Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020
Reviewed by Chris Holmes
Jonathan Herbert is a member of the Hilfield Friary Community in rural Dorset, which lives out in very practical ways its Franciscan spirituality. In particular it has a deep ecological ethos, living lightly on the land, encouraging biodiversity and being frugal with its use of the Earths resources.
If one thinks that living in community, even a Franciscan one, is a soft option, then think again! This book is extraordinarily honest, and tells of the difficulties, often harrowing ones – as well as the joys – of living with others and in ministering to people on the margins of society. Jonathan is an Anglican priest and earlier in his life he worked in deprived inner city communities; he has also engaged in peace work in Palestine/Israel and Uganda. In recent years he has been (and remains) Chaplain to Gypsies and Travelling folk in Dorset and Wiltshire. Thus he brings to his writing, which flows elegantly over 220 pages, a wealth of knowledge and life experience.
The thread which runs through the book is ‘accompanying’, which is about being with, walking and working alongside others, rather than in a directing, leadership or counselling relationship. ‘At heart’ he writes ‘it’s a way of learning to live well with otherness and difference, whilst reminding us that we all belong together…’ Accompanying seeks to build not independence nor dependence, but interdependence.
Learning to accompany was far from easy. Jonathan tells how ‘I stopped trying to help people or change them; I began to let go of my need to be needed by others and to realise that the simple joy of being with others, accepting them for who they were and being as much aware of my own weaknesses as theirs brought to me a sense of real freedom, built community and fostered belonging’. The book shows great self awareness and Jonathan shows how the ‘shadow side’ is a place of deep learning. He doesn’t hold back from expressing his anger about a number of societal injustices and he will take sides – but he also knows that it is vital not to close off the possibility of communication with those who you dislike and who take opposing views to us. I have found this particular theme very helpful – and calming – as I fume about those who have political views I find appalling!
In the penultimate chapter ‘Living in relationship with the planet’ Jonathan tells of how in the first 35 years of his life before he moved to rural Dorset, he lived a very urban existence, ‘focused on people but with little thought for the planet’. When he moved to the Pilsdon Community in Dorset (where he spent several years as leader prior to coming to Hilfield) his ‘world view began to change, and I became enchanted with the physical place as much as the idea and reality of living in community’. He leads us through his own ecological journey, the profound environmental commitment at Hilfield and to his own commitment to Extinction Rebellion .
There is much wisdom in these pages and it is hard to pick anything out. Near the close of the book Jonathan writes ‘I increasingly distrust people who preach certainty, particularly when it begins to exclude others. I think deeper truth is encountered when we’re prepared to enter that place of emptiness, not knowing, as rather than close down space it creates space for the other’. Amen to that!