St Neot’s Deanery have been holding a series of Lent Evensongs on the theme of journeys, and I joined them yesterday afternoon to talk about “Making a Pilgrimage to Little Gidding”. Revd Judi Clarke the priest welcomed there: it was my first visit to this splendid church, and – as they say – a good time was had by all. We heard poetry from T S Eliot, sang hymns by George Herbert, I talked a bit about the history and background of Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding, and gave a reflection that went something like this:
Pilgrimage has somewhat surprisingly become popular again, though with a broader set of motives than the purely religious. Perhaps though motives were always mixed: the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales does not exactly ooze piety.
The Iona Community, reflecting on that other place of pilgrimage, saw their visitors as wanting, “to ask for some favour or blessing, or to seek an answer to a problem or difficulty, or to seek peace, healing and strength, to make new beginnings, or to express sorrow or thanksgiving.”
I’m sure people come to Little Gidding for all those reasons and more – to honour and somehow enter into the poetry of T. S. Eliot; to remember and relive a bit the piety of the Ferrars; to share in a parish quiet day or group event.
But there is something in the place that as Eliot put it undermines our intentions: “What you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning, from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled. Either you had no purpose, or the purpose is beyond the end you figured and is altered in fulfilment. “
This is not a place of ambition or grandeur. It is called Little Gidding, and for good reason. If you go that way – if you can find it – you will encounter a place that is somewhere and nowhere, rather remote, pleasant but not particularly pretty; a place that has a church that is really just a chapel, and a house that isn’t the original, and offers rather simple facilities; a place that has no great programme of its own but where prayers have been said.
So even though it’s not far away, you may well not have been there; and even though T.S. Eliot has immortalised it, it’s not on the tourist trail. Perhaps the coaches couldn’t find it, or make it along the narrow way.
Perhaps I am rather pleased about that. The Trustees have a bold new vision and have appointed an adventurous new Dean – and I have worked with them on this so we are in it together. But we know that we also need to be careful not to so grow the body that we lose the soul. And the soul of this unusual place has smallness in it, and surprise.
It is a place, but a place whose place is to point beyond itself, to interact with eternity. To go on pilgrimage there is not to visit a destination but to continue on a journey, a journey which will not be unaccompanied, though your accompanier may reveal himself as well by the wayside as in the set forms of worship.
It is a place of prayer, but one where prayer is in ordinary, part of daily living, and the words of the liturgy are a scaffold, an opportunity for a conversation behind words’ capacity to communicate.
It is a place where prayer has been valid, not because of heroic effort or worldly impact, but because as we are open to God we find God is open to us, and that this shared openness comes to us Christ-shaped and is the way of life.
So if you make your way to Little Gidding you will encounter a holy place, but one which is holy in its original sense of being set apart so God’s presence can be felt. It will be a place where Jesus’ words about being with you can come true. You will encounter a humble place, which points to God because it is not pretentious about itself, and so Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and Life can be more clearly seen. And you will encounter a hospitable place where you will be very welcome, even if the house is quite small, but which will inspire you to travel on to find God elsewhere too, with conversations more than conclusions.
Go to sit quietly in the chapel. Go to take part in a day of reflection. Go to the Friends’ annual pilgrimage or another event from their programme. Go – and let God’s purpose precede your own, and see if you find him and he finds you, here, in England, by the pigsty, as the May blossom blooms.
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.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.