Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage by Michael Rear

2011/2019 | Gracewing | 398 pages | Softback | ISBN: 978-0-85244-944-8

Reviewed by Canon Paul Greenwell, Master of Hull Charterhouse master@thecharterhouse.karoo.co.uk

This lovely book is a must-read for all who love Walsingham – and what is there not to love?! This is a new and revised edition of Fr Rear’s definitive book, originally published in 2011 to mark the 950th anniversary of the foundation of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. As a former Vicar of Walsingham and now the Roman Catholic chaplain of the University of Suffolk, Fr Rear certainly knows and loves his subject from both an Anglican and RC perspective. He shows meticulous research and has a fluent style of writing. This book will certainly become the standard work on pilgrims and pilgrimage to England’s Nazareth.

This second edition brings the story of Walsingham up to date, for as the author makes clear, Walsingham’s Shrine is not just a site of historical interest but a living vibrant ‘thin’ place where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors make their way each year just as our forebears did in times past. As the hymn puts it, ‘These stones that have echoed their praises are holy and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod; yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims, and still they were seeking the city of God’. In Walsingham, we glimpse most fully a foretaste of that heavenly city – every visit is a meeting and reunion of friends old and new – just as it will be at journey’s end. No wonder we can’t keep away from this place.

Pilgrimage here can be a significant moment in people’s lives – an occasion for renewal of faith, an opportunity for repentance, an encounter with Jesus, Son of Mary and Son of God; a turning point on life’s journey. Perhaps this is why in these days of deep spiritual hunger and yearning, people flock to Walsingham.

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols says, ‘The Shrine of Walsingham is part of the rich tapestry of this island. It is a powerful part of the landscape of faith’. As the Tablet says, ‘This book is a fascinating account of the rise, destruction and revival of England’s greatest Marian shrine...it is handsomely illustrated and infused with the devotional spirit of the place’.

Again, in an exciting new development the book chronicles the recent possible re-discovery of the medieval image of Our Lady crowned by King Henry III and dating to 1220-30. Could this ‘Langham Madonna’ now in the Victoria and Albert Museum really be the original image enshrined in the ancient Holy House? Have a good read of this article and examine the photograph carefully and decide for yourself. How exciting is all this?!

The present venerated image of Our Lady of Walsingham copied by Fr Hope Patten from the medieval seal of the Priory has in recent years been taken to Cathedrals around the country. The enormous eager and excited crowds who gather to welcome the Image in each place show the close connection of Walsingham to our nation highlighted so powerfully in the recent visit to Westminster Abbey. Our land is truly the Dowry of Mary – a title being renewed in 2020 when England will once again be placed under the protection of Mary and her prayers. ‘Pray O holy Mother of God for the conversion of England’ is our fervent prayer too.

We rejoice with Fr Rear that Walsingham is an important part and sign of the journey Christians are making to deepen the unity desired by Mary’s Son for his Church so we can witness more fully to the truth of the Gospel. The two shrines work and witness together – strengthened by the Ecumenical Covenant they made in 2018.

What better way to prepare prayerfully for the 2020 rededication of our land than a careful reading of Fr Rear’s excellent book by all who love and revere this holy place Our Lady has chosen for her home?

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