I grew up in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. I served as an altar boy at the early morning weekday Masses which were still in Latin. When I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout I made a fifty-mile pilgrimage on foot to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Devotion to Mary was very much part of the ethos of the church that reared me. At the front of the small parish church in Warrenton, Virginia were two side altars flanking the high altar. On the altars were votive lights and above each of the side altars was a polychrome statue. On one side St. Joseph and on the other was the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like all Roman Catholic children, I said the Hail Mary many times a day. There was a weekly Rosary in the parochial school and the Hail Mary was the most frequent of corporate prayers, more frequent even than the Our Father. For all this I was more fascinated by the Statue of St. Joseph and as I remember did not bug my parents for coins to light a candle for Mary as I did for St. Joseph. The kindly patriarch of the Holy Family seemed an antidote to the very matriarchal world of a parochial school run by an order of genuinely good women who were vocal, explicit, and overt in their despair about the male of the species. The Rosary was imposed for violations of school discipline. I went through a period of saying my nightly prayers where I became convinced that if I did not say five Hail Marys for each of my parents and brother and others that I loved (where would the list end?) they would surely die. This combination of bad theology and childhood magical thinking might have been dissolved if I had bothered to tell anyone about it. Instead, I was developing an allergy to Marian spirituality.
Like a lot of teenagers, I turned my back on the faith. I found my genuine questions about faith were not well received. I think that would be different now, but such questions were not greeted warmly in the late 1950s. I also discovered what the late fiction writer, Episcopalian and sometime cathedral librarian, Madeline L’Engle called, “the perfidy of adults.” In my last year of college, I had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ which ultimately led to finding the Episcopal Church and to ordination. I found the strong message of grace in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer a healing and holy word that I had not heard in the church of my childhood. I think perhaps it was there, but I first heard it in the cadences of the BCP.
Since coming to faith as a young adult I have been in Anglo-Catholic orbits. Finding the Church of the Advent in Boston during seminary was very formative. Marian devotion was one part of the Anglo-Catholic package that did not gain my interest. I have acknowledged Mary as an indispensable part of the story of our salvation and as the model of both the Christian soul and the Church. I have not until very recently wanted to say the Hail Mary nor has the Lord’s mother been a significant feature in my spirituality. Each year on the fourth Sunday of Advent I would give my Mary sermon and not think much more about her until August and the next Advent and Christmas. I almost never said a Hail Mary and certainly did not venture the post-traumatic stress which would be initiated by a Rosary.
After a quarter of century of parish ministry and eight years teaching at Trinity School for Ministry, I became the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill, New York. This is a lovely 19th century stone church in a historic Hudson River town. The heritage of the parish is Anglo-Catholic and the church has a very small chapel that can be heated efficiently and separately. It begged for a daily Mass, which I announced thinking that probably my wife and I would be the only communicants. In fact, a faithful daily congregation came together and the parish is still offering a daily Mass.
In the sacristy there was a Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar, and I would keep all the remembrances on that Kalendar feeling that I was honoring the tradition of the parish. In due course the 24th of September came around, which is the date for honoring Our Lady of Walsingham. I knew the story of Walsingham from teaching ecumenical theology. Walsingham is a place of pilgrimage for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It is a place of spiritual healing and of healing of the schism in the body of Christ. As an enthusiastic ecumenist I very happily got out the readings and a little information for the congregation on Fr. Hope Patten and the restoration of the shrine. As I was celebrating that Mass I experienced the overpowering thought that I should organize an Ecumenical Solemn Evensong in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham, preceded by a Roman Catholic and an Anglican theologian giving papers on Mary.
This seemed to me an implausible event for a small parish and destined to fail. Yet I could not shake the extraordinarily strong feeling that I must do this. I invited our retired bishop and theologian friends from both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal side. We invited all the local churches. Almost a hundred people came and listened attentively to the papers and then attended the Evensong presided over jointly by the retired Episcopal bishop and a Franciscan friar. As part of the Evensong, we had the sacramental rite of healing. We had groups of clergy and laity in the four corners of the church purposely drawn from both communions, and then two stations for the laying on of hands and anointing, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican, so that people could choose their sacramental minister. Most people went to both clergy for anointing.
The Ecumenical Solemn Evensong in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham preceded me to the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany where I was called to be dean. It seemed meet and right to transfer the event to a more central venue. The Roman Catholic bishop of Albany and the rector of the Roman Catholic Cathedral have been among the preachers. Mary has broken into my life and insisted on attention and shown me her power to bring healing and reconciliation to the Church and to gather congregations that would not otherwise be gathered.
A few years ago, I gave a talk on modernity and mission to the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. I made a list of missionary proposals for mission to the late modern world. Among them I was surprised to find that I had written, “Cultivate Marian Spirituality.” I view the defining problem of modernity as the idol of the autonomous self, and when I tried to think of what Christian word could be spoken to those suffering the cruel service of this idol I was drawn immediately to Mary and to her humility, openness, and suppleness in the hands of God. A church that is blessed because it humbly receives the gift announced by the Angel is the church that will have the heart and spirit to convert the stony self-sufficiency of our time. A missionary church is gift-dependent and not self-sufficient. I now say the Hail Mary frequently, the Angelus when I can, and even pray the Rosary now and then, and every Saturday when the calendar does not indicate another feast I offer the daily Mass in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of The Cathedral of All Saints and archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.