Our Lady of Walsingham

A lot of stories begin, “Once upon a time. . . .”

Our story takes place in 12th century England. At that time, those folks “had a story.” The story was that angels had carried the “house of Nazareth” to Walsingham, a place in the northeastern part of Norfolk in England. There was a small church there, but, as pilgrims came, they began to build a larger building. King Edward put the church in the charge of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

As the church grew, there were two chapels off the sanctuary, one to the right, and the other to the right of that. In one, rested the Holy House of Nazareth. In the other chapel was a statue of Mary holding the Child Jesus. As the years passed, the shrine became a pilgrimage site. And our story comes out of that time.

A baby was born in a small town in central England. His parents were farmers. It was discovered a few days after Swithin was born that he was blind. As he grew, he learned to make his way around the house and the yard. He grew to be a good-sized lad, but he was almost no help to a farmer. So his parents put him out at the gate of the town to beg for whatever people the “house of Nazareth” would give to him.

It was there that he was discovered by Aelred. When Aelred was a very small lad, the wheels of a big cart had rolled over one of his feet. It left the foot bent and misshapen. With the aid of a homemade crutch, Aelred could hobble along. His parents did not know what to do with him. The house was small and filled with children. So they put Aelred to begging each day. As the two lads talked, they discovered that they were just about the same age.

As they sat, visitors to the town would come by, and the boys would hear bits and pieces of talk. Sometimes there would be groups of people walking or riding together on their way to larger villages or towns. Sometimes there would be people going on pilgrimages to pray at holy places.

Tales of Pilgrims

Some people were going to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Others were making their way to the Shrine at Walsingham. The house of the Holy Family had been carried by angels from Nazareth to that place in England. Travelers returning would come back with marvelous tales of prayers answered and cures worked. Some of the stories were so astounding that they were hard to believe.

As time passed, Aelred and Swithin were both put out of their homes. The man and wife who owned one of the inns in the town gave them the use of a tiny shed where they lived together and shared what they had. Many times, as they went back and forth, Aelred would be the eyes to guide Swithin, and Aelred would lean on Swithin for strength when the walking became difficult.

Better Chance with the Lady

After a very cold winter, when the two young men were about 17 years old, they began to talk about going on a pilgrimage. Who knows? Maybe Thomas Becket, the martyr-archbishop, or the Virgin Mary would heal them. They had heard such stories as they sat at the gate. After much discussion and some prayer, the two decided that they would have a better chance with the Lady since she had raised a little boy once.

As soon as the first warm days came, they started to walk to Walsingham to seek the Lady. Due to the fact that Aelred could not hobble along very fast, they did not cover much territory each day. But every day they walked. They would beg from pilgrims who passed by. Kind travelers sometimes fed them. Some nights it rained, and they were cold and wet and afraid as they slept by the side of the road. But then the next day they would keep going.

As they came closer to Walsingham, there were more people on the road, and they found it easier to beg food. Finally the two got to the little town just as they were ready to close the door of the big shrine church for the night. The Brother porter saw them and motioned them to come in. He then closed and locked the doors.

People who had no other place to go slept on the floor of the shrine church. In the dark, Aelred could see the lights of the chapel off to the left at the front of the church. Moving carefully, they made their way closer and closer. People were settling down for the night.

Slowly they inched their way through the crowd until they were very close to the statue of the Lady holding her small Child. Aelred did his best to describe to his blind friend what he saw: the statue of the Lady holding her Child, the candles, the flowers, the beautiful chapel. They both knelt on the floor and prayed.

Finally, Aelred asked Swithin, “Swithin, what did you pray for?”

I Prayed for My Friend

Swithin replied, “I prayed to the Lady that she would talk to her Son so that my friend Aelred would be healed. That Aelred could walk with both feet and without a crutch.”

Then Swithin asked, “And what did you pray for, Aelred?”

Aelred replied, “I prayed to the Lady that her Son would heal my friend Swithin so that he might see. Her Son healed blind people, so I asked if my friend Swithin might see — see the Lady, see her Son’s world and all of its beauty.”

They prayed. They were tired and at peace and so they sat together. They were aware of the people around them. Some talking softly, some praying, some dozing. A lady who saw that they had no food gave them some bread and pieces of dried fruit.

Although Swithin could not see, he had brought along a little piece of birch that Aelred had hollowed out and made holes in for him. Swithin said, “I would like to play for the Lady.” So he began to play very softly. As he did, Aelred tried to stand up. And he succeeded in standing. And then he became aware that he was standing on both of his feet and that he did not need the crutch to stand.

He was so overcome that he began to move. There was only a bit of space cleared, but he began to move, a step forward, a step back, side to side, trying the strength of his ankles and feet. He took his crutch and stretched it over his head, side to side, holding out and up to the Lady in a gesture of honor and thanks.

And then the music stopped.

Aelred said, “Swithin, why did you stop playing?”

Swithin replied, “I did not know that you could dance.”

“You did not know that I could dance? How do you . . . how did you know that I was moving?”

Swithin interrupted, “Because I saw you. I see you. I knew you were moving. I can see your face — that up to now I have known only with my fingers. I can see the Lady. That is her up there, isn’t it? The little child is her Son, isn’t He?” That light up there — it is light coming from the candles, is it not? Is that what flowers look like? The questions came tumbling out.

Some of the folks that were near began to be aware that something special was going on. Swithin and Aelred fell to their knees laughing and crying at the same time. And finally they stopped, and knelt to thank the Lady and her Son. And finally they slept.

The next morning, a priest came to offer Mass with the pilgrims. Word had spread through the crowd, and the priest had been told. He spoke to all of those who were there about the child, His mother, and how the child grew to become a man. And when He became a man, He taught, but He also healed. And that part of His teaching had to do with the fact that in loving Him and having faith in Him, we become, in some way a part of His Body. That He wants us all to care so deeply about each other, that we will, in fact, treat others as we would treat members of our family.

Communities of Brothers and Sisters cared for the Shrine. Aelred and Swithin were taken to the house where the Brothers lived. They were welcomed to eat with the Brothers. They were invited to stay for a time until they felt well enough to travel. They stayed. They began to share the simple life of the community. And while they lived with the Brothers, they learned many things that, due their handicaps, had not been part of their lives.

From one Brother, they learned how to milk cows and feed chickens. From another Brother they learned to grind meal and bake bread. They helped one of the Brothers weed the garden and pick vegetables and make soup. For Swithin there was the never-ending delight of knowing what day and night looked like, what went with words like cow and horse and chicken.

Their story spread, of course, and people wanted to meet them, even to touch them. Aelred and Swithin also spent some time with an old Brother who taught them to read and to learn prayers. He shared stories of Jesus with them. Once they could read, they shared prayers with the Brothers.

After about a year of living with the Brothers at Walsingham, they were asked to join the community of Brothers. After praying to the Lady and her Son, Aelred and Swithin decided that it was time to go back to the little town from which they came. There might be other boys that needed care, just as they had needed care. Or there might be old people needing care, or people needing care on their pilgrimage way.

They made one last visit to thank all the Brothers and seek their blessing. They made a last prayer to visit the Lady and the Child, and to pray in the chapel were the House of Nazareth rested.

They knew how good God and the Lady and her Son had been to them. They planned to spend their lives trying to say, “Thank you.”

In 1538, King Henry VIII turned out the Canons Regular and gave the property to one of his lords. Within 50 years, the Shrine was desolated. However in the early 1900s, through the efforts of one good woman, there was a movement to restore the shrine. By then, only one building was left. But since that time, with Roman Catholics and Anglicans working together, Walsingham has again become a center of devotion to our Blessed Lady and Her Son.

MSGR. COMISKEY, a priest of the Diocese of Lubbock, ordained in 1950, writes from Kansas City, Mo.