To be a Pilgrim
by Mr. John Hartley
A close relative of my wife recently celebrated his 80th birthday in Norfolk. The hotel we stayed at was deliberately chosen on account of its proximity to Walsingham. It was a windless, cloudy and dry November day when we visited the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – destroyed and desecrated by Henry VIII in 1538 with the dissolution of the monasteries, but brought back to life in 1931, ninety years ago.
Although my wife and I had been on pilgrimage to the one-thousand-year-old shrine forty years ago, we found that little had changed, except that, on this occasion, the place was almost deserted. Everywhere was quiet – the Slipper Chapel, the Anglican shrine, the Holy Mile. The silence and solitude, especially when praying the rosary on the Holy Mile, enabled us to reflect and meditate, unaffected by the crowds which characterise Walsingham in the summer. As we walked the Holy Mile from Walsingham to the Slipper Chapel, it kept striking me that, although we hadn't come to Walsingham on a pilgrimage, pilgrims, nevertheless, we were – and not just pilgrims for the day.
If, in our lives on this earth, we were able to grasp more fully the reality that, unlike animals, we humans are pilgrims, many of the worries and anxieties that assail us would fall away. Recognising that we are pilgrims, and that we are on the way to somewhere, would make all the difference when distress, depression or difficulties intrude into our lives. In the play “As you like it” Shakespeare declares that “All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players”. On the face of it, this assertion seems to be true: we seem to be creatures of no ultimate consequence. But this does not square with the concept of our being pilgrims with a pre-determined destination. Luke, in his gospel, portrays the ministry of Jesus as a journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the Holy City, where his destination lies and is to be fulfilled. When Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus replied by saying, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Jesus, then, is our journey's destination, as Jerusalem, metaphorically, was his.
It so happened that, just a fortnight before the 80th birthday celebrations of my wife's relative, his 53-year-old son died unexpectedly. Despite the unbearable sorrow at the loss of his son that he and his wife (the young man's mother) were experiencing while we were in Norfolk, that sorrow – almost miraculously – was somehow suspended by the realisation in Walsingham that we were pilgrims on a meaningful journey, and that, even the death of a son in his prime, awful though it was, could be seen in the perspective of its being part of that journey.
Adapting the words of John Bunyan, Percy Dearmer writes in the last verse of his hymn “He who would valiant be”:
Since, Lord, thou dost defend
us with thy Spirit,
we know we at the end
shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
I'll fear not what they say,
I'll labour night and day
to be a pilgrim.
How blessed we are to have been given Walsingham as a reminder that we are indeed walking this life as pilgrims!