19th April 2024

Margaret and I recently found ourselves in Little Gidding, a tiny village deep in the Cambridgeshire countryside. It’s where in 1629 Nicholas Ferrar, a high church Anglican layman, founded a small religious community for prayer and meditation. Today Little Gidding owes much of its reputation to the poet T. S. Eliot who visited there in 1936, and used its name as the title of the final poem in his Four Quartets. It’s still a very quiet place. Close by the old church is Ferrar House, a retreat centre.

In ‘Little Gidding’ Eliot asks how we can meet the eternal in the midst of time, in a world of change, and often decay and destruction too; he wrote in 1942, in bomb-blitzed London. Was he just recalling the peace and tranquillity of Little Gidding as an escape from the horrors of war? No. For him, prayer as encounter with God was not an escape, but a facing up to what is most real and inescapable – the absolute claim of God upon our lives in recognition of our responsibility before him, ‘Costing not less than everything’. Awesome events were taking place, history was being fearfully remade on battlefields and in conference rooms. But history is also being made by our most personal actions. The most important history is made when we each realise who we are, and venture towards what by grace we can be. That is true wherever we happen to be, even in the quietest places. As Eliot memorably says towards the end of the poem:

‘So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.’

Keith Clements