From the earliest days of the Christian Church, men and women whose holy lives – or deaths as martyrs for the faith – have served as examples and inspiration for generations have been honored as saints. And from the earliest days of the Church, St. Mary has been recognized as the chief of all the saints. She is the intercessor for all mankind. We bring to her our most heartfelt concerns and ask for her prayers. Perhaps because of the special role that St. Mary has as our intercessor, there have been numerous occasions of visions and apparitions of our Lady throughout the world and through the centuries. Reports of these visions began as early as around the year 40, when she appeared to the Apostle James (the Greater) as he evangelized in Spain. This vision eventually led to the establishment of the pilgrimage site of Compostella. Other places of pilgrimage have arisen following visions of our Lady: Guadalupe (Mexico, 1531), Lourdes (France, 1858), Fatima (Spain, 1917).
The Orthodox Church teaches that man is to seek communion with God and that God sometimes works in miraculous ways to bring man closer to him. Visions of our Lady and weeping or streaming icons are vehicles for getting our attention.
In the month of October, we observe two feast days which celebrate visions of the Theotokos. October 1 is the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God on the Eastern calendar. St. Nikolai Velimirovic of Ochrid, writes of this feast day:
The Church has always glorified the most holy Mother of God as the Protectress and Defender of the Christian people, entreating, by her intercession, God’s loving-kindness towards us sinners. The Mother of God’s aid has been clearly shown times without number, both to individuals and to peoples, both in peace and in war, both in monastic deserts and in crowded cities… On October 1, 911, in the time of the Emperor Leo the Wise, there was an all-night vigil at the Blachernae church of the Mother of God in Constantinople. The church was crowded. St. Andrew the Fool for Christ was standing at the back of the church with his disciple Epiphanius. At four o’clock in the morning, the most holy Mother of God appeared above the people with a veil spread over her outstretched hands, as though to protect them with this covering. She was clad in gold-encrusted purple and shone with an unspeakable radiance, surrounded by apostles, saints, martyrs and virgins. Seeing this vision, St. Andrew gestured towards it and asked Epiphanius, “ Do you see how the queen and Lady of all is praying for the whole world?” Epiphanius replied, “Yes, Father; I see it and stand in dread.” As a result, this commemoration was instituted to remind us both of this event and of the Mother of God’s constant protection whenever we prayerfully seek that protection, that shelter, in distress.
On the Western Rite calendar, we observe the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham on October 15, celebrating a vision of our Lady to a widow, Lady Richeldis de Faverches in the year 1061. (While this date is past the year 1054, which technically serves as the date for the “Great Schism,” the actions of the clergy in Constantinople were as yet unknown in Norfolk, England and were obviously being ignored by our Lady!) In the vision, St. Mary showed Richeldis the house in Nazareth where she had grown up and had received the visit of the Angel Gabriel, announcing her conception of the Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. She instructed Richeldis to build a similar house there in England to serve as a place where any who sought her could come to pray. So Lady Richeldis built a house for prayer near the town of Walsingham. She had a statue carved of our Lady as she appeared in the vision and set it up in the holy house. A spring with healing water was found there and soon, people began to make pilgrimages to ask for the intercessions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A church was built around the holy house and for 500 years, devout Christians traveled to this remote corner of the world to light candles and say prayers for loved ones and to drink of the healing water. But the divisions which had begun at the time of the “Great Schism” eventually led to more divisions, and the period of terrible iconoclasm which accompanied the English Reformation resulted in the destruction of the shrine and the burning of the statue (King Henry VIII had made 3 pilgrimages to Walsingham before he opened the floodgates which led to such destruction!)
The shrine lay in ruins until early in the 20th century, when an Anglican priest began the work of restoration. Walsingham has once again become a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Christians. A small Orthodox chapel was established near the rebuilt holy house during the 1930′s and there is an Orthodox Church in the town of Walsingham. Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God hears the prayers of all who seek her intercessions.