A Life-Long Springtime: The Life and Teaching of Fr George Congreve SSJE by Luke Miller (Sacristy Press 2022)
Alfred Hope Patten and the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham by Michael Yelton
(Sacristy Press 2022)
I remember my first encounter with Walsingham. As a sixth form student I spent the May Bank holiday (possibly in 1977) making the long journey from Hartlepool to Norfolk. We set off in the early hours to navigate the 220 miles south. There was a high spirit of excitement on the bus tempered by sleep, prayer, food and the company of people who had talked about the importance this holy place and the national Pilgrimage.
Vivid amongst those memories, when we finally arrived in Walsingham, were the crowds of pilgrims from across the country, our walking from the outskirts of Walsingham to the shrine and the experience of being sprinkled with holy water from the Well ( see the picture below). It was an amazing and memorable experience of worshipping outdoors. The image of Mary being carried shoulder high and being protected from the protests of a small group of Protestant enthusiasts.
The ground felt special and even holy – though I am not sure I quite knew the theological meaning of holy then! This experience was replicated over time but I have now lost touch with what is known as England’s Nazareth.
This second edition this biography of a man and a place is carefully and skilfully researched and written. It tells the story of the refounding of the eleventh-century Shrine and its refounding in 1922. The determination of Alfred Hope Patten lies at the heart of this story. It was not without struggle – both personal and financial – but his legacy and gift to the Church remain firm and strong to this day.
Yelton narrates the story with honesty and care. His conviction that places like Walsingham have a place in our shifting secular age. They exist to remind our civilised and comfortable minds that there is a place for the spiritual in our endeavours. They are a gift from God and a reminder of the ongoing revelation of the fidelity of Gods commitment to us. We overlook the spiritual at our peril. We need this tradition of place, devotion and pilgrimage to draw us out of our preoccupations and distractions into a deeper point of focus on God and Gospel.
This story of Walsingham is carefully narrated. The recovery of this medieval place of sanctity and pilgrimage is shared in all its struggles and disagreements. Determination, vision and faith all play their part amidst what sometimes appear to be intractable obstacles and circumstances.
Yelton concludes his book in this way, ‘The unique atmosphere of Walsingham is the product of Hope Patten’s flawed, but undoubted, genius.’ (p279). The place (as I remembered it all those years ago) evades simple analysis. Its gift is intangible and all the richer for that. It is a deep ‘well’ that bears liminal truth. Its peace and truth are slow but steady yielding gifts that owe much to Hope Patten.
Luke Miller brings scholarship, diligence and judgement to a biography of Father Congreve who died over a century ago in 1918. We are taken into the complexities of the personalities of the Society of St John the Evangelist. No community of close knit companions are easy to live with. This account gives us a skilful account of the ‘inner ethos’ of SSJE as it seeks to maintain its vision and integrity. There is in this religious community a powerful dynamic between the inner heart of religious discipline and devotion together with a commitment to pastoral outreach and mission. Perhaps inevitably this is not without its conflicts and costs.
The Oxford Movement had a transformative effect on the missional character of the Church of England. Miller opens this biography with a reminder of how vocations were nurtured and deepened. There is throughout this volume a holding of the bridge between the inner and outer; worship and action; contemplation and action; the self and others shown through the life of Congreve. Our desire to bring others to Christ springs from the wells of our own devotion and love for God. We live in this world but are never of it. There are always tension, paradox and some contradiction in our striving for wholeness.
There is in Congreve’s writing and teaching a relevance to our contemporary context where the Church struggles to find a voice that can connect to the heartbeat of contemporary living. We need heart and vision. We need to be less distracted. We need, perhaps, to be confronted by our shallow superficiality. We certainly need to stop and dig deeper. We need different voices and a deeper wisdom. There are pointers throughout this biography of where we might be ‘lost’ and how a different path might be followed.
I am especially grateful to Luke Miller for how he deals with the gift ( and burdens) of age and older age in the final part of this book. How might any of us see vulnerability in old age as gift and wisdom ? The journey towards wisdom is a long and sometimes painful one. We need teachers and spiritual guides. Miller offers us such a one in these pages through the sharing of this life.
As I begin my summer vacation and look forward to a new academic year at Sarum College I read these two books with half an eye on our ministry students. What might we want to remind them of?
- We stand on the shoulders of others. We are inheritors and stewards of history and tradition. Our Anglican history is rich and supports us in our journey of discovery and wise pastoring of the faithful.
- We are not a people without geography ! There are places that can yield truth and lead us into a deeper sense of place and space as bearing the mystery of God.
- At the heart of our life together in Christ are people- broken, complex, sometimes difficult but all made in the image of God and capable of shewing us spiritual love and truth.
- Amidst the activity and anxiety of this modern age let us never give up on the pastoral, the relational, time with and for others. Slow down, listen, look be quiet so others can point us to fragments of truth.
- Nurture spiritual discipline. Attend to your inner life. The daily Office, spiritual reading, retreat and pilgrimage ground us and resource our mission.