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ArticlesPast, Present & Future: Dr Mary Davies

Past, Present & Future: Dr Mary Davies

In the twelfth episode of his series of audio interviews for Past, Present & Future, Seth Dellow spoke to Dr Mary Davies from the Pilsdon Community in West Dorset.
A new book, Living Life in Common: Stories from the
Pilsdon Community has just been published which was co-written by Mary, Dr David Prior, and Professor Marian Barnes. The book brings together different perspectives on life in the community from people who have known it over its more than 60-year history. It also explores both the rewards and challenges of communal living for people whose lives have become severely troubled and explains some of the motivations and experiences of those who have taken on responsibility for running the community.
Having previously been in an academic career, Mary Davies cites the need for closer human contact as one of her motivations for joining the Pilsdon Community. ‘I also wanted to be more connected to people’ she told Seth ‘and the academic life can be quite isolating and quite like a lonely experience of working in archives or with your head in the books or writing. Many parts of which I love, but I just wanted to be more interconnected with people and to be impacted by them I suppose as well.’
Now a full-time member of the community, Mary had looked at many Christian communities before coming to Pilsdon but found ‘something about it that really drew me in.’ She describes it to Seth as a ‘combination of a monastic rhythm—its simplicity, its acceptance and the kind of physicality of the work.’ She says it is very much a working place. ‘It is a place that has its things to get done—things to be made, food to be cooked, animals to be mucked out, gardens to be dug. And there was just something hugely appealing to me about that and the way that interwove with the spirituality of the place. And I think trying to find a sense of home in terms of spirituality was maybe also another journey for me.’ The Community is a place where a group of individuals work in common. And as Mary puts it, ‘there is an honesty here and a kind of truth-telling that I was immediately attracted to and felt really authentic.’
Located in the West Dorset countryside, the community operates as a small farm, caring for cows, sheep, pigs, hens and extensive vegetable and fruit gardens through principles of environmental sustainability. It sits within a lengthy tradition of hospitality offered by faith communities of different types and of both monastic and lay community life. Although Mary was attracted in part because of her Christian faith, people of all faiths and none are welcomed as guests to live and work alongside the community members.
Explaining the relationship between those with different faith positions she says: ‘There is a sense of purpose and there is a kind of interconnection between—well there is no separation I suppose—between what happens in the church or what prayer is and what work is. They are kind of woven together here. I think it always offered the idea that it would be a place that people could be themselves.’
The Pilsdon Community offers guests whose lives have been severely troubled by problems such as mental illness, addiction, and homelessness the opportunity to recover a positive sense of self through being and working alongside others.
The Pilsdon Community fulfills a need that is often hidden within our communities. ‘It is a place where people can feel safe and accepted and valued for who they are’ says Mary, ‘not for what they do or what they have achieved.’ She says it is an economy that is full of forgiveness and grace, and as much as possible isn’t competitive. ‘And so as a concept, as a space, as a place it is always, and it always will be, a necessary space to have in the world.’ Mary is also aware of the challenges that our fast-moving and modern society places on individuals. Despite our extraordinary connectedness through social media, Mary sees how, for many people, it is quite a disconnected world. ‘There is a lot of demand I think out there for finding places like this’ she says. ‘Here it is very embodied, it is very kind of real and manifest. It is just really healthy I think—a place to form relationships.’
Although the Pilsdon Community gets a lot of referrals from mental health services and from relatives and from people themselves who have identified it as a place that could be helpful for them, Mary is very clear that it is not a therapeutic community. ‘We are not trained counsellors’ she says, ‘even though we have got a lot of experience of listening to people and living alongside people.’ She says the primary goal is to provide a space that is safe and good. ‘But we are not therapeutic’ she says. ‘So we can only support people who, I suppose, have a certain capacity to work and a certain self-awareness.’
The Community was started in 1958 by Reverend Percy Smith and his wife, Gaynor who moved there with their daughter Ruth. And although Gaynor wrote a book and there have been articles and short publications since then, Living Life in Common: Stories from the Pilsdon Community, offers an extensive and fascinating insight into both its physical formation and development, as well as the spiritual growth that sustained it and made it what it is today.
Mary explained that it has been very difficult for a member of the community or someone close to it to write a contemporary book, ‘because there is just simply no time in our life, in this rhythm, in the way that we live here to, kind of, carve out time to write something.’ However, the Pilsdon Community is a resource of wisdom and that is something it is hoped will come through for those reading this new book.
Talking about the book Mary mentions the disconnect in life again and says, ‘We sometimes struggle to take responsibility for the things that we need to take responsibility for, and I think the invitation of living in a more cyclical, rhythmic, simple way is an invitation for everyone to wonder what grounds us, what holds us steady, what gives us life. And I think that there is a lot in this book about that.’
People have come to the Pilsdon Community from many different places, walks of life and denominations, and many have brought with them wisdom gained from varied life experiences. And as Mary puts it ‘there is something important about that.’ But while it is a helping hand for most it isn’t for everyone. ‘If you can’t find everything you need in this place, it is a hard place to live’ she says, ‘but I find everything I need and more—it is so enriching. But I think you have to come with a sense that you are willing to be transformed by the place.’
‘So, I think for people who want to live in socially just ways, who want to care for the environment and who feel that connection between everything like environment and people and land and their faith and the way in which that is all, kind of, combined, I think this is an amazing place to live that out.’
For more information about the Pilsdon Community or to purchase a copy of the book visit: https://www.pilsdon.org.uk/

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