The idea for this blog began on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2016. I had decided to walk from my home to the village of Preston St. Mary. I usually try to walk the local lanes and footpaths every day, and often combine it with saying a rosary.
Since I moved from South London to Suffolk a few months ago, an idea had been slowly forming in my head. I would walk as much as possible, exploring the countryside around my home. Ironically, I discovered that this was actually easier in south London, as there seemed to be far more footpaths around there! Here there are a few footpaths, but you generally have to walk on roads. This is usually fine on the back roads as there are very few cars. Anyway, the idea that was forming wasn’t just to walk, it was to walk with a purpose.
Since my first visit to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham last year, I had become aware of the extensive network of Marian shrines and churches dedicated to Mary in East Anglia. The town nearest to where I live, Sudbury, itself had a Marian shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Harvest, and in medieval times a procession with the statue of Mary and child would take place every year on the Feast of the Assumption through the town. People would wave sheaves of corn as they went.
The church of St. Gregory in Sudbury housed the statue, and it was built by Simon of Sudbury, who was beheaded in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. It is likely that the shrine would have been a stop on the pilgrim’s route to Walsingham, or to the shrine of King Edmund at Bury St. Edmunds.
I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the fascinating book Shrines of Our Lady in England by Anne Vail at Walsingham last year, and it sparked a desire in me to make my own pilgrimages to the shrines and churches dedicated to Our Lady.
One passage in particular has stuck with me the last few months as I have walked around my part of Suffolk. In her chapter on Ipswich Anne Vail talks about the Viking presence in this part of the world. She says:
“When the Danish invaders first reached the east coast of England in the ninth century, they recognised in the extraordinary atmosphere of the area some unearthly quality which caused them to refer to ‘selig Suffolk’ – holy Suffolk. In later centuries, the wealth of the Suffolk wool traders encouraged the building of numerous churches, many of which remain. There is a saying that, wherever the traveller finds himself in Suffolk, there is always a church in view.”
I recognised that quality too. The gently rolling hills and fields, the quality of the light, especially at the coast, and the skies as the sun sets – there is something undeniably peaceful and holy, almost a Marian quality to the area! Those who have a devotion to Our Lady will understand what I mean. You only have to light a candle at a shrine like Our Lady of Good Counsel at Clare Priory and be still for a while to feel it – the strength and serenity of Our Blessed Mother.
And yet, a sadness is undeniably part of this discovery too. To feel Mary’s presence is also to feel her loss, her absence. It’s not just that we have turned our back on our mother, it’s that for most of us we have actively scorned her, been embarassed by her and her Son. Even as I walk with my plastic rosary in hand, I feel self-conscious that someone will see me with it. Trying to live a faith in a place and time like this is always going to be setting yourself at odds with the culture, but that is fine. What I find sad is how viciously and completely the popular piety that built these shrines and churches should have been swept away and replaced with – well, with what? A flattened, disenchanted, empire of discontent.
The secular consumerism of the modern world is one thing. My friend Roger Buck shows how the Anglosphere pervades almost everywhere in his excellent book The Gentle Traditionalist. He lives in Ireland and is able to see remnants of the faith as lived and part of the culture there in a way that it’s just not possible to see in England. But it’s being attacked. Look at what Soros is doing. But as I say, that is one thing. Persecution by extremists is another.
In the few weeks leading up to my small pilgrimage on the Assumption, Christians had been attacked and killed for the faith in many countries. So had the wrong types of Muslims, and people of other faiths or no faith, it is important to add. But certain events such as the beheading of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar in Normandy made me shiver at the openness with which the demonic forces were willing to conduct their assaults on the Church.
As I walked and prayed, I reflected on this, and started to realise that my walks could become part of something larger, something Mary had requested at various places over the last 150 years – places like the Rue du Bac, Lourdes, Fatima, Akita and so on. And that is to pray the rosary and do penance.
The pilgrimages to places of Marian worship could become small offerings, ways of sanctifying others, of sanctifying the land, the people, and they could begin to reactivate the awareness of this land as Our Lady’s Dowry again.
There are many medieval churches in this county, and walking around them I became aware that they were like giant spiritual energy centres or powerhouses, now largely powerless or at least dormant. But they can be awoken! Our Lady wishes to use the faith that was once so strong in this country to wake people up, and alert them to the dangers approaching. Through prayer and penance we can change the culture, change the direction that we are heading.
So this blog is going to be a record of the pilgrimages that I do, and I would like it to host guest posts from people who want to do something similar where they live. If you are a Catholic willing to do a small pilgrimage/s and document it here I would love to hear from you – leave a comment below. Ideally we would have a network of English Catholics all making small prayerful journeys to Marian places of worship or shrines as a powerful spiritual offensive against the evil forces which grow daily ever more blatant. Of course this would hopefully help us all to grow in holiness ourselves! Please let me know if you can help in some way.