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
[T.S. Eliot: Little Gidding]
George Herbert’s great series of poems, The Temple, was published by Nicholas Ferrarai in 1633. Ferrarai (or Ferrar) was the founder of an Anglican semi-monastic community at Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire. Eliot’s poem of that name is often said to be representative of ‘any’ religious community, but that, I think, is a secular critic’s view; it misses what Little Gidding represented to the Anglo-Catholic Eliot. The community was founded on High Anglican principles and devoted to the Book of Common Prayer; it was not, therefore, an image of ‘any’ place, it was of that particular place, that special tradition, and that manifestation of it. The passage quoted above is, itself, part of that tradition.
In his poem. ‘Prayer’, Herbert called it: ‘the church’s banquet, angel’s age, / God’s breath in man returning to his birth’, and finishes with words Eliot echoes: ‘Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices; something understood.’ Those last words connect us to prayer being more than ‘an order of words’. Herbert’s poem, which is one long sentence (and without a main verb at that), is itself an expression of one overwhelmed by the power of prayer, by that connection with God it brings; it is an expression of the beauty of holiness.
In his Private Devotions, Lancelot Andrewes summed up the six aspects of prayer thus:
- confession of sin
- prayer for grace
- confession of faith
- intercession for others
- thanksgiving and praise
These were the characteristics of the Little Gidding community, which was part of the tradition of which Andrewes and Herbert were such distinguished members. It was, and is, one which recognises the beauty of holiness, that aesthetics matter when it comes to helping us transcend the quotidian. But it is also a tradition in which place matters.
Eliot admired the intimate tone of Herbert’s work, directed as it was to the interiority of life in a small parish as part of a community; both men recognised the communal nature of Christianity. Eliot was writing during the early stages of the Second World War, a time when the very survival of England was at stake – what Church called ‘Christian civilization’ – and he saw, in Little Gidding and its Anglican tradition:
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always
Place and history matter, this Eliot saw as plainly as we fail to see.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England
The Anglican tradition of public prayer and witness in the quiet and forgotten places, the ministry to all, especially those who do not appreciate or even know they need it, its ability to identify with the local and the particular, are what has made, and makes, the tradition of Andrewes, Herbert, Keble and Eliot, one which we need to reemphasise. It is here, it is now, and it is at once universal and English. The prayer for Herbert read in Anglican services of commemoration captures something of this:
Our God and King, who called your servant George Herbert from The pursuit of worldly honours to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.