She was separated from her copy of an inspiring book called L’Abri, but it never left her heart.
December 1974. The road ahead was dark and winding, lined by pine trees. I was 18, on my way home to Wisconsin for the holidays after my first semester at college in Minnesota. Legally I was an adult. Yet thinking of the future I felt like a lost child. Did God have a plan for me?
Six months earlier, in a tiny hospital chapel, I’d felt his presence in a way I never had before. A feeling that didn’t go away. But in a busy world of classes, friends, and a career path to figure out, sometimes it was hard to hear his voice. I wanted to be sure I was headed in the right direction.
Christmas morning, Mom handed me a book, wrapped with just a thin strip of paper concealing the title. Books were treasured in my family and Mom had a knack for choosing exactly the right ones for me. The cover of this one, by someone named Edith Schaeffer, was illustrated with a collage of photographs: mountains, a chapel, red flowers, a woman in prayer. I read the title.
“L’Abri? What’s that?”
“It’s a Christian retreat center in Switzerland,” Mom said. “They welcome young people from all over the world. I think you’ll see your own journey in its pages.”
I opened to the title page, where Mom always wrote an inscription. “Dear Phoebe, May you grow forever in God. He will keep you on course. Mom. Christmas, 1974.”
I took my time reading, savoring every page. It wasn’t just the words that made the book special. It was the idea of this community created for people like me, young people overwhelmed by the pressures of life who needed a quiet space to figure out what God had planned. L’abri means “shelter” in French, and that’s what the book was for me.
I was only halfway through by the time I returned to school. Then classwork took over and I had no time to read anything else. L’Abri stayed tucked away on the shelf.
One day my roommate Debbie asked to borrow it. “I’ve heard great things about this place,” she said. “I even have some friends who are going over there for the summer.”
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t have time to finish it anyway.”
Freshman year ended. The book disappeared. Maybe it got mixed up with Debbie’s things. Or somebody else picked it up. I wasn’t sure. The only thing I knew was that I’d never see the book again.
Summer 1978. The path ahead was sunny and peaceful, surrounded by meadows and mountains. I was in Switzerland, on my way to L’Abri with a backpack and a few good friends. Though I hadn’t finished the book, the dream of L’Abri had stayed with me.
For three weeks I lived at the retreat nestled in the Alps. I hiked in the mountains I’d seen on the cover of the book, prayed in the little chapel, spoke with other people searching for their way in life. It didn’t matter that I’d lost the book. Now I found myself living in its pages.
Summer 2004. I was at a new crossroad. I was 48 years old, married 26 years. Since my husband’s job as a cardiac surgeon kept him so busy, I’d put aside my own aspirations to stay home with our three kids. Now that they were growing up, I had more time for myself. My youngest would be finishing high school soon. He’d leave home to pursue dreams of his own. I felt as if I were back in college, unsure about my future, driving that winding road home for Christmas.
I’d helped lead a few retreats at my church and was interested in doing more, perhaps with a focus on prayer or creativity. Could I really pull it off? My friend Cynthia had offered to help me. She dropped by one day to plan. “Even if you didn’t get paid for it, you’ve done a lot of work volunteering and organizing at church and in the community,” she reminded me. “That’s valuable experience.”
I knew I could count on Cynthia for support. We’d been friends for almost 20 years, since our sons met in Sunday school. We’d hit it off right away, especially when I found out she and her husband had worked at L’Abri, about a year after the summer I visited. We both understood what a special place it was.
I made some tea and we sat down on the couch. Cynthia pulled a book out of her bag. “When I was thinking about what we might do with our retreat this book kept coming to mind,” she said. “I feel like there’s something in it that will help with our planning.” I immediately recognized the collage on the cover: mountains, a chapel, red flowers, a woman praying. “L’Abri, by Edith Schaeffer,” I said, without having to read the author’s name.
I ran my hand over the cover, faded with age. So funny, I thought, how this book has been such a guiding force in my life, and I never actually finished reading it.
“I got this copy secondhand at a sidewalk sale on Cape Cod in the early eighties,” Cynthia said. “It was sitting in a dollar box. I already had a copy, but for that price I figured I could use an extra. Here’s the funny thing. I’ve owned it for longer than I’ve known you, but I only yesterday noticed there’s an inscription in it—to someone named Phoebe.” I opened to the title page. “Dear Phoebe, May you grow forever in God. He will keep you on course. Mom. Christmas, 1974.”
Today. My path has taken me further than I could have dreamed. In the years since the book found me again I’ve gone to graduate school and gotten a degree in pastoral studies. I’ve worked as a pastor and a spiritual director. I’ve enjoyed hosting retreats, many focused on women making midlife transitions just as I did.
Before sitting down to begin work for the day, I open my copy of L’Abri. It now has two inscriptions, the one from Mom and a new one, from Cynthia: “Faithful is he who calls you, and he also will bring it to pass.”
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