A Pilgrimage to His Native Land: A Review of Merrie England, A Journey Through the Shire. Joseph Pearce. Tan Books, 2016
During the day and night long vigil at the hospital as my husband was nearing the end of his earthly life, my brain and body were exhausted from the week-long ordeal and I could not concentrate on the book that I had brought. My son reached into the depths of his black bag and came up with a small book. “Here,” he said, “try this.” The book he handed me was by one of my favorite modern Catholic writers, Joseph Pearce. The lovely painting on the book jacket is a peaceful country setting depicting two travelers, each alone, walking toward a distant settlement on a road lined with enormous trees. The land is gentle and rolling, and the season is a mild one.
As I thumbed through the chapter titles, my eyes rested on the last – Walsingham – a place I was familiar with since it was the subject of my very first piece for this website many years ago. So, I began at the end, recalling what I had previously learned about this ancient shrine of England. Then I began at the beginning, reading of places which were unfamiliar to me. Intervening events forced me to put down this little book for a while. Recently, I took it up and read the whole book (all one hundred and forty pages of it!) again. It is well worth a third read, not only to fix in the reader’s mind the many places in England that Pearce writes about, but to appreciate his love of his native land as well as his wonderful gift for beautiful writing.
In true Christian pilgrim style, Pearce (the Pilgrim, as he refers to himself in the book) begins his journey on foot in the town of Norwich whose famous cathedral dominates the skyline. As with the first three cathedrals he visits, the magnificent ancient cathedral became part of Henry VIII’s “dissolution” of Catholic properties and is now in the hands of the Church of England. In the places where hundreds of statues of saints once stood are wall advertisements purchased by wealthy parishioners. Relics of saints and martyrs were desecrated and burned in the frantic frenzy to rid England of its Romish past. In Ely cathedral’s “Lady Chapel” decapitated saints still stand in stone, the deed done by Cromwell’s looters. A treasure, however, remains in Peterborough’s cathedral – the relics of Catharine of Aragon, who, when her husband discarded her for Anne Boleyn, retired to religious life and “offered a heroic passive resistance” to Henry’s demands for a divorce. Pearce pays his respects to these former treasures of the Church and bemoans the fact that they are no longer what their builders meant them to be – homes for the Lord of Hosts.
We then learn of some of the outstanding physical features of Pearce’s England – the storied Sherwood Forest, a pathetic fraction of what it was when it was “Robin Hood Country,” Kinder Scout, a vast mountainous wilderness area in the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, and – fascinating to me – Scafell Pike in the Lake District, the highest peak in all of England at 3,209 feet, just a little higher than Mount Monadnock in our own corner of New Hampshire. Pearce traversed all of these features and more on foot (although he traveled by train to bypass some of the bigger cities). He traveled as far north as the border with Scotland and wandered a short distance into Wales. Studying a map of England, one realizes that he covered a considerable distance.
In the city of York, Pearce venerates the burial place of Saint Margaret Clitherow and relates the events of the brutal martyrdom of this convert Catholic mother who hid priests in the “priest hole” of her home, betrayed by one of her own pupils. He speaks of other martyrs, too; of Blessed Nicholas Postgate, a brave recusant priest, whose trial took place at the same place as Saint’s Margaret’s trial one hundred years later, betrayed by one of the many spies employed by the crown’s priest hunters. This gentle holy man, a poet like Saint Robert Southwell who met the same fate, suffered the hideous end of hanging, drawing and quartering. Pearce says of him, “Found guilty of being a ‘popish priest,’ enough in itself to warrant the death sentence, he was condemned to paradise.”
One of the most interesting stops on his pilgrimage is Lindisfarne, on Holy Island, where Saint Cuthbert in the seventh century convinced his monks to accept the Roman Tradition over the Celtic one they celebrated, thus bringing unity to the Church in England. This holy Saint’s body remained incorrupt for several centuries after his death. Lindisfarne was destroyed by the Vikings in 875, but the Saint’s relics were rescued by the monks. They now rest in Durham, where a Saxon church was built in 985 to house them. Holy Island is a tidal island; so our pilgrim could walk across the land causeway at low tide while the waiting cars had to wait for the tide to rise for the ferry to take them there.
We shall not mention every vista and town that the Pilgrim visited. However, his visit to Oxford deserves a few words. Oxford is the “city that is alive with the dead. It is the dead who breathe life into its brick and stone…The living who walk there are merely the guests of the ghosts.” He mentions the many brilliant scholars who lived in and walked those streets who are the ghosts who keep the place alive – Newman, Hopkins, Belloc, Lewis, Knox, Wilde, Waugh, Duns Scotus, Eliot. The spires of Oxford inspire today’s pilgrim. He pays particular homage to Belloc, “this master of prose, poetry, polemic and perambulation” of the South Country, wishing someday to emulate this giant of Catholic authorship on a walking pilgrimage to Rome.
As we said earlier, Pearce’s final stop on his pilgrimage is Walsingham, the once-lovely shrine whose site Our Lady herself chose, where King Henry VIII himself made pilgrimage to ask the Queen of Heaven for a son, then, “in his lust for power and the power of his lust went to war against the purity of the Virgin.” Only the lovely little Slipper Chapel remains, once more a Catholic chapel.
Pearce is a master of alliteration, gracing page after page with his particular talent for this literary tool. They render his prose as poetry. His love for his native land is pure and sincere, as is his abhorrence of the industrial and commercial blight that has overtaken parts of her. He bemoans the absence of religious and moral fervor of the young generations of this western culture.
This little book with its lovely black and white pictures has encouraged me to learn much more of Pearce’s England than I previously knew. Again and again, I had to refer to a map of the country so that I could get a feel for his travels. I found myself wishing that he had included a map and told the reader the number of miles that he walked and the length of time that he spent doing it. Then again, the point of this little jewel is not distance and time, but Pearce’s spiritual and physical pilgrimage back to his homeland appreciating it more with a Catholic sensibility than as a mere tourist. It is a sweet read.