And in the humid ever-summer I dare his picturing mind not to go back to the shout of color, to the clean rasp of frosty air, to the smell of pine wood burning and the caressing warmth of kitchens. For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
We’ve been out for most of the afternoon, freezing on the hilltop town of Vézeley in the Burgundy region of central France. While most people visit wine-rich Burgundy in the lushness of summer or the harvest season, we’ve chosen to come in the winter, which offers us a stunning palette of grey and white, an assortment of Crusade- and relic-related history and several bone-chilling monasteries, basilicas and chapels, awing us to silence with frozen stone and soaring heights.
It’s nearly dark when we return to la Maison de Rapha, feathery snowflakes chasing us out of the dusk and into the warm kitchen. Inside, we’re greeted by the smell of wood fire and the coming dinner, along with a fresh flan tart that our hostess has prepared for her son’s eighth birthday, with enough to spare for her seven weekend guests. The birthday boy in question is holding court at the kitchen table, surrounded by Lego sculptures that he built from several different sets.
I’ve come here with six other women from Kandern. Among us, we work at all three BFA campuses (and one dorm), teaching subjects that vary from music to history to graphic design. Though our jobs keep us incredibly busy, we’ve still managed to meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to study Scripture, some of us for the past three years. In a place that changes so rapidly, the sense of depth and continuity in this group has been richly encouraging, as we walk together through the complexities of ministry and relationship. This weekend away, so long in coming, has been a chance to invest time in rest and friendship, reading James and praying together as we share an adventure in a new place.
As ready as I was for a weekend away, I confess that the place itself took my by surprise. The stunning greyness of France, stark in winter, is enchanting enough on its own, but la Maison de Rapha, the guesthouse where we’ve been staying, is truly remarkable. Run by a couple who have been serving missionaries together for the last fifteen years, the house routinely opens its doors to workers in ministry, as the hosts seek to provide a space for renewal. And as we sit at the table together to enjoy a many-coursed French feast, or talk over a cup of breakfast coffee, that’s exactly what they’ve made. A home, warm and inviting, for rest.
And though France remains as new and foreign as ever, this place is so familiar to me. I watch their son playing with his toys at the table, and realize that this was me, twenty years ago. I grew up in a place much like this, a retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of rural Washington State, to which we’d welcome guests from near and far. Some were young–though none as young as I–and others less so. But they came with a common desire, to seek God and experience rest in a new and lovely place.
I remember my parents often quoting Edith Schaeffer, one of the co-founders of the retreat center L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, who said that their guests met God in clean toilets and warm beds as much as good teaching or religious conversation. I never understood, as an eight-year-old playing with Legos and helping with chores, how that could make any difference. Now I do.
Except that here the ministry is French food and coffee that I don’t have to make myself. It’s coming back from wandering around in the wintertime to a room warmed by a roaring fireplace. These luxuries seemed small when I was small, when meals and fires were part of the package deal of childhood. Now, I understand weariness, and know the comfort and ministry of a welcoming home. I feel myself thawing, in heart as well as body, slowly understanding hospitality better as I experience it as an adult, longing to be a person of safety and refuge for others. Thankful for this place and the family who runs it, I return to my own snowy village blessed and restored, warm again in winter.