Bethanie: A Place of Renewal
By Theodore J. Nottingham
A special place for spiritual renewal in eastern France.
Out in the rolling hills of eastern France, on the edge of the German border, in a land called Alsace-Lorraine, there is a very special community known as Bethanie. It is a place of great religious activity destined to renew autentic Christian spirituality in our day. Across Europe, seekers of the light are finding new access to the living Christ through the work and teachings of this community that are informed by the ancient wisdom of eastern Christianity.
Books, journals, sessions aimed at deepening our experience of the Presence of God are all part of Bethanie's mission. Hundreds have journeyed to this little out of the way place deep in the French countryside, some twenty minutes from the ancient city of Metz. Situated on a spot of land which once housed a monastery in the seventh century, Bethanie is known as a Center for Spiritual Encounters. Its directors are Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann. Father Alphonse is an orthodox priest in the western Orthodox Church of the Gauls.
Alphonse and Rachel are themselves living examples of Bethanie's mission--the transformation of human beings into children of God, channels of the Divine Love, new creations in Christ. Alphonse and Rachel are lovers of God, people who radiate a rare joy, humility, and unconditional affection. They have lived a lifetime aimed at becoming receptive to the Spirit and transparent to its expression in the world.
For years they were students and close friends of Karlfried Graf Durckheim, the renowned spiritual teacher and psychotherapist who has helped untold thousands find their true selves. Durckheim died in December of 1988 at the age of 92, and the Goettmanns carry on his teachings while ushering them into new dimensions through their experience of the Orthodox liturgy and the wisdom of the early saints of the Church.
Here in this quiet setting men and women learn to discover the Prayer of the Heart, that opening to the Spirit which makes possible encounters too deep for words and transforms daily life into a sacramental event. Here people become empowered to go out into the world as instruments and messengers of Unconditional Love. For the Goettmanns, it is clear that the men and women who come to drink at their wells are looking for something more than inner peace and serenity. They are looking for the Christ, the Holy One of God who has put a human face on the unknowable "I Am."
There is a great hunger worldwide for spiritual awakening and Bethanie is on the cutting edge of these new horizons so vital to the future of Humanity. To that end, the Goettmanns have published several books which have been translated for the English-speaking world: Prayer of Jesus -- Prayer of the Heart (published by Paulist Press in the fall of 1990, with a revised second edition published in 1996 by Inner Life Publications), Dialogue on the Path of Initiation: An introduction to the thought of Karlfried Graf Durckheim (published by Globe Press Books in the spring of 1992 and now available only electronically on this web site), The Beyond Within: Initiation into Meditation (Abbey Press, 1992 also available exclusively on this site) and The Spiritual Wisdom and Practices of Early Christianity (Inner Life Publications, 1994).
The following quote from this volume offers a hint of their work and insight:
"Only this complete opening to the amazing Love of God makes it possible for us to become ourselves, for we have been created to respond to this call. From it is born all fruitfulness. Transparent to God, we recognize God everywhere and in everything; we now become truly sensitive to another in his or her full reality, capable of communicating beyond impersonal appearances. Previously we could know nothing of God's purpose for the world, but now our knowing receives its light from the Love lived in the depths of our prayer. Through our inner experience, we know that God maintains the world by the power of this Love, and wants to carry it through this Love to its fulfillment, its divinization."
On the unforgettable day that my wife and I visited Bethanie, Rachel took us on a walk through the community and rang an old church bell which echoed across the peaceful countryside. The ringing was not done to announce the top of the hour or the time of worship, but to call everyone within earshot to a remembrance of the sacred Presence.
As the first colors of sunset spread across the autumn sky, we had to ready ourselves for the three hour train ride back to Paris. It was painful to leave this place whose very atmosphere seemed to sparkle with the glory of the Holy. So much worship and so much love had transfigured a plot of land into sacred space.
In that little community, made up of a few families committed to growing together in their common faith and sharing it with all who are on such a pilgrimage, we found a people of God bearing witness to the nearness and nurturing love of our Creator. Only that kind of daily profound transformation which makes us transparent to the Divine Love, or to essential Being as Durckheim called it, can become a beacon for its age and all those to come.
Bethanie echoes today with the magnificent harmonies of the ancient Orthodox liturgy and the deep consciousness of lives focused on the moment and the Presence of the Holy within in. It is a blessed place, an incubator for the regeneration of the spiritual life. Its leaders are humbly living in that timeless encounter with our Creator, the transcendent experience which is the hope of humanity.