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Sing the praises of Mary, the Mother of God, Whose ‘Walsingham Way’ countless pilgrims have trod.
This weekend just gone pilgrims from our parish made their way to Walsingham, a small, remote village in north Norfolk, where in 1061 the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this vision, Richeldis was shown the house in which the Annunciation took place in Nazareth about one thousand years before. The Virgin then asked Richeldis to build a replica of the house that she had seen in her vision in Walsingham itself – a request which was repeated three times. And so that is what Richeldis did – she built a copy of the Holy House of Nazareth in this remote corner of East Anglia – and soon what was originally a private chapel to the manor became a place attracting pilgrims from all over the country. But what contributed to Walsingham’s growth? The historian JC Dickinson identifies three factors at play.
Firstly, pilgrims were attracted by the fact that the shrine was a copy of the Holy House of Nazareth. In the mid-twelfth century, the Church went on crusade to the Holy Land, and this was preached about by figures such as St Bernard. The overall effect was that the Holy Land was placed in the popular imagination, and if a replica of the Holy House existed at Walsingham, then why wouldn’t a Christian visit? The shrine was a place where one could be close to Our Lord and his Blessed Mother.
Secondly, pilgrims were attracted by the presence of a holy well. The history of the well at Walsingham is not very well documented, but later evidence suggests that the waters were believed to have miraculous qualities. In the fifteenth century, for instance, a subprior of Walsingham wrote that a boy, who had fallen into one of the wells and who had been taken out dead, was miraculously restored to life by a miracle of Our Lady. The well was a place where one could receive miraculous healing.
Thirdly, pilgrims were attracted by the growing popularity of the statue. In every culture, statues have had their place. Indeed in the Scriptures, God commanded statues to be made to adorn the temple, when in Exodus 25.18 he says ‘You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, [and place them] at the two ends of the mercy-seat.’ Contrary to popular belief, God of course is not against carved images – he goes on to instruct the people to make and decorate Solomon’s seat and basins of water, the brass serpent of Moses, and Samuel’s golden rates – but he gets very irate when these ornaments are worshipped in themselves – hence the Golden Calf incident which we all remember. The key to using statues properly is that they should encourage our prayer and worship of God, not of that which is depicted. And this is what Walsingham did. The statue of Our Lady, with Our Lord in her lap, became an image which helped pilgrims to worship God.
Today, pilgrims go to Walsingham from all over the world, and they go for the same reasons which Dickinson identified: to be close to Jesus and his mother Mary; to receive God’s healing; and to worship God. I have certainly found that taking pilgrims to Walsingham has ticked all these boxes. Walsingham changes people. It takes us out of our ordinary, day to day lives, and reminds us of the importance of the incarnation. As we make a physical pilgrimage to Our Lady’s shrine, we are reminded that our whole life is a pilgrimage to that city which is not made with hands, the heavenly Jerusalem, in which God is all in all. If you have not been on pilgrimage before – if you have not been to Walsingham before – or simply not been for a while, why not go? I’m sure that you will find it a place of drawing close to Jesus, of being healed, and of reorienting your life too, as countless pilgrims have found through the ages.
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