The parish pilgrimage was only a fortnight ago, but it already seems so distant. Dear Walsingham is one of my favourite places in England, and very much my spiritual home. One of the things I exult in is its sheer outlandishness. It is an odd place, and not just because of the crowds gathering to dance and drink around my rector’s pianola as he pedals out tracks from Abba and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nor just because of the clergy and religious who flock the place in their exotic apparel. No, even the Shrine itself is exotic and more than a little eccentric. Strange images and statues lurk around every shadowy corner, inviting you to contemplate some more or less obscure figure or element of the Christian faith a little more carefully. There is no room there for spiritual boredom.
One of the more curious side-chapels in the Shrine of Our Lady is that of the Ascension. At first sight, you wonder why it is so called, given that the painting over the altar is of the Virgin and Child. But then, if you manage to force the tough light switch on, you notice what you’ve been missing: a pair of alabaster feet vanishing up into the ceiling, replete with bloody wounds and all.
The juxtaposition of the Madonna and the vanishing feet is a clever one. It tells us what the Ascension is about: not just God paying the world a visit then going back home, like an episode of Mork and Mindy, but God taking on our humanity and lifting it up into union with Him. In the Ascension, God takes our fallen humanity and makes it divine. He restores us to what He always meant us to be. Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit.