You could call it a gentle heartbeat! You could say it's a quiet revolution without guns! You may even go as far to say that a community is slowly building! Where is this happening I hear you yell? In Lorgues, central Var, a group of people are meeting on a regular basis. I am told that they help one another, listen to one another and laugh with one another. Regularly.
That means more than once every six months. In a western world where community is on its backside, this news is a welcome whoopie cushion. I paid a visit to this group back in November 2008 and before I tell you about it can I have a little rant on community?
Is community slowly dying I ask myself? Some people would say that it is, and looking around at the world and its inhabitants, one could agree.
The modern 21st century has provided us with many aids to help make our lives more comfortable. Items like the television. This ‘square eyeball’ can entertain us with endless channels, 24 hours a day. This luxury can stop us from leaving our homes as our evening lives seem to be built around ‘what’s on telly’. You cannot even say that the television is a chance for the family to get together any more over Dr. Who. It is common to have a television in every bedroom and kitchen, catering for all of the families TV needs. Has this invention eroded our art of conversation, numbed our social skills and destroyed our imagination and own thoughts?
Or does it provide us with an education and an insight into other worlds that people could never have seen before. It certainly provides company for many elderly, lonely and housebound people. It is a shame that some people who are alone have to rely on the television for a companion. The wonderful world wide web, which makes the world a smaller place, making local and global communication easier and faster. On line we can buy our shopping from the supermarket, pay our utility bills, do our banking, buy our Christmas presents, download music and films, write our letters and a whole host of other stuff. We can conduct our lives conveniently from the comfort of our living room, without venturing out into the high street where face to face communication is not denied.
How does this leave the health of our community? Well, if people are not coming together, or congregating as much as we used to, due to modern life’s supposed quick fix gadgets, then our communities are surely going to suffer. How does a lack of community effect us as individuals? Poet John Donne once said that ‘No man is an island’.
‘No man is an Island entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main: if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’
In this prose, Donne is lamenting how strongly connected to his fellow man he is and likens Mankind’s relationship to one another to a land mass. So, as a land mass reduces in size when a clod is washed away to the sea. A human being’s life is deemed smaller when a fellow man passes away. This all seems a bit excessive and what has it got to do with community?
What I think Donne is saying, in a poetical way, is that we need one another to complete our existence. Why? Well, let's substitute ‘complete our existence’ for ‘enhance our existence’ then this could help us to understand how valuable we are to one another.
We have so much to offer to each other. Friendship, support, conversation, love, sharing with one another, increasing our knowledge of the world around us, to name but a few. If we are engaging with a community, whatever it may be, then we will be receiving edification in some form from one another, which can enhance us, or build us up, and in turn, make life more worth living.
Person 1: Ron
I have been coming a couple of years now, I think. I found it on the internet. What I like about it is that it is extremely relaxed. Anything goes, anyone comes and goes and Peter and Shirley have an amazing way to accommodate everybody without any kind of pressure, theological or social pressure. It is very nice to feel belonging. It is nothing like a church that I have been to before, nothing like. I have never been one for organized religion.
Some people are moving away from the modern life and searching out real community. Some go as far as to move to established, self-sufficient communities, or communes as they are known. You can find communes in the city or in the countryside. Communes often have a common factor like spirituality or/and enterprise which can provide products to the local community at markets. Others in search of something more from community, join clubs of interest, seek out places of worship or join volunteer groups to improve the welfare of community around them.
All of the above clubs, societies and groups have one major common factor. They involve people coming together.
So then, to Peter Massey and his band of merry men and women. Someone with the same concerns over the slow, grinding down of community life. An Anglican Minister, he lives in Lourgues, with his wife Shirley. They moved to Provence six years ago and a couple of years ago they started meeting with others and held a mini church service.
The service takes place in a glorified garden shed at the bottom of the spacious garden. It has a relaxed feel to it, people chat openly and respond to Peter’s sermon, if you can call it that, as Peter is dressed informally like everybody else and sits on a garden chair, like everybody else. He is not elevated in a pulpit, he is with and amongst the people. There is prayer and people are welcome to join in or remain silent.
When the service is finished, we all meander back to the house for an aperitif. Now apart from wine in the communion, drinking alcohol at church is a bit of a taboo, but not here, and with wine offered with the huge meal it struck me that this taboo was being kicked out, unintentionally, by letting people choose to have a drink if they want to.
There are many types of people there. Confident, shy, funny, helpful, kind fascinating, people who are having a hard time with life and people who are excited about life. A broad spectrum. The wine flows and the day becomes more comfortable, fitting around me like a Cornish fisherman’s woolly jumper, no pipe though! It feels like I have known everyone here for ages. After the enormous meal which stretches on gladly well into late afternoon, giving everyone a chance to catch up and more, I find Peter sat at a table in the November sun alone. A good time to chat and find out what kind of revolution is on his mind and will I need an orange flag!
I ask Peter what he thinks is happening in his back garden, where more and more people want to join in what he is doing. He leans back in his chair looks to the cloudless, deep-blue sky and starts. “I suppose we do several things really, but we have to go back to what the original sense of vocation was, which was coming to this part of France, to build Christian fellowship. Not simply in the sense of a church service, but Christian fellowship in the sense of community.” He expands a little more as he places his hands behind his head and stares out into the beyond. ‘Growing together. Worshipping together, supporting one another together. Loving one another even. Although it started seven years ago, it may only be now that there is a real sense of the seeds beginning to germinate. I am an Anglican minister and we are under the European diocese which is important, especially here in France, because if you not careful you could be deemed as a cult. Essentially, I believe we are called here to provide Christian pastoral care.”
Person 2: Adrian
When my wife left me I decided I was going to settle in the south of France. Via the internet I got hold of Peter. He suggested that I live with him whilst I look for a place to live. Peter was extremely obliging, just two days notice he asked for without a deposit, just let us know when you are turning up. So, I happily spent a month here. I very much liked the meetings here on a Sunday. It was an obvious chance to meet other people, since I knew just about nobody and I’ve kept that up ever since. I don’t bother with the religion. I don’t subscribe to it but I very much like the people that I meet here. It is not an issue if people have faith or not, this is the important point that it is of no consequence, you are accepted here.
The many dogs that attend with their owners start a barking match, and Jasmine, my daughter, asks me which country London is.
I ask Peter which community does he think he serves. “In simple terms, we serve the English speaking community here in the district of the Var. Our fellowship is registered under a mission initiative called ‘A Fresh Expression’. We serve an ageing, expatriate community, with all the attendant problems that brings with potential loss of a partner. We are very much involved in bereavement work, social welfare work. You have problems here of isolation and loneliness, relationship break ups. All the normal stuff, but particularly the problems that would be associated with an ageing community. My wife Shirley, she was a care nurse for many years and I was involved in hospital chaplaincy back in Ireland where we came from, so you can see that the Lord has prepared you for what is ahead. We have a place here where people can come and recharge their batteries. Step off the conveyor belt and reconnect with themselves or their relationships or,” Peter ponders for a while and finally says ”or, reconnect with God”. Peter is quick to then point out that, ”we are not exclusively Christian. It is a Christian place that welcomes anybody”. My dog, Silbury, starts to play rather enthusiastically nearby with my son Joseph, which diverts our thoughts.
I tell Peter that I noticed that the atmosphere at the meeting was very laid back without any edge. Is this something that he had cultivated or was it a natural, organic growth? He answers slowly and carefully. “It probably reflects who we are and what this place is about. People come here on holiday so there is a relaxed atmosphere here anyway.” Peter stares off out to the swaying trees that surround his property. His face tells me that he is carefully selecting words that can best explain his unique church, if there are any words. “I think one of the biggest obstacles to sharing the gospels is actually ‘the church door’. What I mean by this is that people largely have a problem coming through the door into a church fellowship, either because of preconceived ideas of church or through a bad experience they have had in church. Whereas if they can come into a place that reflects what is ‘cultural’, by cultural I mean Provence culture. We are very privileged here in Provence, we spend a lot of time outside and we enjoy the sun”.
Person 3 - Rene
Peter Massey took a funeral for my husband who died in January 2007. Peter was in an English magazine as a bereavement councillor and I wondered if he could help me find someone to take the funeral. My husband was not a believer, as I am not, but I wanted him to have a proper funeral. My husband’s four sons came over from England for the funeral, I was surprised by how many people were there. Peter Massey was absolutely marvellous, he gave my husband’s sons complete control over the service, everything, it was a lovely cremation. Since then, I have just felt that I must try and do something to help the Massey's, who are doing a very good job here for the ‘have nots’, and I like what they do. Although I have no faith, I do believe that there are an awful lot of Christians who do not have Christian behaviour and I think it is necessary to help people if you can. I wish I had faith, I wish that I could think that my dead husband was looking down and looking after me, but I know he isn’t. I listen to everything that people say but I just can’t believe. I like to listen to everybody. I do sometimes say my piece as I don’t always agree with everyone.
Peter calls out to Shirley his wife and asks if she needs any help with anything. ‘No’, is the reply hollered across the garden. Peter, not sure as to accept this reply as a fact, stands up and his eyes follow Shirley across the garden, assessing. His eyes then wander off to the very front of his garden where the lane meets his house. “It’s interesting, at the end of our driveway is a seven hundred year old chapel. People have been worshipping in this valley for eight centuries”. He ponders some more, not looking at me, finger on lip. “Where we go from here will be interesting”.
As Peter’s words dissipate into the early evening it seems a good time to stop and we leave it there. People are starting to get into their cars and leave. It takes along time for people to actually leave. They find it difficult to stop talking. My mother-in-law is the same!
After another coffee I hoard my family up and divert them into the car. It’s getting dark and I thought that we would be home by 2pm! We say our goodbyes and promise to come back for the next gathering. “We’re having a big Christmas meal next month”, Shirley assures me. Sounds good. On the drive back to Quinson, the children nod off and I start to think about community and the afternoon that I have just spent. A spirit of community was definitely present. I saw that people wanted to talk to one another and help each other out.
Since I have met this small group, I have had some of my family needs met by people within the group or through friends of theirs. We acquired a car, (much needed as we found ourselves vehicle less) and some jolly, flowery curtains that we needed to make the house warmer. I was also given a little bit of paid work, as was a friend of mine. I also had a fantastic New Year’s Eve with Ron and his friends in Varrages and was invited to a friendly party near Brignoles where I met even more people. I feel involved with this group which is what I was looking for in a community. I am feeling ‘part of the main‘ , as John Donne was describing earlier. I am not ‘an Island’! And if I am an Island, I now know a regular ferry that chugs back and forth to other islands does exist keeping community alive. So as they say 'Don’t miss the boat”!