I want to give some feedback from a recent volunteering experience at Bonnevaux, a unique and enlightening experience in many ways.

I went with few expectations, only intending to find some peace and engaging in some ‘non-thinking’ type of manual labour…a simple project that would have my mark on it when I left. But I quickly learned that  expectations are irrelevant when it comes to growth at special place like Bonnevaux. As long as you are open to learning from others’ experiences and to the movement of the Spirit of God, you always take away a valuable lesson in growth from such an environment.

On my arrival I was greeted very warmly by Andrew, (I think Site Manager was his title but he took on many mantles), his lovely wife Delyth, and step-daughter Gwen…immediately making me feel part of the team. The other volunteers were an eclectic, and cosmopolitan group, mainly French and Danes, but such diverse characters. This made for lively discussions at mealtimes in many tongues and dialects, with Delyth singing beautifully in Welsh for some added spice.

But meditation times were of a singular nature…pure serenity.

My initial expectation of ‘doing something constructive’ while there, left me with difficulty, and when I a met a soul-mate in Soren, a lanky Viking force of nature, I knew that together we would make a mark.  So on the first day there we set out to find ‘a project’. We found a badly rotten and, in our minds, quite dangerous wooden bridge, so we demolished it in matter of minutes. Feeling satisfied with having saved someone the indignity of falling into the river, we reported back, suggested what re-cycled wood could be used to renew the bridge, and moved on to find other stuff ‘to fix’.

While on this search for a new quick-fix, we received ‘some feedback’ from Cristoff, the ubiquitous man of all trades who came with the estate having worked there for over 30 years. He was less than happy with our handy work on the bridge, as he had intended to take his lawn-mower over to the other side of the estate in the next few days…but he had no bridge now to get to other side. Our communication skills were sadly lacking, and, with no ill-intention, they improved only marginally in the next few days. We were breaking bridges in more ways than one.

You would think Soren and I would have learnt our lesson, but sadly the combined stubbornness of the Danish-Welsh would prove to be an unyielding force.

When you’re looking for something to knock down/ dismantle/ re-arrange in a place that is as old as Bonnevaux, the options are numerous. But we decided on what we thought was the most needed, the entrance to the estate had a mouldy, dilapidated fence that looked less than welcoming… so it had to go. In just 30 minutes, no exaggeration, we had ‘re-arranged’ the fence to a flat pack version…when the ‘Dynamic duo’ have a mission there is action with a capital ‘D’, (for demolition in case you were wondering). Unfortunately, yet again, our communication skills were not as efficient as our sledge hammers. Cristoff arrived for work the next day wondering what was missing as he entered the estate. When the penny dropped, it was closely followed by his normally ever-present smile. He had a highly animated discussion with Andrew relating to the over-zealous nature of the kind help we were providing…in 2 days we had destroyed  two features that had existed for over 20 years, so, “…could he please take away our sledge hammers and saws…”. I wasn’t privy to that conversation but I believe that would have been the gist of it.

You might say first impressions of my renovation skills left something to be desired…I’m sure Cristoff may have said it a little more forcefully.

Fortunately we have a manager in Andrew who’s diplomatic skills in re-building bridges are worthy of a place at the next Camp David talks. Cristoff was soon back to his smiling, charming self and we were ‘gently guided’ into communicating with people before reducing anything else to dust. One day you’re a Viking, battling with stubborn structures, the next a Smurf blushing at your over-enthusiastic folly.

But I also found that building bridges was a skill common to others in our group.

As I mentioned there was a friendly ‘ciorba*’  of nationalities and personalities within our group, (*Romanian soup of mixed vegetables). One of the ‘stand out’ personalities I met was Pascal, an effervescent French lady, who was forever pouring oil on any waters that looked as if they may become troubled. Any time a discussion became lost in translation due to culture differences or  personality clashes, ( very few of them), she was immediately on hand with a beaming smile , a word of encouragement or some food to stuff in your mouth to prevent any possible escalation. A wonderful bridge-builder, and a blessing to all who met her.

Yet another blessing was Tilde Carlsen, a quiet force of nature, whose focus was totally on forging a stronger community spirit…one which would hold with all the comings and goings of volunteers. This was an aspect of life for the volunteers which could mean the difference between having a truly fulfilling experience, or just knocking things down. She took it upon herself to guide us all to believe in the importance of being a community not just a collection of individuals thrown together for a moment in time…and she succeeded. By the time she left she had drafted a charter for morning meetings. This would allow everyone to be involved; to have their say with no ‘feedback’, and then lead us into a meditatively constructive daily routine. This was a bridge building from a deeply spiritual caring nature.

So bridges were being built, (and some knocked down ), by all involved with this Bonnevaux experience, managers and workers alike… as I said, a truly enlightening experience for me.

Now Soren and I are off to set up our own demolition company as we think we have mastered the art…so if you need anything destroyed in double quick time you have my contact .

Every blessing to all those involved and to be involved in the wonderful Bonnevaux experience.