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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Inglesant Visits Mr. Ferrar’s Religious Community

By John Henry Shorthouse (1834–1903)

From ‘John Inglesant’

IT was late in the autumn when he made this visit, about two months before Mr. Ferrar’s death. The rich autumn foliage was lighted by the low sun, as he rode through the woods and meadows and across the sluggish streams of Bedford and Huntingdon. He slept at a village a few miles south of Little Gidding, and reached that place early in the day. It was a solitary, wooded place, with a large manor-house, and a little church close by. It had been for some time depopulated, and there were no cottages nor houses near. The manor-house and church had been restored to perfect order by Mr. Ferrar; and Inglesant reached it through a grove of trees planted in walks, with latticed paths and gardens on both sides. A brook crossed the road at the foot of the gentle ascent on which the house was built. He asked to see Mr. Ferrar, and was shown by a man-servant into a fair spacious parlor, where Mr. Ferrar presently came to him. Inglesant was disappointed at his appearance, which was plain and not striking in any way; but his speech was able and attractive. Johnny apologized for his bold visit, telling him how much taken he had been by his book, and by what he had heard of him and his family; and that what he had heard did not interest him merely out of curiosity, as he feared it might have done many, but out of sincere desire to learn something of the holy life which doubtless that family led. To this Mr. Ferrar replied that he was thankful to see any one who came in such a spirit; and that several not only of his own friends,—as Mr. Crashaw the poet,—but many young students from the University at Cambridge, came to see him in a like spirit; to the benefit, he hoped, of both themselves and of him. He said with great humility, that although on the one hand very much evil had been spoken of him which was not true, he had no doubt that on the other, many things had been said about their holiness and the good that they did which went far beyond the truth. For his own part, he said he had adopted that manner of life through having long seen enough of the manners and vanities of the world; and holding them in low esteem, was resolved to spend the best of his life in mortifications and devotion, in charity, and in constant preparation for death. That his mother, his elder brother, his sisters, his nephews and nieces, being content to lead this mortified life, they spent their time in acts of devotion and by doing such good works as were within their power,—such as keeping a school for the children of the next parishes, for teaching of whom he provided three masters who lived constantly in the house. That for ten years they had lived this harmless life, under the care of his mother, who had trained her daughters and granddaughters to every good work: but two years ago they had lost her by death, and as his health was very feeble he did not expect long to be separated from her; but looked forward to his departure with joy, being afraid of the evil times he saw approaching.

When he had said this, he led Inglesant into a large handsome room up-stairs, where he introduced him to his sister, Mrs. Collet, and her daughters, who were engaged in making those curious books of Scripture Harmonies which had so pleased King Charles. These seven young ladies—who formed the junior part of the Society of the house, and were called by the names of the chief virtues, the Patient, the Cheerful, the Affectionate, the Submiss, the Obedient, the Moderate, the Charitable—were engaged at that moment in cutting out passages from two Testaments, which they pasted together so neatly as to seem one book, and in such a manner as to enable the reader to follow the narrative in all its particulars from beginning to end without a break, and also to see which of the sacred authors had contributed any particular part.

Inglesant told the ladies what fame reported of the nuns of Gidding: of two watching and praying all night; of their canonical hours; of their crosses on the outside and inside of their chapel; of an altar there richly decked with plate, tapestry, and tapers; of their adoration and genuflexions at their entering. He told Mr. Ferrar that his object in visiting him was chiefly to know his opinion of the papists and their religion; as having been bred among them himself and being very nearly one of them, he was anxious to know the opinions of one who was said to hold many of their doctrines without joining them or approving them. Mr. Ferrar appeared at first shy of speaking: but being apparently convinced of the young man’s sincerity, and that he was not an enemy in disguise, he conversed very freely with him for some time, speaking much of the love of God, and of the vanity of worldly things; of his dear friend Mr. George Herbert, and of his saintly life; of the confused and troublesome life he had formerly led, and of the great peace and satisfaction which he had found since he had left the world and betaken himself to that retired and religious life. That as regards the papists, his translating Valdessa’s book was a proof that he knew that among them, as among all people, there were many true worshipers of Jesus, being drawn by the blessed sacrament to follow him in the spiritual and divine life; and that there were many things in that book similar to the mystical religion of which Inglesant spoke, which his dear friend Mr. George Herbert had disapproved, as exalting the inward spiritual life above the foundation of holy Scripture; that it was not for him, who was only a deacon in the church, to pronounce any opinion on so difficult a point, and that he had printed all Mr. Herbert’s notes in his book, without comment of his own; that though he was thus unwilling to give his own judgment, he certainly believed that this inward spiritual life was open to all men, and recommended Inglesant to continue his endeavors after it, seeking it chiefly in the holy sacrament accompanied with mortification and confession.

While they were thus talking, the hour of evening prayer arrived, and Mr. Ferrar invited Johnny to accompany him to the church; which he gladly did, being very much attracted by the evident holiness which pervaded Mr. Ferrar’s talk and manner. The family proceeded to church in procession, Mr. Ferrar and Inglesant walking first. The church was kept in great order; the altar being placed upon a raised platform at the east end, and covered with tapestry stretching over the floor all round it, and adorned with plate and tapers. Mr. Ferrar bowed with great reverence several times on approaching the altar, and directed Inglesant to sit in a stalled seat opposite the reading-pew, from which he said the evening prayer. The men of the family knelt on the raised step before the altar, the ladies and servants sitting in the body of the church. The church was very sweet, being decked with flowers and herbs, and the soft autumn light rested over it. From the seat where Inglesant knelt, he could see the faces of the girls as they bent over their books at prayers. They were all in black, except one, who wore a friar’s gray gown; this was the one who was called the Patient, as Inglesant had been told in the house, and the singularity of her dress attracted his eye towards her during the prayers. The whole scene, strange and romantic as it appeared to him,—the devout and serious manner of the worshipers, very different from much that was common in churches at that day, and the abstracted and devout look upon the faces of the girls,—struck his fancy, so liable to such influences and so long trained to welcome them; and he could not keep his eyes from this one face, from which the gray hood was partly thrown back. It was a passive face, with well-cut delicate features and large and quiet eyes.

Prayers being over, the ladies saluted Inglesant from a distance, and left the church with the rest, in the same order as they had come, leaving Mr. Ferrar and Johnny alone. They remained some time discoursing on worship and church ceremonies, and then returned to the house. It was now late, and Mr. Ferrar, who was evidently much pleased with his guest, invited him to stay the night, and even extended his hospitality by asking him to stay over the next, which was Saturday, and the Sunday; upon which, as it was the first Sunday in the month, the holy sacrament would be administered, and several of Mr. Ferrar’s friends from Cambridge would come over and partake of it, and to pass the night and day in prayer and acts of devotion. To this proposition Inglesant gladly consented; the whole proceeding appearing to him full of interest and attraction. Soon after they returned to the house, supper was served, all the family sitting down together at a long table in the hall. During supper some portion of Fox’s ‘Book of the Martyrs’ was read aloud. Afterwards two hours were permitted for diversion, during which all were allowed to do as they pleased.

The young ladies, having found out that Inglesant was a queen’s page, were very curious to hear of the court and royal family from him; which innocent request Mr. Ferrar encouraged, and joined in himself. One reason of the success with which his mother and he had ruled this household appears to have been his skill in interesting and attracting all its inmates by the variety and pleasant character of their occupations. He was also much interested himself in what Johnny told him,—for in this secluded family, themselves accustomed to prudence, Inglesant felt he might safely speak of many things upon which he was generally silent: and after prayers, when the family were retired to their several rooms, Mr. Ferrar remained with him some time, while Johnny related to him the aspect of religious parties at the moment; and particularly all that he could tell, without violating confidence, of the papists and of his friend the Jesuit.

The next morning they rose at four; though two of the family had been at prayer all night, and did not go to rest till the others rose. They went into the oratory in the house itself to prayers, for they kept six times of prayer during the day. At six they said the psalms of the hour,—for every hour had its appropriate psalms,—and at half past six went to church for matins. When they returned at seven o’clock, they said the psalm of the hour, sang a short hymn, and went to breakfast. After breakfast, when the younger members of the family were at their studies, Mr. Ferrar took Inglesant to the school where all the children in the neighborhood were permitted to come. At eleven they went to dinner; and after dinner there was no settled occupation till one, every one being allowed to amuse himself as he chose. The young ladies had been trained not only to superintend the house, but to wait on any sick persons in the neighborhood who came to the house at certain times for assistance, and to dress the wounds of those who were hurt, in order to give them readiness and skill in this employment, and to habituate them to the virtues of humility and tenderness of heart. A large room was set apart for this purpose, where Mr. Ferrar had instructed them in the necessary skill; having been himself Physic Fellow at Clare Hall in Cambridge, and under the celebrated professors at Padua, in Italy. This room Inglesant requested to see, thinking that he should in this way also see something of and be able to speak to the young ladies, whose acquaintance he had hitherto not had much opportunity of cultivating. Mr. Ferrar told his nephew to show it him—young Nicholas Ferrar, a young man of extraordinary skill in languages, who was afterwards introduced to the King and Prince Charles, some time before his early death.

When they entered the room, Inglesant was delighted to find that the only member of the family there was the young lady in the gray friar’s habit, whose face had attracted him so much in church. She was listening to the long tiresome tale of an old woman; following the example of George Herbert, who thought on a similar occasion, that “it was some relief to a poor body to be heard with patience.” Johnny, who in spite of his Jesuitical and court training was naturally modest, and whose sense of religion made him perfectly well-bred, accosted the young lady very seriously, and expressed his gratitude at having been permitted to stay and see so many excellent and improving things as that family had to show. The liking which the head of the house had evidently taken for Inglesant disposed the younger members in his favor, and the young lady answered him simply and unaffectedly, but with manifest pleasure.

Inglesant inquired concerning the assumed names of the sisters, and how they sustained their respective qualities, and what exercises suited to these qualities they had to perform. She replied that they had exercises, or discourses, which they performed at the great festivals of the year, Christmas and Easter; and which were composed with reference to their several qualities. All of these, except her own, were enlivened by hymns and odes composed by Mr. Ferrar, and set to music by the music-master of the family, who accompanied the voices with the viol or the lute. But her own, she said, had never any music or poetry connected with it: it was always of a very serious turn, and much longer than any other, and had not any historical anecdote or fable interwoven with it; the contrivance being to exercise that virtue to which she was devoted. Inglesant asked her with pity if this was not very hard treatment; and she only replied, with a smile, that she had the enjoyment of all the lively performances of the others.

He asked her whether they looked forward to passing all their lives in this manner, or whether they allowed the possibility of any change; and if she had entirely lost her own name in her assumed one, or whether he might presume to ask it, that he might have wherewithal to remember her by, as he surely should as long as he had life. She said her name was Mary Collet; and that as to his former question, two of her sisters had had, at one time, a great desire to become veiled virgins,—to take upon them a vow of perpetual chastity, with the solemnity of a bishop’s blessing and ratification, but on going to Bishop Williams he had discouraged and at last dissuaded them from it.

Inglesant and the young lady remained talking in this way for some time, young Nicholas Ferrar having left them; but at last she excused herself from staying any longer, and he was obliged to let her go. He ventured to say that he hoped they would remember him; that he was utterly ignorant of the future that lay before him, but that whatever fate awaited him, he should never forget the “Nuns of Gidding” and their religious life. She replied that they would certainly remember him, as they did all their acquaintances, in their daily prayer; especially as she had seldom seen her uncle so pleased with a stranger as he had been with him. With these compliments they parted, and Inglesant returned to the drawing-room, where more visitors had arrived.

In the afternoon there came from Cambridge Mr. Crashaw the poet, of Peterhouse,—who afterwards went over to the papists, and died canon of Loretto,—and several gentlemen, undergraduates of Cambridge, to spend the Sunday at Gidding, being the first Sunday of the month. Mr. Crashaw, when Inglesant was introduced to him as one of the queen’s pages, finding that he was acquainted with many Roman Catholics, was very friendly, and conversed with him apart. He said he conceived a great admiration for the devout lives of the Catholic saints, and of the government and discipline of the Catholic Church; and that he feared that the English Church had not sufficient authority to resist the spread of Presbyterianism, in which case he saw no safety except in returning to the communion of Rome. Walking up and down the garden paths, after evening prayers in church, he spoke a great deal on this subject, and on the beauty of a retired religious life; saying that here at Little Gidding and at Little St. Marie’s Church, near to Peterhouse, he had passed the most blissful moments of his life, watching at midnight in prayer and meditation.

That night Mr. Crashaw, Inglesant, and one or two others, remained in the church from nine till twelve, during which time they said over the whole Book of Psalms in the way of antiphony, one repeating one verse and the rest the other. The time of their watch being ended they returned to the house, went to Mr. Ferrar’s door and bade him good-morrow, leaving a lighted candle for him. They then went to bed; but Mr. Ferrar arose, according to the passage of Scripture “At midnight I will arise and give thanks,” and went into the church, where he betook himself to religious meditation.

Early on the Sunday morning the family were astir and said prayers in the oratory. After breakfast many people from the country around, and more than a hundred children, came in. These children were called the Psalm children, and were regularly trained to repeat the Psalter, and the best voices among them to assist in the service on Sundays. They came in every Sunday, and according to the proficiency of each were presented with a small piece of money, and the whole number entertained with a dinner after church. The church was crowded at the morning service before the sacrament. The service was beautifully sung, the whole family taking the greatest delight in church music, and many of the gentlemen from Cambridge being amateurs. The sacrament was administered with the greatest devotion and solemnity. Impressed as he had been with the occupation of the preceding day and night, and his mind excited with watching and want of sleep and with the exquisite strains of the music, the effect upon Inglesant’s imaginative nature was excessive.

Above the altar, which was profusely bedecked with flowers, the antique glass of the east window, which had been carefully repaired, contained a figure of the Savior, of an early and severe type. The form was gracious and yet commanding, having a brilliant halo round the head, and being clothed in a long and apparently seamless coat; the two forefingers of the right hand were held up to bless. Kneeling upon the half-pace, as he received the sacred bread and tasted the holy wine, this gracious figure entered into Inglesant’s soul; and stillness and peace unspeakable, and life, and light, and sweetness, filled his mind. He was lost in a sense of rapture; and earth and all that surrounded him faded away. When he returned a little to himself, kneeling in his seat in the church, he thought that at no period of his life, however extended, should he ever forget that morning, or lose the sense and feeling of that touching scene, of that gracious figure over the altar, of the bowed and kneeling figures, of the misty autumn sunlight and the sweeping autumn wind. Heaven itself seemed to have opened to him, and one fairer than the fairest of the angelic hosts to have come down to earth.

After the service, the family and all the visitors returned to the mansion house in the order in which they had come, and the Psalm children were entertained with a dinner in the great hall; all the family and visitors came in to see them served, and Mrs. Collet, as her mother had always done, placed the first dish on the table herself to give an example of humility. Grace having been said, the bell rang for the dinner of the family, who, together with the visitors, repaired to the great dining-room, and stood in order round the table. While the dinner was being served, they sang a hymn accompanied by the organ at the upper end of the room. Then grace was said by the priest who had celebrated the communion, and they sat down. All the servants who had received the sacrament that day sat at table with the rest. During dinner, one of the young people whose turn it was read a chapter from the Bible; and when that was finished, conversation was allowed,—Mr. Ferrar and some of the other gentlemen endeavoring to make it of a character suitable to the day, and to the service they had just taken part in. After dinner they went to church again for evening prayer; between which service and supper, Inglesant had some talk with Mr. Ferrar concerning the papists, and Mr. Crashaw’s opinion of them.

“I ought to be a fit person to advise you,” said Mr. Ferrar with a melancholy smile, “for I am myself, as it were, crushed between the upper and nether millstone of contrary reports; for I suffer equal obloquy—and no martyrdom is worse than that of continual obloquy—both for being a papist and a Puritan. You will suppose there must be some strong reason why I, who value so many things among the papists so much, have not joined them myself. I should probably have escaped much violent invective if I had done so. You are very young, and are placed where you can see and judge of both parties. You possess sufficient insight to try the spirits, whether they be of God. Be not hasty to decide; and before you decide to join the Romish communion, make a tour abroad, and if you can, go to Rome itself. When I was in Italy and Spain, I made all the inquiries and researches I could. I bought many scarce and valuable books in the languages of those countries, in collecting which I had a principal eye to those which treated on the subjects of spiritual life, devotion, and religious retirement; but the result of all was that I am now, and I shall die,—as I believe and hope shortly,—in the communion of the English Church. This day, as I believe, the blessed sacrament has been in the church before our eyes; and what can you or I desire more?”

The next morning before Inglesant left, Mr. Ferrar showed him his foreign collections, his great treasure of rarities and of prints of the best masters of that time, mostly relative to historical passages of the Old and New Testaments. Inglesant dined with the family, of whom he took leave with a full heart; saluting the ladies with the pleasant familiarity which the manners of the time permitted. Mr. Ferrar went with him to the borders of the parish, and gave him his blessing. They never saw each other again, for two months afterwards Nicholas Ferrar was in his grave.