On a pilgrimage, says martin Warner, the world’s value systems are called radically into question; and God gets a word in edgeways
THEN, SAID Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, “Do you see yonder Wicket Gate?” The man said, “No.” Then said the other, “Do you see yonder shining light?’ He said, “I think I do.
It is part of the genius of Bunyan’s story, Pilgrim’s Progress that Christian’s journey begins in uncertainty and hesitation, for the pilgrimage of faith is never an easy one. The pressures of life today certainly make it no easier than it was three hundred years ago when Bunyan was writing. But a pilgrimage may help us to re-orientate ourselves in the greater journey, and re-capture what first made us undertake it.
Exploration of this theme is not uncommon today. The recent paperback release of David Lodge’s novel, Therapy, offers an interesting debate between the prevailing trends of consumer-orientated hedonism and a Christianity which is made to look illogical and faintly ridiculous from a secular perspective. In the end, however, real therapy is discovered through something (someone, actually) closer to the gospel, rather than on the analyst’s expensive couch.
Without doubt there is today a renewed and growing interest in pilgrimage. Its inclusion in the National Curriculum as part of the History and RE syllabuses accounts for some part of this, but by no means all. Pilgrimage centres such as Iona, Taizé and Walsingham attract an increasing number of visitors. In these places lives are changed by discovery and renewal of faith in the living God. This conversion is clearly the work of God’s grace through the activity of the Holy Spirit. And though the power of God is never confined, equally clearly it can be distinctively revealed in certain places, chosen by him. Whatever the particular story that is associated with places of pilgrimage, there are characteristics which seem to be common to them all and to the journey which leads you there. The first of these characteristics, and perhaps the most striking, is holiness.
Walsingham is situated near the north Norfolk coast, located in some of the most sublimely English countryside still unspoilt by the ravages of mass tourism or property speculation. The journey to this medieval village demands that you gradually leave behind the motorway and decent A roads, so that eventually even the white line down the middle of the road disappears and you are more likely to be held up by waddling ducks and straying pheasants than by roundabouts and traffic lights.
Being an urban creature I still find this isolation from the security of tower blocks, take-aways and tamed nature confined within the local park very distressing! But therein lies the parable. Not only the experience of being here, but also the journey itself demands that we face renunciation. No matter what the reason, to engage in travel is also to engage in risk; the defences of familiarity are left behind. But in pilgrimage we also consciously suspend the complexity of life which can so often obscure our vision, so that we might see afresh the simplicity of the unconditional love of God.
One of the most powerful examples of this experience in scripture is the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb (I Kings 19). The cultural climate of the time was no more sympathetic than our own. Elijah experiences something which seems to bring him to the verge of a breakdown. The pilgrimage which follows becomes a means by which he is first of all, refreshed physically and spiritually; the journey offers a chance to eat, drink and sleep, touched by God through the ministry of an angel. Then on Horeb itself Elijah is confronted by the holiness of God revealed in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV).
Today’s world is characterised by the constant intrusion of noise. Silence is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable experience from which we seem to want to escape. The silence of a holy place like Walsingham is not, however, the total absence of noise; it has a different quality. This silence, in which is formed the prayer of simply being in the presence of God is like his glory; rich, dynamic and life-sustaining, so that through our encounter with it we are transfigured. Prayer can, of course, take many forms. But in stillness and silence we confront our poverty and limitation over against the awesome magnificence of the holiness of God and words must always fail us.
Pilgrims have been coming to Walsingham since the 11th century, to visit a simple house which represents the home in Nazareth where Jesus’s birth was announced and where he grew in wisdom and stature with God and men. The original representation of that house was destroyed in the Reformation, but restored by the Vicar of Walsingham, Alfred Hope Patten, in 1931. It is encased in a brick and flint pilgrimage church, whose aspirations to exotic, continental catholicism were redeemed long ago by the authenticity of prayers offered and grace given by God. But the ethos of Walsingham remains homely; pilgrimage here is a challenge to reflect on what it means to allow the word of God to be at home and abide within us.
Each evening in the Shrine the names of those for whom prayers have been requested are read out. The needs are often so simple and yet heart-rending. This work of intercession offers a potent explanation of how pilgrimage is not an escape from life or a way of seeking to avoid living with others. It is, rather, an experience in which we recognise our mutual responsibility and dependence. Sometimes pilgrims have come from a situation or relationship which is damaged and painful. The journey away is a time to reflect and adjust. Like the ministry of angels who waited on Jesus after his temptations, a holy place can offer the refreshment which is necessary for someone to say, “it does hurt, I need healing,” or simply, “I’m sorry.”
The ministry of healing is found in many pilgrimage places. But the journey there and subsequent experience of reconciliation should perhaps be seen as the prelude to a more important journey; the return home. Paul writes that “all this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Pilgrimage is essentially baptismal in character; it’s about turning, or re-turning, to Christ. The forgiveness and healing found in that sacramental moment also commission and empower us to be agents of this work of reconciliation in a hurt and damaged world.
The Christian family must be characterised by its ability to live together and to stay together, and pilgrimage to Walsingham focuses that demand. The presence of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches in the village witness to a recognition that here Christians of different traditions are at home together on what has been revealed as holy ground.
So pilgrimage to a holy place can bring about a fresh perception of the holiness of God and awareness his presence. It should therefore be expected that the activities found in places like Walsingham will reflect the values of the kingdom of heaven, and here I believe they do in one important respect; the practice of humility.
The RC National Shrine is situated a mile from the village at the beautiful 14th century Slipper Chapel, and the pilgrimage there was re-established by Pope Leo XIII in 1898. If you are passing that way in mid-August, you may be startled by the sight one morning of several hundred young people walking into Walsingham bare foot. The National Ecumenical Youth Pilgrimage has restored this ancient custom at the beginning of its annual, exuberant celebrations, much to the dismay of adult helpers who are shamed into following the example of the reckless youth.
The intention is not entirely penitential, with the suggestion that pain is good for your soul (sole?!). The ancient custom was intended to level all sections of society to the status of the poor traveller who enters the village where his spiritual home is, seeking in penitence like the prodigal son to be received back and forgiven. The important thing here is recognition of an equality, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23).
But this recognition is perhaps only the first step towards other adjustments of the world’s value-system. In Walsingham our most important pilgrims are those who are frail, sick, handicapped physically or mentally, the elderly, and all who are socially or emotionally vulnerable. They help us to understand the liberating power of the gospel and they teach us that in order to worship the Christ Child you have to stoop to enter the stable. Here we find that “God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).
An Enacted Symbol
As Christian thought that he could see obscurely his way to yonder shining light at the beginning of his progress to the Celestial City, so he exemplifies our attempts to capture even dimly on earth a vision of heaven. That vision is what inspires the pilgrimage of faith through life. It is also what inspires pilgrimage to a particular place as an enacted symbol; through it we try to articulate in action, prayer and worship our desire for holiness, the homeliness of heaven and true humility.
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage And thus I’ll make my pilgrimage.
Martin Warner is the Priest Administrator of the Shrine of the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingham.