To Be a Pilgrim | Homily 1 at Shrine of OLW

Homily given at the beginning of the St. Asaph Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (11th July, St. Benedict’s Day)

I wanted to spend this first homily reflecting a little on what it means to go on pilgrimage – what makes this different from your average holiday to lovely Norfolk? It might seem simple, but profoundly important, that the difference is God. We have set out on a journey with a divine purpose – a journey transformed by God’s purpose for us. God has brought you to Walsingham, Jesus has led you, as he promised, to the streams of living water that flow gently through this unassuming village.

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-Walsingham.jpgAs we set out on this pilgrimage, the great Christian writers of the tradition remind us that, in a sense, our whole identity as Christians is as a pilgrim people. In our hearts, the follower of Christ is always a pilgrim – a stranger, a sojourner on the earth, always seeking after a more than earthly homeland, yearning for an heavenly country. In coming to Walsingham, we enact this journey in miniature – we glimpse our heavenly homeland and receive fresh vision and strength for the journey onwards. The importance of pilgrimage can be traced back all the way through the Scriptures – think of the Exodus: Israel’s journey out of slavery, pursued by the Egyptians, down through the Red Sea and coming up into the wilderness. Think of that extraordinary time in the wilderness, led by Moses, together a community with God before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – before, at last, they reach the Promised Land.

I’m constantly amazed how closely this seems to resemble our own life’s pilgrimage and what we encounter on our way to the heavenly homeland. That first call of Moses who dares the Israelites to break free and dream of a new future – this is the point of stirring, repenting, yearning to follow Christ and become more fully alive. The Israelites follow this desire but they are pursued – whenever we seek to follow Christ, our guilt and sin and failing follow us down the Way – but then, water. Water which looks like death but they come through it and see their sins drowned. This is the type of a Christian baptism – even today, the priest at a baptism says:

Through water you led the children of Israel
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.

But our baptism, momentous as it is, is not the end of the story – we don’t come up from the water into glory! Baptism instils in us a yearning for the kingdom, but we are still in the wilderness – led by God! All this is there in that great hymn, Guide Me O thou great  Redeemer. What better hymn for being in Walsingham – ‘Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow’. Think back to the Exodus – the very rock which impeded the Israelites journey is struck and through it they find water. The same is true for us – bring to the shrine the rocks that prevent your journey with Christ – bring your sins, your doubts, your dilemmas about the future, bring your loved ones and those you struggle to love – bring them here and pray that for them, in them and through them, the crystal fountain might be opened.

We ought to think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage – a journey made together, following the Lord, with so great a promise beyond it. This counterbalances the image of the Christian as arrogantly presuming to be better than others; an image of static perfection that says to the outside world, ‘now I’ve made it, I can look down on you and tell you what to do because I’ve made it’. This is not Christian, this is false. As the young man in our reading discovers, there are always new depths and new adventures – even for those who have followed the commandments from their youth. As pilgrims, we have know in our hearts how much we have to learn – Christians can never stop growing, discovering, changing, repenting and entering more and more into the mystery of the divine life. Christian faith is an invitation to adventure – travelling – pilgrimage. There’s a reason we baptise with scallop shells, the symbol of pilgrimage.

I pray that our time in Walsingham may be a true pilgrimage – filled with laughter and love – a time to reflect on the rocks which weigh us down and to pray for discernment for the future. God has dreams for you – he longs for you to draw near to him, to learn from Mary and say yes to the next stage of your pilgrimage. Here, in this shrine, in which, for 1000 years, Mary has brought people closer to her Son; where God’s grace has been tangible and prayer valid – here, in England’s Nazareth – discover God afresh and be transformed.

To help in your reflections, I have printed off a sonnet from Malcolm Guite for you to meditate on. I will read it now and hopefully we will then have a moment to meditate on it.

Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.

Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection.
by Malcolm Guite (see his website here)

Silence and Honey Cakes: On Vocation and Pentecost

As we await the coming of the Spirit of God on Pentecost Sunday, I wanted to share another story from the desert fathers and mothers (from 5th century Egypt) – this one was taught to me by my spiritual director in a recent conversation on vocation.

pentecost1
The wind and flame of Pentecost coming down on Our Lady and the Apostles

Abba Asenius was a monk in the Egyptian desert. Before he heard the call of the monastery he was a great civil servant in Constantinople and a tutor in the imperial household. As a monk he was highly educated and cultivated, renowned for his true humility. At the same time, in the same community in fact, there was another monk called Moses the Black. Before Abba Moses’ vocation to the monastic life, he was a highwayman.

One day, a visitor went to the community in which Abba Asenius and Moses were monks and asked to see Asenius ‘the foreigner’. After refusing food in his eagerness to visit Asenius, one of the brothers of the community agreed to take the visitor to the place in the hills where Asenius lived in isolation. When they arrived at the door of Abba Asenius, they were received in an awkward silence and no words were spoken – after a while, the brother who had accompanied our visitor left, and the visitor followed behind because he was uncomfortable.

The visitor then asked the brother, ‘Please take me to Abba Moses who was a highwayman’. And the brother agreed. When they arrived at the cell of Moses the Black, they were received with warmth and greeted with great delight by Abba Moses.

After their conversation had finished, the brother said to the visitor, ‘I’ve taken you to see Asenius and Moses, which do you prefer?’ he then added, ‘I prefer Abba Moses’. This conversation was overheard by an older brother, who was troubled by it and turned to prayer, asking, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me. For your sake, one brother flees human beings and for your sake the other receives human beings with open arms.’ In answer, the Lord showed him a vision:

Two large boats were shown to him floating on a river. In one, Abba Asenius sits with the Holy Spirit in silent contemplation. In the other boat, Moses the Black and the angels are singing and eating honey cakes.


Silence and honey cakes. Two distinct callings, two different responses to human contact and the wisdom of the desert affirms them both. Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God! There is a related story from the tradition of the desert fathers, which I love, which talks about Abba Anthony the Great. One day he was praying in his cell; after a lifetime of constant devotion, prayer, asceticism and solitude, he was told by an angel that there was an unknown man in the nearby city who was his spiritual equal. Abba Anthony was then shown a vision of a doctor who, unknown to everyone, gave his money to the poor and everyday in his simple private prayers he sung the Sanctus with the angels.

Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God!

St. Paul tells us ‘there are variety of gifts but the same Spirit’. These stories bear witness to this, they remind us that there is no standardised form or manner of holiness and I believe the Church has to relearn this ancient lesson. A man doing his job simply, with no visible signs of extraordinary holiness, nothing which would commend him to others, would be so easily dismissed by the Church – often this is because people like this refuse to blow their own trumpet and just go about quietly, singing with the angels, or it’s because, like Asenius, they may seem to be standoffish or rude. Since I began the process of discerning my vocation – first to the priesthood and, in recent times, the stirrings of a calling to the religious life – I have come across a ubiquitous attitude in the Church that these are in 11891224_10205974995032008_4875761879475083176_nsome ways higher vocations or, God forbid, that priesthood and religious life constitute all that God calls people to do and everyone else just passively sits in church! This is completely false; silence and honey cakes – the Church needs it all and, whatever people say, the Church needs all of its members equally. God desires the Lord Bishops as much as he desires that annoying person who talks during every Mass to be members of his Body. The Church is the Body of Christ, where every single person, by the grace of baptism, is an equal member of Him who fills ‘all in all’.

It is a source of some sadness that the Body of Christ is so often full of people make judgements about one another – do this much for the Church, why can’t so-and-so do more? She never really does anything, I’m not even sure why she’s here. He doesn’t even really believe, I don’t think, he’s just here because his wife drags him. Oh, it’s only really the priests who understand, the people in the pews just lap up what she says (I’ve actually heard an ordinand say this). The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood better than most how ridiculous these judgements are.

You can never know the inner workings of another person or how God is working in their life. In the face of another human face, we must keep silent before the mystery of the other – the imago Dei, a unique human person who God is calling to participate in his divine life. We are not the same, some of us have been created for silence, others for the revelry of honey cakes; some for the dignity of priesthood, some for the unsung joy of doing the flowers on a Saturday afternoon; a few are called to the holy habit of religion, others to the spiritual joy of family life. Only when we stand back before the mystery of the other, acknowledging that God calls and forms all his people, will we ever give enough room for others to grow as God wills.

On the Feast of Pentecost this Sunday, we await the final consummation of the Paschal mysteries – the Risen, Ascended Christ pours out the Holy Spirit of God to make the Church his body on Earth. In the silent spaces of our hearts, the Spirit works in all who participate in the Paschal mysteries through baptism and the Eucharist. Our job is to find space in our local churches and in the Universal Church for all people to grow as God wills.

This is all said with the brevity and spiritual insight of a desert father by Malcolm Guite in his sonnet, The Last Beatitude:

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

+ Pray for us Ss. Asenius, Moses and Anthony, that we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ! +