The Holy Well in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – Fr Martin Warner. Source New Series No 4 Spring 1995:
We continue our series of articles on living cults at particular British holy wells with the following account of the Well of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It is written by Fr Martin Warner, the Administrator of the Anglican shrine of Walsingham. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Walsingham shrine are recommended to read J. C. Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Cambridge 1956. The original medieval well, in the grounds of the ruined priory, and the holy well now enclosed within the modern pilgrimage church, are both described by Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Wates Paladin (London) 1986 pp 199-201. The Bords note that ‘this newly restored holy well can safely claim to be the most active holy well in England. Probably Britain.’
In the Spring/Summer 1929 edition of Our Lady’s Mirror, a quarterly paper for the newly formed Society of Our Lady of Walsingham, an article by G.S. Dunbar on holy wells was published, listing a number of sanctuaries linked with Holy Wells and Springs. Making reference to the already famous use of water at Lourdes and the miracles that had been recorded there, Dunbar continued, ‘such miracles were worked in the past at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to mention two places amongst very many, and at Walsingham, to mention two still survive, and pilgrimages are being resumed, while sufferers resorting there after Confession and Holy Communion, use the water, invoking our Lady of Walsingham, and receive healing.’
A short time later, during the excavations for building the new shrine in 1931, a well was discovered and incorporated into the pilgrimage church. A photograph published in the Mirror in 1934 shows the proximity of the well to the Holy House which can be seen rising in new brickwork behind it. The discovery was part of the evidence which encouraged Fr Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, to believe that the site on which he was building had been the location of the original Holy House. Other foundations discovered between 1931 and 1937 convinced him that this was likely to be so.
The story of the origins of the shrine at Walsingham tells us that when the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was taken in the spirit to Nazareth, shown the house in which the Holy Family had lived and told to build a replica of that house in her own land. The sign for where thus ‘casa sancta’ should be built was the eruption of a spring of water, and so the well has always been a part of the Walsingham cult, witnessed to by the well (more modern and more akin to a pond) in the ground of the ruined Priory, spoken of by Dunbar in his article and used by pilgrims prior to the restoration of the Shrine church in 1931.
Today the well in the shrine is an important part of our identity. It stands as a sign of the continuity of the new and old, witnessing the use of water to indicate hallowed ground and the presence of God in a particular way. More universally, the well points also to the centrality of baptism, the Sacrament by which Christians participate in the life and death of Jesús, within his body, the church. In this way the power of the incarnation is experienced as the source of all healing and all miracles.
To describe fully the significance of the well in the life of the Shrine today, it may be useful to look first at what happens when pilgrims come to be sprinkled, and then at three different types of pilgrim for whom this service can be of particular importance.
First of all, the service of Sprinkling. This is an informal service which takes place at 2.30 pm, each afternoon from Easter to the end of October and every weekend throughout the year. People gather in the main body of the Church for an introductory talk. After an opportunity to reflect on their sum of human suffering and our universal need for healing, there is a simple recognition of sin, brokenness and pain, and prayer for reconciliation. Going then to the well, the water is received in three ways. First, a sip to drink then used for making the sign of the cross on the forehead, and finally poured out into cupped hands to splash some part of the body in need of healing, or simply as a gesture of refreshment or cleansing. Those who have been sprinkled then make their way into the Holy House for final prayers and a blessing.
For Christians this can be a powerful and moving rite. A source of healing and a symbol in action of the movement from death to life. But it also speaks eloquently of another movement, that of all Christians towards unity and healing of past divisions. For those who experience sprinkling at the well, the Anglican identity of the Shrine is not of paramount significance. Walsingham is holy ground, to which Christians of all traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed) have various points of access, each which focus on baptism, helping pilgrims of different traditions to recognise what we share in allegiance to Jesus Christ, the child of Mary. The rite gives a structure for Christians to pray and worship together in an activity which unlike the eucharist, does not raise issues of denominational boundary.
Many of those who visit Walsingham and come to the well are from other religious traditions. A number of Asian families are often to be seen at the rite of sprinkling, some of them Christian, but some of them not. For these pilgrims water has a special religious significance with which they easily seem able to identify.
As an expression of the sacred, the River Ganges holds a powerful place in the religious imagination and landscape of India. Washing is a natural religious ceremony for many, and in the Islamic tradition Mary has a significant place of respect. Thus the well open up a dialogue with people of other faiths, recognising that in the ritual association with it there is an expression of some sacred awareness germane to human identity.
During the Summer months many holiday makers stumble across the Shrine and its well and attend, almost by accident, the rite of sprinkling. What their impressions are and how they interpret the symbolism is not always clear. But again, some relationships is often awakened with those whose faith is inarticulate, but whose search is real. This can sometimes be expressed by tears which indicate a hurt in need of healing. Sometimes it can be a sign of the strengthening of family bonds, hint at a sense of life as a precious gift and graciousness of its creator. For those who feel such stirrings, to crowd with others, into the dimly -lit Holy House after being sprinkled , witnessing the glow and candlelight, us to come as near as one night to siftinging holiness and jostling with angels. The waters of this well go deep indeed.