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The Priory of Our Lady, Walsingham

sermon preached by Fr Tony Noble SSC (Associate SSM)

Matt 13:44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field”.

 

When I first started to visit the Priory chapel I was fascinated by the statue of St Margaret, which stands just outside the entrance. In particular, the dragon. It made me think that she was a female St George - which might explain why she was so popular in mediaeval England. Both St Margaret and St George have fairly unbelievable stories about dragons.

 

St Margaret, of course, got the chop from the calendar in 1969 - along with other saints having improbable legends, such as St Christopher and St Katherine of Alexandria. But not St George - no doubt because he was patron of England.

 

When John Mason Neale chose St Margaret of Antioch as patroness of his fledgling community perhaps it was because she was popular in Britain. She might also be a feminist icon, if that was of interest in 1855. But I doubt it!

 

Legend or not, we honour her today and give thanks for this Community and Priory. There is a secondary patronage for SSM - the Holy Name of Jesus. And this Priory has a third patron - Our Lady of Walsingham.

 

Three patrons should be enough. But in my reflections for this sermon I wondered if there was a general patron for the religious life? Sr Angela suggested St Benedict, who is most appropriate and perhaps the best of all four. He can certainly teach us about the Religious Life.

 

St Margaret tells us about the vocation and strength of women.

The Holy Name teaches us about the focus and centre of the Religious Life.

Our Lady of Walsingham reminds us that the chief vocation of all Religious is prayer. And that is certainly the case here, and for us who are Associates.

 

Do you think much about your patron saint? My baptismal name is Anthony, so I claim two patron saints: Anthony of Padua and Anthony of Egypt. Both were Religious, of course.

 

After I was ordained to the sacred priesthood I got another patron - St John Vianney. We know the story of this simple priest, who had trouble getting ordained. He eventually was ordained and subsequently sent to be parish priest of the small French village of Ars. Described as a most ungodly place, he remained there as parish priest for the rest of his ministry.

 

St John Vianney was a holy pastor. He spent hours in the confessional and people travelled miles to receive his counsel. He also spent time just sitting in the church, adoring the Blessed Sacrament. In that, he is a relevant patron for this priory, with its daily watch before the Blessed Sacrament.

 

In the Shrine chapel dedicated to him there is the traditional image of him holding the Host and chalice, inviting his people to Holy Communion. If you go to Ars, there is a different statue, just outside the town. It is unusual, in that his arm is outstretched, pointing up to Heaven.

 

Apparently, as he was making his way to his new parish he came across a shepherd boy and asked, “Can you show me the way to Ars?” The boy pointed in the direction of the village. To which St John Vianney replied, “You have shown me the way to Ars........I will show you the way to Heaven”, and pointed upwards.

 

Surely the purpose of this Priory and the vocation of its Sisters is to show people the way to Heaven? Indeed, by their life of prayer they show us that Heaven is here, and that the Eucharist is the way.

 

As this generation seems less interested in the things of Heaven and more interested in the things of this world, the Religious Life is more important than ever to show the way to Heaven.

 

Ten years after J. M. Neale founded this Community, Richard Benson started the first Community for men since the Reformation, SSJE. In starting his Community he said words about the Religious Life which are as relevant now as they were then.

 

“The Religious Life is not to be seen as over and above ordinary Christian life. It is ordinary Christian life developed under conditions where the Church has fallen away from her true spiritual calling of conscious and habitual union with Christ”.

 

Conscious and habitual union with Christ. This is the calling of Religious Communities. Indeed, they point us to our calling and our ultimate end.

 

Conscious union with Christ. This is the pearl of great price. This is the treasure hidden in a field.

 

Thank God that Religious leave all behind to obtain it.