Given at the 2015 conference of Musica Sacra Florida at Ave Maria University.
The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, of which I am proud to be a Priest, takes its name from the small rural village of Little Walsingham in Norfolk on the east coast of England. In 1061, some five years before the Norman conquest, Walsingham was the site of an apparition of Our Lady to a local noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches. The Blessed Virgin, in the words of the well-loved Walsingham pilgrimage hymn, instructed Richeldis: “Take note, my dear daughter, and build here a Shrine / As Nazareth’s home in this country of thine.” Obedient to the Mother of the Lord, Richeldis did exactly that, constructing a Holy House (one of several in medieval England) to commemorate the place of the Lord’s own home, the place of his dwelling with the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph.
Walsingham quickly became a major place of pilgrimage, on a par with any of the great shrines of continental Europe. The shrine welcomed numerous pilgrims of note, including King Henry VIII who (before his somewhat unfortunate change of heart) was deemed to be both a pious and faithful Catholic. Later, under the same monarch, the shrine was demolished, the Augustinian priory dissolved, and the image of Our Lady of Walsingham purportedly burned together with other devotional images from across the country. As the pilgrim hymn once again relates: “At last came a King who had greed in his eyes / And he lusted for treasure with fraud and with lies. / The order went forth; and with horror ’twas learned / That the Shrine was destroyed and the Image was burned.”
The shrine remained desolate until the nineteenth century restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, and the growth of the Oxford Movement—a group of Anglicans heavily influenced by the Catholic origins of their faith. These two developments—in Catholicism and Anglicanism respectively—led to a rediscovery of many medieval English devotions. Indeed the well-known architecture of Augustus Welby Pugin and the Gothic revival as a whole can be seen as one with this renewal. And the current shrines at Walsingham, both Catholic and also Anglican, are a fruit of this.
In the 1920s the (Anglican) Rector of Walsingham, the rather eccentric but inspirational Alfred Hope Patten, restored devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham in his parish, eventually overseeing the construction of a very beautiful and eclectic shrine church—intentionally designed to look as though the Protestant reformation had never happened. One happy fruit of this strange but wonderful development is the somewhat over-the-top nature of much of the art found in the Anglican shrine church. Faux rococo candlesticks and fixtures adorn the building, to the extent that not a few Catholics have stumbled-in presuming it to be the Catholic shrine. Of all of the items found in the church, that which elicits the most comment amongst visitors, young and old alike, is the chapel of the Ascension of the Lord, commemorating the events which we recall in this Mass.
Rather than a painting or image of the ascending Christ, this dark little chapel instead has two feet dangling from the ceiling, pierced, and surrounded by an unlikely looking and stylised baroque cloud. No doubt the chapel has been the cause of much amusement over the years, and perhaps even giggles from the school groups who visit this ancient village, and yet those plaster feet do have something to teach us about this great event in the Lord’s plan for our salvation.
What might this be?
First, the feet appear from the ceiling. This means that in order even to notice them, the observer must look up. By his ascension into heaven the Lord summons us to raise our eyes to the kingdom of his Father, and to allow our hearts to yearn for that place which is our rightful home. We too must look up—orient ourselves toward the heavenly Jerusalem, and become transfixed on that final resting place by conforming all that we do and all that we are to getting there.
Secondly, the feet are pierced. They are not restored to their state before the Lord’s passion and crucifixion, but still bear the scars of his sacrificial love. By his ascension, the Lord also then glorifies his suffering and ours, and transforms it into the means of our salvation. By his wounds, we read in the scriptures, we shall be healed. So in our conforming to the life of Christ—the life of beatitude which is the path to heaven—we must tread also the way of the cross, embracing those things which purify us and make us ready to eternal through the veil into the eternal presence.
And thirdly, the feet are still visible. Whilst the Lord ascends wholly, to sit at the right hand of the Father, the depiction of his feet is itself a reminder that he continues to abide with us in a new way. We will acknowledge this more fully in the celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in the ascension we also recall that the Lord continues to be with us, even now, in the gift of himself in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar, and particularly when in Holy Communion he imparts to us, his children, his very own body and blood.
The feet of Christ—depicted in gaudy plaster or not—are then a helpful object of our devotion. As we look up to Christ in this very oratory church it is his feet to which we come first. In them we see the wounds by which our salvation has been won; in them we are given an incentive to strive anew for the fruit of the sacrifice they bear: our longed-for entrance into heaven, and our taking-into the life of the Triune God, in whose very essence is perfect love and perfect peace. Assisted by the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham may we orient ourselves toward that place of glory and, in the words of John Milton, do all that we can to “keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long / To His celestial concert us unite, / To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.”