The Living Spirit of Walsingham


By Father Alan Williams, SM, MA, PH.D
(Written whilst Director of The National Shrine of Our Lady)


PERHAPS the most pleasant part of my job as Director of the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham is that I am able to meet many of the thousands of pilgrims and visitors that visit the Shrines and village each year.

Each pilgrimage group has its own character and distinctive background. For some groups it is a first visit to Walsingham and they can be faced with a bewildering choice of activities and possibilities. Other groups are full of experienced pilgrims. They have already come to know Walsingham and something of its spirit and depths.

The focal point of each day at the Shrine is the celebration of the 12 noon Pilgrim Mass. All visiting groups are invited to join together in this great Sacrament of Unity and uniquely privileged meeting with the Lord. There is also a regular daily programme of events and services. Regular visitors to Our Lady’s Shrines will not be surprised at this: the aim of every pilgrimage to Mary’s Shrine must be an encounter with the Living God made visible in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some years ago Pope John Paul II urged Directors of Marian Shrines:

"Do not miss any opportunity to preach Christ; to enlighten the faith of the people and strengthen it; helping the people on its way towards the Holy Trinity. Let Mary be the way."

Pilgrims to Walsingham have always realised that a true devotion to Our Blessed Lady will lead us to her Son. Every day at Walsingham, pilgrim groups walk in procession along the Holy Mile. They often pray the rosary as they walk and, with Mary, ponder the mysteries of the Lord. The rosary is a profound gospel-centred prayer of intercession; in the words of Pope Pius XII it is a 'compendium of the entire gospel'.

The very names of the Chapels at Walsingham tell us something of the spirit and life of pilgrimage: The National Shrine for Catholics in England is the medieval Slipper Chapel which has long been a place where pilgrims removed their footwear and walked barefoot into the Holy Land of Walsingham. Its near neighbour is the much larger Chapel of Reconciliation which was blessed and opened by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1981. It is in this Chapel that many pilgrims are reconciled with God and neighbour. A pilgrim’s journey through life can be difficult and mistakes will be made, but at the Chapel of Reconciliation, we celebrate the forgiveness and joy of God as we are reconciled with Him.

The ancient Shrine of Walsingham has long since gone, but nowadays most pilgrims to Walsingham also find their way to the Anglican Shrine which contains a 1930s replica of the original Holy House of Walsingham. The Anglican Shrine houses many beautiful side chapels and the modem Holy House reminds us of the original focus of the medieval Shrine, the Annunciation of the Lord to Mary of Nazareth. In the Holy House each pilgrim is challenged to hear the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ anew.

Of course, in the midst of all these Chapels and devotions there are pilgrims, and I am constantly delighted at the wonderful mix of characters and backgrounds of pilgrims to Walsingham. It is clear that people come to Walsingham for a variety of reasons. Yet, as I listen to our pilgrims, it is also apparent that all have experienced the one same spirit of Walsingham.

Pilgrims often talk of a great peace and a sense of joy; they talk of the good company of other pilgrims and also of the tangible presence of God.

As I hear this I often reflect on pilgrims of an earlier time. Would they have given me the same kinds of answers? Was the peace and joy and grace of Walsingham a living reality for pilgrims of earlier centuries?

Even a casual walk through Walsingham tells us that here is a place where old and new mingle very easily. Just as the modern Chapel of Reconciliation and the medieval Slipper Chapel are comfortable neighbours, I have a sense that modern pilgrims have much in common with their companions in faith of earlier generations. The spirit of Walsingham has not changed over the centuries, because each generation has been able to return to the founding inspiration reflecting God’s intention to bring pilgrims to Walsingham; Walsingham is a place where heaven touches earth.

The oldest known record of the Walsingham story was ‘written down in about 1465 in the reign of King Edward IV. This is, of course, long after the building of the original Holy House and the founding of the great Augustinian Priory which housed the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The only copy that now remains of this manuscript is in the Pepys library of Magdalene College, Cambridge. It bears the mark of Richard Pynson, printer to Henry VII and is known as the Pynson Ballad.

The anonymous writer of the Pynson Ballad reflects on the foundation and the subsequent history of the Shrine. Sister Ruth Obbard, a Carmelite, has translated part of it into modern English:

Walsingham – in you is built new Nazareth
where shall be held in great memory,
the great joy of my salutation,
first of my joys – their foundation and origin,
root of mankind’s gracious redemption.
When Gabriel gave me this news:
to be mother through humility
and God’s Son conceive in virginity.

Pilgrims journeyed from afar to England’s new Nazareth. We know of early pilgrim routes and chapels built for the use of pilgrims as they made their way to Walsingham. The eventual goal of the early pilgrims was to visit the Holy House of Walsingham. When they entered into the Holy House they found a simple building housed in the Lady Chapel and it was here that they would have pondered on the great event of the Annunciation in the original Holy House of Nazareth. Perhaps, like the writer of the Pynson Ballad, they would hold in ‘constant memory the great joy’ of the Annunciation of the Lord.

It is the story of the Annunciation that is the key to understanding something of the enduring spirit of Walsingham. We find the detailed account of the encounter of the Angel Gabriel with Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel of St Luke. St Luke tells simply how the Angel appeared to Mary to ask if she would be the mother of God’s Son. As we read this gospel story it is striking that Mary is portrayed as very free yet troubled human being. Mary is anxious. Mary questions but she is able to give an unconditional assent to God because of her deep consolation and joy; quite simply, Mary is full of the grace of God (Luke 1:28).

When pilgrims of a much earlier time walked to Walsingham, the Shrine of the Annunciation of the Lord, they shared Mary’s great joy and deep inner peace. This is the enduring pilgrim experience of Walsingham. Medieval and modern pilgrims alike breathe this living spirit. A first visit to Walsingham can give a sense of this deep spirit; more seasoned pilgrims to Walsingham have breathed this same spirit often. It should be no surprise that many pilgrims return to Walsingham time and time again.

The ease of modern travel has made this harbour of peace accessible to many. In Walsingham a busy life can be refreshed and renewed.

In an early poem the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of the deep desire for peace that comes from God alone:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea.

The spirit of Walsingham is the spirit of Mary’s house at Nazareth. At Nazareth, Mary found that an openness to the reality and love of God could alone bring lasting peace and joy. Through Mary’s assent to Almighty God the world gained its Saviour. As long as men and women desire peace and meaning in their lives, as long as they are open to the coming of the Saviour of the world, then Walsingham will continue to have its importance and mission as England’s Nazareth.