PILGRIMAGE, THE MOTHER OF GOD, AND ORTHODOXY
WALSINGHAM, UK - When it comes to size, the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk, England is not nearly as "great" as it name suggests. The tiny hamlet stands in the shadow of its nearby neighbour, Little Walsingham, one of the leading pilgrimage sites in Britain since the Mother of God appeared there early in the eleventh century.
A large Anglican church facility dominates the centre of Little Walsingham, forming the centre of Anglo-Catholic life in England. A mile down the road, a more recent Roman Catholic shrine greets visitors willing to make the trek out of town. For the Orthodox, however, a visit to Little Walsingham requires more searching than does a pilgrimage for others. One tiny Orthodox chapel (dedicated to the Mother of God) can be found among the back laneways of the town. Another tiny chapel (less than ten feet square, although fully equipped for the Divine Liturgy) can be reached by climbing a steep staircase inside the Anglican shrine. One has to ask directions, since there is little in the way of visible signage.
As Orthodox Christian visitors, we initially felt shocked and somewhat discouraged at the limited Orthodox presence at Little Walsingham. A few faithful Orthodox individuals - a couple priests, some talented icon writers, and several individual faithful - have laboured to preserve Orthodoxy in Walsingham for the last several decades. Icons of British saints and Our Lady of Walsingham are most readily available, thanks to their efforts over the years, and priests regularly offer prayers for the needs of the faithful. Despite these pious efforts, one initially gets the impression that Orthodoxy - the Historic Church, the Apostolic inheritance, the faith of England until the Norman invasion - is far from rivalling the kind of large, organized pilgrimages and singular veneration of the Mother of God seen among the Anglo- and Roman Catholics. Where is the Orthodox sense of history? Where is the appropriate Orthodox reverence for the Mother of God? Why is the obvious piety of Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims putting to shame the True and Apostolic Orthodox Church? After an hour at Walsingham, it seemed too much to bear.
Of course, nothing happens by chance. A local shopkeeper encouraged us to make the short trip to Great Walsingham to visit Father Patrick, the priest at the parish of the Holy Transfiguration, and although it was late in the day, the lure of a growing Orthodox parish in rural England was too tempting to ignore. Holy Transfiguration at Great Walsingham was the product of many years of faithful labour under the omophor of the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate in Britain. The small parish church was adapted from a disused Methodist building, converted into an Orthodox temple with one of the most remarkable interiors to be found among local parishes anywhere. The parish is made up of a number of faithful, most of whom drive some distance to come to Divine Liturgy. Father Patrick, himself a convert to the Orthodox Church, warmly showed us around his church, filling us in on anecdotes of parish and local history. Notably, he did not mention any Orthodox pilgrimage to Walsingham.
While only about one mile separates the parish from the historic pilgrimage site at Little Walsingham, a greater separation could not exist in the spiritual life of the two places. Life at Holy Transfiguration parish focusses on a weekly Liturgy for an intimate group of regular faithful; services at the Little Walsingham shrines focus on daily prayers held for pilgrims visiting from far and wide. Holy Transfiguration lives the fullness of Church life together within its walls, with all sacraments and celebrations from cradle to grave encompassing the faithful; the Little Walsingham shrines, as pilgrimage sites, focus on a very particular piece of the Christian faith, presented again and again in vivid clarity for visitors, many of whom may only visit the place once in a lifetime.
The differences between the two places are extremely subtle, yet they underline clearly the distinct approach of the Orthodox Church, as it compares to Roman Catholicism and the Anglo-Catholic movement within Anglicanism. Pilgrimage is certainly not foreign to the Orthodox Church, but pronounced and ongoing emphasis on one aspect of the faith - however holy - leads away from the Truth as a whole. While Roman Catholicism in the last centuries has seen the development of distinct (sometimes separate) "cults" venerating the Mother of God, the Blessed Sacrament, and certain saints, Orthodoxy preserves the ancient integration of all holy things with the One Who makes them holy. Without question, Orthodox give a full and loving reverence to the Mother of God, revering the saints in the dedication of churches, and looking upon the Holy Mysteries with awe (or at least, we should). Yet never in Orthodoxy would one find a church dedicated to the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi) or the Blessed Sacrament. It would be very difficult to find an icon depicting the Mother of God without the Christ Child. Orthodox pilgrims visit holy places and ask for the intercession of saints, but the "cult" of the saint (to use the term in its true sense) does not (or at least, should not) eclipse Christ Who sanctifies the saint. In short, nothing can remain Orthodox when it is isolated from the faith as a whole.
When the English Protestants objected to the apparent division of holy things and personages from the Incarnate God, they proceeded to destroy the holy things and images of the holy personages. One cannot drive two miles in England without encountering a razed monastery that once housed the relics of some saint, relics which zealots destroyed at the command of the King or other leaders of the Reformation. While iconoclasm had long been settled in the East, the segmented remnants of Christianity in the West gave rise to a new iconoclasm in the England of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries, an intensely fierce iconoclasm. In Reformation England, both cases - those who venerated sacred things and those who opposed veneration- were extremes who chose certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize - indeed, to over-emphasize. Both sides had elements of truth - one side the veneration of holy things and people, the other side a focus on the Triune God - but both sides made the mistake of picking and choosing certain aspects as their main focus. The Greek Fathers knew well about such "picking and choosing" - they even had a word for it: heresy.
Of course, Orthodox Christians are not immune to this. Throughout Christian history, heresy has rarely been an import from the outside: it has usually grown up at the very heart of the Church, with a stubborn and isolated focus on one sacred aspect of the faith. It is this very focus on one thing in isolation which turned Orthodox Christians into heretics: Arius isolated Christ's humanity, Pelagius isolated God's mercy, and the gnostics isolated Christ's spiritual dimension. The list goes on and on.
The errors arising within the Church are not merely historical: the tendency to over-emphasize devotions of choice is alive and well today. The love for an ethnic culture rooted in the Orthodox faith is good: putting cultural nationalism above the faith of Christ is heretical. The love of holy chants and tones of the Church is sublime and edifying; turning liturgical music into a weekly concert is a scandal of vanity and an offense. Reverent use of the Julian Calendar as the structure of the Church year is a pious practice; turning that use into a political position leads one into serious error.
From whence do these errors come? The tendency for Christians to move into theological isolation and emphasis comes from over-simplification, from the human desire to comprehend and, through comprehension, to control Christ. If we can simplify Christ into the image of an angry Judge, the Mother of God can be simplified into a mild goddess. If sin is viewed as a simple, legal matter, relics and sacraments become tolls or fines to be paid. In demanding the rational, we are not just demanding understanding, but control: control to remake Christ in the image that suits us and the mass, over-simplified exercise we substitute for the true struggle of the Christian life.
In hindsight, the humble Orthodox presence at Walsingham is a welcome sight because it is truly Orthodox. If it became some kind of sideshow from the fullness of the Church, or for Orthodoxy in Walsingham to take on an idiosyncratic flavour from Orthodoxy in any parish church, would be unacceptable and heretical. This sideshow mentality afflicts the Orthodox Church already when we see particular Orthodox personalities become celebrities, or sites, conventions, and clubs become the "in crowd" or the Church. Of course, in the Church there is no "in crowd" - just the prayers of a handful of faithful, many or few or alone if they must, carrying on the holy traditions and Mysteries of Christ's apostles under the guidance of pious bishops. We can have no more than this, because there is no more to have - Christ is everything.
A pilgrimage to Walsingham is a unique spiritual experience. It is one of very few precious sites where the Mother of God spoke to the Church to encourage and edify it. In making a pilgrimage there, one becomes keenly aware of the terrible attacks the Reformation in Europe focussed on the Mother of God and the holy saints, and one can touch the very stones displaced in an attempt to exterminate the practice of reverencing them. Yet one also witnesses the ways in which people have compartmentalized the faith, Christ, His Mother, and His saints, a process which has subtly gone on since the Great Schism. In these examples, we are reminded of the subtleties of the Evil One, who is willing (even eager) to use even the holiest creations of God and, by emphasis and slight revision, to use them to turn the faithful against God.
In our era where words have ceased to have meaning and where truth is often just a matter of opinion, a pilgrimage to Walsingham reminds us that the Evil One continues to prowl around like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), seeking to devour those he can catch. By the prayers of the Mother of God and all the saints of England, may God deliver us from the subtleties of his tricks, and help us discern the "matters of taste" touching the lives of each one of us.