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. (T S Eliot, Little Gidding)
Walking into a Church Hall early on Saturday Morning for a men’s breakfast, I noticed that a corridor led directly from the modern building into the medieval church. Since we were early – the breakfast was still being cooked – and it was a building I hadn’t visited before, I thought I’d step inside to look around.
It’s not a particularly remarkable building in Architectural terms although it was once the home of families who later became household names in very different fields. There’s a hint of a wall painting by the altar, pew ends polished by hands over hundreds of years together with clear evidence that this is a building which continues to be used, loved and cherished. That alone is just cause for celebration but there was something more: the present and tangible sat with their roots in the past and in the “otherness” of God.
It was a place where prayer has been (and remains) valid.
A road well travelled
Founded in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, the religious community at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire focused on a life of simplicity and spirituality: self sufficiency in material things accompanied a religious expression centred on the cycle of the Book of Common Prayer. There was no “rule” nor were vows taken but there was always someone in the house at prayer.
Nearly 300 years later T S Eliot dedicated the last of his “Four Quartets” to this groundbreaking expression of faith in a remote Fenland Village. The last of the Quartet to be written, the poem draws on Eliot’s personal faith journey and his response to the Blitz raging through London (his war service included a spell as a fire watcher). Where the first three poems draw on the elements of air, earth and water, Little Gidding points towards the remaining element - fire.
Fire is represent in destruction but also in the cleansing, renewing flames of creation and conversion, a sign of God’s presence in the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit). This fire is the inspiration for Ferrar but also for Eliot who sees himself historically in the story of Little Gidding in the same way he has found himself in the village and at the church.
He has come that way having started from a very different place to Ferrar and having travelled a very different road. Eliot sees history in terms of the present, an indissoluble link drawing us back to the past but also projecting the past forward into the future. Physically and spiritually there is continuity – and prayer is the key that turns the lock to open the door to God.
Beginning where we are
What has my journey been like up to this point? How have I come to be in a village church on an autumn Saturday, waiting only for my breakfast and expecting little more than conversation around the table? The back story is there for another day: it is the encounter with God in the silence and the peace that matters.
I – or rather, God - came unexpectedly and powerfully into circumstances where my expectations were more material and mundane. I was sure it would be a good breakfast with a bit of everyday conversation around the table. Given past experiences of similar events, I hoped that there’d be no stewed tomatoes leaking across the plate or rubbery scrambled egg! Grilled tomatoes ok – but stewed? That’s a totally different ball game. Thankfully it was a good breakfast with smoked bacon and maple syrup for the porridge.
I found that I wasn’t there to verify, instruct and certainly not to inform. I wasn’t there to report. I was there to receive in what the Celts have sometimes referred to as a “thin place” – circumstances where it is easier to recognise and to receive from God. A place where the sense of peace and of prayer was palpable, locking out the everyday sounds of food preparation and chat next door. A place where a quiet conversation with a fellow believer led to shared stories of how God has – and is – working not just in this place but in our respective lives.
Here to kneel
I’ve arrived at some pretty fixed ideas what “sabbatical” might mean. In praying and listening, I’ve aimed for something personal (my own development) and relational (faith, family, fellowship). There are exciting possibilities that come from sharing the both process and results, involving others in the work of God and the mission of the church.
This experience of prayer, in the sense of the presence of God, reminds me that where I think I have the loose ends tied up, then I need to think again. The boundaries are blurred, inditinct. It’s important to put aside the agenda, to come empty handed and clear minded, to ensure that I can receive whatever God has to offer. Like Eliot and Ferrar, I need to make the journey once again – coming in a very different direction from them and others - into the fire that waits at the destination. For me, this is a renewed understanding of my own faith and life that I may be able to inspire, lead and support the faith and lives of those whom God has called me to serve.