishes, schools and colleges, and even their own homes.
Sister Minke de Vries became the third prioress of Grandchamp, the ecumenical women’s monastery at the foot of the Jura mountains in Switzerland, in 1970. Of solid Protestant stock, she joined the community in 1962, serving in outposts as far apart as Paris, Algeria, and the Lebanon. In this book, she discloses much that would ordinarily not see the light of day: namely, the conflicts as well as the achievements that drove the community forwards after its inception in 1936. Tellingly, she remarks that, “community is a laboratory for communion.”
Just as the 13th century brought the emergence of Béguines, groups of Catholic women who gathered together for spiritual support, study, and ministry to the poor, so the 20th century brought a rise of interest in the silent retreat. The property at Grandchamp was given as a gift by a rich merchant family who delighted in its development as a centre for the spiritual progress of women.
Following the same rule as Roger Schutz’s brothers at Taizé, and influenced both by Brother Roger and by a variety of Catholic priests, most notably Abbé Paul Couturier, the community embarked on an “adventure of open community”, embracing sisters from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and Methodist traditions. As women, they enjoyed the freedom to experiment, and so could draw freely on a variety of traditions to put together their liturgies, even reaching out to the “liturgical intensity of the Eastern Churches” for their celebration of Easter. Every feast day became important, and the Transfiguration, the Visitation, and the feast at Bethany generated special liturgies.
What followed? Outreach. A rich expression of their shared life has led the Sisters to extend their ecumenical brief so that their work has been fruitful in both Jewish and Muslim countries; and there has been a firm commitment to exploring the meaning of church. A pattern emerges: from community to liturgy to mission. No wonder the experience of Grandchamp deserves interrogation. Monasticism, it would seem, offers inspiration for ecumenism by modelling confluence.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
The Fruits of Grace: The ecumenical experience of the community of Grandchamp
Sister Minke de Vries
Nancy S. Gower, translator
Lutterworth Press £20