The grim irony of Walsingham

25 February 2016

3:00 PM

25 February 2016

3:00 PM

As you came from the Holy land
Of Walsingham
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?

The Walsingham poem used to be attributed to Walter Raleigh, which must be an error. ‘True love’ had a different meaning in his gallantries, most famously when he pleasured a maid of honour against a tree. She began by pretending to resist, but within brief minutes ‘Nay, sweet Sir Walter’ turned into ‘swisser swasser, swisser swasser’. The carnal and the spiritual can co-exist: see Dr Donne. But in its structure of feeling, the Walsingham poem is a couple of generations earlier than Raleigh: either immediately pre-Reformation or at the very latest just before Henry VIII had unleashed the full malign rapacity of his robbers and iconoclasts.

After they despoiled the shrine at Walsing-ham — one of the great pilgrimage destinations when Christian Europe was united in faith — it became yet another ‘bare ruin’d choir where late the sweet birds sang’.

In recent decades, there have been attempts at restoration, by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, in easy cooperation. This has less to do with formal ecumenism by committee; much more with a shared gentle English spirituality. The religious might add some delicate insistence. Walsingham is a shrine to Mary, mother of God, Queen of Heaven. Marian piety, the Christ-child suckling at the breast: what better way to promote the meekness and harmony of faith?

Against that, there is a grim irony. Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth I’s head of the secret service. He took his name from a small and peaceful town where the surrounding countryside is a daily renewal of a pastoral symphony. His daily renewal was deceit, ruthlessness, torture and the scaffold. He crushed the Queen’s enemies, and those of the Protestant faith. But he was also a superb, unswerving official. In the treacherous waters of adversity, he stood by his duty and deserves the ultimate accolade: well done, thou good and faithful servant.

What would he have made of modern Walsingham: it, of him? To a Christian, there could only be one answer. Original sin is the one summary wide enough to encompass the human condition. God’s mercy is the sole way of coping with original sin.

On the Roman side at Walsingham, my friend Christian Sweeting has been fund-raising to establish a school for mosaic-makers: just the sort of activity a monastic foundation should encourage. Successful in both property and construction, Christian has promoted Tory good causes (though Tory good is a tautology) while advising the party on property matters. He and friends are also involved with Westminster Cathedral, where the original designs included ceiling mosaics, a completion of the Byzantine idiom which inspired the builders. Such a ceiling would also inspire the congregation to lift their thoughts towards heaven.

Alas, we live in dreary times. Some figures in authority think it better to spend large sums on the poor than to adorn church buildings. Judas Iscariot once advanced a similar argument: had his views prevailed the blight of poverty would have afflicted western civilisation. But under Archbishop Nicholls, the Irish influence on English Catholicism has grown and it has not been creative. How sad if these Hibernian Savonarolas prevail. Then again, it is hundreds of years since the native Irish were good at beautifying churches, or anything else. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam no longer translates into Erse.

Discussing these matters, Christian and I dealt with a couple of bottles of Sassicaia ’94. The super-Tuscans are entitled to a whole-hearted concentration, undistracted by the meaning of life or the existence of God. They did not receive it, but on a preliminary assessment, that wine could look a second growth in the eye.

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