HOUSE OF GOD AND GATE OF HEAVEN
A statement from the College of Guardians on the witness of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
“Then the sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen inside it… A great sign appeared in heaven; a woman adorned with the sun, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown.”
Rev. 11.19, 12.1
The book of Revelation records a series of visions, each described in a highly symbolic and imaginative way. In one of these the author describes a vision of heaven in terms of the Temple in Jerusalem – it is the sanctuary of the Holy of holies containing the ark of the covenant that he sees being opened, the place of the presence of God. In that heavenly sanctuary he also sees ‘a woman adorned with the sun’, a figure who is taken to represent the whole community of faithful disciples, but who can also be identified as Mary, the mother of the Messiah and the exemplar of believing, faithful discipleship.
That vision of a sanctuary and of the Mother of the Messiah within it is one which resonates with pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The Shrine stands as a witness to God’s presence in human history. The Holy House at the heart of the Shrine Church recalls the moment of Mary’s ‘yes’ to God. In the event of the Annunciation she became like the Holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple – the place where God was dwelling in a particular way. “In you is built new Nazareth” the mid-fifteenth century Pynson Ballad says of Walsingham, for there we are reminded that God has dwelt amongst us, lived in our midst and shared our human nature.
For centuries, then, the Shrine has witnessed to the power of particular places to witness to the Divine. A universal truth (the Word becoming flesh) is rooted in a particular place (the Holy House), and in that sanctuary “made by human hands” (cf. Hebrews 9.24) we are offered a vision of the sanctuary on high. In the careful language of Fr Patten’s 1931 ‘Pilgrim Guide’ the newly restored Shrine is described as ‘The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham’. In considering the layers of meaning held by the word ‘sanctuary’ we are able to express our commitment as the College of Guardians to what the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is called to be.
The heavenly sanctuary that John sees open in heaven in the vision he records in Revelation is primarily a place of worship of the sovereign majesty of God. The worship of the Church on earth takes place in communion with “the whole company of heaven”, and at Walsingham the Pilgrim People of God gather with the Blessed Virgin Mary to praise the God who does great things for us.
The act of going on a pilgrimage is in itself part of an offering of worship. The Shrine only exists because of its location, the vision of Richeldis and centuries of pilgrimage, in which arguably the past century’s revival is among the most significant. Of course, pilgrimage is not unique to Christians and neither are they always made for an entirely ‘religious’ motive – these days people might ‘make a pilgrimage’ to any place of significance to them, from battlefields to football grounds. Nevertheless, for Christians a pilgrimage recalls our roots in the Exodus journey of the People of God, and of the journey of all the baptised towards our heavenly homeland, “for here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
Perhaps the ease of modern transport has led to a diminishing of the sense of the journey to Walsingham as part of an act of worship. The revival and increasing enthusiasm for recovering Pilgrim Ways gives us an opportunity to promote the Shrine, and to form new partnerships across the county, as well as deepening understanding of the symbolism of the pilgrim journey.
The compelling round of worship offered at the Shrine is the heart of its life. This worship, rooted as it is in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, not only expands the vision of the pilgrim towards the worship of heaven, but also to the connections and commitments that it demands of us within the wider Church universal on earth. As it reflects on its role in the future, part of the vocation of the Shrine will be to celebrate sacramental life joyfully and to find new ways of communicating its richness in the context of a Church of England where it can sometimes feel as if the energy is elsewhere. The Shrine will not become a repository of Anglo-Catholic nostalgia, as if this vision of the Church belongs to a bygone age. Rather, it will be relaxed and confident in sustaining that vision in our own time.
This sense of the Shrine as a sanctuary of worship also carries with it the call to holiness, and that message is carried not only through the environment of the Shrine Church and its grounds, its round of worship and celebration of the sacraments, but also through preaching and teaching. St Paul speaks in the Letter to the Ephesians of the Christian as growing “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, and the opportunities to aid this growth in holiness through pilgrimage are manifold. A particular focus at Walsingham on offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation brings those who engage with it that little bit nearer to the fullness of what God desires for us. We will need to be courageous in finding ways to offer our fellow Christians what we believe to be the fullness of faith, and in supporting clergy and parishes that struggle to find ways of inviting people into the sacramental life.
The vision of the heavenly sanctuary suggests another meaning of that word which illuminates the purpose of the Shrine. A sanctuary is also a place of refuge, of safety and security, and this is a gift which is found in abundance in Walsingham. A common reflection from pilgrims is that at the Shrine they find a place where it is safe to be vulnerable, and where traumas can be healed, and where restless minds can find peace.
It is a combination of factors that makes this so: the place, hallowed and set apart by almighty God; the witness of Our Lady, who herself knew the impact of trauma and who carries the cries of our hearts to her Son; the worship and devotion centred on the Holy House and Shrine Church; the sign of the well and the focus it provides for prayer for healing and restoration, alongside the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation; the environment of rural North Norfolk, and the sense of serenity and beauty it brings; the fellowship and support of those other pilgrims with whom we have made the pilgrimage – all these (and more besides) are the means by which the pilgrim is able to find rest and renewal. There is a careful balance here, and that balance creates the context for the overflowing presence and action of God to be discerned and for growth to take place.
Sensitivity to that balance is vital. While the Shrine may want to explore opportunities to find new sources of income to fund its ministry, and ways of offering its facilities for retreats or for conferences (both of which are very different in character to a pilgrimage) this must never be at the expense of those characteristics that make Walsingham ‘home’ for so many.
It’s not surprising therefore that over the past few months those pilgrims distressed by lockdown, or the bereaved (amongst them those who have been unable to participate in the Funeral Rites of loved ones), or those who have lost livelihoods and cherished aspirations, and those confused and perplexed through exclusion from the sacramental and devotional life of their churches, have found comfort and solace in the live-streaming of daily Shrine Prayers, and the sense of connection that on-line material has given them.
Finally, sanctuary can be understood in terms of home and hospitality, and finding sanctuary is discovering that place where we may grow and flourish. The sanctuary at Walsingham is a home, the Holy House around which all the other buildings of the Shrine are arranged. In offering this kind of sanctuary to her pilgrims the Shrine witnesses to a simple and profound truth: that all have equal access, for all are the equal and undeserving recipients of the graces that God gives us there. We might well recall the words of The Rule of St Benedict, who tells his monks that guests to the monastery are to be received “as Christ”. This is not a welcome based on human measurements, but on Gospel generosity.
From very early times pilgrimage has been the context for a certain ‘levelling’ amongst the different strands of human society – just think of the diverse company Chaucer records making their way to Canterbury. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is home for a huge variety of pilgrims, many of whom are among the urban poor. Ensuring that coming on pilgrimage remains affordable for all is not only a pragmatic decision made to maintain pilgrim numbers, but is rooted in the theological conviction that those who can purchase their comforts or demand their rights are simply receiving what they can buy, whereas offering all the sanctuary of hospitality involves a different perspective. The hard economics of this conviction will be particularly challenging in the current climate, but the Shrine risks bartering with its own identity as the reflection of the sanctuary in which “all find their home” (Psalm 87:7). As one Guardian often puts it Walsingham has at its heart “the homeliness of holiness”; here is a holiness that we may reach out and touch, and which consecrates our own homes and families – Mary’s home is our home and her Son is our brother.
The sanctuary of the home is not only that place where we may grow and flourish, it is also that place from which we go out into the world, confident in the Lord who will “keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121.8). The wide variety of experiences on pilgrimage to Walsingham, whether they are made in sacramental encounter, in personal reflection or in fellowship with others, are set within the expansive framework of the mercy of God. It is to this new and enlarged way of living that the pilgrim is sent out as a witness.
In the liturgy of the Last Visit to the Holy House the pilgrim asks for the prayers of Our Lady that “God may give me the grace to do at home what you have taught me to do here”. The lessons of Walsingham are transformingly important for us, and fit us to excitedly tell others how, like Mary, God is doing great things in our lives, as with her we praise and magnify his holy name.
The College of Guardians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
October Chapter, 2020