Monday, July 28, 2014

Pilgrim to Walsingham

Inside the Slipper Chapel.
There was a time, roughly a thousand years ago when Walsingham was the destination of many a medieval pilgrim. The shrine was built to be a replica of Mary's house at Nazareth, constructed on the request of Our Lady herself. A baker's wife could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or even Campostela, but she could go to the "Holy House" of Our Lady in Norfolk. Indeed, baker's wives, fishermen and even kings had been making their way to this shrine in honor of the Annunciation since 1061.

Well, pilgrims needed shelter, and meals and other sorts of services, didn't
they? When the Augustinians arrived, they had more than enough to keep all the Fathers (Canons, to be more exact) busy. A village sprouted along the roadside. Business was good. And gifts flowed to the Augustinian priory, too. Right next to the Holy House, its triple towers soared to the heavens. In the refectory (dining room), high arched windows let in plenty of light for the lector in his pulpit to read pious or instructive texts to the community during meals. Down the road, at the Slipper Chapel, a constant stream of pilgrims confessed their sins and then removed their shoes to make the final mile to Walsingham unshod.

The remaining tower of the Augustinian Prior.
Now in private hands, it can be visited for a fee.
It all came to a sudden end over "the King's great matter" during the reign of Henry VIII. The revered statue of Our Lady seated on a throne with her Son in her lap was pulled from the Holy House and carried to London, where it was thrown into a fire. The Holy House itself was leveled. Even the enormous Priory was sacked and razed--at least as much of it as could be torn down. Pilgrimages ended overnight, though for centuries there were tiny hints of devotion by stealth. The Slipper Chapel became a workhouse.

Eventually a law court was established in the village, and a vast prison.

And then, after centuries in the shadows, Catholicism became legal again. The Slipper Chapel, tumbledown but still surviving, was purchased and restored. Unable to visit even the grassy spot where the Holy House once stood (the entire property of the shrine and Priory had long since gone into private hands), pilgrims visited the Slipper Chapel instead. Eventually, it was named the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. A new statue was commissioned, based on the design of a pilgrim's medallion from the glory days. Anglican devotees built a shrine, too, near the original site.
Slipper Chapel,
seen from behind.

When my Norwich hosts (see "Rhymes with Porridge") suggested we go to Sunday Mass at Walsingham, I knew it was the answer to a prayer: this was the one place I most wanted to visit while in England! We got a little lost (Walsingham is still in the sticks), but were set on the right road by a passer-by near the Anglican shrine. We were only a mile away from the Slipper Chapel, the "RC Shrine" of Our Lady. As we jostled down the narrow country lane in a rental car, we passed groups on foot, mostly Indian groups walking the other way. (They had to go single-file to accommodate our car.) 3,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics were expected for Mass in the afternoon, and many of them came early. They would process from the Anglican shrine to the Slipper Chapel and outdoor Mass space. When we arrived, we found the parking lot completely full; our car was directed to a nearby field. We had time to visit a bit before Mass in the modern chapel. (The Slipper Chapel only holds about a dozen worshipers!)

After Mass, we knew we could not make it down the road (not with 3,000 worshipers processing in), so we took our time visiting the shrine. I had made a list of prayer intentions before Mass, wanting to write the names of as many sisters and family members as possible, starting with those whose needs were most timely or urgent, such as my dear Alabama uncle and cousins who had just said their last good-byes to my aunt. (She and Mom topped the list.) I just didn't want to assure people of generic prayers, although I told Our Lady that I was praying for "everyone whose name I wish I could recall specifically right now..." That slip of paper got added to the prayer intention box, while I lit two candles in the "Holy Ghost Chapel"--one for my religious family, one for my natural family.

Meanwhile, in the background, I could hear the sound of pilgrims continued, in the light rain, to come in prayer to Mary's house in Walsingham!

No comments: