A Sonnet for Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, on his feast day

Malcolm Guite

Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar's monument Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar’s monument

Nicholas Ferrar Nicholas Ferrar

The Church of England keeps December 4th as the feast day of Nicholas Ferrar, the devout Anglican who founded the Community of Little Gidding in the early seventeenth century. Ferrar was trying to find a fruitful via media between protestant and catholic understandings of what it is to be Christian. As a member of a reformed church he and his community were devoted to reading the scriptures in their own language, to sharing their faith, and to worshipping together in the beautiful services of the Book of Common Prayer. But he was also keen to preserve and explore the Catholic heritage of community life, the daily offices of prayer, and praise, the pattern of Benedictine work and prayer, rooted in the psalms and the gospels. in holding these together he was recovering and preserving what he called. ‘The right good old way’…

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After the Election

A meditation on the worth of meditation in a big-world moment like the US election – offered by an English (I believe) Benedictine priest and worth a few moments of your time.

The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen month…

Source: After the Election

Under the patronage of Canterbury

O supreme and unapproachable light! O whole and blessed truth, how far art thou from me, who am so near to thee! How far removed art thou from my vision, though I am so near to thine! Everywhere thou art wholly present, and I see thee not. In thee I move, and in thee I have my being; and I cannot come to thee. Thou art within me, and about me, and I feel thee not.

~ Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)

anselm

Saint Anselm (from anselm.edu)

This is Reformation Day, 498 years later.  Luther is reputed to have said (probably inaccurately): “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

This is Halloween, and though I didn’t have an opportunity to provide treats to a group of trick-or-treaters, I have seen some smile-producing photos of friends’ little ones costumed-up for the occasion.

This is the eve of the Octave of Prayer leading up to the national election day, which our Bishop has asked us to keep in all the parishes of the Diocese of Long Island.

And these are the last hours before I officially let go of the responsibility as Dean of Mercer School of Theology, and take up the ministry of parish priest for the Church of Saint Anselm on Long Island.  I spent today in my office at Mercer, packing more stuff than my little auto could carry this evening.  Before those efforts it was fun to cook breakfast for any members of the diocesan stuff who wanted to stop in to the Saint Drogo Refectory at Mercer.  ‘Egg Bake’ and ‘French toast casserole,’ complemented by plenty of bacon, seemed to satisfy the group.  It was fun.

Tonight I am both weary and full of anticipation.  I feel something in common this evening with the ancient Roman god, Janus: “In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (/ˈnəs/; Latin: Ianus,pronounced [ˈjaː.nus]) is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways,[1]passages, and endings” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus]. He was depicted as having two faces, one set toward the past and the other toward the future. That visual expresses pretty accurately what transition feels like in my life tonight.  Looking both ways it is hard to see clearly, but it is also natural to feel both gratitude for what has been and anticipation for what will be.

janus

A sculpture of the Roman god, Janus, found in the Vatican Museum [wikipedia].

There is another reason why I might feel a camaraderie this night with this ancient heady Roman.  For five years of my life I lived in Rome on the hill named after him, the Gianicolo.

Where do I face now?  This, I think, is the night for letting go, or at least beginning to do so. Tomorrow will be the day for beginning to get my head and arms and heart around a new place, new community, same Gospel, same priesthood, same faith, a different part of the same mission.  There is time, and indeed need, for looking both ways – backward and ahead.

So tonight, as I sit at the table in the dining room of the rectory at Shoreham, it doesn’t any more, already, seem strange to be here.  I stayed overnight here a couple of nights last week. Here I move under the explicit patronage of Canterbury.  But what feels not only extraordinary but unbelievable, is the fact that I am not expected tomorrow morning at Mercer School of Theology.  I never claim to get most accomplished that I see as needed and good.  But I do claim to always make a valiant try. And when the moment comes to stop, to let it go, to move on, to leave it to others, it just feels initially . . . bizarre.  Unreal.

So here I am tonight with Janus.  Not a bad place to be with both good memories of the past and good opportunities ahead.   But nonetheless, looking straight into change with eyes in each direction, a disconcerting place.

On the Way

There are times when life reveals itself to you in a manner unforeseen, one that reminds forcibly of the preciousness of its gift.  Last evening I set out from New York on Aer Lingus, heading toward Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland.  That holy place and its Benedictine community have a particular place in what I might call my spiritual history since I spent the summer of 2005 there in a season of prayer and discernment that will remain important for the rest of my life.  Right now I am entering into a time of transition again (still?), and that is a story for another time quite soon.  But suffice it to say that it is a moment when I was looking forward eagerly to see Glenstal again.

Instead the late afternoon and evening into the early morning were spent in hours of increasing anxiety and uncertainty.  A scant 20 minutes out of NY the pilot announced to us that there were indications of a problem with the left jet engine in this 2-engine Boeing 757-200 and so we would be making an unscheduled landing in Boston.  We flew slowly, or so it seemed, landing finally at Logan.  For the next almost 6 hours, engineers tried and failed with fixes on that engine which, it was confirmed early, did indeed have a problem.  Twice after repair efforts the engine was tested.  Twice it failed the test.  After the second of these, the pilot opined to us for the first time that we likely would not be continuing further last night.  Then another hour or more elapsed, during which I expected the next announcement to be organizational, and concerned with where we would be staying and how we would get there.  Instead, the Captain suddenly announced that he had been assured that all was now well with the recalcitrant engine and that we would be taking off now.  Within a short time wer were taxiing toward the runway.

There the engines roared and we began rolling at ever-increasing speed along the tarmac, the sound familiar to all who who have ever flown.  Several hundred yards into takeoff, without warning the whine of revving engines went silent and we rolled to a stop in the middle of the runway.  Now I love the gift of silence, in prayer, in deep conversation, in most places that it can be found in this noisy world.  But I have rarely heard a silence like that in this Boeing as it came to a halt there at Logan.  After some time the pilot’s by-now familiar voice spoke for one last time: “Ladies and gentlemen, that obviously didn’t work.  The same problem manifested itself again. We are not flying further tonight.”

As one who must guard against a tendency to hyperbole at moments (billions of moments!), let me say this soberly.  It was clear then and since that the pilot had reached the clear, cautious, and caring conclusion that there was at least a chance that the engine in question would not be able to carry us safely across to Ireland.  And so it was prudent to stop.  For my part, I will ever be grateful to him for that decision, for his wisdom, and for the training and experience that led him to act as he did.

The rest of the story is filled with waiting for bags and buses and  hotel check-ins, along with five hours of fitful sleep, a decision not to go further today, and the work of saving the intent of retreat at this time.


As always, graces abound.  I met a wonderful brother and sister, just over to New York to celebrate his 70th birthday.  Their humanity, revealed in hours of conversation, is a lasting gift.  Perhaps above all, this experience provides one of those threshold moments that offer the chance to renew everything, just by opening oneself to what is.  Today, coming to dear friends in Arlington Massachusetts, sharing a simple of cup of coffee and taking a long walk on a spectacular autumn afternoon – each passing instant was suffused by a profound, gentle sense that if it were to be presented in words would sound something like the very simple phrase, “I am so happy to be here.”  Just that.  No more.  It might even be shortened to “I am so happy.”

Tomorrow the hoped-for retreat begins a day late and an ocean apart from where I intended.  I get the sense that someone else is in charge here.  On Sunday I preached about trusting, especially when the situation is dire.  The Sunday’s readings provided the only time in the 3-year lectionary cycle that the Book of the prophet Habakkuk appears.  The conclusion of his prophecy, not read in church this Sunday, provides fitting words for these days in my one life:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom,

    and no fruit is on the vines;

though the produce of the olive fails,

    and the fields yield no food;

though the flock is cut off from the fold,

    and there is no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

    I will exult in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength;

    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

    and makes me tread upon the heights.”

[Habakkuk 3:17-19, NRSV]

Photo by John McGinty, October 3 2016 at Great Arlington Meadows, MA

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The African-American Museum of History and Culture (and a first memory)

african-american-museum

On the road yesterday I listened to the opening ceremonies of the new African American Museum of History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington.  Every such event, of course, is long-planned and structured.  This museum has been in the process of becoming reality since 1916.  The words offered during the dedication and opening yesterday are worthy of a century of effort.

The Reverend Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City made a point well that was often emphasized in other ways by speakers who followed: African Americans have not been anything like incidental to the building of this nation.  Rather, in ways chosen and before then terribly unchosen, they have been vital to that ongoing project.  To paraphrase, Reverend Butts said in reference to the heritage of slavery in this nation and hemisphere: “Get me to work for you for nothing for 250 years and you can build anything.”  Undeniable truth.  Slaves, suffering with no rights, generation following generation, were a central part of the engine that drove the growth of the economy of America for centuries, and not only on the cotton plantations of the south.

George W. Bush, who as President signed the legislation to make the museum real, in a fine talk pointed out particular ways in which the existence of this institution both bears witness to the best of this nation and at the same time calls it to be even better.  A great nation, he said, does not hide from its own truth, even the uncomfortable and painful truths that are part of its story.  And he continued by affirming that a great nation can and does change.  And will continue to do so.  The photo, caught by a former White House photographer, of Bush and Michelle Obama embracing, is in itself a beautiful antidote to the present political moment in the ongoing presidential campaign.

And the man whose successor will be decided in that campaign provided a masterful talk. In some sense Barack Obama’s speech yesterday might be understood as a kind of valedictory on the massive issue of race relations and racism in the nation by the nation’s first black president.  He said that the museum’s establishment ” . . .reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”

President Obama’s Speech

Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, as I continued along the road, an unexpected memory from long ago emerged in me for the first time in decades.  When I was a little boy my paternal grandparents, both Irish immigrants, worked for a time at the stately home of the founder of one of the banks in my hometown.  That banking gentleman had died by then, but my grandmother was one of the nurses caring for his elderly widow at the house and my grandfather was the gardener, coaxing beauty constantly out of God’s green earth.

As a child of four and five years old I would from time to time join them for a day at that (by our standards) great house.  I knelt next to Papa as he worked the earth with his gloved hands.  I talked to Nana when she would come downstairs from the bedroom of the lady of the house.  And, I wandered from time to time into the kitchen.

The kitchen was the domain of Theresa the cook.  Theresa was the first person of color I ever met, and with whom I ever interacted.  She moved around that kitchen like she had designed it.  She cooked and baked and filled that place daily with wonderful aromas.  She had a round and kind face in my memories, often covered in a generous smile.  She let me sit at the kitchen table and partake of her latest creation before even the folks who provided for the feast.

Theresa was likely born, I would guess, in the late teens of the twentieth century.  Her parents may have been, and likely her grandparents were, slaves.  They were defined each as 3/5 of a human person.  I don’t know what Theresa thought of her life.  I don’t know how or if she thought back to the lives of her beloved forebears. I was just a 4-year old sitting in her kitchen.  John Kennedy was in the White House and the civil rights movement was about to take flight.

Theresa and I didn’t talk about that stuff.  She probably didn’t know people had suggested around the time of her birth that there be established a museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

But I do know this, and in a way that I could not have expressed in words I knew it even then: Theresa knew how to nourish people.  She knew how to strengthen people for their journey, different though it was from hers.  She knew how to feed the hungry.

And in that, very truly among us in that big house, Theresa was a sacrament of the presence and the love of God who feeds us daily, when we love each other and when we fail to do so.  From the stovetop and oven, and from a tough history behind her and her people, Theresa was a teacher of loving truth.

She too has a place in the museum opened yesterday.

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(Photo by David Hume Kennerly)