Little Gidding & Nicholas Ferrar

Little Gidding Church. Photo Mr.G.

You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid

These often quoted words about Prayer come from a poem by T. S. Eliot in a sequence known as the
Four Quartets.The poem is called Little Gidding  and it takes its name from a hamlet of that name in Cambridgeshire just north of Huntingdon.
It was here in 1625 that Nicholas Ferrar founded a community to live a life of prayer.The Church of England commemorates him this weekend (December 4th)

The community consisted mainly of his family who had lived in London as merchants with mixed success and fortunes. In 1625, an outbreak of the Plague led them to leave the city and move to Little Gidding.
But it wasn’t simply to escape the plague nor to escape bankruptcy.One reason they l;eft London was for the sake of Nicholas’s health.
The family were particularly drawn to a closer  walk with God and along with friends, sought a deeper life with God which was found by devoting themselves to worship and to prayer.
In the words of Isaiah they were waiting on God in order to receive salvation.

Waiting on God is at the heart of the Advent Call to all of us. We are called to be still and  seek to know Him as we prepare again to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts and minds and lives more fully – the surest sign we have of God’s Love for us.

The Ferrar family together with companions numbering about 40 set about creating, at Little Gidding, a Lay Community devoted to this waiting and watching for God and learning to be held and loved  by him.

When they arrived there, they found the church in a sorry state and their first task was to clean and repair the building, to make it fit for the worship of Almighty God.
Together, they then consecrated it with prayer.

This prayer was based on the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, known as the Prayer  Book of Edward the 6th. This had been compiled by Archbishop Cranmer.
From it the community prayed Morning and Evening Prayer together with reciting the Psalms. They also maintained ceaseless intercession.
They also set up a school for local children who, having learned the Psalms came on Sundays to recite those they had learned in church.
This was not quite a display of deep devotion it seems. For each recitation the children received a penny. Today we often ponder how we might grow our congregations.
Well, they always say the old ways are the best ways. Perhaps it’s time to re-introduce the Little Gidding Penny Service!

Nicholas Ferrar was made a Deacon by Bishop Laud but he had no desire or sense of call to be a priest.Those duties were performed by the Vicar of Great Gidding who, once a month came to preach a sermon and celebrate Holy Communion with the community.
He regularly led a round of devotions and taught people how to recite the Gospels.The community flourished in love and zeal, in holiness and kindness to all.

Nicholas died on the day after Advent Sunday 1637, at 1am in the morning, the usual time he rose to pray. He was buried at Little Gidding.
The Community continued for a time but it was in the midst of the political upheaval of the Civil War and whilst King Charles sought refuge at Little Gidding, it became an unsafe place for the Monarch.
The Puritans prevailed in the struggle and amidst sweeping changes in the practice of Anglicanism they eventually broke up a community that they feared was too demonstrative of faith. Yet another example of fear leading people to act irrationally and cruelly.

The Little Gidding community became a memory  but what they did achieve was the consecration of lives making God more accessible and, by their prayers they  made Little Gidding, Holy Ground.
If you visit it today you will sense immediately that this is indeed, as Eliot put it in his poem, a place where prayer has been valid. A place, in fact which touches hearts and raises joyful faith in the lives of the visitors.In simple quietness the little church stands as it has gone on standing as a beacon of prayer.
You cannot fail to sense that this is one of those thin places  as Celtic Christianity liked to call them, where the divide between heaven and earth is paper thin. It is easy to sense God’s presence and to reach out and be touched by him.

One of my criteria for whether a Church is worth joining is whether God can be found there easily. Is it, in other words, showing signs of being a thin place. It was easy to say yes to that at Little Gidding,
There is a stillness and holiness and tranquility which enfolds those who visit.
Over centuries it has borne witness to the love of God meeting the halting love of the human heart which reaches towards the Divine and is held.
Thin  Places are also places with corners to weep in, where filled with whatever need, you can be enfolded in the arms of God.

Thin Places are also places of intersection where, as Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God, put it, you can stand at that intersection where human pain, hurt and conflict meet and are held by the transforming love of God.
They are places of Transfiguration as well as spiritual affirmation.

Holy Places are also therefore,  places of real struggle because in seeking God we seek a reality which is not always peaceful but frequently  demanding.
We are called to walk with God in darkness as well as light; in pain as well as quiet joy; in struggle to make good in a world which constantly seeks to drag us down.

Living out our faith means we are to love and to care; to forgive and to seek forgiveness; to make peace and be made peaceful, and all those things we have to go through  if we are to understand the costly love God pours upon us; a love which though present since God created the world, comes, in Bethlehem, with a blaze of angelic light and a display of sheer glory – even if only a few saw it.

Advent today is not seen by many in its true meaning, but even in the lights and decorations and heightened expectations there is always a glimmer of the true Joy of Christmas.

None of it is bad. It just isn’t as good as it should or could be if focused in the right place.

Which is why we can draw inspiration from Nicholas Ferrar and those who kept God at the heart of things and for whom God in Jesus taught them the one thing we need to keep remembering.
To bring the Holiness of God before people and to light up lives with hope and kindness, love and mercy , there is a cost.

In the poem Little Gidding, T S Eliot coins a phrase,

  • Costing not less than everything,

This is a reminder that people like Nicholas Ferrar in places like Little Gidding, or us in our holy places understand that cost to be  everything.  Nothing is held back and Advent is when once again we take the spiritual pilgrimage through Bethlehem to Calvary.

This reminds us that the cost has already been paid – by God in Jesus Christ!

[Mr G]

One thought on “Little Gidding & Nicholas Ferrar

  1. “Thin Places are also places with corners to weep in, where filled with whatever need, you can be enfolded in the arms of God.” – this is beautiful! Lovely article, thank you for sharing! 🌿


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