Last weekend a group of 20 parishioners travelled to Walsingham on pilgrimage and they received an experience that changed their lives for the better. It wasn’t always easy, but there was much fun and laughter along the way. It challenged everyone to think more deeply about things to do with their faith that they had perhaps taken for granted for a long time. Here are some snaps from the weekend. At the end of this post you will find answers to a few of the questions that the weekend raised for an individual or two along the way.
The weekend was such a success that the parish is now trying to arrange a quieter retreat to a monastery in the spring and another pilgrimage to Walsingham next autumn. If you are interested , do get in touch by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the weekend, different people spoke about different things they had experienced. Many found the whole trip inspiring and deeply spiritual. There were a few questions as well. I offer here a few brief explanations to some of these queries in the hope that they may also help the rest of the group. (These are only meant to be a few fleeting thoughts as an aid to further thinking about these subject areas, and certainly not intended to be conclusive or even complete.)
This is about mystery again. Throughout scripture, whenever God is near there is incense to help shield his glory from our un-perfected eyes. Throughout the weekend we joined in with heaven for fleeting moments. God came very close to us, most especially through his Son’s body in the sacrament. Heaven came near. The incense symbolised this and helped us to enter the mystery.
Of course we could have done some of it without the incense. We could have done it all without any of the symbolism, but we would have been left with a bland gathering without much purpose other than going away together. Which would have been a wonderful thing to do, because you are all wonderful folk, but it wouldn’t have moved us much closer to God, just further away from home.
2) Why did all the priests robe and sit at the front for services?
This is fundamentally a matter of theological understanding of priesthood. God creates us to be unique and calls each of us to different roles for the good ordering of his Church – which is his master-plan for the salvation of the world. Some of us are called into the common priesthood of all believers and some are called to ordained priesthood. The trouble is, society today often tries to suppress difference. We are told everyone can be whatever they want to be and our culture encourages us to take as many short cuts as we can get away with. This can make it difficult to accept the difference between the common priesthood that we all share and the ordained priesthood, that only some are called to.
But, whilst I can nurse a small cut, I need a trained nurse to administer a stitch and I certainly wouldn’t want an untrained surgeon operating on me. It reassures me if my surgeon is dressed like a surgeon and occasionally, if it’s a big job, a group of surgeons is helpful. Or to put it another way; I am a dentist in so much as I try and care for my teeth on a daily basis. But I also regularly need a dental hygienist to do a proper job and I also need a dental surgeon to do some repair work. It also helps me to engage in the right way with my dentist if they are dressed like a dentist.
Why should the care of our souls be any different? What priests wear is a symbol of something beyond themselves. We all share a common priesthood in Christ (a priesthood of service and devotion), but he calls some to be ordained in the Spirit to a special kind of priesthood (one of oversight, to order His Church and keep it authentic and healthy). Ordained priests draw their ‘Spirit’ of priesthood from Jesus’ high priesthood in heaven. Priests robing and joining together in worship to celebrate the Eucharist (thanksgiving) together is a symbol and recognition of that calling. Priests stand offering the people’s prayers up to heaven and as conduits for God’s sacramental grace on earth. The most significant part of an ordained priest’s unique calling is seen in and through the sacraments. So there can be no greater recognition of unity in that calling than to concelebrate with other ordained priests at the Eucharist together – the unifying sacrament of the church. And because the priest is a representation of the wider body it is also a celebration and symbol of the common priesthood we all share as God’s holy people.
3) Why did we process behind an effigy of Mary?
Words are not always enough. Words limit us as much as they enlighten us. That is why we meet Jesus in word and sacrament every Sunday and not just in words. Symbols and actions can speak louder and more profoundly than words. Walsingham is built upon a visitation of Mary. For centuries the well at this place has been associated with healing as a result. It is a place of pilgrimage and the act of pilgrimage has also been proven to help with spiritual healing too.
We processed around the grounds because all processions symbolise our life-long pilgrimage in faith. It was a mini-pilgrimage, if you like. We processed with an effigy of Mary, because the depiction of Mary helps us to re-live the blessed visitation of Mary to Walsingham hundreds of years ago. So, in a symbolic and spiritual sense, processing with an effigy of Mary helped remind us that Mary, and all the Saints and Angels, accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage. If we only had eyes perfected enough by faith, we would see them in their true form accompanying us as we journey on and lighting our path. But for now, an effigy will have to do.
4) Why did we pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament?
God sent his Son Jesus as the most perfect representation of himself on earth, to show us the way to live and to open to us the route back into relationship with God and the promise of eternal life.
Before his death, Christ gave us the Eucharist as the ongoing gift of himself. ‘This is my body’.
One of his few commands to his disciples before his death is to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. (The Greek word used for remembrance does not mean a remembering of a past event, but the living of a past event in the present moment).
After he is raised from the dead, Jesus reveals the meaning of the scriptures to his disciples, but the disciples only recognise him in the breaking of bread.
So in the bread of the Eucharist (called the Blessed Sacrament) we see Christ’s body and we recall all that God has done through Christ for our salvation.
So we pray in front of it, because what better focus can there be for our prayers?
5) Why did we process behind the Blessed Sacrament?
A symbol of pilgrimage again. Mary always leads us to Jesus. Mary reveals her son, our saviour. Having Mary accompany us on our pilgrimage earlier in the weekend, we ended it by seeing Jesus (in the sacrament) and following him where he wished us to go. We finished by basking in his presence and kneeling in prayer before him.