While he was being hunted down by the Elizabethan authorities during his six years as a missionary priest, St Robert Southwell wrote some of the finest poetry of the 16th century – and some wonderful prose works too.
In one of these books, A Short Rule of Good Life, he adapted the advice usually found in such devotional aids to fit the especially difficult circumstances in which lay Catholics found themselves during the reign of Elizabeth I. Unable to offer devotion to the saints in public and forbidden from going on pilgrimage, the country’s Catholics were being stifled under a terrible Tudor lockdown.
One of St Robert’s suggestions was that the faithful should imagine a throne in each room of their house. They could then dedicate each room to a particular saint, so that, when they walked through the door, they would “enter as it were into a chapel or church that is devoted to such a Saint, and therefore in mind do that reverence that is due to them”.
Taking this idea further, he suggested that “not only in the house, but also in the walks, gardens, and orchards about the house may I do the same: and so make my walks as it were short pilgrimages, to visit such Saints as are patrons of the place I go unto”.
We too may be unable to make a pilgrimage for the time being, but by dedicating one corner of our garden to St James, another to St Peter, a third to St Bernadette, and a fourth to Our Lady, we can go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Lourdes, and Walsingham without leaving the confines of our own homes.
In his Short Rule of Good Life, St Robert gave lots of practical advice about how to develop this devotion to the saints, ending with these wise words:
I must take heed that I make not this exercise a toil, but rather a spiritual recreation, and therefore I must not be too eager to do all things on a sudden, but get the habit and custom of it by little and little, for so will it prove an exercise of wonderful profit, easiness, and contentment.
It may be simple to watch a livestream from Lourdes or an online Mass from Medjugorje, but true pilgrimages change lives when we take time over them, even if we have to start with a stroll around the back garden.