I had already been to Lindisfarne, Iona and Mother Julian's Cell. Next week I will go to Canterbury, so Walsingham completes the round of British pilgrimage sites I had intended to visit. I am, as most who know me will tell you, from the Protestant end of the Anglican spectrum and Devotion to Our Lady has never featured greatly in my personal spiritual practice. I knew that the modern Anglican shrine was a twentieth century reinterpretation of the cult that had been destroyed by Henry VIII, and to be quite frank, I wasn't expecting much from this centre of Anglo Catholic devotion. Like all of us, I live in the tangled web of my own presuppositions, but in the couse of the day, three things happened to surprise me.
Firstly, a ribald conversation with my brother, the details of which I will spare you, but which ended with an aha moment for me, and I'm sorry to offend your sensibilities by talking of this: even snot is a part of creation, and therefore comes from God and therefore participates in the divine substance. My own sense of revulsion is just that: my own and it originates with me. Now this may not seem to you to be a great revelation, and even if it was, you'd probably prefer me to keep it to myself, but it was the thought I was toying with as I entered Walsingham, and in an odd way it prepared me for the full frontal assault on my own limited prejudices
which was to follow.
Secondly, I was surprised by the village of Walsingham, which must be one of the best preserved Tudor villages in the country. Despite the vandalism of Henry, the roundheads and the reformers, the village remains much as it was, and with a strong sense of vitality and life that is completely contemporary. There is a sense that in this place there is something bigger than Henry and bigger than the various half truths which periodically proclaim themselves to be ultimate and strive to take over the church.
Thirdly I was surprised the beauty and sanctity of the shrine itself, which has been built with great dignity and harmony. We arrived just as a ceremony of sprinkling was taking place. An ancient well was discovered in the 1930s during the reconstruction of the shrine and now, twice a week, a rite of sprinkling is carried out. As an act of commitment to Christ and in hope of restoration and healing, we were led to the well, invited to drink its waters, signed with the cross and sprinkled in remembrance of our baptismal waters and of the Living Water. I found it profoundly moving. I spent time in the reproduction of Richeldis' house, sitting before the statue of Our Lady, and realised something I should have realised decades ago. The cult of Mary is about Incarnation! Of course! How stupid of me not to have known this! The Word could not become flesh without Mary.
Just as the Abbey on Iona is a twentieth century reinterpretation of the monasticism and spirituality of Columba, the modern cult of Walsingham is, on the face of it, a completely contemporary phenomenon, but there is more to it than a group of Anglo Catholics hankering after some past glory. Clemency's illustrious ancestor, Sir Thomas Wardle once tried to change the Manifold River. The river disappears through sink holes every summer, leaving the riverbed dry. Sir Thomas thought he would plug the sinkholes with concrete and allow the local farmers to enjoy the benefits of the river water all year round. In the Autumn, after the first rains, the rising underground water of the Manifold exploded through the concrete, blasting it out of the way with a noise that could be heard for 20 miles in every direction. In much the same way, the spiritual power of Walsingham can't be suppressed or contained. After centuries of neglect and despite the physical destruction of the infrastructure of the shrine, in the 1930s the water bursts out of the ground - in the case of the well, quite literally. I found it easy to pray in this lovely place. The stillness and sanctity soaked in and came with me when I left. Of all the holy sites I have seen so far, Walsingham was the most surprising, and is one to which I will return when and if it is ever possible.