I must confess I have, over the past few months found the thought of my 'blog something of an embarrassment, as one might find the sight of a somewhat wilted plant that is entrusted to you and which you never quite get around to watering until it's far too late. In fact, I've just realised it's been a bout a year. Well I'm determined to do something about this, and so am writing of a series of generic posts on various themes close to my heart; and few things are closer to that pump than that of Our Lady's Shrine in England: the greatest jewel in Her Dowry.
This year is, as many will know, the 950th anniversary of the apparition to the Lady Richeldis of Our Lady, asking her to build a Shrine there. All of this is covered by far more learned persons than myself, not least Fr. Michael Rear's new book on the history of Walsingham. I have had a brief look, and it seems a most well written and balanced history of the place. Much as his biography on Blessed John Henry Newman is. In this post however, I am more interested in the emotive qualities of the place.
Over the summer, I undertook an annual walking pilgrimage to Walsingham, starting 50 miles away in Brandon on a Friday, and arriving in time for the Pilgrim Mass at the Shrine on the Sunday. This is the 6th one I have completed having been on it every year since it was first organised. I am also proud to say that I am the only person to have walked each one and not chickened out at some point, complaining of blisters or some anything else. It is one of the highlights of my year, and I hope it continues to be for many years to come.
Anyway, the highlight of this weekend is, for me, the last mile, from the Catholic Shrine, into the village, where we go to the Parish Church for Benediction, and are then free to wander as we choose. I usually take a group of bewildered Catholics to the Other Shrine in Walsingham. The one down the hill from the Friday Market. It is about this Shrine and the people around it, and what they mean to me, that I would like to speak.
I first came to Walsingham on the Anglican Grand National in, I suspect, about 2000. I had never been before, and was not sure what to expect. Granted, I didn't see it at its finest- the seething hoards of pilgrims made it difficult, but I made friends then, and had a thoroughly nice day out. I remember going into the Shrine for the first time, after the Mass and Procession from the Abbey Grounds; with my father and brother. We went through the front doors, and I was hit by serveral things: the almost overpowering scent of a mix of the most beautiful incense (no ordinary Hays & Finch stuff this) and several Imperial tons of wax being burned; the almost blinding heat coming from near countless candles, and the crush of bodies: far too many for what is, in reality, a very small church, certainly a very crowded one, not designed to hold what felt like thousands of pilgrims which crowded in there. I also remember the very striking white on blue image of the Annunciation that is the first thing you see when you go through that door, and which reminds you that this is what this place is about first and foremost: God announcing His will to Mary, and beseeching Her co-operation in His plan of Salvation. I remember very little else of that day, except visiting the Holy House, and seeing the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham there, on her processional hearse, and the niche empty, and thinking she would look far better up there than down here. This brief glance was enough to give me a taste and made me realise I wanted more. I knew I was 'igh in those days, but I knew little about it all, but was determined to find out more, and I felt that Walsingham held the key.
I determined to learn more about it, and was loaned Fr. Stephenson's wonderful books Walsingham Way and Merrily on High. Both full of anecdotes and exceedingly entertaining. I was overjoyed when I saw both had been re-printed.
Subsequent visits were made within the context of Youth 2000 visits, when I was still and Anglican: a family with whom I was friendly went along every year, and invited me to join them. Of course, I was keen to go back to Walsingham, so came along, and would go down every morning to the Anglican Shrine to serve the 7.30 Mass, before coming back up for breakfast. I am possibly one of the few people who can claim to have served at every major Altar in Walsingham: both Parish Churches, the Holy House and High Altar of the Anglican Shrine, as well as the Slipper Chapel and the Chapel of Reconcilliation, not that this really matters.
The time I spent at Youth 2000, whilst not being quite my thing musically and liturgically, had a profound effect on my desire to be received into full Communion, especially the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that went on all through the weekend. This is ironic really, as the Shrine was one of the few things that kept me in the Church of England. How could I bear to leave behind everything that was Catholic in the Church of England? As it was, it was Lourdes that made me a Papist, but that is another blog post.
The Shrine is one of those places that I always see something new in to admire. Mostly due to the work of the artist Enid Chadwick who, along with Martin Travers, is my favourite church decoraters. There are also some of the remnants of the Master's European Holdays, such as the dreadful statue of St. Philip Neri. The origin of the quite frankly terrifying statue of he who is referred to as St. Cure d'Ars is unknown to me; but in the semi-darkness he looks positively sinister.
The chapel of the Resurrection and St. Jospeh is possibly my favourite in terms of it's design: it is tucked away in a dark and secret corner, and every inch of it is covered in paintings, including the illustration of Fr. Hope Patten's cat, looking on as a priest elevates the host, with a server next to him enthusiastically rings the Sanctus bell.
I see that I have gone for one and a half pages, which is quite long enough, and I have not said anything that I wanted to. Perhaps that will be for another post, now that I have satisfied myself that I have laid some of the ground work.
A clergyman of my acquaintace, now a secular Priest in Communion with Rome introduced to me Michael Yelton's biography of Walsingham and its restorer, which answered a nagging feeling I had long harboured within me, as I know, it has nagged within the breasts of many Anglo-Catholics, that leaving for the Italian Misson was in some way betraying the Catholic party of the Church of England, and certainly I was made to feel that way by some when I did leave. However, that biography, right at the end, relates a conversation between Fr. Hope Patten and another, in the late 1950s, shortly before the dear Father went to his eternal reward. He remarked: “the game's up, we can't carry on like this. We shall all have to become Roman Catholics.” Sadly he died before he was able to carry out this threat. I always try to go and visit his grave beside the entrance to the Anglican Parish Church in Walsingham and say a prayer for his soul.
Pray for him, and pray for the reunion of Christendom, as he doubtless did every day of his life.