THE TIMELESS MOMENT
“If you came this way, Taking any route,
starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season, It would always be the same: you would have to put off Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.
And prayer is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
T.S.Eliot – Little Gidding
Born in London in 1592, Nicholas Ferrar was educated at Clare, Cambridge
and elected a Fellow there in 1610.
Establishment of a house The family were merchants based in London. They set up the Virginia Company in the Americas, and Nicholas himself was much involved with this, also in Court and Parliamentary life. The Virginia company was suppressed under King James, so Nicholas, determined to leave London and live in retirement in the country and devote himself to a life of prayer.
His mother, Mary, was able to purchase the Manor of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire as part of a deal to rescue her son John from debt. Her daughter, Susanna Collett and husband John were living at Bourne (Cambridgeshire), having fled London during an outbreak of the plague. So in 1625, the whole family entered into the estate at Little Gidding, finding the church used as a barn, and the manor house in need of repair.
Establishment of a community Their first action was to enter the church for prayer, and to give instructions that the church must be cleaned and restored before any attention was paid to the house. The household numbered about 30 persons, from babies to septuagenarian Mary. A school was established, bringing in local children as well as family; an almshouse for local elderly and infirm widows; and a dispensary for the benefit of the locality. In 1626 Nicholas was ordained Deacon by Archbishop Laud at Westminster Abbey: but he refused later to proceed to ordination to the Priesthood.
Establishment of a regular round of prayer The major work however was the establishment of a regular round of prayer, using the forms of the Book of Common Prayer as encouraged by Archbishop Laud in the face of a growing Puritan movement. These acts of worship were led by Nicholas. On Sundays, the Vicar of Great Gidding would come to conduct a second service of Matins or Holy Communion; there was no Rector of Little Gidding at the time. In the afternoon the family walked over the fields to Steeple Gidding church for Evensong. The afternoon was spent learning and reciting the psalms, including instruction of local children.
Later, Nicholas began a round of daily recitation of the psalms, continuing day and night, and an hourly reading from the gospels during the day, led by different members of the family.
Death of Nicholas During the autumn of 1637 Nicholas became ill, and he died on the day after Advent Sunday, at 1am - the hour he had always risen to begin his prayers. He was buried in the table tomb outside the church, leaving space for his elder brother John to be buried before him, closer to the church door. This anniversary is now commemorated as the Feast of Nicholas Ferrar on 4th December.
King Charles sought refuge at Little Gidding During the Civil War, King Charles sought refuge at Little Gidding, when he came as a broken king on the night of March 2nd 1646, and was led to safety by John Ferrar to nearby Coppingford Lodge. The Puritan troops raided Little Gidding three months later, scattered the community, ransacked and looted the house and despoiled the church. It was referred to it as the “Arminian Nunnery”, accused of promoting the return of Romish practices into England. Nicholas's manuscripts were burned, but the family returned, and continued there as before until the deaths of John Ferrar and Susanna Collett in 1657.
The Ferrar community at Little Gidding was the earliest example of the religious life for ordinary people in England, after the turmoil of the four previous reigns.
Loving God, the Father of all,
whose servant Nicholas Ferrar
renounced ambition and wealth
to live in a household of faith and good work: keep us in the right way of service to you so that, feasting at the table in your household, we may proclaim each day the coming of your kingdom; through Christ our Lord.
When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer. Thomas Merton