Ninety two years ago to this day, on the Feast of the Presentation of our Lady, November 21 1924, in the little Anglo-Catholic mining village of S Hilary in Cornwall, where Fr Bernard Walke so heroically worked and suffered to establish the Faith, one of his collaborators had a remarkable vision. Mother Theresa, Foundress of the Franciscan Servants of Jesus and Mary, describes it:
"We were preparing to go to church as usual just before 9 p.m.. It was a dark misty night, there was no moon and the stars were not showing at all. As I came down the stairs from my bedroom, I saw through a long window on the landing that there was a great glow of light shining all round the house and lighting up the fields beyond the house. My first thought was that there must be a fire somewhere, though the light was not red but white, and I called to Emma to come out with me to see from where it was coming. We went out of the front door, which opened straight on to a lane, and stood in the middle of the lane to see better.
"At the side of the house there was a gigantic figure, veiled and crowned in a dazzling, perfectly still light. The figure seemed to reach from the sky down to the ground. It was the figure of a woman but we saw no features, the face, as well as the rest of the figure, was veiled in the pure light. We could see the other's faces and the hedges in the lane, and the fields beyond the lane, quite clearly in this light. The figure did not move at all, though we stood silently watching it for nearly ten minutes, It was still there when we left and walked up to the church, but there was no sign of it when we returned in about three quarters of an hour. We did not speak, either that night or for a long time after, to one another about what we had seen.
"I think, while I was looking at the figure, I did not reflect at all on what I saw. I hardly even wondered at it, I watched with a great sense of quietness within myself and with no surprise. Afterwards, while we were praying in church, there came into my mind and soul a certainty that what we had seen concerned our Lady and must have been an apparition of her ... "
I think the most remarkable thing about this is that our Lady said nothing. There is Light: but there is nothing here of all the daily chatter and bustle reported from Medjugorje; instead, there is Silence! I am powerfully reminded of the Byzantine liturgical texts for our Lady's Presentation, with their incessant emphasis on the theme of Light. And we recall another Byzantine perception, which links the sojourn of the Mother of God in the Temple with the hesychast ('silent') tradition of prayer. Yet I think it unlikely that the Cornish experience was a product of subconscious memories because I know of no evidence that Mother Foundress was a student of things Byzantine. Surely, it truly was Mary, Queen of Athos, the exemplar of hesychia, the prayer of Silence, who came to that Cornish lane in a great veil of Light, on this her Feast of Light and of Silence, and said nothing, and stood in silent prayer, and gave her Son's gift of Silence ('... perfectly still Light ... the figure did not move ... we stood silently ... I watched with a sense of great quietness ...'). The messages the Mother of God brings when her Son sends her among us do not always have to be verbal.
Oh dear ... I suppose this account raises the possibly contentious question of Appearances of our Lady to those not in full canonical communion with the See of Peter. The Catholic Church has never taught that such appearances are to be denied. Unitatis Redintegratio (3) teaches ...ex elementis seu bonis, quibus simul sumptis ipsa Ecclesia aedificatur et vivificatur, quaedam immo plura et eximia exstare possunt extra visibilia Ecclesiae catholicae saepta ... haec omnia, quae a Christo proveniunt et ad Ipsum conducunt, ad unicam Christi Ecclesiam iure pertinent (many of the good things by which the Church is built up can exist outside her visible boundaries, and they by right belong to her). This was far from an innovation in teaching; it expresses what had for centuries been Catholic praxis. And I can cite the fact that Eastern Catholic calendars today include liturgical commemorations of graces bestowed through the hands of the Mediatrix of All Graces extra visibilia Ecclesiae catholicae saepta. Subject to correction, I see no reason not to accept, as a private opinion, the probable authenticity of such reported visions. The Church, of course, reserves to herself the authoritative judgement about all such matters ... both within her visibilia saepta and outside them. Readers will remember the Apparitions in a Coptic context at Zeitun; and the appearances of our Lady of the Atonement to Anglicans not yet in Full Communion with the Holy See.
I will dare to go further. It seems to me that the powerful converging arguments for the authenticity of such an Apparition as this, on a day such as this, afford support to the teaching of Vatican II, about the authenticity of the Lord's gifts outside the visible boundaries of His Church; gifts which are graces truly belonging to the Church herself.