By Fr. Creighton McElveen
“May the ever increasing numbers of pilgrims who come to Walsingham pray for our fellow Christians all over the world, and for all those who have care of them. Pray too for those who have trodden the ‘Walsingham Way’ before us, and to those devoted labours we owe the restoration of this holy place.”
~ Charles Smith, Administer of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, 1969. Preface to the tenth edition of The Pilgrim’s Manual
Nestled in the beautiful Norfolk countryside, about an hour outside Norwich, is the village of Walsingham. There, in the beauty of East Anglian vistas is one of the holiest sites in England. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham stands out, in the darkness of today’s tragedy, in the midst of a global pandemic, and in the pain of this present world, as a light. Walsingham has been a focal point for prayer, devotion, and piety for over a thousand years.
But what do we celebrate? Why is Walsingham a centre for devotion and pilgrimage? What is the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham?
Firstly, let’s look at history and, within that context, we will be free to reflect on theology. The Shrine of Our lady of Walsingham was, in the medieval Church, the most famous sanctuary of Marian devotion in England. According to Tradition, an apparition of Our Lady appeared to an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman named Richeldis in the year 1061. The Blessed Virgin instructed Lady Richeldis to build a chapel, modelled on the Holy House of Nazareth, in Walsingham to celebrate the Incarnation. After a series of miraculous events the Chapel was completed and an image of Our Lady, Patroness of England, was enshrined in this holy place. Associated with the Chapel and Shrine is a Holy Well. This holy spring has been associated with many healings and miracles. The pilgrim’s seeking to love God and honour the Blessed Mother would drink from the Well as a part of their religious journey.
Prior to the destruction of the monasteries under King Henry VIII, the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (OLW) was known all over Europe as a place of pilgrimage and devotion. Sadly, the Shrine and its image were destroyed in the tumult of the English Reformation. Yet, in 1921 a reproduction of the destroyed image of OLW, based on the medieval priory seal, was made and installed in the Parish Church and the first public pilgrimage since the 1500’s was made. The Anglo-Catholic revival saw, in the beauty and piety of the Shrine, a valuable centre for catholic devotion in an age of materialism, indifference, and dislocation.
The first and most memorable figure associated with the newly reconstructed Shrine was Fr. Alfred Hope Patten. Fr. Patten worked tirelessly to increase awareness and devotion to Our Lady in the Anglican world. Fr. Patten’s emphasis on Our Lady centred around the fundamental mysteries of the faith. Our Lord, the Word Incarnate, took flesh from the Virgin Mary and wrought the beauties of our Salvation. The Shrine venerates Our Lady and makes present, through ancient and venerable Christian practices, the reality of our Salvation. As Bp. Chandler Holder Jones likes to say, we are celebrating Christmas. We are celebrating Immanuel, God come among us.
The reason we celebrate Our Lady of Walsingham on October 15th is due to the fact that it was on that date that Fr. Patten had the image of OLW restored to the Parish Church. An astute reader may notice that many in the modern English Church and our Roman Catholic brethren celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham on September 24th. The reason for this difference is that the Roman Catholic Church wanted to keep the Feast of St Teressa of Avila on October 15 and moved OLW to its September date. This was followed by some Anglicans to foster a greater sense of common life and celebration between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In either event, the Church recognises the need and beauty of celebrating Our Lady of Walsingham as the Patroness of the English people. Ecumenically, the Feast is also observed by some Eastern Orthodox. If one visits Walsingham today one will find a Roman Catholic Shrine (called the Slipper Chapel, a name taken from the fact that many would remove their shoes at this Church to finish the pilgrimage unshod), the beautiful Anglican Shrine (complete with guest houses, refectory, chapels, and the Holy House itself), and a beautiful, if small, Eastern Orthodox Shrine in the village. In one sense, we can see all the branches of catholic Christendom celebrating this particular Marian apparition. It’s a wonderful example to the whole Church!
Reminiscences from a Pilgrim’s Journey
A few years ago, I had the joy and privilege of making the pilgrimage with my lovely wife. The Shrine shop and the Shrine itself makes manuals available to pilgrims—these booklets contain prayers, liturgies, and devotions which aid the group or individual in their spiritual journey. I was given one such booklet by a dear priest-mentor, and my wife and I used it on our trip.
We began with the healing service, in which pilgrims are invited to take water from the Holy Well to drink, and prayers of healing are offered for those in need. Next, we joined a Eucharistic procession which circumambulated the town and the Shrine, ending at the high altar for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The procession was beautiful. Pilgrims from all over England and the world processed behind the Blessed Sacrament and sang hymns of praise, thanksgiving, and devotion to Our Eucharistic Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The voices of the faithful, raised in hearty song, bound us together in a common life and a common devotion.
Next, we gathered to pray a rosary together around the Holy House Chapel. This time of meditation and prayer culminated in our staying well after the other pilgrims had departed. We were left in the quiet stillness of our own prayers. We both entered the Holy House, lit candles for loved ones and spent a moving time of personal prayer and reflection. The seeming stillness and quiet reverberated with centuries of faithful prayers, it sang with the unified voice of God’s people giving Him praise, and it burned with a holiness rarely felt. The next day my wife and I were privileged enough to attend the Sunday Shrine Mass which capped off our pilgrimage in the most perfect way. We knelt and worshipped the risen and glorified Christ who had been so very present to us, and we venerated His most Blessed Mother who had wrapped us in her mantel and spoke to our hearts…she said ‘come children, be refreshed and healed, sit at my feet and learn of the Love of my Son.’
I pray that we might all gather in our various parish churches, cathedrals, or in the stillness of our own homes, on the 15th of October, and worship together. That, in this time of uncertainty and pandemic, we might venerate the Mother of God, seek her prayers for a troubled world, and adore the most Blessed Trinity. I pray that we might be brought under the protection of Our Lady and that we might sit ‘in the school of Mary’ and behold the wonders of Our God and King.
O God, who by the message of an Angel didst will that Thy Word should take upon Him our flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary: grant to us Thy humble servants; that as we believe her truly to be the Mother of God, so we may through her prayers be assisted by Thee. Through the same…Amen.
Fr. Creighton McElveen is Curate at St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody, GA.