Friday, 17 February 2017

Walsingham Baby

Today, on his birthday, we interred my Father's ashes in Puddletown church yard, alongside my Mum's.

After his death last year, I posted 'Shilvia Shishishons' - a tribute to his calling to ordination.  Today, I would like to post a short joint tribute to him and my Mum, in gratitude for the way in which I came into the world.

It has taught me never to dismiss the faith of others - even when it may seem very different to my own...

"Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My dad never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with biretta on special occasions.  They were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, they moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where dad was priest in charge of the church at Downley.  He was responsible for a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as ‘vicar’s wife’ and David served the village community as priest and kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular, longed for a baby – but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did not help and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well, and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady, and asked Mary for her prayers for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply, and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in 1 Samuel 1 “in deep anguish… praying in her heart… pouring out her soul to the Lord”.  Hannah made a deal with God that if he heard her prayer and gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Dorset, and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at “The Shrubbery” in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this would be during the big annual pilgrimage in May, and we would join with other pilgrims in the great procession and open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a private joke between me and God, when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality, but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We may not always understand the faith and spirituality of others.  Sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  But if God is happy to be at work through those expressions of faith, who are we to dismiss or condemn.

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” and they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together; excuses like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  In the end, he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he also longed for them to play tennis with each other.

Too often that is what we are like as Christians – all wanting to play with God, but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We often separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches.  We choose who we will play with, work with, pray with – but in the end, we are all children of God.

So in the end, I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit my neatly worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is often much messier than our well-ordered categories, and being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.

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