Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
In November and December, we are releasing our brand new 7-day prayer cycle of morning and evening prayers on the theme of Soul of a Pilgrim. The audio podcasts for Day 4 morning and evening prayer are being released today on the theme of Making the Way by Walking! This is one of the many free resources we offer to our community to help support your contemplative practice and prayer. (If you are able to support this work financially in any way, we gratefully accept contributions at this link.)
Advent begins today, this holy season that honors the growing darkness in the northern hemisphere as we move toward the return of the light. In addition to our prayer cycle gift above, we have another gift for you. The video at the top of this email is Simon de Voil’s beautiful song Circle Me – an adaptation of St. Patrick’s breastplate prayer. Simon created a version for Advent with four refrains and I created a meditation video to companion it. Pour a cup of tea and sit for three and a half minutes to savor the start of this sacred time of year.
To honor this season in community we are offering a 4-week online retreat on Birthing the Holy: Wisdom of Mary and the Sacred Feminine inspired by my recent book (the book is recommended, but not required to participate).
In a weekly Zoom webinar I will be focusing on four of Mary’s names and titles: Queen of Angels, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of the Underworld, and Theotokos: God-Bearer. I am delighted to be joined by my husband John who will be sharing scripture reflections, Betsey Beckman who will be offering new dance prayers, Polly who will invite us into creative ways of praying with the rosary, and Jill Geoffrion who lives part of the year in Chartres, France where she leads inspired tours of the cathedral and will be sharing some wonderful artwork of Mary from Chartres.
I met Jill when I was in Chartres for the first time in May 2019 leading a retreat for the wonderful people at Veriditas. That trip was also when I first encountered one of the Black Madonnas called Our Lady of the Underworld, or Notre Dame Sous-Terre as she is known in French.
Scattered across Europe and other continents are a series of medieval paintings and statues known as Black Madonnas who have dark or black features. Many are well-known pilgrimage shrines such as Our Lady of the Hermits in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, Our Lady of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland, and Our Lady of Montserrat, Spain.
Christian feminist theology sees the Black Madonna as revealing aspects of the sacred feminine that are generally not represented in traditional images of Mary. These dark representations of Our Lady expand Mary’s image beyond her usual depiction as a white docile woman. The Black Madonna roots Mary in the struggle of her Black and Brown sisters for justice. Even more than a connection through skin color, the Black Madonna reveals a dimension of the sacred feminine that is fiercer and able to stay present with us through our own times of darkness.
Mary in her blackness offers us a fierce love in which she unequivocally claims that every oppressed person should be nourished, cherished, and welcomed. She compels us to act for justice out of this witness of expansive love.
You find Our Lady of the Underworld at Chartres by entering a door on the north side of the cathedral and descending a flight of stone stairs from street level into the crypt.
The Veriditas organization focuses on reclaiming the labyrinth for the world today and a highlight is the Wednesday night pilgrimage walk down into the crypt and along its candlelit passageway, then finally up into the cathedral itself with a community labyrinth walk just for our group.
Mary sits there in a small chapel where they hold mass each day at midday, a dark Madonna with child carved from wood. As part of our group ritual we sat together before her in silence as part of our preparation. Then Lauren Artress, the founder of Veriditas announces “it is time.” Suddenly voices begin to sing from behind the screen where Mary sits summoning us to follow. It is a very powerful experience.
The image of the women who sit at the foot of the cross, waiting in the midst of the terrible mystery of suffering and death and face this evil in nonviolent ways are the image of sacred initiation of our egos being stripped of their securities into a much more mature and wiser way of being. When we pray to the Black Madonna in her fierce aspect, we pray for the strength to endure our own underworld journeys and not to avoid them.
Mary is more than the Mother of God. She is one of the feminine archetypes who can help us to rediscover our own power and wholeness in the face of disorientation and disintegration. She points the way toward the fullness of our own becoming.
Please join us on a pilgrimage through Advent where we encounter various faces of the sacred feminine through images of Mary and reflect on how they can nourish and support us. We begin tomorrow.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Video credit: Song by Simon de Voil (from his album Canticle of Creation) and Video by Christine