On Saturday, October 15th, The Church of The Ascension had a Procession and Solemn High Mass in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham. Our special guest preacher this evening was the Rev’d Canon Barry E.B. Swain, rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Manhattan and member of the Order of Our Lady of Walsingham.
About Our Lady of Walsingham
Our Lady of Walsingham is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary that is venerated by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. In 1061 a noblewoman name Richeldis de Faverches saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Walsingham, Norfolk, England. The vision allowed Richeldis to view the home of Mary in Nazareth and afterwards she had a replica of the home built on the site where she had the vision. This became known as the “holy house” which later became a major focus of pilgrimage in medieval England. Eventually a statue of the Virgin Mary was carved to go in the house and this too, became a focus of devotion.
At the time of the English Reformation, Walsingham was one of the richest and most visited shrines in England. In 1538 the shrine, its statue, and most of the surrounding buildings were torn down by Henry VIII’s commissioners. Almost four hundred years later the shrine was restored as a place of pilgrimage and devotion by Father Alfred Hope Paten, an Anglican priest that was influenced by the catholic revival in the Church of England. Today Walsingham is once again a vibrant place of pilgrimage and prayer.
Our statue of Our Lady of Walsingham
In May of 2015, pilgrims from The Church of The Ascension travelled across Southern England, visiting shrines in Canterbury, London, Norfolk and Oxford. During our time in Norfolk, we spent an afternoon in Walsingham where we stopped for mass, shrine prayers and private devotions. Our statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was acquired there and she was blessed by Bishop Lindsay Urwin, the then Administrator of the shrine. The statue was carved in Spain of linden wood and is a replica of the statue at the shrine in Walsingham, which is itself a replica of an image of Mary found by Fr. Paten on the seal of the medieval priory.
SERMON GIVEN IN THE CHURCH OF THE ASCENSION, ROCKVILLE CENTRE, LONG ISLAND AT THE WALSINGHAM FESTIVAL, 15 OCTOBER 2016, by Father Swain
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In some ways, it might seem very odd to you that across the wide Atlantic Ocean, in a country which prides itself on its Independence, and in a “rational” age, people would gather, as they are to-day in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; in Cleveland, Ohio; in Rockville Centre, Long Island, at Walsingham itself, and other places, to celebrate an event which took place nearly a thousand years ago.
If you are not a Christian, the story of this event is patently ridiculous, as it seems an emotional story most likely resting on a psychological phenomenon, and the story itself is most likely fabricated. Fair enough. But we are Christians. And to us, the test is different: it is the one Our Lord recommends over and over: by their fruits ye shall know them, in other words, what comes out of something? What comes from someone? It’s not the words that matter, it’s what happens that tells you if something or someone is of God. Over a thousand years nearly, the fruits of this encounter have been extraordinary. For the unbeliever no explanation is possible; for the believer, no explanation is necessary.
The bare facts are these. In 1061, Our Lady appeared to the Lady Richeldis de Faverches, the Lady of the Manor, in Walsingham, in Norfolk. She asked her to build a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth in which she had grown up and in which the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to her to relay God’s message that he invited her to accept the vocation of becoming the Mother of his own Divine Son as a human being. We call this the Incarnation, and it is the central doctrine of Christianity. Without it, everything else we believe in is absurd. With it, everything else we believe must be true. It changed the world, and man’s relationship to God, irretrievably. And it is forever because Our Lord is to-day, in Heaven, a man, and therefore because each of the persons of the Trinity is equal to the other two, God is Human as well as Divine. That earth-shaking truth is the bedrock of our Faith: Et verbum caro factum est, The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. That is what happened in the Holy House at Nazareth.
Now why did Our Lady choose Richeldis? Well in one sense, we’ll never know exactly. We cannot know the secrets of her heart still less all about God’s plans. One reason, I am sure, is that she was a woman, and like herself had a son. Richeldis had a son, Geoffrey, who was a Crusader, and her constant fear for many years is that he would be killed in the service of God. That was a feeling and a situation which Our Lady knew only too well. Also, like the Holy Family, Richeldis was an immigrant. We can tell from her name that she was Norman French, and since we are five years before the Norman Conquest, that means that she had chosen to move to England, most likely with her father or her husband.They lived in a foreign country, and spoke as their mother tongue a foreign language, Norman French, not the Anglo-Saxon spoken by her servants, her neighbours and the townsfolk. Though she was not poor, certainly, she would have been unpopular, disliked and distrusted. Norman French people were streaming into England at that time, and personal, social and commercial connexions between England and Norman France were growing all the time. King Edward the Confessor had a mother who was the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, and it was through that connexion that William the Conqueror was to claim the English throne upon his death five years later, having defeated and killed his rival, Harold, a relation of the King’s on the Anglo-Saxon side of his family. When people fear another group of people with a different culture, and fear that they threaten their country, their culture and their livelihood, it can be a difficult situation that quickly grows out of control.
But the central reason she chose Richeldis, I believe, was that Richeldis had already made a home for Jesus and Mary in her heart. For a thousand years then, and the thousand years since, that is what all of us Christians are to do: create a home, a sanctuary, for Jesus and Mary in our hearts. Like Richeldis, we have the same means: The Seven Sacraments, God’s holy word, the intercession and writings of the Saints, our own personal prayer life, and the community of the faithful which we call the Church. Now, you must never make the mistake that the Church of the Ascension, Rockville Centre, is “the church”. The Church is the body of believers throughout the world to-day, as well as those who have not yet been born, and those in Purgatory being prepared to be with God forever, and those who have reached Heaven and been crowned with a crown of glory by Our Lord. When you see Our Lady of Walsingham’s crown, remember that it is not because she was a Queen on earth – far from it, she was a poor teenager expecting a child out of wedlock. It is because she is the Queen of Heaven now, having followed Her Son and his teachings at every moment, and now receiving what we hope, in time, to receive ourselves, the crown of glory from Her Son, the crown that fadeth not away.
Now why would Our Lady wish Richeldis to build a shrine church? There were hundreds and hundreds of Catholic churches in every locale in Europe, why another? Why a shrine there? There would already have been a parish church in Little Walsingham (as there is today), and there would have been many within close walking distance, as there are to-day, St Peter’s Great Walsingham, Houghton St Giles, the Barshams, and St Mary’s South Creake, and all the same buildings were there in the Middle Ages. So what was the difference? In a mediaeval church, as everywhere else, the feudal system followed you in the door. The rich sat apart, and after 1066, that meant a cultural divide too – the Norman French rich sat apart, in their own luxurious pews, often in a separate chapel, sometimes even owned by them and with their family’s tombs and monuments around them. The more property and status one had, the more deference one received in the parish church. If you were a poor Anglo-Saxon tenant farmer, at the bottom of the ladder, you would have been squeezed in the back, probably without a seat at all. Of course, all the Sacraments would have been available to you, but there is no question that the parish church would have regarded you, and made you feel, like a second-class Christian.
The same was not true of shrines. At this exact moment, throughout Europe, shrine churches began to spring up, and pilgrimages to them. At first, it was because pilgrimages to the Holy Land were no longer possible as it had fallen into Muslim hands and they did not permit Christians to visit. But as time went along, more and more shrines grew up, that of Our Lady at Walsingham, that of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, of St Cuthbert in Durham, and in Continental Europe: that of the Three Kings at Cologne, Notre Dame in Paris, of Our Lady at Loreto in Italy, and of St James Major at Compostela in Spain. But the interesting things about these shrines is that they did not make the distinctions made in parish churches. When you went on pilgrimage to a shrine, you were all the same. There was no difference in dress because travelling was arduous and dirty, and the minute one arrived at the destination, one went straightaway to the shrine, never stopping at an Inn or hospice first. So there were always dirty, disheveled people at a shrine worshipping – and it was impossible to tell if they were that way because they had just arrived from travelling, or because they were poor. It was also considered bad form to exhibit wealth in one’s attire on pilgrimage, that defeated the purpose, one was to conduct one’s self in a humble and lowly manner. To add to all this, everyone knew everyone in the parish church, no one knew anyone in a shrine with people from all over Europe there. All of this meant that when you crossed the threshold of the shrine, the feudal system did not follow you. All pilgrims were alike before God.
The other reason is that the parish church was absolutely and completely at the centre of the mediaeval world – people visited it not only to pray or for the Sacraments, but to get in out of the rain, to buy things from stalls which were often set up in the vestibule or ambulatory, and to make contracts on side altars, which was the required way to do business with each other. So parish churches were humming with activity, and not only reached out to the world, but had the world inside them. There was nothing wrong with this, indeed it is the ideal. But a shrine is different, there the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin, they are liminal places, doorstep places, where heaven and earth seem connected in a special and mysterious way. I have very often been a pilgrim to Walsingham since 1977, have been privileged to visit Our Lady’s shrines at Notre Dame in Paris and at Chartres, the shrine of the Holy Blood in Bruges, shrines of Our Lady at Montserrat in the Spanish Pyrenees and just last year Our Lady of Mariazell in Austria, among others, and at all of these the same quality immediately manifests itself upon entry – the presence of the numinous, the spiritual, the divine. It is not our imagination either –unbelievers who visit them find the same thing, though they do not understand it, it is nonetheless manifest to them. Walsingham is one of the five most visited places in England to-day and that is in a country replete with fascinating and edifying places to visit. More people walk the camino, the way of pilgrimage to Compostela to-day, than at any time in its history, thousands and thousands more than would ever have done so in the Middle Ages. Why? Because even if they are not fully believers, they feel this same thing, and they long to experience and understand it.
So what does this mean to us – sat here as we are, a very short distance from the largest and busiest city in North America, and only second to London, the largest and busiest city in the world? The first, is of course, the importance of this ability to worship God in such a special shrine, not only at Walsingham, but in many places throughout the world. Within a day’s drive you could be at the Shrine of St Anne at Beaupré in Quebec, or within a day’s flying journey at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s shrine in Mexico City, just for example, or indeed connecting for a direct flight to Lourdes from Paris.
But beyond this is the most important reason that you are here. And that is that Our Lady is making the same invitation to you to-day, the same appeal, that she made to the Lady Richeldis de Faverches nearly a thousand years ago. Make a home for Jesus and Mary. Not in masonry, not so that millions can visit it for a thousand years, not for any of those reasons. But for one reason alone – because it is what your baptism and your confirmation and your many absolutions in confession and receptions of Holy Communion are calling you to do and helping you to do: making a home for Jesus and Mary within yourself.
There is always something at the heart of every person: it can be love of himself or herself, it can be love for others, it can be love of money, love of power, it can be a vice, it can be fear, it can be hatred, it is our choice. What Our Lady of Walsingham invites us to do, and prays that we can accept her invitation to do as Richeldis did, is to make that something at the heart of our existence a home for Jesus and Mary. Build that home for Jesus in Mary here in this parish church. Build that home for Jesus and Mary in your homes. Build that home for Jesus and Mary in your heart. Once you build that home for Jesus and Mary, that shrine of love, it reaches out and touches everyone and everything, and then, like Mary, you become a person who carries Jesus within you.