Book Review: One holy place of Our Lady
One holy place of Our Lady
Walsingham Pilgrims and Pilgrimage by Michael Rear, Gracewing, 398pp, £19.99
reviewed by David Baldwin
I have to confess to feeling a touch daunted and diffident when my review copy of Walsingham Pilgrims and Pilgrimage landed with a heavy thump through the letterbox. It is sizeable, and looked very scholarly and slightly intimidating. Pilgrim I am, scholar – not. But as soon as I opened it for a quick flick-through for first impressions, my eye caught the opening sentence in the first Chapter: “Centuries before the first pilgrims found their way to the little Holy House that Richeldis built in Walsingham, other pilgrims had been travelling those same roads”. Flicking stopped, and held by that intriguing prospect, I started reading on. Soon after, a feeling of relief, because I immediately sensed that here is a book – that in what could have been a very heavy, dry and dusty historical account – is actually quite the opposite.
Appealing, intriguing and relaxed
To start with, it is structured in an appealing and intriguing manner – as indicated by the Chapter headings: ‘From Mercury to Mary’, ‘From Walsingham to Nazareth’, ‘The Conquests of Islam’, ‘The Mediaeval Church’ and so on, in a clear indication of not only wide historical progression, but building to a very positive and aspiring conclusion to ‘Unity in Walsingham, The New Evangelisation, The Glorious Vision’.
Next, the style is relaxed, making it an easy and undemanding read, easy to follow, encouraging one to read on. It tells of the fascinating account of Our Lady in England, and all that went before those Christian times and what developed afterwards: Reformation, Destruction, Restoration, and Walsingham today. I make the point of saying ‘Walsingham’, and not the ‘RC Shrine of Walsingham’, because this book is about Our Lady of Walsingham and how it came about that from one shrine, she is now venerated at two national Shrines – Catholic and Anglican. With this duality is detailed the sometimes painful struggle of both Shrines emerging to the pilgrim world, both individually and also as putative rivals.
England and the Holy Land
On the big picture, Rear skilfully weaves the synchronous but geographically separated strands of happenings in England and East Anglia, and in Nazareth and the Holy Land, all inexorably coming together as history progressed: the Holy House in Nazareth, its destruction, is angelic ‘translation’ to Loreto, its replication at Walsingham, its destruction, its recreation, and all the other major events that swirled around those circumstances of the Holy House.
Popping out of the big picture are some delightful little nuggets, adding a certain piquancy, like, Henry VIII, in his agony and remorse on his deathbed, reportedly bequeathing his soul to Our Lady of Walsingham, but clearly on the record, declaring in his Will: “…we do instantlie desire and require the Blessed Virgine Marie his mother…. continually to pray for us while we live in this world, and in the passing out of the same, that we maie the sooner obtayne eternall life after our departure…”. I also learned something that had always puzzled me, that amongst her many accolades, why Our Lady is called ‘Seat of Wisdom’. And many other little gems, such as Walsingham’s miracles, and the two white doves that settled on Our Lady’s statue and remained there on the procession down the Holy Mile returning to the Slipper Chapel from the crowning ceremony in the Abbey grounds, attended by 15,000 pilgrims in 1954, a Marian year. The doves remained on the statue in the Slipper Chapel overnight. Mysteriously, the same phenomenon occurred to the statue of Our Lady of Fatima after it was crowned in May 1946.
Anglicans and Catholics
What also emerges powerfully are the major players in this story – of whom one gets a real sense and feeling of who they were, how and what they were striving for, how they overcame seemingly impossible obstacles. The Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr Alfred Hope Patten, “one of the most significant figures in the Church of England in the twentieth century”, and his determination and drive to restore the Anglican Shrine; Catholic convert Charlotte Boyd and her vision of restoring the Catholic Shrine with her purchase of the Slipper Chapel (in use as a cow shed at the time), and her lovely personal comment that her persistence was “unsavoury in the Bishop’s nostrils”, and many others involved in the developing and running of the Shrines.
The author wryly observes that the making of the present Catholic Shrine had a lot to thank for the Anglo-Catholic input – many of whose priests involved were ordained into the Catholic church, himself included. But still shrouded in mystery, which Rear forensically analyses, is Richeldis de Faverches, the Norfolk noblewoman, who acting on visons of Our Lady, is credited with replicating the Holy House in Nazareth at Walsingham in 1061. The tantalising question is also asked of the 13th century oak statue of Madonna and Child discovered at the V & A, whose look and circumstances steer a close course to the original statue, which is depicted on the Walsingham Priory Seal granted by Henry III in 1246. The book is richly illustrated with many colour and black and white pictures, which in themselves are so evocative in bringing the text literally in to picture.
Only one Holy Mother of God
What is most encouraging – with this second edition catching-up with recent events – is the drive for closer co-operation and strengthening unity of the ministry of the two Shrines - Catholic and Anglican – which was sealed by the Ecumenical Covenant declared by both Shrines on the Feast of our Lady of Walsingham in 2018. In Michael Rear’s words, “there is only one Holy Mother of God”, and that he hoped that his revised book “will contribute to a fuller understanding”.
So, this is the challenge posed explicitly by this book: “For Our Lady originally had, and still wills to have, but one Shrine at Walsingham. Yet she has two; and the two do not do her a double honour, but rather diminish her glory, because they are really the one Shrine of other ages, now split in two by the Christians who ought to be joining together in propagating her honour”…. Fr Hope Patten’s piercing comment in 1953.
Fr Rear promotes this desire by seeking to persuade in drawing a comparison with the deep and sincere ecumenism of Taizé: “For everyone goes there… of all persuasions… It has found a way to welcome everyone, and no theological argument or disagreement spoils its peace. It may not be an exact model for Walsingham, a better one may present itself, but it shows what can be done. No-one ever thinks of asking, ‘is Taizé Catholic, or Anglican’, or ‘is it a Protestant community?’ It is just – Taizé”. His final plea is: “Please God, before Our Lady’s Shrine at Walsingham celebrates, in 2061, the one thousandth anniversary of its founding by Richeldis, it will be just – Walsingham”.
For those who have been to Walsingham several times, like myself, and may have the feeling that you know the most of it by association or an assumed familiarity - forget it. This is a book that will take you to, and hold you at many levels. I was humbled in realising how much I did not know, and how much this book has enriched my practical and spiritual knowledge of this one holy place of Our Lady – Walsingham.
Read it and go!
Retired Royal Marines officer David Baldwin MBE, has written several Pilgrimage booklets for the Catholic Truth Society.