Our Lady of Walsingham - Sermon
This sermon was preached on Sunday 25 September 2022
Today we are keeping the feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham. I am going to focus my sermon today on 2 things. Firstly, I am going to speak a little of the history of the place and the key people who feature in its story, and then I am going to speak about pilgrimage and why it is so important in my own life and spirituality.
Walsingham is a small village in North Norfolk. Norfolk is a rural county dominated by beautiful countryside and quaint seaside villages. It is a place that isn’t particularly easy to get to by British standards and it is long way from a city.
In 1061, almost a thousand years ago, England was ruled by Edward the Confessor. A noble family called the de Faverches were land owners in Norfolk and the lady of the family who was called Richeldis de Faverches, was known locally to be a devout and pious follower of the faith. In particular she was known for devotion to Our Lady, and support and care of the poor and needy.
During a period of devotion, Richeldis had a vision of Our Lady during which she was taken in spirit to the house in Nazareth where Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Richeldis was told to note the dimensions of the house, its length and width, and to rebuild it in Walsingham. This would become the holy house where all might come to find help and peace from Mary.
Following her vision, Richeldis set about constructing the house on her land as she had been instructed. Richeldis couldn’t decide exactly where to build the house. She chose a site but the ground was not suitable and the construction workers struggled with the building. Richeldis prayed, and legend has it that the next morning the building had been moved to a firmer location miraculously.
We believe that the first house was constructed of wood, and its size matched the instructions she had been given. It was small by modern standards about 8 metres long by 5 metres wide. There were 2 small doors, similar to our doors here, and the house was lit by candles. An altar was placed to one side, and a larger building was erected around the Holy House to protect it.
Before long the house became a major centre of pilgrimage and people from all over England, and later Europe, visited the Holy House and took the water from a naturally flowing well nearby which was said to have healing properties.
The Richeldis family donated a large plot of land and assisted Augustinian monks as they constructed a large priory next to the Holy House to care for the needs of the many pilgrims. The numbers of visitors grew and grew, and Walsingham became one of the great sites of Pilgrimage in Europe. From all over the continent pilgrims came to express devotion to Mary and her son. We know that many of the Royal family visited, including at least 7 Kings of England.
Of those Kings, it was Henry the 8th who had the greatest impact on Walsingham. As a child he had been raised in the faith and he had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. Henry would visit the Slipper Chapel, a mile away from the Holy House, take off his shoes and walk the Holy Mile with other pilgrims. Here he would make his confession before entering England’s Nazareth, as the Holy House became known.
So devout was Henry that a candle in his name burned day and night in front of the statue of Mary in the Holy House. Henry prayed for England and his people at the Holy House, as several Kings of England had done before him.
I am sure many of you are aware of Henry 8th’s many failings. As well as having a penchant for chopping his various wives heads off, he also was instrumental in the separation of the church in England from Rome. That is a sermon for another day, but the dissolution of the monasteries, and the desecration and destruction of some of the most iconic buildings in the land followed the religious upheavals which took place in the years following the move away from Rome.
Walsingham suffered as a result and the Holy House was completely destroyed, and the priory was ransacked. All the treasures, things like candles, crucifixes, monstrances and even chasubles and copes were stolen and sent to London to the King where they were often melted down or burned. Tragically, the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, which had been carved in Oberammergau at the request of the Pope, was burnt.
Some local men fought back, but they were captured and executed for treason in a field on the outskirts of the village known as Martyrs Field.
The site fell into ruins, which is all that remains of the Priory today. Walsingham became a place of story and folklore, not of pilgrimage.
But in 1896 a Roman Catholic convert purchased the Slipper Chapel, which was being used as a cow shed, and brought the Roman Catholic shrine back to life. In 1921 the Anglican parish priest of Walsingham, Fr Alfred Hope Patten, restored Marian devotions in the parish church. Before long, the Anglican Shrine developed just opposite the old priory walls, and pilgrims began to walk barefoot once more from the Slipper Chapel to the shrine.
Today, Walsingham is once again an international centre for pilgrimage. Both the Anglican and Roman shrines provide hospitality and welcome along with amazing worship and devotions. There is also a small Orthodox shrine, in what used to be the railway station. Anglican and Roman Catholics live closely alongside each other, and even manage to share some worship occasionally!
I first visited the shrine when I was 7 years old. My step-grandfather was a devout Roman Catholic and I loved him dearly. We walked the mile barefoot in the summer sunshine, and he held my hand the whole way there. He spoke to me of the countless pilgrims who had walked before us and explained that we were making a very special journey.
Making a pilgrimage is demanding. It isn’t a simple holiday, although it certainly has aspects of this, but it is more about preparing ourselves spiritually to join the whole church as we give thanks to God for the wonders, often inexplicable, that exist in our world today, and in the past. For me it has become a significant part of my spirituality. I have visited a number of pilgrim centres in Europe, but Walsingham holds a particularly special place in my heart.
I am sure most of us have been on a sort of pilgrimage in our lives. Perhaps you visited the town where you grew up, took your children to see the places that mattered so much in your journey. Maybe you grabbed an ice-cream or fish and chips by the seaside at the spot where your parents took you as a child.
But to make a truly spiritual pilgrimage is to deliberately create space for God in our busy lives, away from what is our normality. We make a physical journey, and this prepares our hearts and minds. We often travel with other pilgrims and we pray on the way, asking God to bless our time together making it fruitful and refreshing.
And when we arrive, we take time to marvel in the beauty of God, of his creation, of the wondrous miracles he has performed. We offer ourselves wholly to him, perhaps receiving the sacrament of reconciliation which is usually freely available in places of pilgrimage. We choose to join in with others, or we spend time on our own. There is no pressure, life is stilled and the world is hushed. And at Walsingham, we are surrounded by the beauty of holiness, with good music and beautiful liturgy.
These days at Walsingham, we pray corporately for the conversion of England. We ask Our Lady to intercede on our behalf and encourage and assist in the return of the faith. One of the most challenging and interesting theological conundrums is working out what that means in a secular, multi-cultural society such as the UK or Australia.
I am not sure any of us has the perfect answer to that very difficult question, but I do know that places of pilgrimage bring me closer to God and to his revelation to me and the world in his son Jesus Christ.
I hope you all find the opportunity to make a pilgrimage in your own spiritual journey. And I hope and pray that God blesses you, as he has me, with the beauty of his revelation in such holy and historical places.