Pilgrimage to discovering healing sacred sites of my ancestry By Anne Z. Parker
From my pilgrimage journal: “Why are Americans so interested in the Black Madonnas?” a French friend asked. “Well, I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. To me they seem to represent a window on to a wider, older, and more mysterious role for the sacred feminine in and before the European Christian tradition”, I replied. “They seem to be some kind of gateway into a deeper connection with land and the feminine, a gateway to something older and long forgotten It is as if we need to follow their story to recover something in the European heart/mind/psyche. Let’s face it, if the European cultures had not taken on the hallmarks of oppression of women and people of color, exclusionary religious views, patriarchy, and disregard for the Earth and ecological balance we might not even think twice about this apparent anomaly. Because the Black Virgin stands out as a persistent symbol that is as contrary to these trends she seems to sign a way out of them.”
The call to pilgrimage can be subtle like an image that arises suddenly in the back of the mind and disappears or it can be loud and urgent like the honking of a flock of geese heading south in the winter. Dreams, images, intuitions are the doorways that prod us on to the sacred journey. When the call of the land, the holy hill, as I came to call it later, came in a dream I knew it was important. Like a passport stamp on my soul I knew a journey was calling, but when, where, and how were not clear.
It was a landscape with mountains and rivers in certain shapes and patterns. In the center was a small hill all seen from above like a bird. It was one of those vivid dreams that only come rarely, where I can remember every detail. I jumped straight out of bed on waking and ran to my father’s study. Grabbing an atlas of the world I sat on the floor flipping through pages. Surely this must be some landscape I had seen. I skimmed over the western USA –land of my youth and many adventures on foot. No nothing there. On to the Himalayas – Nepal and India, even Tibet where I have spent years exploring. No. Hmmmm Then I just slowly flipped through the whole atlas page by page. There is was, the map of eastern France arrested my attention. Lyon, I was above Lyon and the surrounding region in the dream. Why I did not know. Family members awoke and wandered downstairs in search of coffee, surprised to find me up so early on the floor with the atlas. “This is important” I thought “someday I must go there. It must have something to do with my ancestry”
Fast forward four years and I am standing on the steps of the university library. I had just walked out of an intense meeting. In the meeting we, members of my department, students and other colleagues have confirmed that we would no longer teach American Indian studies classes separately. If we taught history it was everyone’s history, if we taught environmental justice it was all voices. We would not ghetto-ize or even fetish-ize some ways of knowing. The meeting had been intense. As the only senior white woman in the room I knew that 500 years or more of oppression was not only a ghost role in the room, but a tangible energy that would face me. I was ready for that I thought. As the meeting closed I saw it was time to leave my American Indian friends and colleagues who wanted to process this moment, so I rose to leave. The only other European origin American in the room, a graduate student, rose to follow me. We stepped out of the room, and then walked to the steps leading out from the library. I was about to head towards my office, the student to the parking lot. She too had felt the intensity in the room and turned to me suddenly, and flung her piece of the energy towards me with a low hissss: “Why are you a Buddhist? Why don’t you study our own heritage?” And then she marched off. I was not ready for that. I was frozen where I stood. I suddenly felt angry in a way I had never felt before – as if the anger were coming from every molecule in my body. I realized I had no choice but to stand there and figure out where the anger was coming from. I thought this is not like usual anger where my digestive track is tight; this is my whole body as if it came from my very DNA. “Ancestral anger” was the word that floated into consciousness. What strange idea. Okay I thought I will take this seriously. I held up my arms as if to address my DNA and said” Okay Jewish heritage how are you?” The wordless response “We are fine, we are not Catholic”. Who said Catholic I wondered? “Okay French heritage molecules or DNA how are you?” I said aloud. The answer came in a chant “Catholicism or death, Catholicism or death, you are only here because we escaped”. That was something I had not fully bargained for – real answers to my implausible questions. I walked off thinking “Wow that is significant, I must check out my heritage when I get a sabbatical”.
The signs and dreams tucked away but not forgotten, some three years later found me heading to Europe. I had imagined, without knowing anything really about them that I would visit Black Madonna sites. Why I did not know, but they were some kind of language of something special, perhaps “sacred” in France. It was 2003 and I arrived in Paris the day of the horrific heat wave. Unbeknownst to me thousand were dying around me that first night. I woke in the night and knew something was wrong. I spent the night throwing cold water on my head. In the morning I went off with my credit card in hand to find a hotel with air conditioning. There on the TV I saw what was happening. It was too scary to head east or south so with my son and I fled north like half of France in August to Brittany to seek out any tiny vestiges of mist, cloud or sea breeze. As temperatures finally went down I decided, although we only had a few days left, that we must go to Lyon. We descended from the main train station in Lyon and stood there looking out at the huge city. How do you address an entire landscape that called you I wondered? There in the center was the hill. When I had seen the hill in the dream I knew it was in the center, but it seemed small compared to mountains beyond. If it was an ancestral call I fantasized some quaint village far beyond the city where I must be from. But there was the hill. We would go there.
A few hours later, after depositing the luggage at a hot, cheap hotel by the Saone River, we were walking up the hill through layer upon layer of history, ancient ruins, and Roman ruins and then to the top where a some 200 year old Basilica devoted to Mary stood. By that time I had done some research and found that the Heugonauts, early French Protestants and my ancestors on my mother’s side, had been given an ultimatum of “Catholicism or death” in the 1500’s Wars of Religion and indeed I was here thanks those who had escaped. I had also found out that Lyon was an area of high concentration of Heugonauts at that time. None-the-less my footsteps led me inexorably to the Catholic Church there on the very top of the hill. Walking into the dark and dazzling interior, so ornate is stopped my mind, I felt a moment of visceral panic. I walked to a side chapel and lit a candle saying “Hello ancestors I am home, all is forgiven, I am here”. This was all. I knew, though, that I would return.
Back home in Colorado I sought out some information on the hill. It was a truly great sacred site of pre-Roman France and the Romans took it over in their earliest efforts to take strategic control of France at a time when Paris was a backwater. The hill had been dedicated to Cybele, dark mother, earth goddess, by the Romans, acknowledging in their way the older local goddesses beneath the temples they built.
Sabbaticals only come every seven years, a long time, a natural cycle. The up-coming sabbatical seven years later had me writing proposals to study the Black Madonnas of France. Again I did not really know why. Literature on them is limited in English. China Galland gives us as hint in her book Longing for Darkness and Ian Begg wrote the main book on them in English, The Cult of the Black Virgin, the newest edition of which leaves out the gazetteer of the actual places. I scored an older copy with the lists and descriptions. Before reading other peoples’ accounts I got a list of the existing ones still in place and, with my green highlighter, I dotted the map of France with them. I found the same pattern many French authors and others have discussed: the vast majority are in France, notably in the south, with a second area of density on both sides of the Pyrenees in both Spain and France, and beyond that a smattering of them in the rest of Europe – Switzerland, Italy, Germany, England and a few in the Spanish colonial-ized areas of the New World.
As I put the dots on the map, particularly the densest area of them across the Massif Central in southern France, I literally felt a sense of releasing some tightness in my chest, as if I was doing acupuncture on my own body. I looked at the patterns and saw that one of the ancient pilgrimage routes across France enroute to join the Camino de Santiago in Spain passed through an area of a significant number of the Black Madonnas. I committed right then and there to walk that route to meet the ladies on foot in their own land. I noticed there was one dot on Lyon. I would be sure to stop off there to see it.
Ironically when the moment came to visit Lyon in the process of driving to and from the starting point of the pilgrimage walk I discovered we had left Ian Begg’s book behind and we had no reference about the location or the history of the Black Madonna of Lyon. It was strangely amusing to be facing this huge city landscape again, with no idea where to go. We, my friend Francesca and I, searched in three of the very oldest churches in town by the Saone River. Then our eyes rose to the new, less than 200 year old, basilica on the hill. It was too new for these statues that had appeared in the 10-12 centuries. But once our eyes locked on the basilica we knew we needed to go there. Up again through the layers, debating aloud where the Black Madonna might be. As we approached the great shining basilica we suddenly saw what I had not seen before, a smaller much older chapel next to it. The sign said it was built in 840 AD (CE). Here, she must be here. Plunging in to the chapel we saw her immediately. -Yes there she was, elegant, high above the altar facing the long rows of pews before her, at once feminine, motherly and tremendously powerful.
I carried onward from that meeting walking across France in the splendors of early summer meeting Black Madonnas. Gathering stories across France and both sides of the Pyrenees, reading the French literature and research, talking to local people, tour guides and visitors I began to piece together the story. My research began to show clear patterns that they, these small statues of Mary and the child Jesus shown with black skin, not only held a powerful place in the history of France, but indeed marked powerful healing places on the land. They, the Black Virgins, did not appear until the period of the building of Romanesque churches during 1000-1150 CE(AD), although some are said to have appeared as early in the 9th century, when statues could at last re-appear in Europe following the period of suppression of “graven images” following the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine, and hence the Roman Empire, in 312 AD to Christianity. These early statues of Black Mother and Child have been found to have of the exact proportions of the statue of Isis, a sacred geometric shape designed to magnify the specific energies of the earth below where they sit. Gathering together the stories and written materials I concluded that healing sacred sites, known to the early earth-based peoples of Europe that had been revered for centuries, even millennia, became sites of sacred dolmen (stone table-like formations of the megalithic period) or standing stones, then Roman pagan temples, then early Romanesque churches with Black Virgins in them. These are not the only sacred healing sites of France but the earth energy patterns I found below them were specific, powerful and well chosen. The Black Virgin statues always have stories of being “found next to a druidic well” or appearing in trees, lakes or steams, or unearthed by a bull while plowing. In these stories it is “She” who always locates the site she wishes to be placed upon. The striking thing one encounters recorded in the literature on the Black Virgins is the incredible persistence of the statues in their original locations over time despite often repeated destruction, particularly during the War of Religion and the French Revolution. Following this pilgrimage path of meeting the Black Virgins and their stories I circled back to spend more time in five Black Virgin sites and study them in detail, one of them was of course Lyon.
As my long journey led me back to Lyon to spend more time on the hill I had come to understand the power of place underlying the Black Madonnas, and the power of this place to call me home to my ancestry. This time I spent three days on the hill, wandering, measuring earth energies, meditating, simply sitting looking out at the far off Alps, watching fellow pilgrims and literally letting myself fall in love with it all. Basking wordlessly in love was strange and heart opening, here in the middle of a huge urban area. It was letting go into fully feeling. For many years I have fled cities whenever possible, in a kind of unspoken, unnamed denial of the land below the bustle, pollution and concrete.
The day of my departure I was booked on a very small regional train west to Clermont-Ferrand. My hotel was so close to the train station that it was only a five minute walk, but I woke very late and found myself running out the door frantic to catch my train. The tiny two-car train was far, far at the end of the whole huge train station. Pushing hard to make the final sprint I leapt on to the train seconds before it rolled out. Throwing my bag overhead I plopped into the nearest seat as the train jerked into action. I was immediately aware that I was traveling backwards, which I normally avoid and would not have chosen. Just then as I looked up I was transfixed by the view of the hill and the basilica squarely framed in my window. My heart opened in love, only to be followed by a sense of deep panic and heart rending loss. As the train pulled me backwards my holy place was being ripped from my heart. Only then did I glimpse how it feels to be ripped from your holy place, as, it occurred to me, my American Indian colleagues wished me to understand. As I felt this I thought about how Europeans, ripped from our holy places by conflict, destruction of earth-based knowledge, and scientific world views, could have been deeply damaged, separated from our natural sensibly of reverence for the land, and thus became capable of damaging others and ripping them from their holy places as happened here in the United States.
A sense of deep gratitude rose up in me as the train rumbled out of sight of the hill. Switching my seat to head forward and on to the rest of my life, I felt full, known and loved by the holy hill that had called me to the journey and to re-finding my living lineage of connection to the earth.