Have you visited your Mother lately? Before the Reformation, the English were famous throughout Europe for their devotion to Our Lady, whose inheritance we possess in the “dowry” of Walsingham. She, like any mother, especially one long-abandoned by her children, pines for our return.
We have made it a tradition for the past few years to take the children to Walsingham each August. Last year we were repaid for our commitment with unexpected luxury. Elmham House, the old Pilgrim Hall in Walsingham village, has had an upgrade. I had always accepted indigestible food and derelict rooms as the hairshirt and hard mattress of any pilgrim. How grateful I am to the Shrine innovators for the chance to relinquish my false piety and enjoy a proper family holiday.
The food is excellent and good for all ages. The dining hall has become a Shoreditch ballroom, all bare bulbs and scrubbed wood, but is much easier to use: the kids can be penned into leather booths from where their noise and mess disturbs other diners far less than it did. Proper coffee is available around the clock and the bedrooms have been painted and refurbished. The downstairs libraries have been transformed into smart drawing rooms and we could access a small kitchenette for feeding children during the inhuman hours. All this for considerably less than it costs to glamp in Suffolk.
The Holy Mile is our morning walk to the Catholic shrine, where the café has been rejuvenated by a group of Northern pilgrims who settled in the village and offer modern food with a warm welcome and copious Marian iconography – and serve no meat on Fridays. In the afternoons we take the kids on the miniature railway to the beach or wander in the Priory grounds. We take shifts at formal devotion: Adoration in the Dowry chapel, quiet prayer in the Anglican replica of the Holy House, filled by the evening with candles and the perfume of a hundred lilies. The Catholic Shrine possesses a first-class collection of relics from the early Church to the 20th century and the waters, once the most famous throughout Europe for their healing powers, continue to flow from springs beneath the North Norfolk countryside.
The dissolution of the monasteries drove a knife through the English landscape and the open wound is as palpable in our abbey ruins as it is, invisible but acute, in the soul of English Catholicism. The small journey we make each year to this little area of East Anglia, once-glorious but now still mostly neglected, is a movement toward reparation with the past.
After their expulsion, some of the older orders are returning. The Greyfriars live in a house on Walsingham high street but are sometimes invited back onto the abbey grounds to say Mass at the ruined altar. But the jewel in Mary’s dowry is the Order of Our Lady of Walsingham, a community of modern women who run the Dowry House retreat centre and their own new convent in nearby Dereham.
This growing order – young, dynamic, faithful, clever – are a true sign that English Catholicism can continue to flourish. They run retreats throughout the year, hold study and prayer days at their convent, and have been granted the status of an Ecclesial Family. Full membership to the order is open not only to sisters and brothers but to lay people and whole families who are now travelling long distances from around the country to be part of the order’s spiritual home.
With a charism that draws on Carmelite traditions but is focused on the Magnificat and a dedication to the Divine Will, the Sisters are busy writing their Book of Life. It will outline their particular mode of prayer and call devotees to the graces they have themselves found at the foot of Our Lady of Walsingham.
In this village, Mary is depicted in image and statue as an English Rose seated on the throne of wisdom, crowned and haloed and bearing the Child Jesus on her knee with book and lily. Every week of every year, she is carried on the shoulders of pilgrims as they walk the Holy Mile flanked by wild flowers and hawthorn, sloe berries and drunken bees.
She seems a little aloof and awkward amid this devotion: thoughtful about us, perhaps, amused by our small offerings, but ultimately solicitous of our pain and patient with our grumbling. She is just like my mother and your mother and she is waiting for you to call on her.