Lori J. Swick, Ph.D.
This is my gift to the women of the world…
Madonna on a Crescent Moon, Artist Unknown, 15th Century
Most of us, if not all of us, have evolved from within what I like to call a “Marian Shadow,” in one form or another. Despite the patriarchal religious forces that have formed the major contemporary cultures of the world, we still cling to the vestiges of the Ancient Mother of Regeneration who loves and nurtures us, gives us life, and gently guides us through the passage from mortal life to eternal life. But for women she does even more. She is our model for womanhood, motherhood, daughter-hood, and sisterhood. She gives us hope in times of desperation and comfort in times of loss.
For me, within my Christian Catholic upbringing, this was the Virgin Mary, but for others in the world, this role is fulfilled by any number of female divinities including Quan Yin, Tara, Isis, or Thought Woman.
My purpose in writing this blog is to give myself and other women space to fully explore what Mary means to us, and how she “speaks” to us as 21st century women.
The Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli, 1489-90
My own experiences with Mary as the traditional Virgin Mother of the Church and the Black Madonna have shaped my life and female identity. In the fifth grade I was selected by Sister Robert Ann to lead the annual spring procession and crown Mary Queen of the May. I spent several evenings winding and re-winding silk flowers around wire and practicing taking small, solemn steps. When May Day finally arrived, I proudly marched toward the painted statue in the church, was helped onto the crepe-papered step-ladder, and set my wreath of roses and lilies on top of her small-veiled head. As I looked into her pale face at her sky-blue downcast eyes, I had my first spiritual experience as an embodied female. Though I had no means of articulating how or why, I understood that as a painfully self-conscious, pre-adolescent schoolgirl in a starched white shirt, scratchy wool-plaid skirt, and toe-pinching patent-leather shoes, she and I had much in common.
I maintained a fierce Marian devotion throughout my Catholic upbringing, reciting daily rosaries and invoking her input in all my adolescent cares. In my early twenties, after leaving a husband who beat me on several occasions and eventually having suffered a miscarriage, I made an appointment with my parish priest to start the process of having the marriage annulled in the Catholic Church. Within the first few minutes of discussion, he solemnly assured me I was being called to join a convent and take the vows of marriage to Christ as a Catholic nun. He left his office for a few minutes to take a phone call. I sat in utter confusion. On his desk lay a holy card with an image of Mary I had never seen before. Her face was long, badly scarred, and so dark it was almost black. Though she was adorned with jewels and angels, her half-opened eyes were sad and her mouth small and drawn. Perched on her arm, Jesus also had dark skin and looked like a little old man clutching his treasure box.
Our Lady of Czestochowa
Again, I had the stark experience of looking into Mary’s eyes as if looking into a mirror. Still without enough background knowledge to be able to adequately articulate what I sensed, I understood that my parish priest saw me as woman who had been darkened by a foiled marriage and left with an empty cradle by my first chance at motherhood. His conclusion was that my only means of social redemption would be to cloak myself in darkness, hide in a convent, and spend the rest of my life praying for other wayward souls. I slipped the card of Our Lady of Czestochowa in my purse and took her — a sin I never reported in the confessional. She belonged to me in a way he could never understand.
Mary followed me throughout my subsequent years as a struggling single mother, sometimes with the shining face of the statue in the church in which I grew up and at other times from within the shadows of her darker aspects, but always offering me hope and helping me to find the means to keep my two sons housed and fed. In turn, I followed her throughout my college career, taking whatever graduate courses on Mariology were available, and by the kindness of some of my professors, designing directed study classes on the aspects of her that most fascinated me. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the Black Madonna in relation to the Dark Hindu Goddess, Kali and chose Mariology as one of my specializations throughout my doctoral studies. Mary’s initiation of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana in John’s Gospel and its impact on Jesus’ life’s work and later Christian history was the pivotal subject of my dissertation. In all, Mary has been a constant presence and influence in my life as a scholar, teacher, mother, and as a woman in general.
Though no two women will share the same path in their journeys with Mary toward their own self-actualization, in the ensuing years of sharing my story and listening to others, I have learned that though my relationship with Mary is personal and wonderful, it is not completely unique. Many other women are also feeling irresistibly pulled into the spell of Mary in her traditional and darkened iconography for a variety of distinctive and astonishing reasons. Though they have varying stories, the underlying motivations for this new affinity seem to stay as shrouded in mystery as the Dark Mother herself. Moreover, the way she relates to the lily-white statues and portraits of Mary many of us grew up with seems to be even more obscure.
The Immaculate Conception, Francisco Pacheco, 1521
Now, as I sit in the shadow of my enshrined holy card, I yearn to explore the deeper reasons why the dark Madonna gives us such powerful affirmation and strength and the ways in which our “relationship” with her affects our “relationship” with the light-Virgin Mary. And since women raised in the Catholic Church and, ultimately most women who live in cultures that are largely Christian, pattern their own identity as a woman and a mother on the Marian model, how is this light-dark devotional split affecting our complete sense of self?