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A Place of Refuge

A Place of Refuge

Six years ago Tobias Jones and his family did what most of us spend a lifetime avoiding, and walked the talk. Having expressed pained frustration at the atomised cynicism of contemporary life, and visited a number of communities in search of an antidote, they set one up themselves. A Place of Refuge is the compelling, year-by-by account of their experience. Jones is speaking at Theos in October - to which all, appropriately, are invited – so this review contains no spoilers but tries, instead, to open up some of the fascinating issues that arrive from a fascinating experiment.

Settling up a commune/community is often seen as an inherently radical thing to do, and indeed it can be, but it can be a radically conservative thing too. “Communal living,” Jones writes early on, “is an alliance with the past to critique the present in the hope of a better future” – a phrase that might have come from Edmund Burke’s pen. Jones’ experiment in communal living is rooted in a Somerset woodland he acquires, a former quarry that has plenty of challenges (and waste and rubble) but also a rich, varying beauty to which Jones is perpetually alert.

The woods are intrinsic to their communal life, not simply as a setting which forces upon guests a different pace, but as a resource from which they obtain fuel and material to craft, carve, and construct. They acquire chickens, pigs, goats, a pond, a cob oven, and a polytunnel for vegetables. They eat together (“Justice is important; Supper is essential”), taking care to maintain the atmosphere of a family home (Francesca, Jones’ remarkable wife, and their three children are prominent figures throughout). And they have three periods of silent reflection each day in their makeshift chapel, without which Jones admits he couldn’t have coped.

If this sounds vaguely monastic, that’s because it is. Early on, Jones claims that he “risk[s] forfeiting the sympathy of the vast majority of readers if I confess to a religious inspiration behind what we’re doing”. Drawing on a number of examples, in particular Pilsdon, a Dorset-based Christian community that had so impressed him in his earlier Utopian Dreams, Jones’ Windsor Hill Wood offers “traditional Christian hospitality”, finding its inspiration in the gospels.

That is pretty much all Jones says about Christianity per se but its signs are there for those with eyes to see. Jones mentions the rule of St Benedict, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen. He refers to other Christian-based communities. He makes the occasional reference to kenosis (self-emptying), and katabasis (spiritual descent), and a paraclete (a comforter), in an illustrative rather than analytical way. When confronting a problematic guest, he does do in the company of two or three other people. Windsor Hill Farm places no creedal conditions on guests and welcomes all but that is because rather than in spite of the fact that it is deeply and seriously, if unobtrusively, Christian.

For all Jones’ attention to the natural world, it is his attention to his guests and his observations on community that are most absorbing. Living in community is tough with people you know. With those you don’t, it is tougher still. With those you don’t know and who are suffering from the aftereffects of sexual, or substance, or alcohol abuse, or eating disorders, or depression, or bipolar, or post-traumatic stress disorder having fought in Afghanistan, or simply decades living rough it must be abrasively tough. It is to the Jones' enormous credit that they deal so extraordinarily well with the aggression, and depression, and lethargy, and manicness, and relapses, and indifference, and OCD, and the plain ordinary human selfishness that present itself in the community.

The animals, the children, and the wood all play critical roles in calming, re-orienting, supporting, and strengthening people, as does the good humour, patience and emotional honesty that pervades Windsor Hill. Nevertheless, it can be very tough. Emotional and physical exhaustion beckon. “A few years ago I used to have, I thought, enough altruism for a whole village. Now I barely had enough kindness left for my own kids.”

As the community grows, the need for order becomes painfully apparent. “The more clarity there was about duties and obligations, the more relaxed everyone became.” Guests are made to sign a licence to reside, and there is zero tolerance of drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, out-of-hours socialising. It is a central theme of community life – which perhaps explains why are so chilly about it today – that we need to limit our freedom to live well.

Along with discipline, leadership becomes important, although Jones is always alert to the dangers of the cult. A sense of purpose is also essential. Community, in this regard at least, is rather like happiness: aim directly for it and you’ll be disappointed; but aim for something else and you just might catch it on the way. Gratitude is essential. “The best vaccine against the poison of resentment [such as can naturally build up in community, even when it is not imported with every new guest] is gratitude”. “Conflict-avoiding” must be replaced with “conflict-embracing”. Those in charge must be willing to absorb the grief and anger of others, turning the other cheek in the faith that guests are expressing inner agonies rather than trying to destroy you.

Ultimately, there is a profound need for self-realisation. “Most people who come here don’t want to be helped; they want to help out,” Jones notes early on, something that goes as much for him as his guests. Yet it is only by the slow and often painful recognition that you too have needs that healing can begin. “It’s a grave temptation to want to help people,” he quotes Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

It would be wrong to make Windsor Hill Farm sound pious or unduly tough. There is a great deal of laughter and much edgy humour throughout, alongside the chapel silences and the troubled guests. But what it does do, forcefully without ever being forceful, is show how human beings – and not just some, problematic human beings, but all humans – are simultaneously wonderful and troubled, helpful and difficult, majestic and fallen.

Nick Spencer

A Place of Refuge is available here 

Come and listen to Tobias Jones talking about life and community at Windsor Hill Wood. Details here

Imagine from wikimedia available under the public domain

Posted 14 September 2015

Communities, Faith

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