Last week, on a beautiful, frosty winter morning, I had the joy of making my own personal pilgrimage to Little Gidding, the place that inspired the famous poem by T.S. Eliot. The blinding, blue-sky framed sun reflected on the white frost in the same Pentecostal glow that Eliot’s words create.
“When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.”
It is not an easy place to find, nestled anonymously amongst the rolling, wild fields of the Huntingdonshire countryside. As I drove up a neglected narrow road ridged with a grassy band in the middle I wondered where I might end up.
“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.”
I arrived, a lone pilgrim, into a beautiful clearing and a well cared for garden which surrounded a beautiful little church which was established by Nicolas Ferrar in the late 16th century. I pushed the door of the church but it appeared locked so I continued on a contemplative walk into the countryside. I eventually arrived at another wonderful old church in Steeple Gidding which stood a proud, stoned silhouette in the blue azure, testifying to centuries of worship.
As I made my way back to Little Gidding I took a short cut and needed to cross a small stream. Without thinking I took a long run and launched myself into the air, in Icarian glory, hoping to clear the water. I had the distance over the water but was not expecting to land up to my ankles in the bog beyond!
“Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.”
I was not just “sodden” but also covered profusely in thick brown mud which my enthusiastic momentum had brought forth from its docile passivity in the boggy grass. I felt so stupid, and yet glad that only a few singing birds seemed to be witness to my fall. I waded afresh to the church door which now, like the wardrobe of Narnia, opened to my touch.
A soiled man I entered and knelt down on a cushion at the end of the chapel.
“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.”
I thought of the “valid” centuries old prayers of the Ferrar community and many other kneeling men. Would my mud soaked offering also be heard? Perhaps I might receive the grace-filled gift of being caught up into “the timeless moment”, the never-dying intercession of the slow-burn prayer.
“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.”
Somehow I felt that my quest to find a new meaning for this old existence had begun. I found hope to believe that a new song would sing fresh notes into the music of my coming years.
Eliot, in the same poetic quest, puts it beautifully.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
And borrowing from Ash Wednesday, I find hope to interpret a purer longing in a deeper dream.
“The new years walk, restoring Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem The time. Redeem The unread vision in the higher dream…”