Monday, December 4, 2017

Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding

Nicholas Ferrar, friend and publisher of George Herbert and founder of the Little Gidding community, died on December 2, 1637, but his death is remembered in the Church of England today. The Anglican church of St. John in Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, describes his life and his family's retreat to Little Gidding, a community of prayer:

Nicholas Ferrar was the son of a London merchant who was an early member of the Virginia Company, the group which established the American colony in 1607. In 1622 Nicholas succeeded his elder brother John as the company’s Deputy, becoming responsible for its day-to-day administration. In 1624 twin disasters struck; the company was dissolved and John faced a threat of bankruptcy. This turn of events convinced Nicholas and the family that they should renounce worldliness by leaving London and devoting themselves to a life of godliness. Nicholas and John’s widowed mother, Mary, purchased the manor of Little Gidding as part of a deal to rescue John from debt. An outbreak of plague in London in 1625 caused the family to move to Little Gidding more promptly than they had intended. On arrival they found the church used as a barn and the house, uninhabited for 60 years, in need of extensive repair. . . .

The community's devotions were extensive:

In 1626 William Laud, then Bishop of St. David’s but later Archbishop of Canterbury, ordained Nicholas a deacon though Nicholas made clear that he would not proceed to the priesthood. He and the family soon established on weekdays a regular round of prayer based on Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The family processed to the church for these services of matins, the litany, and evensong, which were led by Nicholas. On Sundays Nicholas led the customary matins to which the local children came and afterwards recited the psalms they had learned, for each of which they received a penny. After the recitations were completed, all returned to the church where the Vicar of Great Gidding (Little Gidding’s rector being an absentee) led another service that included a sermon and, once a month, Holy Communion. The psalm children then went back with the family to the house where the family, including old Mrs. Ferrar herself, helped to serve them lunch. When the family had in turn finished their lunch, they walked over the fields to Steeple Gidding for evensong.

Nicholas also began a round of hourly devotions in the house that combined recitation of psalms and readings from the gospels led by members of the family. These were later augmented by nightly vigils in which participants again repeated the psalms.

Little Gidding inspired T.S. Eliot and he meditates upon its spirit in one of his The Four Quartets poems. It seems even more appropriate today to read George Herbert's "Prayer (1)":

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

1 comment:

  1. George Herbert ! - Were it possible to canonize Protestants, he would be right up there on the top of the list, with J.S.Bach.