I returned from leading a retreat in Walsingham with the sensation of being filled, rather than emptied spiritually by the experience. Fullness was everywhere in the natural world: the horse chestnut trees laden with candles, the poppies spattering the hillsides and the cow parsley decking the hedgerows with lace. In the spiritual realm it was my intuition that in the days leading up to Pentecost, Erasmus’s prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham, which I have long made my own, was granted. It asks that through the power of the Holy Spirit we, imitating Mary’s attitude, might conceive the Lord Jesus in our inmost souls.
There is something romantic and sublime (in the original senses of those words) about the ruined shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, just a single tall arch straight and noble, because it makes history visible. The grandeur of a past in which the faith of England shaped its culture, and was as intrinsic to it as its beautiful landscape, reveals itself through the evidence of the loss, even at the same time as it reveals something of the indestructibility of that same true faith and devotion which perdure despite the vicissitudes of history.
I find it a powerful symbol as we contemplate a Church facing a great crisis and the destruction of many visible manifestations of its power and presence, as parishes and convents and colleges close and Catholic guilds and associations dwindle. You can destroy a temple, but what is founded on Christ the Cornerstone is not so easily destroyed. It will rise again. The beauty of a ruin encourages us to reflect on all in us that needs to be rebuilt in our personal lives of faith.
Walsingham lives by tradition – and tradition, by definition, is dynamic. It does not cling to the past out of grief for what was lost but in order to define and refine the deeper value and truth which is literally unlosable because it contains what is essential, the soul of an institution. Tradition is a spiritual reality. To ignore or despise it is to damn the flow of a stream and in so doing turn it into a powerful torrent.
These are exciting times as the Catholic shrine is being developed in many ways in fidelity to its tradition. The image of Our Lady of Walsingham is being venerated all round the country to prepare for the reconnection of England as Mary’s Dowry. The emphasis on the original message of the apparitions, that Our Lady wishes us to share in the joy of her Annunciation, emphasises the same truth that the medieval peasant leaning on his spade at the sound of the bells acknowledged with his body thrice daily. The Word was made Flesh and lived among us. He is the pattern for all that is human. There can be no joy in our own incarnation if we do not seek to live as he did and as he asks.
So much today chokes the joy of our own incarnation. So much dehumanises because we tend to put our faith only in what we have made or what we can do, only in what our untamed appetites tell us make for human thriving. Thus even the Gospel must apparently be reinterpreted to reflect a new wisdom it has failed to keep up with. But actually it is time to engage in the far more difficult and demanding process of adapting our sensibilities and our lived experience to the image of human flourishing which is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: to become receptive to meaning and joy revealed from outside our experience by imitating the receptivity of the woman of Nazareth and Walsingham.