15 October 2019

The feast of Our Lady of Walsingham

Icon of the Theotokos ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’

In the year 1061 – five years before the Norman invasion, while England could still be considered part of the Orthodox world – an English noblewoman named Richeldis de Faverches of Norfolk was taken with a peculiarly strong desire to honour the Most Holy Theotokos. In answer to her selfless prayers to this effect, the Theotokos appeared to her in a series of three visions.

In these visions, Richeldis was guided by the hand of the Theotokos and taken in spirit to the home of her youth in Nazareth, where she had received the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of Jesus Christ. The Theotokos instructed the Englishwoman to take special note of the dimensions and shape and style of the house, and to build a replica in Walsingham, where it could serve as a place of pilgrimage to those who loved her, and where they could seek help and healing. ‘Whoever seeks my help there,’ said the Panagia to Richeldis, ‘will not go away empty-handed.

The house that Richeldis de Faverches built in response to these visions was no ornate or elaborate shrine, but instead a simple wooden building measuring only twenty-four by thirteen feet. It is a testament to the authenticity of her vision that the Theotokos told her to build such a self-effacing structure – well in keeping with Mary’s own personality and humble upbringing – rather than one which might come to the mind of an English noblewoman who’d spent much of her life in luxury. She instructed the woodworkers she’d contracted, to build it on a patch of ground that size she had found by her manor, that had been left dry by the dew. The woodworkers found themselves unable to proceed, and a distraught Richeldis spent the whole of that night in prayer. The morning after, however, she found that the entirety of the work, including the foundations, had been moved. She heard singing from her garden, and saw that the whole structure had been carted off two hundred yards from where her woodworkers had started building it. When she reached it, Richeldis saw what she believed to be angels leaving the construction site, where they had left the house completed.

Lady Richeldis also carved from wood a statue of our Lady as she had appeared to her in her vision – seated, with the Christ Child upon her lap – and set it up inside the house. Lady Richeldis or her family later encased the house inside an edifice of stone in order to protect it from rain and wind. A holy well sprang up beside the house, and pilgrims soon began flocking to the site to offer prayers for the intercession of the Holy Theotokos to cure whatever ailed them. This was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England throughout the Middle Ages, up until the Reformation when the shrine was destroyed and the statue of our Lady burned.

The veneration of the Mother of God at Walsingham was restored in the twentieth century. At different points in the early 1900s, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox clergy all blessed the site where the original shrine stood and offered prayers that the practice of pilgrimage to Walsingham might be restored. The Roman Catholic Diocæse of King’s Lynn restored the Slipper Chapel at Houghton St Giles – originally built as a wayhouse for pilgrims in the fourteenth century – in 1897. The Anglican Vicar of Walsingham in 1922, Alfred Hope Patten, had a replica statue built of Our Lady of Walsingham that stood in the Church of Saint Mary, and placed in a new chapel in 1931. And Russian, Greek and Serbian Orthodox priests all expressed their desire that pilgrimages there would begin anew. Polish Orthodox Archbishop Sawa of Grodno established a chapel for Orthodox pilgrims at the Anglican church there during the Second World War, and after the war, one of the pilgrims to Walsingham was the Serbian Saint Nikolaj Velimirović. Regular Orthodox pilgrimages to Walsingham have been happening in Norfolk since 1961.

In the Orthodox Church, the commemoration of Our Lady of Walsingham is held on the fifteenth of October. It is a feast well worth remembering, as it reminds us of both the very human and very this-worldly life of the Mother of God, and also of her instant and far-reaching kindness even to an unlikely penitent at the bottom of the known world. Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
In ancient times thou didst bestow thy heavenly protection
Upon the island of Britain, most holy Mother of God,
By planting in Walsingham thy holy house,
Which suffered destruction at the hands of hostile men.
But now, having been restored, it is radiant with glory
And in faith thy holy ikon is venerated by thy devoted servants.
We magnify thee and, singing thy praises, we cry out unto thee:
Rejoice, most holy Lady, who didst give birth unto Christ our God.

St Seraphims Chapel, Little Walsingham, Norfolk

1 comment:

  1. I have this icon in central part of my home!
    I hope to visit Walsingham one day!
    Rejoice, gentle hearer of all our petitions!