“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…..
…You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid….
….With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Extracts from Little Gidding, The Four Quartets by T S Eliot
This weekend I arrived where I started. Leaving the rough road, I came past that same pig-sty to the dull facade and the tombstone. I arrived where I had started my Christian journey. Past the house where I learnt to play and share and discovered hospitality, through the garden where we fell off climbing frames, picked horseradishes and, later, celebrated my sister’s wedding, to the little church where I was baptised in 1970, where I first felt the presence of prayer as a young child, where sacred stillness was etched into my soul over months and years.
We lived at Little Gidding as a family from 1973 to 1977, when my parents started a community there which modelled a life of prayer, hospitality and care for creation. I remember this time as filled with people, animals, singing, shared meals and laughter. It wasn’t a perfect time but it has shaped me deeply. For another four years we lived in the neighbouring village of Great Gidding where my father was vicar. And so the Giddings were like a faded canvas, the backdrop to my childhood memories until 2005 when my parents moved back to the same house in Little Gidding for another three year stint as wardens of the retreat centre there.
During that later spell, my children in turn played on the lawn, some of my friends experienced this strange end-of-the -world place and I had once more the chance from time to time to allow the rhythm of prayer to soak into my soul.
Then this weekend, taking a break from a hedonistic, noisy and vibrant music festival, I arrived at Little Gidding as a deacon to preach while my father took evening prayer. This was an immense privilege for me. Not only is the place full of poetic and personal resonances but I was also standing in the footprints of Nicholas Ferrar, one of the most famous deacons in the Anglican church who, with his household, lived a life of prayer, service, faith and compassion. And it’s Nicholas Ferrar who is buried in the tomb outside the church which mentioned by Eliot in the poem.
My texts were the Passover and the Beattitudes, texts core to the identity of Jews and Christians respectively. And in a place that formed me I talked about the observances that form us in our faith. In a place where communities of people have put their faith into practice over 400 years I had the chance to talk about corporate memories of liberation and the promise of God’s blessing for those who practice vulnerability, those who visit places of powerlessness and those who live in solidarity with the poor.
In front of my parents and the gathered saints of that congregation I felt barely able to preach to those who have lived for many decades in the shadow of Little Gidding and know the truth of living long faithful lives. But what I said seemed to matter little – in that place it was so clear that my sermon and my service is merely a drop in a wide river of faithful Christian witness that spans centuries and runs so deep that it appears to have no end.
“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.”