(Essay 2) The Piggly Wiggly and the Black Madonna by Mary Saracino

Meet Mago Contributor Mary Saracino.

[This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.]

Black Madonna of Tindari, Sicily, June 2001
Black Madonna of Tindari, Sicily, June 2001

To further stoke the fires of my Catholic ambivalence, ten years after my mother left him, my father petitioned the Archbishop to annul their twenty-three year marriage. He had fallen in love with a widow named Rose and wanted their marriage blessed by the Church, an act that would have been forbidden to him as a divorced man. With enough witnesses and enough cash, my father was able to reverse the effects of the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, into which he had entered with my mother, and erase the Church’s long-term memory. In the process, he relegated to illegitimacy, the souls of the six children he had sired with my mother.  In the eyes of Mother Church, my brothers and sister and I became bastard-children. In a strange twist of canonical logic, the daughter of my mother and her priest boyfriend had become the only legitimate offspring in my family. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why my father has felt compelled to say Novenas for his sons and daughters, as if his nine-day devotions in our honor will placate his Catholic God, seduce Him into forgiving us our dubious birthright and accept us into the Kingdom of Heaven.

By the time I had entered my twenties my trust in the absolute authority of Catholicism had been severely diminished. I set aside the mandates of dogma and freed the pagan baby in my own soul. I began to explore what lay outside the fiefdom of the Holy Vatican See. At the all-women’s Catholic college I attended, I was taught by nuns who wore street clothes instead of religious habits, and who were as comfortable quoting D.H. Lawrence as Deuteronomy. Having come out as a lesbian in high school, I no longer wished to affiliate with a Church that refused to accept the holiness of my sexual identity. Along the way, I was introduced to feminism and opened the door to a decidedly different spiritual sensibility. In graduate school, I was drawn to coursework on comparative religion and women’s studies, unearthing the long-buried consciousness of the Divine Mother and redefining my sense of Spirit. God did not require a masculine face. Indeed, for centuries before the advent of the Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, God was undoubtedly a woman.

For most of my adult life I have identified as a “recovering Catholic.” This tongue-in-cheek assertion reveals more about my search to uncover my own spiritual beliefs than it does about my need to distance myself from my Papal past. In sifting through the rubble of my Catholic faith, I was able to cull authentic articles of faith from the glittering remains and safeguard them, discarding the gilded imposters that I had accepted without question. Along the way I created a richer doctrine, not one based on the rules and regulations of an organized religion, but instead one that encourages intellectual curiosity, invites doubt, and accepts the transformation of grace. I am no longer a Catholic, but I am very much a believer.

Many years ago my father sent me a shiny silver medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  Included in the package were two brown scapulars—one for myself and one for my partner, Jane.   A pamphlet tucked inside an envelope explained the power of these small swatches.

Your brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a gift to you from your Heavenly Mother.  It is an assurance of salvation.  “Whosoever dies clothed in this (scapular) shall not suffer eternal fire.”  This is the Blessed Virgin Mary’s PROMISE, made July 16, 1251, to St. Simon Stock.

The text went on to assure that Pope Benedict XV granted an indulgence of 500 days each time the scapular was kissed.

“This is amazing,” I exclaimed as I read the text. “It’s like medieval Catholic voodoo. Where does my father find this stuff? Wasn’t it banned after 1963?”

My mind careened down the narrow aisles of St. Patrick’s Guild, a local Catholic gift shop, dodging racks of holy cards, cases of sacred medals, piles of scapulars sealed in cellophane packages.  I was astonished that such archaic contraband, with its Blessed Mother’s promise of salvation from eternal damnation, still existed after the pronouncements of Vatican Council II.  I flipped the tiny sheet of paper and read the supplier’s name: Holy Wounds Apostolate, Inc., P.O. Box 937, Wisconsin Rapids, WI  54495.  I imagined fervent Catholic guerrillas, working far into the night, in a scapular factory, nestled among barns and pasturelands in rural Wisconsin.  Some of the workers cranked out brown, cloth scapulars as others folded the tiny paper pamphlets and diligently hid them inside cases of white plastic, glow-in-the-dark statues, before sending them off.  They expertly packed each shipment, skillfully disguising its illicit, precious cargo.

My father could have been one of those tireless workers, staving off the impending darkness that threatened to immerse the modern Catholic Church in a sea of amnesia. Their mission was to insure that the Vatican would never forget that the faithful were yet in dire need of such iconography.

I set aside the pamphlet and added the new medal to the chain I wore around my neck.  Its tinny edges clicked against the silver oval of a different Blessed Virgin Mother that my father had given me after returning from one of his trips to Medugorje. I feel a special kinship with Holy Mother Mary, partially because I was named in Her honor, and partially because She is the appropriated, and lesser rendition, of a more ancient spiritual memory: the Dea Madre, the Mother God. She, who had once been revered as Godhead, was now cast as God’s human mother.   These medals of silver are sacred objects. They are my graven images, worn as an act of rebellion against my Catholic childhood and against a religion that had systematically relegated the Divine Mother to the lower echelons of spiritual consciousness. Like the statue of the Black Madonna of Tindari, or the statue of Tara, the Tibetan Buddhist goddess of compassion that rest upon the altar in my home, these talismans invoke spiritual mindfulness; they are parcels of spirit that transcend my father’s Catholicism, uniting his faith to mine.

My spirituality is a hybrid of my father’s southern Italian Catholicism and my encounters with psychic healing, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dea Madre.  As incongruent as it may at first appear, my father’s faith and mine are more similar than dissimilar. We both trust that the etheric eye has powers of second sight.  While my father’s visions are peopled with the saints of my childhood and with Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, and Joseph, mine are filled with spirit guides, psychic entities, and priestesses of the ancient, original god-figure of humankind, the Dark Mother.  Dad relies on the power of holy cards and rosary beads.   I read Tarot cards for insight and carry small rocks in my pockets to keep me grounded.  Whatever outward manifestations our separate spiritual practices may take, in the end, we both believe that faith in things unseen has the power to heal, even if it defies the laws of science to do so.

My father’s pilgrimages to Medugorje strengthened his faith in the unseen and in the supra-natural powers of the Divine to set the sun spinning in the sky.

In May 2001, I made my own pilgrimage. I traveled to Sicily to tour several Black Madonna sites. In that ancient land, the spirit of the Mother God thrives. By then I had long been drawn to the feminine face of divinity and had taken many Women’s Spirituality courses during my graduate school days at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I had read such classics as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman and Robert Grave’s The White Goddess. Much later, as I was doing research for a novel on southern Italian immigration to American, I would come upon Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum’s The Black Madonna. To my surprise, in her work I discovered an unexpected connection between my yearning for the dark female divinity and my desire to learn more about the reasons why my grandparents had been forced to leave Italy.  My pre-Christian ancestors had most likely worshipped a female God; my Catholic forebears had undoubtedly knelt before a candle-clad altar and prayed to a Black Madonna.

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, I was soon to discover, was an eminent historian and professor of women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. As a Sicilian American and an expert on the Black Madonna, she seemed the perfect guide for my very personal quest.  When I learned that Chiavola Birnbaum was leading a Black Madonna study tour of Sicily in the spring of 2001, I signed up. Under her tutelage, my traveling companions and I visited ancient temple ruins, sites that had once been sacred to the Dea Madre, and upon which now stand Catholic churches, most of which are dedicated to the Virgin Mother.

In Sicily, the Great Mother’s presence is as vibrant as the spinning sun. I encountered a pre-historic rendering of Her majesty on Levanzo, a small island off the coast of Trapani on the western (the African) side of the island. On a clear and shining morning my traveling companions and I embarked across waters as deep as memory. A speeding ferryboat carried us to Natale Castiglione, the man who was to guide us to the Cava di San Genovese, the site of Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic cave drawings.  Natale and his family had been the keepers of the Cava since the ancient drawings had been “discovered” by a woman from Florence, vacationing on the island in 1949. Natale’s father had been the cave’s first guardian, a duty he performed with serious tenderness. When he grew too old to act as the cave’s gatekeeper and safeguard its precious images, he passed on the privilege and the obligation to his son.

My companions and I paid our guide fees and then piled into Natale’s jeep.  We bumped along as he drove us up a rocky hillside past abandoned buildings and barren fields. When at last we had arrived at the summit of the hill, Natale parked his vehicle and led us in our descent along a serpentine footpath down a steep incline toward a sea so beautifully blue it brought tears to my eyes. The wind blew steadily as we slowly made our way across the gray rocks and among the red wildflowers. At the base of the hillside, the waves swelled and rolled toward a rocky beach. There, in the crook of the shoreline, the ancient cave waited.  Natale ushered us inside its dark womb. With lantern in hand, he shined light on the cave’s undulant walls, permitting us to witness ancient images of tuna, porpoises, bison, deer, women, men, and spears. In a separate section, secluded in Her divine Holiness, we beheld a drawing, stained against time and the ages in sacred ochre red. The simplicity of this etching belied its magnificence. Inside the dark chamber we could not have known if the sun was spinning in the cloudless blue Sicilian sky. It didn’t matter, for my heart leapt at the image I was privileged to encounter, the icon of the Dea Madre left by a Paleolithic painter for my 21st century eyes to behold. There was mystery there and wonder enough to twirl ten thousand suns.

Throughout Sicily I witnessed subaltern sacredness.  In the main sanctuary, at the Santuario Maria di Custonaci, I knelt before a painting of a dark-skinned Madonna nursing the Christ-child.  The altar contained no crucifix, no images of Jesus, save for the tiny babe feeding at His mother’s exposed breast. To the right of this Black Mother stood a statue of the Goddess Demeter, holding a cornucopia brimming with wheat and pomegranates. She wore a wreath of wheat upon her head. On the opposite side stood a statue of Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom, one of the ancient Oracles. She cradled an open book in one arm; a dove emerged from her heart.  Sophia wore a laurel wreath upon her head, another pre-Christian symbol of the Goddess blatantly visible in this now-Catholic church.

Everywhere the pagan and the Christian merged to form one seamless breath of Spirit. On Mozia, an island off the coast of Marsala, we visited an archeological museum filled with artifacts of the ancient 5th Century B.C.E. Phoenician Goddess, Tanit.  Later, in myriad Catholic sanctuaries, vestiges of this Goddess’s power and form everywhere surfaced; “pagan” iconography morphed into post-Christian images of Jesus’ Holy Mother.

Along the northern coast of Sicily, at the sanctuary of the Black Madonna of Tindari, a mammoth statue of the Dark Mother presides from a commanding center altar. She carries a child in her strong arms. The inscription at the base of the sculpture reads: Nigra sum sed formosa, I am black and beautiful.  Behind the sanctuary a mosaic mural attests to the fact that the original church of the Black Madonna of Tindari was built on an ancient temple to Demeter.

Unlike my father I did not collect fragments of rocks on my pilgrimage through Sicily. Instead I gleaned long-lost truths from a time before humankind worshiped a Divine Father. Instead of suns spinning in the sky, I witnessed the son spinning out of the spiritual cosmology.  I embarked on a journey back in time to a place and a people that hadn’t forgotten Her ancient secrets. They still whispered Her name in the stone alleyways of rock-bound hill towns; they still prayed to Her in dimly lit sanctuaries; still revered Her in sleepy seaside ports and teeming inland cities. Slowly I began to understand that my father’s singular devotion to the Catholic version of the Blessed Virgin Mary was more rooted in his ancient southern Italian heritage than in his allegiance to Christianity.  Across Sicily I recognized this same fervent love in the eyes of men and women, young and old.  Christ was not the object of their worship. The Mother was. She represented the first womb, the cave of consciousness, the core of spirit. The seeds of my father’s dedication to the Catholic Virgin were burrowed deep into the soil of pre-Christian memory. They suckled on the stories and recollections of a time and place where God was a woman.  In my father’s own southern Italian ancestral region of Puglia, pilgrims pray at many shrines to the Black Madonna.  In the recesses of his cellular chemistry, my father was remembering, too.

Throughout Roman Catholic Italy (and in Spain, France, and other places in Europe as well) Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been worshiped for centuries in her Black Madonna form. The common people, the peasants in the fields, the shepherds in the hillsides, the shopkeepers in the piazza, had once made votive offerings to the Dea Madre. Compelled by the unholy alliance between the politically powerful and the religiously corrupt, these men and women transferred their devotion to a Virgin Mother, who was as dark-skinned as were they, masking their subaltern beliefs in order to save their lives. As Christianity acquired political power and economic acumen, the Madonna’s blackness became whitened as well.  In the person of the Virgin Mary, the Great Mother’s subversive nature was tamed into subservience.

Still, this staunch and unyielding canonical fervor failed to silence Her. Throughout the centuries, the Dea Madre has appeared regularly to poor peoples around the world. Sightings of Her have been recorded at Fatima, Lourdes, Medugorje and countless other places.  In countrysides and cities across the globe the feminine form of God is re-surging.  Why this fervent devotion?  And why now?

Maybe my father actually saw the sun spinning outside the Piggly Wiggly that day as he carried groceries home to my stepmother, Rose. Believing in what cannot be proven is the basis of faith.  And the basis of grace is expecting and accepting the miraculous.

Perhaps the Divine Mother is calling Her prodigal children back home to her waiting arms. Perhaps She is reminding us that there is much in the unseen that our modern world gravely needs. Grace. Compassion. The belief in the power of love to conquer injustice and evil.

Undoubtedly, my father and I are two of her many yearning pilgrims.

“The Piggly Wiggly and the Black Madonna” was originally published in She Is Everywhere! Volume 1, edited by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum (iUniverse, 2005).

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