Nicholas Ferrar


Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637)

During Advent we are reminded of another English proponent and example of homely divinity, the 17th century deacon Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast day falls on December 1st.  He was the guiding light of one of the most remarkable experiments in Christian living in the history of Anglicanism.  With his extended family, including his mother and his brother and sister and their families, he founded what has sometimes been referred to as the first monastic house in England since the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.  The whole family shared in a discipline of prayer based on the Prayer Book offices, together with the twice daily recitation of the entire Psalter.  The parish around them was touched and enriched by their prayer and their teaching, as well as their care for the needy and the sick in the community.
 

The experiment did not survive beyond the generation of Nicholas and his siblings, but the holiness of the lives lived there contines to imbue the place and inspired one of the great poems of 20th century literature, T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone....
                                   .... There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

[click here for the full text of the poem]
 

Nicholas Ferrar's family were stockholders in the Virginia Company, but when the company dissolved he was ordained a deacon and moved with his extended family to the manor house at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire.  Living there from 1626 to 1657, they restored the little Church of St. John the Evangelist and devoted themselves as a family to a life centered in prayer and service.  They became widely known, and in some circles reviled, for their  lifestyle  which


The tomb of Nicholas Ferrar stands in front of the church at Little Gidding. Photograph copyright © Simon Kershaw 2005. All rights reserved.   

included regular fasting and meditation.  They taught the children of the neighborhood and wrote books to illustrate the Christian faith and life.  They also prepared harmonies of the Gospels, one of which was presented to King Charles I, who visited Little Gidding at least twice, including a clandestine visit when fleeing from his enemies in 1646.  The community continued after the death of Nicholas but finally disbanded in 1657 after the deaths of his brother and sister.
 


Interior of the Little Gidding church

The fame of Nicholas Ferrar and his family is not limited to the Anglican family.  One of the more interesting commentaries on the experiment at Little Gidding may be found on a website devoted to Ukrainian Orthodoxy.  It is well worth a visit, if for no other reason than to illustrate the deep resonance that the full homely divinity of Anglicanism has with the whole Christian family.

In 1970, a new community was formed at Little Gidding.  The Community of Christ the Sower included Anglicans and Roman Catholics and flourished for a number of years, but disbanded in 1998.  More information about Little Gidding may be found by clicking here.

 


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

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