In May I went on retreat to Hilfield, a Franciscan friary in the beautiful Dorset countryside south of Sherborne. But it’s not just a beautiful place. Like other religious communities it’s a place where there’s a rhythm of prayer – something I really value when I go on a retreat – and you can join in as much or as little as you wish.
But Hilfield is also a busy place. You can take a very quiet retreat there if you wish and no one will disturb you. But all around you there will be lots going on. There’s a community of no fewer than 25 people. Some are brothers, others not, and some are young volunteers who simply want to experience life in a community for up to a year.
They provide hospitality to guests, but they also work on the land and have an tremendous record of caring for the environment. They have a biomass boiler for heating and hot water, lots of solar panels, two cars – one fully electric, the other a hybrid for longer journeys. They only eat meat twice a week – apart from leftovers, which are all used up! Sometimes this is their own livestock, and their contact with it means that they really value it and make good use of every part of the animal. All of this contributed to their Eco Church gold award in 2015 – the very first community in the UK gain this level.
And it all fits with Saint Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226), who is sometimes called the ‘patron saint of the environment’. You might have come across his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’, which is better known in the hymn version, ‘All Creatures of our God and King’.
But Francis first and foremost loved people. He came from a wealthy background, but renounced it all to serve the poor. Inspired by the words of Jesus, he thought that the only way to do this was to become the poorest of the poor himself. He didn’t sense a calling to retreat from the world, but to be active in the world and to preach. He travelled as far as the Holy Land during the Crusades, but, rather than fighting, went to meet and speak with the Muslim Sultan.
Francis was very challenging – far too challenging for most people. And yet other people were drawn to join him and form a community, following a 'rule of life'. He was far more than a twee figure who went around talking to the animals (as seen above in the the window from St Mary’s baptistery).
I was inspired by Hilfield, but also had a very special moment when God seemed to tell me that I had to find out more about Saint Francis when I got home. A friend has since lent me a video called ‘Finding Saint Francis’ which was actually filmed at Hilfield.
It strikes me that Saint Francis has a lot to teach the church today. He knew that you have to both be and speak the good news of Jesus; that words without a matching lifestyle are robbed of their power; that you can’t force people to follow Jesus, but need to build relationships. He also valued the whole of creation, which is more relevant today than ever with the threat of climate change. And he realised just how significant the poor are to the Kingdom of God.
There are many good examples of the church serving the poor today – like Christians Against Poverty or our local project ARK Eastleigh. We've also seen it in the recent tragedy of Grenfell Tower, where St Clement's and other churches have been doing so much to help the victims. It’s obviously much needed in a society and world where the gap between rich and poor is widening. But it’s more than that. Reaching out to the poor, and becoming ‘poor’ yourself, opens the door to experiencing God and his purposes in other ways.
Saint Franics lived the gospel to the full, words and actions working together. I wonder if we can rise to the challenge of living a bit more like that.
With every blessing
P.S. Why not think about your own life and calling? You could write and follow your own 'rule of life' using the resources from Winchester Diocese.