Nicholas Ferrar  

Posted by Joe Rawls


Between Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries and the revival of monastic life in the wake of the Oxford Movement, one of the few attempts to form a spiritual community within the Church of England was that of Little Gidding, founded in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast is observed by the Episcopal Church on December 1.

Ferrar (1592-1637) was the son of a wealthy London merchant. He was educated at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was also a fellow. Resigning his fellowship for health reasons, he travelled throughout Europe for five years, studying medicine at the University of Padua and spending some time in Rome, where he became acquainted with Jesuits and Oratorians.

Returning to England, he became involved in the administration of the Virginia Company along with his father and brother. He served briefly in Parliament and developed impeccable connections in the court as well as in society in general. However, his father's death and the failure of the Virginia Company led to a serious decline in the family's fortunes. Egged on in part by his pious mother, Nicholas resolved to retire to a life of Godly seclusion. The estate of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire was purchased and he became leader of what we would today call an intentional community of about thirty people, mostly relatives and in-laws.

Nicholas was ordained a deacon by Bishop William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, and he directed the Little Gidding community in a rather rigorous spiritual program. Matins and Evensong, using the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, were said daily in the estate's chapel (pictured above). A priest from a nearby parish celebrated the Eucharist once a month--a very frequent celebration by 17th-century Anglican standards. On weekdays rotating teams of residents met hourly to recite the psalms, all of which would be said every 24 hours. Nicholas himself would privately recite the entire psalter each day, staying up far into the night to do so. He customarily slept on the floor.

The community survived Nicholas's death by about ten years but was forcibly dispersed by Cromwell's troops. However, its memory survived among high-church Anglicans, inspiring several successor communities, not to mention a poem by that great Anglo-Catholic TS Elliot, part of which is reproduced below.

Collect from Lesser Feasts and Fasts

Lord God, make us worthy of your perfect love; that, with your deacon Nicholas Ferrar and his household, we may rule ourselves according to your Word, and serve your with our whole heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Little Gidding

If you come 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. Your 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.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 1, 2008 at Monday, December 01, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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