Bedstraws do exactly what it says on the tin. Before modern mattresses, most people slept on a pallisasse filled with straw of one sort or another. Beyond wheat and barley there were the wild flowers we still call hedge, marsh, heath and Lady’s bedstraws.
The story goes that on the night that Jesus was born, Mary’s mattress was filled this dried , sweet smelling herb. It became the the custom to fill the mattresses of expectant mum’s with Lady’s Bedstraw – an act of solidarity that reveals another dimension to Jesus words, “In as much as you did it to any of these little ones you did it to me.” (Matthew 25)
Cue Chrstmas carols: ” See him lying on a bed of straw” followed by Sydney Carter’s “Every Star shall sing a carol”, stopping to reflect on the line ,” When the King of all Creation had a cradle on the earth, holy was the human body, holy was the human birth.”
St. Margaret’s was the go to saint for women in childbirth, the stories told how she had miraculously been brought forth from inside a dragon that had consumed her. Mortal danger for babe and mother in childbirth were once the norm in Europe and remains so in many places still.
Here in a country churchyard, Walsingham bound pilgrims find an opportunity to consider messy practicalities of incarnation – life and death.
On the eve of the feast of St. Bridget prayers and best wishes to Walsingham Way’s sister St. Brigitta’s Trail
The Benedictine monk, subsequently Cardinal, Adam Easton was a local Norfolk boy who made good. Adam promoted the beatification of Bridgit and did much to popularise her cult in his home town. It has been suggested that Adam had been Mother Julian’s Spiritual Director and some have noted similarities between St. Bridget and Mother Julian. They were both visionaries, both writers and the Passion of Christ was central to them both.
Beyond speculation we know that Adam held the living of Heigham, through which the Walsingham Way passes as it follows the River Wensum out of Norwich on the outskirts of Norwich; that Margery Kemp and her friend and mentor the Carmelite friar Alan of Lynn, were also fans; that Bridget’s Book was widely read by educated women in 15th C Norfolk; and that she is pictured on the rood screen in the church of St. Mary and St. Andrew at Horsham St.Faith’s .
“I am grateful for the time to have been able to walk the new pilgrim route from Norwich Cathedral to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and for those who have welcomed me at churches along the way.
“This pilgrimage journey has enabled me to reflect more deeply upon these last few months during which, like so many others, I have been working at pace and handling complex issues. It has been a time to be at a different pace with God, to slow down, breath more deeply, and appreciate the beauty of the Norfolk countryside.
“At times along the way I’ve walked in the company of others, chatting things through or simply being in silence. In every church I’ve prayed for all affected by coronavirus, including those who are ill, those bereaved, and all who are living with anxiety and fear.
“I feel more rooted in the diocese as I’ve walked along lanes, beside rivers, through woodland, and entered some of our glorious rural churches. It has been a restorative and hope-filled journey as I have travelled in the direction of Walsingham, accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone in that direction down the centuries to seek God’s love and consolation, knowing, too, that that a pilgrimage isn’t complete until you return home, witnessing to that love and consolation in the days ahead.”
On Monday 13th July, Bishop Graham will set out from his cathedral church to walk the 37 miles, through the heart of Norfolk, to pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. He writes,
“Pilgrimage is a meaningful journey to a sacred place. It provides the opportunity to step out of the non-stop busyness of our lives, to seek a time of quiet and reflection,” says Bishop Graham. “I’m intent on using this time to seek God’s heart and healing for all those affected by coronavirus. Do look out for me if I’m passing through your neighbourhood and please do all join me in praying during this time.”
St. Withburh, or Withburga, established a monastery at Dereham in the year 653 or thereabouts. Tradition remembers her as the youngest of King Anna’s sainted daughters. Her older siblings – St. Etheldreda and St. Sexbura of Ely, and St. Ethelbuga and St. Sethryth of Faramoutier – also followed the religious life.
In 10th Century the Withburga’s body was stolen from Dereham by monks of Ely and laid to rest beside her sisters. Where upon, though some doubt this, a miraculous spring appeared in the churchyard.
A spur to connect East Dereham with the Walsingham Way would allow pilgrims to start, finish, or break the journey at Dereham. Dereham has an express bus service linking the town with Norwich and Kings Lynn.
In the future, it would be good to establish a Withburga Trail linking Holkham (where she is said to have grown-up ); via North Elmham, where St. Felix established a church in the 7th Century that became Norfolk’s first cathedral, Dereham; and Ely.
Leaving Elsing, the pilgrim sets out towards Swanton Morley. If they have time to saunter, they may go the pretty way and take a sharp right at Penny Spot Beck Bridge to follow the Wensum Way through green pasture, by quiet waters…
Rev’d Helen’s day job includes the care of the parishes of Weston Longville, Lyng and Elsing; where , in normal times, their heritage churches are important way stations on the Walsingham Way. The plan is to walk the route over 4 days.
And there is a bypass too! As the river winds its way past Ringland it passes close to the River Yare, a quick hop over the Ringland Hills, takes birds and animals into a valley that skirts the city’s southern fringe.
Protestant doctrine does not favour the feasts of the Assumption, nor the celebration of Mary, Queen of Heaven on 1st May! They are not biblical! The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth on 31st May is a different matter!
The place of Jesus’mother in the overall scheme of things was once a burning issue – burning, as in the burning of heretics! It remains a matter of importance .
May’s flower of the month is Lady’s Smock, alternatively known as Cuckoo Flower. Pilgrims will find it on the Walsingham Way in damp meadows and conservation churchyards. Does the alternative name suggest some disagreement around the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? You would do well not to enter into a “Yes, it was/No, it wasn’t ” pantomime argument; be it conducted outwardly, with a companion; or inwardly, with one’s self. More creatively it could be used like the unsolvable problem – a koan – given by a Zen Master. By tussling meditatively with the unsolvable paradox, pilgrims can find themselves lead beyond contradictions, into a deep understanding of of a mystery. It is a mystery at the heart of Christian faith; in which, it is said, God was incarnate, took flesh, became Man, in Jesus.
The actual reality of living in a human body – conception, birth, breathing, eating, drinking, defecating, learning, thinking, working, praying, friend and foe making, enduring through boredom, temptation, betrayal, abandonment, victimhood, threats, bullying, suffering, bleeding and death.
In another age, a fellow pilgrim travelled these roads on route from Lynn, via Walsingham, Norwich and Yarmouth to visit the relic of Our Lady’s Smock, across the North Sea at Aachen. Relic and flower, Our Lady’s Smock, provide a symbolic link between the lived experience of women over the centuries – child bearing, feeding, washing, clothing, home-making, caring for others – and that of Jesus’ mum. It reveals a sisterhood that extends across time and space.
As humans we are loved and touched into being. Such is the way with us humans. For all the love and care we have received from our mothers and other nurturing, caring women; and for the mystery of human- being thank God.
Women supporting one another in the practical aspects of human living and loving happened then and happens now. One imagines it was this common bond that led Mary to visit Elizabeth. By the end of May, 3 months after the Annunciation, Mary would be beginning to show with the unborn Jesus. Did the two women, an older and younger first time mother, work together to made that smock!?
In the days of Margery Kemp, many lay women expressed their spirituality in practical ways by engaging with the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy.
feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners and ransoming captives, and burying the dead
The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy
Jesus words, ‘…. in as much as you did it to any of these little ones, you did it to me’ ( Matthew 25.40) gave a sense that in performing practical acts, they were one with Mary, the Mother of Our Lord , Mary Magdalene and the other women who cared for Jesus during his life on earth. The experience of handling the Body of Christ, so to speak, providing a route towards what might be termed holy communion.
In 2016 Pope Francis suggested an additional Act of Mercy – Care for the Creation!