In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare wrote:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
The ‘bare ruin’s choirs’ now forms the header to this blog – a wonderful picture of the ruins of Walsingham, taken by C’s step-daughter, the Little Knife. In the Middle Ages this little village in North Norfolk was the greatest shrine in England, and one of the greatest in Europe. Walsingham was known as ‘England’s Nazareth’. Nearly two years ago I went on a private pilgrimage there, and wrote about it here and here and here. It is a very special place for me, as it is for many.
There is, about is, an air at once of melancholy and of serenity. Eliot catches the mood perfectly when he writes of Little Gidding:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Prayer is indeed more than the order of words, and where it has been ‘valid’ for more than a thousand years, you can feel that that process has left something of itself behind it; something of the yearning for God, and of the finding of Him; something of the longing and the loss of self that entails.
The loss caused by the wreckers of Henry VIII was captured so well in one of the Walsingham Ballads:Weep, weep, O Walsingham Whose days are nights, Blessings turned to blasphemies, Holy deeds to despites. Sin is where Our Lady sat, Heaven turned into hell, Satan sits where Our Lord did sway, Walsingham, oh farewell!
The mindset of those who could break up a holy place, who could set fire to a place of pilgrimage, and who could burn the statue of Our Lady is, I am pleased to say, utterly foreign to me. Men can turn into beasts, I suppose, and when hatred and bile rule, when ignorance and arrogance are enthroned, then history shows us what can happen.
But to walk around those bare ruin’d choirs now is to sense something lost, and it is hard to see what has replaced it. That, perhaps is why, only five hundred years after the wreckers completed their vile work, Walsingham has arisen again, Refounded as a shine in the early twentieth century, it now has over 100,000 pilgrims every year. God willing, I plan to go back again this year and renew my vows to Our Lady.
I have never understood those who think that those of us devoted to her worship her; how foolish. We adore her because she is the mother of Jesus. She nurtured him, she cherished him, and if we worship him, how can we not love his mother.
O blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Walsingham, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon us, our parish, our country, our homes, and our families, and upon all who greatly hope and trust in your prayers, especially those who read here.
By you it was that Jesus, our Savior and hope, was given to the world; and he has given you to us that we may hope still more. Plead for us your children, whom you did receive and accept at the foot of the Cross, O sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of your Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we all may be made worthy to see and praise God, together with you in our heavenly home.Amen.
Our Lady of Walsingham, Pray for us.