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)

Christ the Poetic King (Waldo Williams)

Waldo’s Poem, on which this post is based, is available here.

This week, the Church keeps the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it is properly known. The Feast was institute by the Pontiff in 1925, in response to growing nationalism in Europe and to freshly emphasise Christ’s soveChristtheKing-672x372reign Lordship in the wake of the brutality of the First World War. For us today, the feast is given new significance in the light of the brutal attacks in Paris only last week, the violence of ISIS which has decimated much of Syria and Iraq, and the countless souls who have fled their homes in search of safety and a better life. The death of the innocent, at the whim of those who would use them to further their political aims, takes us straight to the very heart of the Christian
Faith. It takes us to the suffering of Christ on the cross for us. Two thousand years ago, after careful consideration by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, along with the High Priest, it was deemed expedient that Jesus should die. And so he was nailed naked to that famous tree, abused and mocked by soldiers, whilst his friends, in their fear, deserted him. A week ago in Paris and daily in many parts of the world, terrorists and barbaric regimes reach the same conclusion, it would serve their interests for the innocent to die and we are left to weep, just as Our Lady Mary did two thousand years ago, as she stood at the cross and wept as she watched her own son suffer and die.

In our search for understanding, it is the words of Waldo Williams, writing about the time this feast day was inaugurated, to which I turn our attention now. Waldo was the most extraordinary Welsh poet of the 20th century, he stood in the long tradition of bardd gwlad, folk poets, and was a devout Quaker and passionate pacifist, whose poem Mewn Dau Gae (In Two Fields) has had a very profound affect on my faith and understanding of Christ’s kingship. I have printed off a few copies of the poem for you as you leave, it is a short, rich poem and I can scarcely do it justice in a single homily.

But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

The poem begins in a field, workers engaged in a common purpose, yet basked in a light which mystically surrounds and enfolds them. Waldo’s poem is, in many ways, a rapture on the mystical ancient Welsh idea of awen. Awen a word which can only be poorly translated as ‘imagination’, for, in the Welsh poetic tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet and the primordial energy of thought and language, that shared thing which inspires us and binds us together. The poem concerns itself with farmers working in the field but they are elevated by being basked in mysterious light, the power and energy of awen which binds them so closely – awen is the voice at the heart of the universe and it captures them now.

Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice

The awen, the primordial energy, rises from our common purpose, our common working, in  Mewn Dau Gae, this is the hard farm work of the men, but awen is an energy which acts on us all and it calls us, as it does to these farmers, to recognise the fundamental truths of the universe and to recognise our fundamental and inseparable unity. This awen is the very power of unity, capable of drawing all things together and overcoming the lesser things which separate us. Awen is, for Waldo, the Spirit of Christ the King, who creates and saves us. These are the two fields of Waldo’s poem – one, the earthly sphere and the other the heavenly – but the light of awen binds and unites them. For Waldo, the world of heaven is not a distinct, far-off reality but is spilling into earth, blurring the lines and, by the awen, the Word of God, lifting us to taste the first fruits of its dawning. The glory of heaven, where peace and unity will reign, is overflowing into human community, into that field ‘full of folk’ as Waldo puts it, and the result is transformative.

Then the poet asks:
So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life?

And the pilgrim clouds and the rustlings reeds give answer to the question, the King is life of every life and memory of every memory, the King is the awen. The  primordial nature of the whole universe is nothing less than a poetic utterance from the mouth of God himself, the same God and King who longs for the victory of unity over fragmentation, longs for the fulfilment of creation when the King comes again in shameless glory to make real the unity of heaven and earth.

Waldo’s understanding of Christ as a poet and the universe as his poem leads him to understand creation as the masterpiece of that cosmic poet from whom all being and beauty flow. This understanding of Christ’s poetic kingship led Waldo to become a passionate pacifist, even being imprisoned for refusing to pay income tax during the Korean war. He was a peacemaker but an aggressive peacemaker, who never withdrew from conflict but believed that the peaceful imperative was worth fighting for, but never with guns and violence but with words and protest. He was passionate only for the peace and flourishing of all people – he joined Christ the poet-king in seeking to wrestle with those powers of fragmentation in the world – a man passionate for peace, willing to wage peace with all the energy which we are so happy to waste waging war.

who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

Waldo knows that the creative force of Christ the King and the work of his saints is to sweep away everything which divides and fragments because what is primary is what connects us one to the other, the awen comes first, the Word of God which is the speech which underlies our very being. To unite is to complete the work of creation, unity is true power and it is Christ’s work in the world. We can think of St. Paul’s famous words that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek but the a prior, fuller, richer unity.

When I was a child, it was my favourite game to embarrass my mother by shouting ‘I’m not with her, I’m not with her!’ whenever she tried to hustle me somewhere I didn’t want to go, she would go bright red and people would look at us suspiciously. Mission accomplished, as far as I was concerned. But, Waldo, and I think he’s right, believed it is more than a childhood game but a near-universal tendency to say ‘they’re not with me’ or ‘I’m not with him’. We see it in our own day, in those who would banish Muslims from our island or close our borders to those who come to our shores in desperate need of help – to cry, ‘they don’t belong with us’ is such an easy, human thing to do. Yet Christians, Waldo believed, have a moral duty to fight against this universal tendency. For Christians, the only faithful response to those who are ‘other’ from us is to say, ‘you belong with us and we belong with you’. And this means, especially for us as Christians, a particular belief that we belong alongside the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.

In the final and most beautiful stanza of Waldo’s poem, Jesus is described as the ‘the exiled king’ and it this image which reflects so beautifully the kingship of Christ in Waldo’s vision. Christ, the Word of God, is the awen – he is the energy which unites us and the one who creates us and longs for us to realise the perfection of his image within us. In Christ, the exiled king, God is emphatically one with us, he is literally born as one of us, he is willing to die as one of us, in order to show us that our true place of belonging is with him for all eternity. Christ does away with all the visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to ‘take the form of a servant’, to become one with us in our lowliness, in order that we might become on with him and one with one another. If all humanity is one in Christ, then we all belong together because we belong in him.

As I knelt in prayer for two hours last Saturday morning for the people affected by the Paris attacks, with many members of our Chapel community coming and going and the news reports still pounding in my ears, I grew increasingly aware that I was in the presence of the ‘exiled king’, who became one of us and hung helpless on a Roman cross. The people of Paris, and those whose lives were irreversibly scarred by those events were in the midst of deepest, blackest, Good Friday when the world seems utterly fragmented, where nothing makes sense and the unity of the mythical awen seems so far away – yet we assert that Good Friday is not the end of the story and, as the death toll rose and our hearts sank, there were glimpses of light and hope. There were glimpses of hope in the people who protected the Mosques of Paris as Muslims prayed, preventing any violent backlash against the Islamic community; hope in the Christians who gathered at the shrine of Our Lady of Paris to ask the Blessed Mother, who watched helplessly the suffering of her Son, to pray for them; hope in the people across the would who were reminded of our common humanity, and I felt a renewed longing for peace.

All these people, including us who gathered on Saturday morning, reasserted, in the very face of death and destruction, that Good Friday is not the end of the story – that the awen will one day sweep away the discordant fragments of our broken world and our unity under Christ will be revealed. His kingship will be made manifest and all other power will be subjected to Christ’s rule of love. This feast day, as on every Sunday and across the world, we are gathering both to weep and to hope – to weep for our brokenness and to hope that the exiled king will return and the poem of creation will be completed. And it is our hope and our prayer, watered by tears, which ascend to the very throne of the Crucified King and his kingdom draws near.

for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

– Amen – 

Between Two Fields (Mewn Dau Gae) – Waldo Williams

Between Two Fields (Mewn Dau Gae) – Waldo Williams
Translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams

My reflections on this poem can be found here

Waldo_memorial
The Waldo Williams Memorial

These two fields a green sea-shore, the tide spilling
radiance across them, and who knows
where such waters rise? And I’d had years
in a dark land, looking: where did it, where did he
come from then? Only he’d been there
all along. Who though? who
was this marksman loosing off bolts
of sudden light? One and the same the lightning
hunter across the field, the hand to tilt
and spill the sea, who from the vaults
above the bright-voiced whistlers, the keen darting plovers,
brought down on me such quiet, such

Quiet: enough to rouse me. Up to that day
nothing had worked but the hot sun to get me going,
stir up drowsy warm verses: like blossom
on gorse that crackles in the ditches, or
like the army of dozy rushes, dreaming
of clear summer sky. But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

Clouds: big clouds, pilgrims, refugees,
red with the evening sun of a November storm.
Down where the fields divide, and ash and maple
cluster, the wind’s sound, the sound of the deep,
is an abyss of silence. So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life? who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

And on the silent sea-floor of these fields,
his people stroll. Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice, call it the poet’s
as it was for some of us, the little group
who’d been all day mounting assault
against the harvest with our forks, dragging
the roof-thatch over the heavy meadow. So near,
we came so near then to each other, the quiet huntsman
spreading his net around us.
Listen! you can
just catch his whistling, hear it?

Whistling, across the centuries of blood
on the grass, and the hard light of pain; whistling
only your heart hears. Who was it then, for God’s sake?
mocking our boasts, tracking our every trail and slipping past
all our recruiting sergeants? Don’t you know?
says the whistling, Don’t you remember?
don’t you recognise? it says; until we do.
And then, our ice age over, think of the force
of hearts released, springing together, think
of the fountains breaking out, reaching up
after the sky, and falling back, showers
of falling leaves, waters of autumn.

Think every day, under the sun,
under these clouds, think every night of this,
with every cell of your mind’s branching swelling shoots;
but with the quiet, the same quiet, the steady breath,
the steady gaze across the two fields, holding still
the vision: fair fields full of folk;
for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

My reflections on this poem can be found here