The pilgrimage you don’t know you’re on until you get there is the best kind! Yesterday I made a journey for entirely mundane reasons, only to realise I had ended up in the exact place that I had been wanting to make the object of a pilgrimage for a long time.
Bear with me on this post – it does sound a bit like the sort of thing Alan Partridge might tell his PA Lynn!
Yesterday was a difficult day for my wife Lisa. Our daughter Lucia had been awake in the night and whilst I had slept in the spare room because I had work the next morning, Lisa was awake most of the night with Lucia. Consequently when I got home in the early afternoon, Lisa was very much in need of a break!
I took Lucia out for a drive to give her mum some space and in the hope that she would have a nap, which she did. I had a vague plan to go to a retail park and have a look around the John Lewis department store there. As I drove with the little one asleep in the back I realised I didn’t really know the way to this store; I knew I had to go on the ring road around Ipswich, but not much more than that. Anyway, I obviously missed the turning, as I ended up driving into the centre of Ipswich. Not having done this before, I drove aimlessly along in the mid-afternoon traffic, with a vague idea that I would park somewhere near the town centre, and wait for my daughter to wake up before doing a bit of shopping.
So far, so Alan Partridge. But actually, the mundanity of the journey is a key part of its importance for me. The Marian Option is about, or one of the key things about it is, that we don’t need to retreat from public spaces, from the everyday, or form communities away from mainstream society – in fact it is about an inner change of attitude which can transform your relationship to the everyday.
When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego she clothed herself in the customs and garb of the culture. She appeared as a young Mestiza woman, not as an impersonal supernatural being, and she evangelised that culture at a rate not seen before or since. We need to be like the Virgin of Guadalupe, bringing Christ to our culture, preserving the best aspects and building on that basis, but not imposing something alien on it. Grace building on nature.
Philosophically, this may pose difficulties. If Rene Guenon and others are right, then we in the West are so far along the ‘Kali Yuga’ that there is very little in the culture that is not corrupt. The ‘Reign of Quantity’ is almost total. In other words, the modern world has as a fundamental principle the reduction of all phenomena to the quantitative, and everything is to be understood in this light. For example Guenon says:
“the profane sciences of which the modern world is so proud are really and truly only the degenerate ‘residues’ of the ancient traditional sciences, just as quantity itself, to which they strive to reduce everything, is, when considered from their special point of view, no more than the ‘residue’ of an existence emptied of everything that constituted its essence; thus these pretended sciences, by leaving aside or even intentionally eliminating all that is truly essential, clearly prove themselves incapable of furnishing the explanation of anything whatsoever. “
Faced with such a mindset which has pervaded the entire modern world, even into the sanctuaries of its temples, would it not be best to abjure all contact with modern culture and do what some say the ‘Benedict Option’ is all about – ride out the storm in enclosed communities, preserving what is True, Good and Beautiful and saving it for a future world?
This smacks slightly of Gnosticism to me. Understood correctly, Christ’s mission was about giving to the man in the street what before he could only get in the Temple – and that is bound to involve getting your hands dirty.
Anyway, I decided to park up in the first car park I found in the town centre, which was called The Spiral. It is an unusual one in that it winds down underground, with cars parked on either side of one spiralling tunnel. I parked and waited for Lucia to wake up. As I sat with nothing to occupy me, I began to pray a rosary, and with the beads passing through my hands, and my thoughts focused on the sorrowful mysteries, my mind began to enter a contemplative mode.
I realised that I had passed the classic mythological threshold of adventure and peril – the descent into the earth. Maybe Dante didn’t have in mind the entrance to the inferno in a car park in East Anglia, but you have to make do with what you have sometimes.
Of course, Dante had his guide Virgil to lead him through the danger, and I had my guide, the Blessed Mother to aid me as I began my daily effort at battling my vices with the graces obtained from that most powerful of prayers.
At the back of my mind I was also aware of something else that I had wanted to do for the last few months, ever since my imagination was fired by reading about the Marian shrines of East Anglia – and that is to visit the site in Ipswich of an important medieval shrine to Mary on Lady Lane. I wondered if it might be within walking distance.
The shrine of Our Lady of Grace was a very popular medieval shrine, second only in popularity to Walsingham. The first recorded mention of it is from 1152. Ipswich was the only Marian shrine in England dedicated to Our Lady of Grace. The story of this particular shrine is also unusual for it may be that the statue of the Virgin and Child still survives in Italy, unlike most of the other English medieval shrine statues.
When I finished my rosary I had a look at the map. The Spiral appeared to be almost directly underneath Lady Lane! When Lucia woke I put her in the buggy and ascended, crossing another car park above ground and, there it was; Lady Lane.
The lane runs between discount stores, and is entirely devoid of any Marian shrine now, unfortunately. However, the statue and plaque are there to indicate where the shrine once was. I bent down to show Lucia the statue; she pointed and said ‘Mary and Jesus!’. I said a quick Hail Mary and thanked Our Lady for her mediation of God’s grace. Amidst the difficulties and strains of life I am often guilty of rushing past the sacred spaces of my life, or of just paying them lip-service. Forgetting all the ways God’s grace blesses me, or believing that I can somehow merit it. This surprise pilgrimage was a reminder that all the good things in my life have come unbidden – the best I can do is make myself worthy to receive them.
So it is possible to still feel something of a Marian presence, in this alleyway, under a statue ignored as most people rush by to shop. That shouldn’t really be the case I suppose, certainly it takes a stretch of the imagination to think of the medieval street and the shrine which held royal weddings, and was visited by , to name a few, Henry VIII, Wolsey and Thomas More. But knowing the story behind the statue and the plaque helps a lot to counter the brutalist surroundings. They occupy some small piece of space not under ownership by private interests for commercial reasons, like their surroundings, but are signs, reminders of the sacred that makes possible secular space.
It seems to me the Marian Option is asking us not to withdraw from places like shopping centres and high streets, but to quietly, subversively manifest our faith in small ways. Catholics are capable of being counter-cultural witnesses in public spaces entirely given over to consumerism, in times of global homogenisation of cultures, and destruction of local identities. We can validly challenge a culture of death, individualism and neo-liberalism. How?
It is hard for us to understand today the part that Mary played in the medieval economy of grace. Contrary to popular belief, there is considerable (and growing) evidence that the people of rural medieval England had an articulate and sophisticated understanding of the nature and purposes of intercessionary prayer. Although there may have been abuses, when people, in some sense, offered ‘worship’ to images of the Madonna, this was not a general practice, or even a common one. Mary was seen as a focus of prayer; contemporary images of medieval people frequently show them carrying their rosary beads.
To have some understanding of the role of Our Lady in the hearts and minds of medieval Suffolkers, we need to look at the church in southern Europe today.
The spectacular processions, the colourful images, the celebrations and devotions would all have been a part of medieval Suffolk life. Fundamentally, the people of medieval Suffolk, in all their daily trials and tribulations, in the midst of their suffering and expectation of an early death, saw Mary as being on their side.
Churches could certainly quite easily reinstate the Marian processions with all their colour and festivity. In my parish church in Sudbury until quite recently the Harvest procession in August had been reinstated, with the statue of the Madonna and Child being carried around the town in August.
Another way might be ‘Rosary Gardens’ – the Rosary Garden Project show “how to promote prayer and inspire communities to transform outdoor open areas into sacred spaces for social engagement, religious education and prayer. Each stone in a Rosary Garden represents a bead (or prayer) and is designed for walking meditation, contemplative prayer and as a teaching tool for children.”. How great would it be if some more spaces like this could be created in town centres?
Finally, I should mention the original statue, which some believe to be the one pictured above. The story is here:
“In the Italian city of Nettuno, most famous perhaps for its harbour of Anzio, there is a shrine to Our Lady of Grace. There is a story that the image there was brought to Nettuno from England during the Jubilee year of 1550. There is some evidence in the town archives to support this. And the town archives also mention Ipswich.
It wouldn’t be that improbable. Western mainland Europe is full of statues and sculptures produced in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Many of them must have been exported at the time; Nottingham alabaster work, for instance, was greatly prized throughout Europe. But much probably went abroad at the time of the Reformation.
It must be remembered that the Reformation in England placed quite a low priority on the new teachings of Luther and Calvin; they were the job of the theologians. But the state, which enforced the Reformation in England, was more concerned with wresting political power from the church, and enriching itself on the wealth of the churches, shrines and monasteries.
It achieved both of these goals extremely successfully; the first is shown by the fact that there was no religious war in this country, and the second by the fact that the Tudor royal family amassed riches beyond its wildest dreams, much of it to be squandered by Elizabeth I and James I on high living and piratical expeditions to the ‘New World’.
There was no evangelical agenda on behalf of the English state as there would be 100 years later under Oliver Cromwell. It is hard to imagine William Dowsing selling images abroad, but there is a great amount of circumstantial evidence that the cronies of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer in the 1530s and 1540s did exactly this. It was a pragmatic approach; they wanted rid of images, and they wanted to accrue the wealth of the church.
That said, the Nettuno legend records that the statue was rescued from the flames by secretly Catholic sailors, who spirited it safely abroad. I think the sales story outlined above is more likely, though.
The Nettuno image was identified as English as early as 1938 by an historian of 13th century iconography, Martin Gillett. He felt that considerable changes had been made to it; Mary’s head had been replaced, and the posture of the infant Christ changed. The throne (no longer in existence) was a 19th century replacement. But the folds in the material, the features of the Christ child, the position of the infant on the right knee rather than the left, and the carving style, all strongly suggest an English origin.”
There, slightly more interesting than one of Alan Partridge’s monologues I hope.