franciscan - May 2002
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
by Samuel SSF
I well remember my first visit to Hilfield. It was Midsummer’s Day 1972, and a car-load of friends had driven from Liverpool to attend the first profession of the then Brothers Keith and John-Charles. I can recollect little about the profession itself, or who else was there, but the view from Batcombe Down will always stay with me. The sky was clear, the sun was at its height, the hedgerows were in their full exuberance of honeysuckle and dog-rose, and the verges were overflowing with cow parsley. Away to the north we could just see the mound of Glastonbury rising, and beyond that the faint outline of the Mendips. The valley below us shimmered. As we turned at the sign-post marked ‘To the Friary’, down into the steep tunnel of green, it didn’t seem to matter where the road was leading. We were in a new, most glorious part of England. I felt at home.
But if the setting of Hilfield seems to be the epitome of rural England, there’s more than a touch of Umbria about the place as well. The Dorset Downs may be gentler than the Appennines, but there’s something about that view which connects with the countryside around Assisi that Francis loved and sang in. It seems no accident that the stream whose source bubbles up in Vincent’s Secret Garden, flowing into the Yeo and finally out into the Bristol Channel, is called the River Wriggle, corresponding to the Rivo Torto, or ‘Crooked River’ beside which Francis and his companions first stayed when their brotherhood was formed. Was it so surprising that the visitors who came one day to the Friary, having seen ‘The Home of St Francis’ on the ordnance survey map, should ask to see the room where St Francis had lived?
If this all seems a bit whimsical to an outsider, to one who doesn’t know Hilfield, or maybe to some who do, then I would say that ‘place’ is important to us, essential even. The work of salvation doesn’t happen in abstract; it always concerns ‘chosen’ people, or groups of people, at a certain time in a particular place. The Word made flesh was rooted in a particular locality, some square miles of Palestinian valleys and hills which have left their print on us. Geography is as much a part of the gospel as theology. Places shape us, affect our spirituality, and tell a story. So, for instance, the profusion of oxlips, orchids and other varieties of plant which makes the terraced field, in the words of the countryside warden, ‘one of the finest wild-flower meadows in Dorset’, owe their preservation to the fact that the brothers since their arrival in 1921 have never been much good at farming. They’ve preferred to grow campers rather than crops. While the rest of the countryside was being fertilized with nitrates and other exciting things, this field has just been tended by some sheep in the winter and by one mid -July cut of the grass to make ready for the coming of the Families’ Camp towards the end of the month. From further back, the origins lost in time, the fields all have names: Flowers Moor, Stanley’s Moor, Long Meadow. Who walked and worked here before us?
The buildings have their own language of flint and brick, thatch and pantiles. If I were an artist my sketch book would be full of the chimneys. There’s a whole village here; we’ve even got our own post-box. Much of it comes from the pre-friary days of Homer Lane’s ‘Little Commonwealth’, an experimental school that foundered during the Great War. Juniper and Clare Houses owe their particular shape, with corresponding doors and lay-out at each end, connected by a central living room, to the need to provide appropriately separate accommodation in the early days of co-education. The brothers’ efforts at building haven’t been quite so pleasing; the red-brick Leo House and the Guest House having been constructed when poverty demanded a more utilitarian approach. We’ve been better at conversions. The present chapel has grown over the years from being just one end of a cow-byre, and has changed its layout several times within comparatively recent memory. When Keith and John Charles made their professions there had already been the great shift from the six candle-sticked altar at one end to a sideways-on stone plinth. In subsequent years the materials have changed again, and again, and the stalls have moved up and down and around. Plus ça change ... but it still looks and feels like a cow byre, thank goodness.
And then there are the corners, the places in the Friary where no-one goes. The swimmers have long since stopped plunging into the pool constructed with great labour and love in between the two wars by boys from Sherborne, Westminster and other public schools. It’s rather a sad spot now, dark and over-grown with alder and willow; but it always was freezing cold!
The better secrets are the sheltered spots where the first snowdrops come into flower, and where you can find berried holly at Christmas. The White Elephant (and the old workshop until it burned down in one spectacular recent conflagration) contains the evidence of the enthusiasms of generations of brothers: pottery, basket-work, wood turning, lino-cutting, prayer-stool-making. The brothers usually moved to another friary before their work became famous. The library is a corner too, now beautifully shelved and catalogued, but the books have come from all over – deceased priests’ studies, individual gifts to brothers, the book tokens from countless sermons. The poetry section is amazing.
But above all it’s the memory of people that makes Hilfield a holy place. Old Matthew at his baskets, Roger telling his bees, and Bill Lash driving around the lanes addressing the other vehicles on the road as ‘the enemy’. There’s Alan Wippell, with us for more than fifty years, muttering his way around the Friary, Martin Sharp collecting every stray piece of silver foil for the Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Paul Simpson greeting each returning brother with a ‘Look who’s here’. They’re all in the cemetery now, our brothers among the saints, and others have come to live here and love the place. I’m moved by the reverence and care which visitors, especially wayfarers, so often give to the Friary. It reminds me that it’s their place as much as mine, and that the gift of generous hospitality has its source in God.
For loving the place is important. Francis loved Assisi, where he was, and the evidence of the gospels is that Jesus had a similar observant and passionate concern for the world around him, rejoicing in the flowers and weeping over Jerusalem.
A spirituality without context, or grounding in a place, is a dry and barren business. To value, to treasure the place, any place where you find yourself living, is the discipline of obedience, an act of love, and a way of prayer, all rolled into one. f
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