Two Saints on a Single Day: the Anglican and the Jesuit

Nicholas Ferrar

Cambridge, Mass.—As readers know, my interest and expertise pertains mainly to interreligious understanding, between the Christian traditions and other, non-Christian traditions. Ecumenism I leave to others. But the boundary is not a hard and fast one. As we relate to other Christians, we are disposing ourselves to think and act in certain ways toward people who are not Christian; and if we have learned how to relate to Muslims or Hindus differently, these dispositions will affect how we relate to other Christians. How we Catholics relate to other Catholics is also relevant to how we relate to other Christians and people of still other faiths, but that is a topic for another blog.

So I was intrigued today when I had occasion to attend an Anglican Eucharist at the Divinity School, to learn that in the Episcopalian calendar December 1 is the feast of Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637), a saintly man of great talents but apparently of slight financial acumen (he lost a fortune by investing in the London Virginia Company). Reduced in means, he moved his family to Little Gidding, founding what was a kind of monastic family community or, as Wikipedia puts it, “a family living a Christian life in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer, according to High Church principles.”

Ferrar was also a friend of the great poet, George Herbert, and preserved and posthumously published his compositions. Fittingly, Ferrar was remembered and honored by T. S. Eliot, who named one of his Four Quartets “Little Gidding,” in apparent tribute to Ferrar and his spiritual ideals. Eliot perhaps captured the deep spiritual commitment of Ferrar:

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, remembered 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 the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)…

I was intrigued in part because I knew nothing about Ferrar before today. Almost all of preceding points I learned first from the Rev. Matthew Potts, my colleague on the Harvard faculty, who presided and preached at the Eucharist yesterday morning. (I later filled in some details by consulting the relevant Wikipedia articles.)

But I mention all this because I am intrigued by a coincidence; my Catholic and Jesuit instincts had prepared me for another, quite different memorial: Dec. 1 is the feast of St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581). (See also today's reflection at this site by Joseph Hoover, S.J.) He was one of the most gifted students and scholars of his time, with Anglican roots. After ordination as an Anglican deacon, he became a Catholic, a Jesuit, and a Catholic priest, and teacher in Prague. But he was well-prepared to be an outspoken critic of the Anglican Church, and so he was. He put aside his own safety to return to England, where soon enough he was arrested, tried and condemned; refusing to recant, he was hung, drawn and quartered. He was only 41 at his death.

Renowned for his learning and his courage, his most famous writing was his “Brag”—declaration and challenge to the Queen’s government—that ends with these stirring words:

And touching our Societie, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored. If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

I leave to historians the finer details of Ferrar and Campion—and I welcome corrections to what I have written here—but what strikes me is that it is providential that we mark their feasts on the same day, Dec. 1: two saintly Christians separated by only a few decades in time, both Anglican by birth, even if Campion became an implacable foe of the community of his birth. Both were saintly, for neither the Roman Church nor the Anglican had a monopoly on learning or dedication or holiness, and in neither institution was piety and spirituality innocent of intrigue, politics and competition. It took hundreds of years for the terrible violence of the English Reformation and ensuing enmity to wane and understanding to blossom again.

And yet today, we can revere and thank God for both of them. Both remind us that neither economics or politics or religious clashes can ever be strong enough to crush the spirit of a holy person. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—2017—approaches, we are graced with this double feast and reminded, rather simply, neither to deny past violence and misunderstanding, nor to miss the chance to learn from our fellow Christians in other church communities. If we do, we may understand and appreciate more our non-Christian neighbors too. Then, we can even pray the words of Little Gidding:

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.