In the south west of England, in the head of a valley in Dorset where there once was a farm, there is a Friary — Hilfield Friary.
Four days ago after a 7 hour plus journey, I arrived here into a world where life passes at that pace which is both fast and leisurely. Four times a day the bell rings out in the summer air and the community gathers in what was the cowshed to pray in the chapel. Four times a day, just before or after these prayers, the community gather to share a meal — normally and primarily made of the food which they have farmed themselves. Meat is a rarity, and sausages like we had for supper tonight have rarely tasted so good!
I’m here, from the perspective of Cranmer Hall and the Church of England, on a two week placement to experience something of a different spirituality (Franciscan) and to join in a community living a religious life. From the perspective of the Friary I’m a willing, if inexperienced, pair of hands to help muck in with a variety of jobs as glamorous as washing dishes, helping put up fencing for an extended pig run, preparing the paddock to move the sheep when it comes to making hay, fruit picking, weeding and helping out in the kitchen.
There’s a few Brothers here, maybe 6 or 7, and then a variety of people who live in the community alongside them. And then there’s the guests and volunteers. This means that there’s a constant flux of new people arriving and familiar faces departing — though it seems that many who have been once are more than likely to at least visit again in the future.
I won’t try and capture everything which is happening here, or all the conversations I’ve had with so many people. I couldn’t do it justice.
But it’s the kind of place where one person came for two weeks and is only just now about to leave — a year later.
It’s the kind of place where people share glimpses of their life stories — glimpses which serve to remind me of just how rich and varied (and inspiring!) life is.
It’s the kind of place which creates space.
Breakfast is eaten in silence, and many people bring a book. I’ve decided to read my way through Rowan William’s Easter Sermons, which are fantastic.
There’s a morning meeting (at 8:45) where everyone gathers and plans out who is doing what for the day — this really gives the day a sense of purpose.
Aside from prayer and hospitality and farm work they have a real interest, as Anglicans and in particular Franciscans do, in living in relationship with the land in an ecologically sustainable way. This was shown clearly through the tours they were giving to kids from a local school. I tagged along to learn more about the place. They have animals which help look after the land, eating the grass to allow other wildflowers to grow. They have cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs. Most of the meat eaten here is from these animals. They use water from an underground spring, and having used it they recycle and clean it and it then heads into the river it would have naturally if they weren’t there. They have a biomass boiler, and an impressive (to my eyes at least) vegetable and fruit garden — including polytunnel! They don’t grow enough grapes to produce much wine, but the wine they make they use in their daily Eucharist service.
As a community they don’t have much of an emphasis on individual belongings or pay. The community lives out of a shared budget which depends on charitable giving — the Brothers make vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. As such life here is centred around God’s creation and the giftedness of all things.”There’s no such thing as rubbish” is a common phrase. Only four days of praying in the cowshed while the swallows sing outside have passed, but this really is a special corner of the world.
One Czech volunteer says they haven’t experienced anything like this anywhere else in their travels around the globe. And I’m beginning to get a sense of that myself.
Yes, they have some internet here — but I wouldn’t want to upload more than the one picture, that took long enough!