Not much may be known about Richeldis of Walsingham, but Sally Thomas' new collection of poems brings her to life
Sally Thomas knows a few things about poetry. Her poems, works of fiction, and essays have appeared in First Things, Dappled Things, Windhover Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and Kindred, among other publications, and she’s the author of three collections of poetry: Brief Light: Sonnets and Other Small Poems, Fallen Water, and the soon-to-be released Richeldis of Walsingham from Finishing Line Press.
Richeldis of Walsingham, a Saxon lady from a smallNorfolk village, is believed to have received a series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary five years before the Norman Conquest. Thomas’ poem interweaves the voice of Richeldis with those of future women “whose lives are threads in the complex tapestry of a holy place.” She spoke to Aleteia about her new work, and about what poetry and recitation continue to do for us.
Zoe Romanowsky: First, tell me a little more about the visionary Saxon lady, Richeldis of Walsingham.
Sally Thomas: Very little is actually known about Richeldis. There’s even been some debate about when, exactly, she lived, but the version of the story I had always heard places her on the manor at Walsingham — a tiny place near the Norfolk coast in the east of England — in 1061. And I think scholars are more or less willing to agree that this might be accurate.
At any rate, as legend has it, Richeldis prayed for and received three visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In these visions the Blessed Mother gave her what amounts to a home tour of the house at Nazareth where she had received the Archangel Gabriel and his surprising news. In the final vision, she exhorted Richeldis to build a replica of that house at Walsingham. This Richeldis did, but not without some difficulty. According to legend, there was some confusion about where, exactly, the house was to be built, and Richeldis’ builders made several unsuccessful attempts in one suggested spot. They would build it, and it would fall down. At last angels had to step in to build the house miraculously, overnight, on a site where a holy spring appeared.
The shrine became a major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, second only to Canterbury in its volume of traffic. Henry VIII, in fact, made several barefoot pilgrimages there himself, before having the shrine destroyed, its devotion suppressed, and the order of Augustinian canons who maintained it dissolved. After World War I, the Anglican vicar at Walsingham organized the re-establishment of a shrine on the site of the holy spring, with a new church. About ten years later, the medieval Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims would stop to pray and remove their shoes to walk into Walsingham, was designated the national Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
What drew you to her story?
Really, Walsingham itself, the place, drew me to her story. We’ve been there twice as a family — once in 1996, when our oldest daughter was a toddler, and we were visiting friends in London; and once in 2000, when we had moved to the UK with our then-two little children, with no housing lined up. Things did work out so that we weren’t homeless, and my husband wanted to make a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to what he calls Our Lady of Perpetual Accommodation. Both times, I went because he wanted to go. My own relationship with piety in those years was . . . uncomfortable. I actually found Walsingham very uncomfortable and a little claustrophobic, as it would be if Mary wasn’t what you were into. It’s a beautiful little village, very quiet — kind of supernaturally quiet. And virtually every shop carries something religious. It’s a great place to buy incense. One thing I remember from our first visit — probably the image that made the single greatest impression on me — was a house in a side street with a bow-window in front full of statues of Buddha. Forty Buddhas, at least, grinning out from this window. And I thought, I’m not remotely Buddhist, but if I lived in a place like this, I would have to have a window like this, if I didn’t just want to run screaming into the woods.
But I did love the ruins of the Augustinian priory. That was where everything really did become even more supernaturally quiet. And, well, all of this is really a conversion story, as I now realize. After our second trip there, in the summer of 2000, almost immediately I started wanting to write about Walsingham. Even though, when I’d been there, all I’d wanted was to run away, afterward in my imagination I wanted to be back — in the ancientness of it, I think. And I began to be curious about the real human person at the back of it, and to imagine things she might say, or think. At first I wrote a lot of conversation between her and the Blessed Mother, but my whole take on Marian devotion was still pretty ironic, and I ended up scrapping a lot of sections because in the end I just didn’t think what I’d written was true — I had Mary as a kind of gossiping mothers’-support-group personality, and it wasn’t right. Too easy, and too snarky, and not true. In the end, she became the person in the poem who’s notable mostly for her absence: she’s appeared to Richeldis, left this directive, and then gone away . . . and everything else that happens in that place is what grows from that seed. And of course Richeldis can’t know this. She knows only that the visions have gone, and that her own attempts to follow the directions have been failures . . . though she also sees the house rise out of the shambles of her own attempts.
Anyway, it all ate at me, and I had to write about it. I did become Catholic along the way, but not until seven years afterward. The poem lay fallow for a long time, too. I was busy with other things and didn’t think about it, but several years ago I picked it up again and found that parts of it still spoke to me. New parts of it — most of the other voices besides Richeldis’ own — wrote themselves fairly quickly. And here it is.
What was it like to imagine her life and express it through a collection of poetry (the experience as well as the process)?
Well, as I said, it was like being eaten at by something that just wouldn’t stop! And, really, I just wrote because the lines I was writing gave me great delight. I’d started out wanting to write something kind of ironic and unbelieving and maybe even kind of sneering about piety and devotion. And I’d started out from a kind of feminist default mode, where I was going to . . . I don’t know . . . deconstruct Mary the Mother of God. Thank God that’s not where I stayed with it all.
The images that came to me about Richeldis herself were all very feminine ones — where she’s old, and spinning in the spring firelight, seeing her wormy old hands doing this familiar work, singing to herself, and being open all the time to having a vision visit her again, if it chose to. There’s a section of this early in the book, and it’s one of the earliest sections that I wrote and didn’t cut. Once I was able to let go of the feminist-y stuff of my silly younger self, this seemed like the real heart of something: the very domestic and homely nature of the visions themselves. They’re not about God as a divine lover — they’re about a house. The thought of this whole spreading tree springing from such a housewifely mustard seed became really potent to me. In the course of the poem there’s a tavern woman run off her feet serving pilgrims, a little girl whose mother has brought home shards of broken statues after Henry VIII’s men have come through smashing things, another little girl in the Puritan period looking at the ruins and being moved by them without knowing why, a Victorian vicar’s wife pining for her old London life . . . and all those voices are part of Richeldis’ voice, part of what has grown from the seed her own faith planted. I loved writing them, not least because they gave me ways to see and write about the place itself that Richeldis alone, as a character, could not have done. But they’re all her heirs. That doesn’t mean that I know, exactly, how they all add up. One of my great anxieties, of course, is that the whole thing will turn out not to make much sense. But I do have to trust that somehow their voices form a coherent chord.
What is powerful about poetry? What can it do that straight-forward narrative cannot?
The poet Dana Gioia answers this question a lot better than I can, I think, in his long essay Poetry As Enchantment. In talking about poetry’s roots in oral culture, and in music, he notes that “[w]hat matters is . . . the efficacy of the performance in casting a spell of heightened attention on the audience.” Here he is talking about the ancient tradition of the poet as performer, before an actual audience: the singer, the bard, the minstrel performing poems as narrative songs. And I think that this is something that even a poem on the page can do in the imagination of a sensitive reader: cast a spell of heightened attention. The poem is saying, Look right here, right now. Experience this. The thing that it wants its audience to experience might be something that would be only a minor detail in a larger narrative — like someone weaving, for example. Reading a novel, you’d go, “Oh, there’s someone weaving, turn the page.” The poem says, “No, stop. This is important. Notice and remember it.”
Is it your hope that the poems in Richeldis of Walsingham, will be read aloud? In doing so, do you think they will be experienced more as meditations?
I’d certainly love for it to be read aloud. I could imagine it, even, as a series of staged monologues, and think that that could potentially be very beautiful and interesting. And while the whole poem does have a meditative feel . . . there’s a lot of quietness in it . . . well, yes, I think someone could meditate on sections of it, certainly, and maybe find that helpful spiritually. Certainly meditating on it all has helped me. I have no idea how it will speak to other people. But reading poems aloud always helps the reader to assimilate them.
How does poetry change us? And how did writing and presenting this particular collection change you personally?
I think that the particular way that a poem can change a reader is by asking that reader to look with the poem’s eyes instead of his own, to put on the poem’s thoughts for a moment. The Victorian educator Charlotte Mason talks about the way that the thought in a work of literature “begets more thought” in the mind of the person reading it — that we know how to think, and expand our ability to think, by reading good and compelling and complex thoughts, that push back the boundaries of our own awareness. But how this happens is as individual as we are. Every poem will not speak to every person in the same way, or at all. That’s not to say that poems don’t have meaning on an objective level — they do, but how their meanings resonate in the mind of a particular reader is, again, an individual thing. But the very fact that they demand our attention in a particular way, and engage us on so many levels beyond the intellectual — they’re musical, they’re emotional, they’re mathematical, they’re physical, oral, aural, visual — means that to be a culture that doesn’t read poetry is to be, more and more, a culture that thinks on a really simplistic and less-human scale. And that is a poverty.
It’s hard to say how writing this particular cycle of poems changed me personally. Mostly, writing it was just deeply, deeply pleasurable. But I also think that there’s great spiritual value in the pursuit of an art form, in observing its disciplines. You learn a lot about listening, a lot about obeying those disciplines, a lot about detachment and humility. You write things, and you have to be willing to cut what you’ve written. You love the thing you’re making, but you can’t love it so much that you’re blinded to its faults. And you acknowledge that when it works, it’s a gift, and when it speaks to someone else, you have no control over what it says. I find that I pray better when I’m working well, and that’s significant, I think. The work isn’t the prayer, but it does teach me to pray. And in the case of this book, while the work didn’t convert me, the finishing of it has been, in a lot of ways, a working-out of my ongoing conversion. My relationship to piety has changed a lot since I first began writing it, anyway.