31 October 2011 a post by Pauline Warner

Mary, Mary quite contrary

If I see a sign on a door which says Push, I always Pull. And vice-versa. It seems that I am just a natural rebel who can never do as I am told. A clear instruction compels me to do the exact opposite!

Perhaps that is why I have been so drawn to the idea of Black Madonnas in church. There is something so mysterious - and so contrary - about these statues. “Why is she black?, someone once asked the priest at Einselden in Switzerland. “Because she is black” came the not very helpful reply. And yet its very unhelpfulness highlights that no-one really understands why these mainly European statues of Mary and Jesus are black.  For they do not depict a Negro Mary and although they may help black women to feel empowered (both of these things are very good) , they show clear European features and are mostly found in France and Spain. Chartres, Rocamadour, Guadalupe, Montserrat…. these are some of the most famous Black Madonnas. In those places, they tend to be associated with fertility and sexuality. Not the things you normally associate with the Virgin Mary in church. Black Madonnas are very close cousins to the black goddesses like Diana and Isis or Persephone spending half the year in the Underworld. And, of course black is the colour of Hecate, the goddess of the witches who was mad, bad and dangerous to know……..

black madonna

And surely that is the point of why some of us yearn for the presence of Black Madonnas in church. The Divine cannot be neatly tidied up and packaged. There is something dangerous and uncontrollable about the Spirit. Jesus of Nazareth said that the Spirit will blow where she wills. So how can we control her?  And he was considered quite mad at times, the contrary prophet who challenged the religious leaders of his day.  In any case, who defines what is bad?

It seems that what keeps happening is that the wild spirit lived by Jesus is just too frightening for us to dare to follow and so the followers of Jesus keep trying to tame it. But that contrary wildness demands to be noticed.

Some people suggest that when church authorities were defining and describing the Virgin Mary, they made her so pure and ethereal, dressed her in blue, gold and white and had her gazing heavenwards that ordinary people reacted against that image. She’s not like that, they said, she was an ordinary woman, far earthier and down to earth than that. So they created alternative images, cast a dark shadow from those too-white statues. Perhaps now is the time to acknowledge that that shadow needs to be brought into the picture for us all to get more integrated.

Another theory says that the blackness (or dark brown in most cases, to be honest) represents the muddiness of chaos (as in the Biblical account of Genesis or the Egyptian account of Nun, the swirling waters of the Nile flood). From that chaos came new life. But first there has to be formlessness while the new thing is being created. (I read recently that creative people have to live in chaos until their work of art is finished. Only then can they tidy up. It’s my latest excuse for never doing the housework – I am just being very very creative).

But if the Dark Feminine does seem to be demanding attention in today’s world, maybe that is because we are feeling that former certainties and nice, neat tidy solutions just do not work. Everything is in the melting pot or the mixing bowl, or ‘the cauldron of transformation’ (to speak of one of my favourite dark goddesses, Cerridwen). When you’re cooking or baking, you just have to throw lots of different things into the bowl. It wouldn’t work if everything was the same. But then you simply have to wait to see what it will become…. you have a bit of an idea, you have your hopes and intentions… but you cannot totally control or predict the outcome. That is where we are at as a human family, as spiritual and earthly people…. everything is in the melting pot…. economic and cultural structures are being challenged, the Arab Spring has brought a new sense of freedom to situations which seemed hopeless and religious and spiritual truths are being recognised in widely different beliefs.
Waiting doesn’t mean that we do not ever have to do anything or make any decisions. It just means that we don’t automatically reach out for the tried and tested or the pre-packaged solution. We still have to chose - and that’s where Hecate comes into her own. She was the goddess of T junctions.  She was known as Hecate Trivia, of the Three Roads (that’s why the word ‘trivia’ came to mean something unimportant. It was feminine wisdom and therefore inferior!) and she gave guidance to travellers when they had to choose which path to take. She sat at that point of decision and helped people to know in the unknowing. And she took as long as it took.

Jesus often took his time as well. Do you remember that story of the woman brought to him because she had been committing adultery? It’s told in chapter eight of St John’s gospel.  The Pharisees were out to trick him. He just waited, scrabbled around in the dust of the earth. Can you imagine how annoying that would be to them? They wanted him to answer quickly so that they could condemn him quickly. But Jesus, ever contrary, did the opposite to what they expected. He showed them up to be real sinners. And they knew it – or else they would have dared to cast the first stone.

But he didn’t let the woman off with a “There, there”. He didn’t ignore what she had done. He told her to go and sin no more. Becoming a disciple of Jesus does involve being prepared to accept discipline and self-denial. That’s why it is a path that few dare travel. It can be a tough road but those who have travelled it or are doing so now, say that it is the most fulfilling and exciting and beautiful road to walk along.

No one can tell you what is the right path for you…. don’t rush the decision…. but don’t run away from making a decision
No one knows what is happening to our world – or to the church -  but we shouldn’t rush the solution.

All true growth starts hidden in darkness – babies, bulbs, creative ideas – all take their time to form.

That is why the darkness of winter is such an important time. Growth happening under the soil when everything is apparently dead and muddy. The season of Halloween, Samhain, All Saints…call it what you will….begins that time of darkness. New life will come. In its own good time amidst the swirling mysterious chaotic forces, through patient waiting and decisive action new life will come. But first there is darkness.

I just wish that we had a few more Black Madonnas in our churches to help us express the power and beauty of that darkness.

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Your comments:

Thank you for this article. I sense it will be a real help to me as I approach Samhain this year(2012).My own life is quite swirly and chaotic with the future by no means clear, BUT I have a conviction that God has things growing, waiting to come to light….I need patience ! At the same time I am preparing to help celebrate Samhain with a group of
seekers/ Christian sceptics/neopagans, and I think I will be able to use your article to help me explain my own feelings about this season.
Thanks for contributing it. barbara

#1. By Barbara Doye on October 01, 2012

This is a very interesting article, and a helpful site. The black madonna is very beautiful,
darkness can be beautiful; we can become more aware of ourselves when there are no
outside distractions, we think we are alone in the darkness but we find our form and learn to appreciate where we are, and the tiniest speck of light will always be visible.
I think the black madonna symbolises this mystery…

#2. By Virginia Abraham on March 14, 2014

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