A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 7 October 2007

In Search Of God Knows What

I'm fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage. Indeed, without being too pretentious about it, I've always regarded many of the walks I've done and journeys I've made as pilgrimages of sorts. However their real meaning or, if you like, spiritual significance often doesn't become clear until long after the event.

During our Norfolk weekend we visited Walsingham. In the Middle Ages this was second only to Canterbury as England's greatest pilgrim destination. Walsingham became a shrine in 1061 when Richeldis de Faverches, a local well to-do widow, received a vision of the Virgin Mary, who revealed to her the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation had taken place and where the Holy Family had lived after the birth of Jesus. To quote from James Harpur's book Sacred Tracks (2002):

The vision of the Holy House was repeated two more times, and the Virgin instructed Richeldis to memorize its dimensions and to build a replica on her estate. Richeldis was not sure where to locate the shrine, until one morning she woke to see what she interpreted as a divine sign: on one of her fields were two rectangular dry patches in the heavy dew. Having to choose between the two spots, she told her workmen to raise the wooden structure on the one nearest two wells. But as hard as they tried the builders could not get their structure to fit the space. Disgruntled after a day of frustration, they left their tools and materials on the ground and went home. That night Richeldis prayed for guidance, and as she did so the Virgin and her angels erected the house on the other patch - much to the astonishment of the workers when they discovered it next morning.

Walsingham came to grief in 1538 during the Reformation, and the priory to which the shrine was attached became a ruin. Only one elegant arch remains (see photo). However its revival began in the late 19th century, and now people come from all over the world to visit both its Anglican and its Catholic shrines. Despite the odd shop selling Mary-memorabilia and general tourist tat, this historic village is essentially peaceful and unspoilt. We loved it there and will go again. I'd like to retrace the route known to the medieval pilgrims (many kings and queens of England among their number) as the Walsingham Way - popularly called The Milky Way, which was also a name for the Way of St James, the famous Camino pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Remember that Bunuel film?

Apart from Harpur's book mentioned above, I'd recommend, out of the many, many books on the subject, Nicholas Shrady's Sacred Roads: Adventure from the Pilgrimage Trail (Penguin Books, 2000) and Jonathan Sumption's Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion (Faber & Faber, 1975). I also very much enjoyed On Pilgrimage: A Time to Seek by Jennifer Lash. In 1986 Lash learned she had cancer, and after a painful operation embarked on a solitary pilgrimage through France to Santiago. She died in 1993. She was a remarkable woman. She had 7 children; 2 of them were the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.


am said...

Following your link on Jennifer Lash, I found this:

"A star may be sharp and full of pain, but it may also be a guide, a useful companion on a dark night."

Thanks so much, solitary walker!

Andy Howell said...

Thanks also. I'll follow some of that stuff through.

John Hee said...

all gone quiet?

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry everyone for the lack of posts lately. I haven't died; I'm not ill; I'm not even tired of blogging. I'm just walking. I made a last minute decision to walk the pilgrim route, Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, from Le Puy in France to Santiago in Spain. More than 1500km! Today I'm taking a rest day in Eauze after 3 weeks on the trail. Need to sort out these wretched far-too-narrow new Scarpas. All will be revealed in these blog pages at some point. It's difficult to find Internet access, and hard to compose mellifluous blogscript with hundreds of French people shouting and smoking at your elbow in some cyber-bar. Weather good so far (only 2 hours of rain). The mornings can be misty - but by afternoon it's all sun and blue skies. I'll be able to see the Pyrenees soon. Only a week till the Spanish border. Keep the faith and watch this space.

am said...

Looking forward to hearing about your walking on the pilgrim route.

am said...

Had a dream that you had posted something about your walking trip but in the dream I didn't have time to read it.

Funny to check your blog this morning and realize that I had checked your blog in a dream!

The Solitary Walker said...

Mmm... uncanny! Difficult sometimes to find Internet access along the Way. Having a rest day in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before tackling the Pyrenean crossing tomorrow. It's cold and could snow. Will be glad to cross the border and reach Spain. It's been a wonderful and profound experience so far. will have much to write about. But later.

Loren said...

Envy your long walk, but I'm looking forward to your revelations when you finally get back.