The Big Silence: Whitterings, December 2010

The Monastery - Cover

Some of you may remember the 2005 BBC documentary ‘The Monastery’ where five ordinary people spend forty days in the Benedictine Monastery of Worth under the direction of Abbot Christopher Jamieson. It was fascinating seeing the way their lives changed in such a short period of time.

Abbot Jamison is back again with a new three part BBC documentary called ‘The Big Silence’. At first the five participants go on a limited retreat to learn some practices to help find silence in their everyday lives and then we follow them to see if they are able to get even a few minutes of daily silence. They all fail spectacularly. Next the Abbot sends them to St Beuno’s Jesuit centre in the isolation of the North Wales countryside for eight days of complete silence. What follows is extraordinary. After the initial onslaught of boredom and claustrophobia, the retreatants begin to experience the buried unresolved traumas of their lives. After sitting with the pain for a few days the dramatic silence permeated them and they became calm and, for many of them, relaxed for the first time in their lives. Yet it was far more than just relaxing. Once they connected with themselves each one had a profound spiritual experience that they felt changed the way they looked at the world. It was the most powerful experience they had ever had. All of the participants ended up making radical changes to their lives after having undergone the transformation fostered by the silence. All this happened in just eight days of silence.

I once had it explained to me that the psyche was like a jar of pond water. When it is being bounced around by constant movement the water in the jar remains muddy and you cannot see anything in it. However if you let it sit still for a few days all of the detritus will float to the surface, the silt settles to the bottom and the water becomes crystal clear. This is exactly what happened to the individuals in the programme.

The Abbot was working from a simple assumption when he set out the experiment:

“If you want to be deeply connected to yourself and deeply connected to God you must spend time in silence. When we enter regularly into silence we start to see with greater clarity and especially I come to know myself and become in touch with that part of myself which is the deepest – my soul. Many people’s lives are so full of business and so full of noise that they are in danger of that really important part of lives dying away. Silence is something that people today avoid or even fear. Contemporary life is lived at high speed and our busy culture prevents us being still so we don’t look deep inside ourselves. Life would be transformed for the better is we could embrace silence.”

One moment stood out for me. At the beginning of the eight day retreat a priest asks everyone to be silent and listen for just two minutes. At the end of the two minutes two of the participants, visibly moved, admit that it was the first time in their lives they had ever just listened to what was going on around them. One of them later spends a whole morning lying outside listening to the birds, the distant bleating of the sheep and the wind in the trees. She says in amazement “I can’t believe I’ve never stopped to listen to birds in the morning”.

It is funny how much we take for granted. I live in silence a great deal of the time and spend at least two weeks a year on silent retreat. I do not think much about it. The Christian mystical tradition has always valued silence, so much so we do not think of it as anything special. This program offered a startling insight into ministry in the modern world: one of the most powerful things that we have to offer the world is simply the enabling and facilitating of the opportunity to be silent. God does the rest. Could it really be this simple?

Fisher of Cats: Whitterings, November 2010

Cat Cropped

In the early spring a marmalade kitten was born somewhere on the Rectory property, probably in the old carriage house. I have seen it around for months. Last month, on nice days, it took to basking in the sun outside my office window. It was a poor, skinny, little thing. After a couple of days of watching it grow even skinnier, I finally gave in and put a bowl of cat food out for it. I knew if I did so, even once, then I would become responsible for him. I am trying to tame him before the snows come so I can take him to the vet to get his shots and be fixed so I can find a good home for him. But, like so much in life, when I began I did not realise how much time it would take.

After the very first day of putting food out for him he started spending all his time on the porch. He would hiss at me every time I went out and dart away at full speed. I began by going out with his food and just sitting there quietly several feet away until his hunger overcame his fear and he would come and eat. This took about an hour the first day. Every day I would sit a little closer and it would take a little less time for him to begin to eat. Within two weeks he was eating out of my hand. A week later he was letting me touch him for brief moments whilst he was eating. Now he comes into the Rectory to eat his dinner before darting back outside to curl up on my front door mat to sleep. He still hisses at me whenever I approach but his heart does not really seem to be in it anymore and he begins softly mewing at me after the initial hiss. Many afternoons he now sits in my office window and watches me work. If I stare at him for too long he will hiss at me. Still - there he is watching and waiting.

This afternoon I walked out to the Glebe to watch the sun setting on the autumn leaves and the cat followed me. Whilst standing there softly whittering away to him he suddenly started rubbing up against my legs and turned on his back playfully and began to purr. When I bent down he did not run away as usual but rather kept pushing up against my hand to be scratched and petted. This was the first time I had seen him acting like a normal young cat. Then the spell was broken, he hissed at me and took off running. Still, he followed me back to the Rectory and is currently asleep on the welcome mat outside my door. We will see what happens tomorrow.

I studied psychology at University and even have a Masters Degree in Pastoral Care and Counselling. I know about behavioural psychology. I know that rational arguments seldom work in changing people’s actions. As the psychiatrist Gordon Livingstone says “It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.” Thoughts and feeling follow from changes in behaviour not the other way around. So why is it that I always try to reach people by reason? I keep trying to ‘force a green nut out of it’s shell’ instead of waiting for it to dry. I simply try too hard. Way too hard. I become worried and anxious and think that if only I can find the right argument to show why an action is foolish, destructive, or dangerous the person will swerve away back onto the safe path.

One of my most firmly held maxims is that you should pay more attention to what people do than what they say. They may be hissing at me, but still, there they sit watching me and waiting. Why do I consistently ignore my own maxim and pay more attention to the hissing than the watching and waiting? Why is it that with a feral cat I can sit patiently and calmly for hours and try and love it into safety but with people I try and argue them into good decisions and get easily frustrated when it does not work? It is as if, in a situation where I can no longer use words, I am aware of exactly what I am doing whereas when I use words I forget. I have been called to ‘Fish for People’. Fishing takes commitment, patience, and perseverance. It is a long term strategy for the good of the one for whom you are fishing. For my feral cat, I am trying to save him from the brutal winter that I know is coming but he doesn’t. It is no different with people. I must not keep forgetting that even if I am the one who casts out the line it is God who reels them in – in his own time. Lately I have been reflecting that it is too bad God did not call me to be a Fisher of Cats! I might have been better at it.

The Empty Tomb as the New Mercy Seat of God: Whitterings, May 2010


The spirituality of the Jewish world in which Jesus lived was marked by separation. A prayer from Jesus’ day read

“Blessed is he who distinguishes between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and Gentiles, between the seventh day and the six working days, between water above and water below, between priest and Levite and Israelite.”

Holiness was marked by keeping the clean away from the unclean, the righteous from the sinner. Perhaps the most marked distinction was between what was alive and what was dead. The High Priest was not even allowed to acknowledge death and was forbidden to take part in the funeral rites even of his closest family.

The religious rites of the Temple were also ordered in this way with a succession of areas which one could only enter after successive levels of purification. Yet even when one kept all of the laws the presence of God was still closed off. At the very end of the Temple was the great veil or curtain that hid the Holy of Holies. Behind the veil was the Ark of the Covenant flanked by two golden Cherubim between which was the Mercy Seat of God. This was the place where the presence of God dwelt. Only one person, the High Priest, ever beheld it and then only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, so he could sprinkle the blood of propitiation upon the Mercy Seat. For everyone else the Mercy Seat of God was forever hidden and out of reach.

The holiness of Jesus was in marked opposition to this holiness of separation or Puritanism. He broke the Sabbath laws, did not keep the customs of ritual cleansing, associated with collaborators, with prostitutes and even let them touch Him. He touched lepers and the handicapped and even the dead. He taught us about finding Him in the sick and the imprisoned and the hungry, He taught us about gathering in the beggars from the streets to dine at the banqueting table of God. The theologian Nicholas Boyle wrote:

“The presence of what is alien, pagan, unholy, unclean at the heart of the Church is essential to its nature. When the Church finds what is unholy, then it must say ‘For this too Christ died’...In such moments the Church too must die, must swallow its pride, give up the boundary which it thought defined its existence, and discover a new and larger vocation. And that new vocation will itself be defined by a new boundary which in time the Church will also have to transcend.”

So you would assume that the Church would be the first community to recognise when it is defining itself as an ‘us’ against a ‘them’. If only it were so. Our history is one long, continual, struggle against the old purity holiness of the temple. There is always a new ‘them’. For the Anglican Communion today it is either ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’, ‘orthodox’ or ‘heretics’. Usually these lines are drawn because of differing understandings of human sexual orientation. There will always be some tribal, clan identity against which we will attempt to define ourselves against. The saddest part is that this type of spirituality discredits all religion and even makes it dangerous to humanity.

We should not be overly harsh with ourselves however because we evolved this way. From our earliest days we lived in small groups that were always on the lookout for the ‘other’ tribe who was out to get us. We are, after all, a particularly violent species. Even today, when we are threatened our first response in to retreat back into the clan for protection. In a world that has dramatically changed almost overnight most people feel threatened. For most of the world’s population their most primal clan identity is that of their religion. Of course this is not real religion in that true religion is not afraid and seeks to move outwards in worship to explore in faith the creation and all other creatures. Instead it is the opposite of faith – it is created out of fear. Thus this world is filled with fundamentalists whose hardness of heart too often betrays the absence of love and a fearless faith.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master of the Dominican Order (who introduced to me the concept behind this article), said in his book Why Go to Church:

“And who are the people whom we, the Church, thrust out, or at least leave hanging around on the edge, as second class citizens: the divorced and remarried, people living with partners, gay people. There must be a place for them around our altars, rejoicing in Christ’s hospitality along with everyone else. Often our Churches keep alive Old Testament understanding of holiness, separating off our communities from those who have gone astray. This may look like keeping up standards, refusing the moral relativism, but actually it is just failing to catch up with the novel holiness of Christ.”

We must keep pushing outwards to grow and be transformed like I discussed in my last column. For us as Christians this means seeking Christ in one another especially in those we find alien – the stranger and the enemy. He is seldom where we want Him to be. I never tire of reminding people that Elie Wiesel thought that if you had to choose between Christ and the Truth you must always choose the truth because if you choose Christ you are only choosing who you think He is, an idol of Him, and not who He really is. Remember the disciples did not recognise Him after He had risen. Mary Magdalene was looking for him in the tomb and did not recognise Him when He stood outside of it but rather thought He was the gardener.


At the Easter Day Mass this year most of us read the Resurrection account by St Luke:

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” LUKE 24:1-5

On Good Friday we read the Passion according to St Luke:

“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole eland until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed: and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” LUKE 23:44-45

Even more dramatic is St Mathews account:

“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split...” MATHEW 27:51

Do you see it? When Christ died the veil of the temple was ‘rent in twain’ revealing the Holy of Holies – the empty space between the two Cherubim – the Mercy Seat of God. That which had remained hidden, cut off from the people because they were not pure enough, was revealed - an empty space between two angels. God was no longer separated from His people. He was no longer to be found there.


On Easter morning a group of women, the very first people to encounter this new reality, found another empty space flanked by two angels. He was not there either.

The first painting is by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones entitled ‘Mary Magdalene and the Risen Lord’.

The second painting is by Joseph Love and is a Sumi ink drawing entitled ‘The Veil oft he Temple was Torn’.

The Questing Beast of Poor King Pellinore or The Goal is the Journey: Whitterings, April 2010

Arthur Rackham Questing Beast

There is strange paradox in the Christian spiritual journey that all too often escapes us simply because it is so obvious. It is simply this: it is the journey which matters in life not the arriving. The end of the Christian journey is not part of human life but rather belongs to the realm that follows afterwards. St Thomas Aquinas tried to remind us of this repeatedly. He tells us that “God is a verb not a noun”, that we experience Christ not so much as risen but rising (homo resurgens), and one of his brethren tells us “God is not the answer he is the question”.

In our Baptismal liturgy we envision this Christian goal by paraphrasing the words of St Paul to the Ephesians: “to grow Into the Full Stature of Christ”. The Prophet Isaiah tells us to “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out: hold not back, lengthen your cords”. Isaiah 54.2 This growth means we must always be journeying, never cease from exploration, and when we stop then we must turn again ‘repent’ and start moving once more.

“The passion of faith lies not in testifying to an eternal happiness but in transforming one’s own existence into a testimony to it.” Soren Kierkegaard

“It is no good for us to bow and scrape before God in words and phrases and in such activities as building churches and binding Bibles in velvet. God has a particular language for addressing him – the language of action, the transformation of the mind, the course of one’s life.” Soren Kierkegaard

In the Letter to the Philippians Paul tells us “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14 Here he reminds us of another aspect of the journey we sometimes forget, that it is not the past which is important but the present. To put it another way, it is more important where we are not where we came from. What is important about our past in the present moment is how we interpret it, what meaning we find in it, and how we tells our own story interpreted through the lens of the great narrative of salvation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in the epitaph to his autobiography “Life is not about what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Let me give you an example by way of a juxtaposition. On YouTube you can find a video called ‘Spoilt Brat’ which shows the reaction of a sixteen year old girl throwing an angry tantrum, shouting at her father and crying because the expensive new sports car her parents had bought her for her birthday was red and not blue. What is much worse, in my mind, is the video she posted to ‘explain’ why she really needed a blue car to match her clothes and eyes and why she felt her parents were insensitive to her needs. Now here is a story told by Father Timothy Radcliffe OP, Former Master of the Dominicans, in his book Why Go to Church.

“In the summer of 2007, I visited the poorest and most violent barrio in Bogota, Columbia, where our Dominican students go every weekend, helping to establish a Christian community. The co-ordinator of the parish, Maria, lives in a primitive shed, hardly more than a few sheets of zinc resting against the face of a rock. She welcomed us with water. Most movingly she shared her vast gratitude for the blessings of her life, for her grandchildren, her home, her food. She is one of God’s good friends.”

So which of these women is hard done by? The answer lies in their own perception of their life and how they share that story of their life with others.

The distinctive Christian grace for this lifelong journey is hope. It is what keeps us on the path. Paul says: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Roman 8: 24-25 In the Letter to the Ephesians he hopes for us “Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”Ephesians 1:17-18. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” Hebrews 6:18-19; and “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

This constant journeying is that which, paradoxically, leads to peace and not the sitting still as we would imagine. Like the Trinity itself, the oneness of God lies not in His eternal immutability as a static being but rather in His Trinitarian Nature of constant movement. The paradox is that the discipline of discipleship is not about strengthening the will to fight and to prevail by purity of mind and body, the old heresy of Pelagianism, but rather the opposite – to surrender. It is in vulnerability, need and asking that we are able to receive grace which alone enables us to keep our feet on the path.

The point I am trying to make is that the Christian spiritual journey is about constantly growing up in the faith and moving out of ourselves into connection with the wider creation. To do this one must be in the present and not see our past as an unchanging reality but as part of the present spiritual practice of redemption in how we redeem the narrative of our lives. The chief focus for this journey is hope. Finally I contend that surrender of the will is what is necessary to allow grace into ones journey.
In the 1989 Parenthood, Helen Shaw plays an elderly grandmother. At the end of film when the obsessive compulsive father of the family is stressed to the breaking point due to his inability to control and protect his family from life’s disappointments his grandmother comments to him:

“You know when I was 19 grandpa took me on a rollercoaster. Up, down, up down, oh what a ride. I always wanted to go again. You know it was just interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled all together. Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry go round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

It is only at this moment that he is able to let go of the control and surrender into the messiness of being part of a family, being part of life.


The Questing Beast, also called the Beste Glatisant, is a mythical creature that appears in the Arthurian Legends of the middle ages. In French, it appears in three thirteenth-century texts : the Prose Tristan, Perlesvaus, and the Post-Vulgate cycle. In English, it appears in Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte D'Arthur. In both Malory and the Post-Vulgate, the noise it produces is similarly described as "lyke unto the questyng of thirty coupyl houndes, but all the whyle the beest dranke there was no noyse in the bestes bealy" Malory 42. In French and Middle English its name is a pun as the Middle English verb questen means to bark.

Many interpretations have been put forward to describe what the Questing Beast symbolises in the Arthurian legends. In Perceval the beast represents Christ hounded by the twelve tribes of Israel, while in Malory, Alexander Bruce suggests that when the Questing Beast appears it "symbolizes that a relationship between people is not right, that two elements which should have remained separate have been mixed, and that chaos will result from the unnatural situation at hand". Sir Palomydes, the knight who describes himself as "the knyght that folowyth the Glatysaunte Beste", seeks the beast rather than the Holy Grail perhaps because he was both a Saracen and a knight and thus of a mixed nature. Kara L. McShane says “Catherine Batt has suggested that the Questing Beast does not have a clearly defined function in Malory's narrative, but rather, it is ‘a series of signifiers without the satisfaction of ultimately recovering an intelligible meaning’. Malory describes the Questing Beast as ‘a full wondirfull beyste and a grete sygnyfycasion; for Merlyon propheseyed muche of that byeste’. However, Batt points out that its importance is never really explained in Malory's work as it is in the Post-Vulgate cycle. Merlin's prophecies about the Questing Beast are never mentioned again, and its great meaning is never made explicit. In effect, the Questing Beast invites interpretation while evading explanation; thought critics pursue its meaning, no consensus on the creature has been reached.”


However the reimagining of the Questing Beast by T.H. White in The Once and Future King is the story that speaks to me the most. In White’s version the Questing Best is pursued by King Pellinore his whole adult life, as it has been by all of the Pellinore’s before him (one wonders what state their Kingdom must be if the King is always away and how they held onto the throne!). He quested after the beast alone in the wild, sleeping out under the stars and living a life of constant movement. One day he is persuaded to stop for a while and rest by his friend Sir Grummore by the latter’s appealing to the King’s lifelong desire to sleep on a feather bed. Immersed in a life of luxury, King Pellinore soon loses the drive for the quest and settles into a life of comfort at Sir Grummore’s castle.

Many months later the King stumbles across the dying Beast whilst out hunting in the woods with his friends and comes to himself. I say ‘comes to himself’ as those are the words St Luke uses to describe what happens to the Prodigal Son while he is feeding swine in ‘a distant country’. In other words - he remembers who he is.

“The spectacle which they came across was one for which they were not prepared. In the middle of a dead gorse bush King Pellinore was sitting, with tears streaming down his face. In his lap there was an enormous snake’s head, which he was patting. ‘There, there’, the King was saying. ‘I did not mean to leave you altogether. It was only because I wanted to sleep in a feather bed, just for a bit.’ ‘Poor creature’, said King Pellinore indignantly. ‘It has, pined away, positively pined away, just because there was nobody left to take an interest in it. How I could have stayed all that while with Sir Grummore and never given my old Beast a thought I really don’t know. Look at its ribs, I ask you. Like the hoops of a barrel. And lying out in the snow all by itself, almost without the will to live.’ ‘I happened on it in this gorse bush here, with snow all over its poor back and tears in its eyes and nobody to care for it in the wide world. It’s what comes of not leading a regular life. Before it was all right. We got up at the same time, and quested for regular hours, and went to bed at half past ten. Now look at it. It has gone to pieces all together, and it will be your fault if it dies. You and your bed.’”

After giving the Beast wine and bread The King insists that the hunting party tie the Beast to a pole to transport it back to the castle to be warmed by the fire and fed and nurtured back into health. The King himself tended it until they were both ready to begin the quest anew.

Qusting Beast 1935

“The questing Beast having revived under the influence of kindliness and bread and milk had bounded off into the snow with every sign of gratitude, to be followed two hours later by the excited King, and the watchers from the battlements had observed it confusing its snowy footprints most ingeniously, as it reached the edge of the chase. It was running backwards, bounding twenty foot sideways, rubbing out its marks with its tail, climbing along horizontal branches, and performing many other tricks with evident enjoyment. They had also seen King Pellinore – who had dutifully kept his eyes shut and counted to ten thousand while this was going on – becoming quite confused when he arrived at a difficult spot, and finally galloping off in the wrong direction with his brachet (hunting hound) behind him.” T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Page 152 & 154

White makes it clear that the relationship between the pursuer and the object of his pursuit is quite intimate and that their lives are intertwined. When the King gives up the quest he not only forgot who he is but actually wounded the Beast by taking away how it defined itself. Both lost their identity. The Beast needs the King to pay attention to it as much as the King needs the Beast to give meaning to his life. The danger in this story is nothing more sinister than the comfort of sleeping indoors on a feather bed. Yet it represents the comfort of the world which causes us to forget what our purpose is, what we are seeking, what we hope for, and that we are still on a journey and cannot stop for too long in one place (spiritually speaking). Or to be more precise, we can forget Who we are seeking. It has been cogently argued that all Christian practice is simply myriad ways to keep reminding ourselves over and over again, every Sunday, and several times a day of who we really are – Children of God and all that that entails.

“There is a preying creature, known for its cunning that slyly falls upon the sleeping. While sucking blood from its sleeping prey, it fans and cools him, making his sleep still more pleasant. This is how it is with habit – or maybe it is even worse! For the vampire seeks its prey among the sleeping, but it has no means to lull to sleep those who are awake. Habit, however, is quite adept at doing this. It slinks, sleep-lulling, upon a person, and then drains his blood while it coolingly fans him and makes his sleep all the more pleasant.” Soren Kierkegaard

The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews would argue that too much comfort can actually cripple us. If someone who has stopped journeying and has sunk down into comfort then they must ‘wake up’ and get moving again or things will only get worse.

“For the Moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but healed.” Hebrews 12: 12-13

We change because we quest and it is the pursuit that makes us who we are. It is the hope of who we pursue that gives our lives meaning. It is in having this great goal and purpose that gives us our peace.

“To venture the truth is what gives human life and the human situation pith and meaning. To venture is the fountainhead of inspiration. Calculating is the sworn enemy of enthusiasm, the mirage whereby the earthly person drags out time and keeps the eternal away, whereby one cheats God, himself, and his generation.” Soren Kierkegaard

As Christians quest after the truth then they and the truth come ever closer together like two travellers walking towards one another on a country road. We are made in the image and likeness of God. So unlike the story of King Pelenore and the Questing Beast, we hope that our story will end in our becoming like unto our goal. As St Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Galatians 2: 20

“Seeking the truth means that the seeker himself is changed, so that he may become the place where the object of his search can be.” Soren Kierkegaard

First Painting by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). "The Questing Beast." From: Pollard, Alfred W. The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Abridged from Malory's Morte D'Arthur. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917. P. 220 facing.

Second Painting: Unknown.

Third Painting by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), "How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast and Thereof Had Great Marvel" from: Malory, Sir Thomas. The Birth Life and Acts of King Arthur, of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvellous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal and in the End Le Morte Darthur with the Dolourous Death and Departing out of This World of Them All. London: Dent, 1893.

Fourth Drawing by T.H. White (1906-1964) from his Book The once and Future King, published in 1958.

Little Gidding and the Father Founders of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd: Whitterings, January 2010


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. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. 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.

If you turn onto the old, rutted, one track roads in the isolated western part of Cambridgeshire, called Huntingdonshire, you will probably get lost fairly quickly. If you are lucky enough to find yourself on the desolate Old Western Road and head north you will come across the small hamlets of Steeple Gidding, Great Gidding, and if you are very lucky you will find Little Gidding and the small farm lane that leads through the fields to dead-end at the 12th century church of St John’s -‘The World’s End’. There is really no hamlet left since the Great Plague wiped out the inhabitants in 1348 and the Parliamentarians wiped out the resettled community in 1646. There is not much to look at. Just a very small church with no particular attributes, the ‘Dull Facade’ referred to by Eliot, at least not physically. Spiritually it is a place of enormous power and of great importance in the history of the human heart.


Here in 1625, Nicholas Ferrar resigned from Parliament and settled with his extended family to found the first religious community since the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536. The Ferrar family set up residence in the old manor house and restored the abandoned church. Archbishop William Laud Ordained Nicholas to the Diaconate the same year. The community Read the Daily Offices from the Book of Common Prayer including a daily recitation of the entire Book of Psalms. They also kept a continual vigil of prayer in the sanctuary. They wrote books and stories of a spiritual nature, fasted regularly, and kept a life of poverty so as to be as free as possible financially to give to the poor. They spent their days in good works in the wider community teaching the children, caring for the sick and infirm, and visiting the old and vulnerable. King Charles I was so inspired by the religious zeal of the community that he visited it twice. The last time he was fleeing there for refuge after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby towards the end of the English Civil War: ‘If you came at night like a broken king’. Nicholas Ferrar died in 1637 and was buried in a tomb immediately in front of the church, Eliot’s ‘Tombstone’. His community continued however until the Puritan Parliamentarians under the rule of the Regicide denounced it as ‘an Arminian nunnery’ and forcibly dissolved it in 1646.


Although the community did not last long it set an example of what an Anglican Religious Community could look like. It was open, family orientated, and spiritually centred on the Book of Common Prayer. They were held together by the bonds of friendship and family and did not require formal vows. In 1913 during one of their yearly retreats to Little Gidding the Father Founders drew up the constitution of, and formally founded the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. They took Blessed Nicholas Ferrar as their patron. Years later the Oratory would found a parish church in Cambridge in honour of him.

Little Gidding Oratory Foundation Plaque

Over the church door at Little Gidding is the quote taken out of the mouth of Jacob after he wakes from his dream about the angels ascending and descending the ladder from heaven:


“This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28.17

As Eliot rightly points out, Little Gidding is a thin place that reminds you that the Peace of God is accessible everywhere and at all times. Even though wars may be raging there is still a peace that runs in eternity underneath of time. Eliot himself was trying to write in London during the air raids of the WWII and only broke his writers block by visiting Little Gidding. In places like Little Gidding that have been hollowed with prayer it is easier to remember to kneel down, open your heart to God, and let go. When one does then anywhere can literally become the ‘Gate of Heaven’. Then all falls into place “and what you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning”. We must remember with humility, that this is the chief purpose of our churches, to remind us of God. When we are able to pray deeply then each one of our parish churches becomes ‘The House of God’.

As one leaves the church one passes underneath the stained glass window that holds within a simple blue circle the dying words of Nicholas Ferrar to his brother John:


“It is the right good old way you are in. Keep in it.”

Soeteriological Efficacy is the key to knowing on this side, or more simply put, you shall know a tree by the fruit it produces. Nicholas Ferrar and the community of Little Gidding showed that at the heart of the Book of Common Prayer was a path of holiness that united prayer and good works, holiness of life and love for humanity. They proved that the Anglican path led somewhere, that the tree could produce the fruits of the Spirit. There were good reasons the Father Founders of the Oratory looked to Little Gidding as their spiritual home and their inspiration. Little Gidding gave encouragement and hope that the Religious Life in the Church of England could once again take root, sprout, and bear the fruit of the Catholic Faith.

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.

Quotes from ‘Little Gidding’, The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, 1942.

The Feast Day for Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, in the Anglican Church of Canada is December 4th.

The Feast Day for William Laud, Archbishop & Martyr, in the Anglican Church of Canada is January 10th.

The Feast Day for Charles Stuart, King & Martyr, in the Anglican Church of Canada is January 30th.