Against the idols of the Middles Ages came the Virgin -- who around the turn of the first millennium was about to appear as never before in more places than ever, an eruption provoked in large part, perhaps, by a dramatic development, a prayer traced to Irish monks who had long recited the 150 Psalms of David. When laymen wanted to do the same but couldn't read or memorize the long Psalms, the monks had devised a new system whereby the people carried a pouch with 150 pebbles and instead of a psalm recited an Our Father with each pebble. The Scriptural Rosary of our own time harkens back to it. The commoners next developed a rope with 150 knots, then strings with fifty wood pieces. Soon the technique spread to other parts of Europe where the faithful began to recite the Angelic Salutation with each piece of wood and where it became famous as the Rosary.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The words ring with power. The Lord is with thee. That was how the Rosary was first said. Blessed art thou among women. That was how they said it a thousand years ago, around the time it was first devised -- a time like today of miracles and apparitions. They were quoting the angel, an archangel, in the salutation (Luke 1:28) and every time it was repeated it allowed Mary's intercession. It was recited in the same way that a hymn or song was repeated, not a vain repetition but an invocation, and although it wasn't the whole Hail Mary, each recitation magnified her. It brought power because it was an invitation. The Lord was and is with those who invoke Mary. She was the one to go to when a person wanted His extra ear and the best way of doing it was by simply quoting the salutation because that was quoting the Bible and any quotation of Scripture shooed away the devil and brought the Holy Spirit. Each salutation parts the veil just as Gabriel had parted the veil and the more it was recited -the more it was recited in conjunction with a meditation on the mysteries of Christ -- the more of a heavenly atmosphere enveloped the person and the greater was the call for Mary to come to earth. It prepared her way. No vain repetition! It brought Mary. It brought the angels. It drowned out the pagan incantations. And the result was an explosion of manifestations linked to the Blessed Mother throughout the centuries including at the turn of the first millennium.
Mary was allowed to intercede the more folks acknowledged her and so the first century of the new millennium rang forth with apparitions that were not only significant enough to enter the records but would increase every century thereafter. In Turin, Italy, an old neglected church was replaced by a chapel after Mary appeared to a nobleman called Marquis Arduino of Ivrea and promised him his health if he would build the chapel in honor of Our Lady of Consolation, which he indeed started on November 23, 1014. (He was cured of his affliction.)
In Rome at St. Mary Major Basilica Emperor Henry of Italy, who had recently driven an anti- pope from Rome, was praying when he saw "the Sovereign and Eternal Priest Christ Jesus" enter to celebrate Mass, along with saints, angels, and the Blessed Virgin, who sent an angel to touch Henry on his thigh and say, "Accept this sign of God's love for your chastity and justice." (From that time on the emperor was presented with the gift of suffering, afterward lame.) It was like a miraculous Mass at Einsiedeln (where heavenly figures were actually seen in apparition) and as with many places the reality of seeing something not of earth, of touching up against eternity, however briefly, changed the emperor's entire perspective and shortly he used his treasury -- state money -- to build cathedrals. That was another of Mary's motifs: establishing great structures that instead of glorifying emperors -- instead of standing as tribute to men and their riches, instead of glorifying the world -- stood as flagships of Jesus. In England Westminster Abbey was built while in Chartres, France, where Mary had replaced a Druid stronghold, men were seen "humbly dragging carts and other conveyances" to help in the construction of an august cathedral that would rank in the world's top ten, their humility rewarded with miracles and healings.
Wonders were also reported at the heights of Montserrat, Spain, where a hidden statue from Barcelona, reputedly dating to the first century, was discovered when two shepherds from Olesa heard singing and saw lights as they were tending their flocks on the banks of the Llobregat River. It was a Saturday evening. There was the sweet mellow music and a peculiar light shining in the eastern part of the mountain. It was as if a thousand candles were descending. Nearby was a cave. "The astonished boys explained their vision to the priest of Monistrol, who did not believe them and wished to see the sight with his own eyes," wrote José María De Sagarra. "It appeared again the next Saturday. When the whole town had seen the marvel and the priest of Monistrol had told the bishop of Manresa, a long procession went to the luminous cave behind the bishop. The canticles, the lights, and the fragrant aroma that arose from this mysterious place affected the people so much that the bishop, filled with the deepest devotion, ordered that the cave be entered, and there they found the image which since then has been a fount of miracles and an object of universal veneration. The bishop wanted to take such a wonderful treasure to his cathedral at Manresa, but when those who were carrying the Virgin reached the place where today the monastery rises, they found that they could not move a single step backwards or forwards, and this new miracle was interpreted as a sign that the Virgin desired her sanctuary to be erected on that very spot, as was done."
I have visited this spot and have felt the power of Montserrat in a remarkable and nearly tangible fashion. The phenomena had been witnessed on four consecutive Saturdays as crowds sang hymns and prayed near the river and as phenomena rose shortly after sunset one of the evenings when a bright light suddenly split the gloom, "illuminating the sharply cut rocks, and rising and falling over the one spot," according to a later narrative. Then a most exquisite music filled the air and the crowd became silent, speechless with both fear and astonishment. The phenomenon had lasted for about ten minutes, after which the light sank among the crags and the music faded away. "The following day an expedition was organized to visit the place where these strange things had occurred, and it was with the greatest difficulty that those chosen for the task succeeded in their undertaking," wrote another chronicler, Isabel Allardyce. "They had to cling to one another to avoid falling over the narrow ledges, making large detours when the obstacles were insurmountable, and often being obliged to hew a foothold in a perpendicular rock that barred their passage. Near the summit of the mountain they came across a cave whose entrance was partly covered by stones, and after removing these they found inside a beautiful image of the Virgin and Child, carved in wood with great skill." Soon the image was placed in a small church erected on the towering rock, destined to turn into a huge complex of chapels and churches and the splendid monastery, one of the world's great pilgrimage spots.
Time and again from Iberia to Austria and all around the Mediterranean various appearances and miracles would repeat themselves, there would be luminosities that indicated the location of an ancient and lost relic or Mary would appear at the spot of burial (resurrecting what had been hidden from the Moslems) or a farm animal, a mule or ox, at times sheep, would hover at a location and refuse to budge, leading to the discovery of another lost icon, many of which were found in trees as Mary now took over the Druid and Viking spots, or there would be a case where an image was found and moved to a better location but the next day would be found back at the original place, repeating this mysterious relocation until the local people realized that Mary wanted a chapel built at the original spot of discovery for reasons that were equally mysterious. In still other cases workmen building a chapel would awaken the next morning to find their materials in a different place or would see birds lifting chips of wood to indicate the actual spot where the Virgin wanted a place of prayer as she set about constructing many sites of worship throughout Christendom, knowing one millennium had already passed and that the new one would build to a feverish pitch. These were the fortresses. This was the rock. They stood in the time of knights and feudal lords and they would continue to stand as months turned into years and years into decades, then centuries, defying all skepticism.
[adapted from Michael H. Brown's The Last Secret]