I am always grateful to small English villages that provide their own descriptors. Such a village is Little Walsingham. There is, after all, only one way for a village called Little Walsingham to look: stranded in grassy plains and smooth hills, made of grey roofs and dusty rain. There are locals, but I can’t see them; it’s a quiet Saturday meant for dewdrops and shut-eye. The flowers here are all somehow lavender. Perhaps it’s just the morning light.
Pilgrims kick around the dirt and the gravel as they trek to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I say trek, but really only the Catholics have earned that verb as they have walked a mile from their Slipper Chapel to see Our Lady while the rest of us drove right into town. There is an Anglican service happening in the shrine, so the various denominations’ and churches’ chapels greet a few visitors here and there. The ruckus caused by our Orthodox contingent’s matins is begging for an incense pun. I’ll refrain reverently and simply say that we were encouraged to do what we have always done in Britain and head for the hills.
So we did. Though there are two ruined monasteries here, we are heading instead for the remnant of our church that is alive in this land: a tiny chapel that the sick priest leaves unlocked for pilgrims on the weekends. It sits outside the town where only one street is left, and its bricks were probably once bright. It is a soft white now, a bit trodden, mirroring the dampness in the English skies today.
We call it Saint Seraphim’s. Or we should — we tend to just call it the train station. I don’t know where the trains came from back when this railway ran, to be honest. The tracks dissolve into the trees and I hardly have a clue where we are as it is. A three-bar cross was tacked onto the ticket booth and the whole thing feels like stepping into a faded fable.
The station is dark. Few windows allow in the lethargic English sun so the candles lit for prayer are devoted to two tasks. The indigo of inverted afternoon leaks in to pierce the gold-leafed icons. It’s a dangerous and intimate sensation, to feel that you have God all to yourself.
I have been thinking a lot about Saint Seraphim’s lately. In one sense I remember it so fondly because I am now so starved for silence and privacy. But I think also there is a real romanticism to those monastic missions we have to wrestle with sometimes. Saint Seraphim’s was never meant to be a parish; it is a place of pilgrimage. Little Walsingham is a place we go to atone for the matricide of our history, to repent for our renunciations and to come back home. Little Walsingham is the prodigal son’s devotion. And there is a place for that but we can’t stay there. After all the tears and the feasts we have to return to reaping and sowing again.
It’s not that I miss Saint Seraphim’s of itself. It’s that it has been a long time since I have worked in a field.