Take-aways from the Wild Nature Retreat for Women, July 2013.Read More
I had done an Internet search before we left to see if there were any Black Madonna statues in Paris, being familiar with the Black Madonnas that can be found around France and Northern Spain. There was one, in Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, in a wealthy suburb just northwest of Paris proper. I made my intentions to visit the Black Madonna in Paris, on this honeymoon trip to Europe. And so it was.
After two full days of walking our legs off visiting museums, catacombs and basillicas, I was to take the last morning to myself, for long Metro ride to Neuilly-sur-Siene to visit the Black Madonna of de Bonne Délivrance.
The morning was dark—from black thunder clouds that boomed and crashed outside the large French window of our postage-stamp-sized room, facing an inner courtyard. Thunder, lightening, and then tropical-style pouring rain.
I could have bagged it, but I donned my dark pink rain jacket, armed with my husband’s iPhone (with address bookmarked in Google Maps), and to his dismay, marched out into the pouring rain.
I only had to go half a block, to the Metro station.
A quick 20 minutes later, I was at my stop. Emerging from the Metro, I followed the iPhone blinking blue dot along the streets of a very nice, well-kept and friendly-feeling neighborhood.
The storm had cleared and the sun was shining.
With ease, I found my destination — the Chateau de Neuilly, behind whose gates the chapel was housed. The large, black iron gate was open. I followed the signs for the Chapel de Bonne Délivrance, around the corner, along a well-kept gravel path. And there it was.
Inside the small chapel, it was cool and quiet. A nun, black as night, was gently moving around the alter, putting away accoutrements from the 11:00 am Monday morning mass, which I apparently had just missed. Two women were sitting silently in the pews.
And behind the alter was the Black Madonna, graceful in her flowing robes, with the child Jesus on her flung out hip.
I walked reverently up the side isle, standing behind a pillar, and took a couple of photos. Then sat in a middle pew and felt inside myself—what kind of feeling did I have here in this place?
Actually, immediately upon entering the space, I felt a very quiet gentleness. Walking near her, I was struck very strongly with the energy of utter and complete purity and innocence. The gentle sweetness of a young girl child.
I was quite taken off guard. My idea of the Black Madonna was a strong and mysterious energy, something powerful yet hidden.
I sat on a pew in front of her and wondered at how long it had been since I had felt that unscathed sweetness in myself, that untainted purity of heart.
A long time.
I soaked it in and soaked it in, intending to have my bones remember it.
An elderly white nun, hunched over but walking briskly, motored to the back of the chapel and I could hear her carrying on a conversation with a patron, in musical and hushed French tones that echoed and reverberated soothingly throughout the space.
Within a half hour or so, the chapel was closing, as the sweet black nun told me in accented English, with the kindest of smiles.
I retraced the steps of my journey with a great peace in my heart. Here was an aspect of the Feminine that I had completely forgotten about, that perhaps I did not take seriously, because it wasn’t ‘strong.’ Yet in truth, there was an incredible strength, I discovered, in the purity of Her innocence.
You may notice that the photo I took of this Black Madonna is NOT the same statue as the Black Madonna in the blog where I’d found her first. Similar, but not the same. Another mystery never to be solved.
I recently was in Greece, on a honeymoon trip. We stayed for one night in a hotel near Athens that was (ostensibly) near the airport and (famously) near the ruins of an ancient Sanctuary of Artemis. I was pleased that I would have the time and opportunity to check out an ancient Greek temple. (I didn’t check out Wikipedia before I left, which would have been a good idea! )
Upon our arrival at the swank but deserted hotel near Athens, the lovely concierge told me that unfortunately, the Sanctuary of Artemis was closed for renovation, but the museum of the temple was open.
The next morning, when I had planned on visiting the temple, it was raining a light rain. I could have bagged it, but decided to go anyway. It was in walking distance and I was able to borrow a nice pink umbrella from the front desk, where the lovely concierge gave me directions to the temple, even though I couldn’t get in.
It was a beautiful walk, down a winding country road, in a light rain.
I followed the concierge’s walking directions until, around one bend, I could see a grove of larger trees that struck me as the place. A interpretive sign on the side of the road . . . in English, no less, let me know that this area was a wetlands, and sported a nice basic trail map. With that, I had enough information, and so took a left, on a wet and grassy trail that seemed to lead toward the grove of trees.
Indeed it soon did.
I found myself on the back side of the sanctuary grounds, with a rather permanent-looking chain link fence between me and the ruins. (I’m sure these renovation projects take years . . . )
I’d had a small premonition about what happened next.
Neat stacks of plastic-wrapped and numbered stone blocks, and a large pile of cement bags stood at the far end of the fence. I saw a workman moving the cement bags.
By now it had stopped raining, and the sun had come out.
I walked along the fenceline (took a photo) and the man saw me. Obviously I was very interested in the structure . . . he beckoned me over, opened a heavy iron gate at the very back, and let me in. He led me a little way toward the structure near the large trees, saying in broken English (better than my Greek) that I could only go "to here because of camera". Security camera.
I paid attention to what I felt in this place. From some inside place, this is what I sensed the place might have said to me:
“I am here. It matters to me not whether I’m being renovated. It matters to me not if you come visit me. I am about my own business.”
A strong, almost imperious Feminine energy. I liked this Artemis.
“Artemis was bathing in the woods when the hunter Actaeon stumbled across her, thus seeing her naked. He stopped and stared, amazed at her ravishing beauty. Discovering she had been seen, Artemis became angry and forbade Actaeon to speak. If he tried to speak, he would be changed into a stag, she warned. Upon hearing the call of his hunting party, he called out to them . . . and was immediately changed into a stag. He fled into the woods. Stopping briefly at a pond, Actaeon saw his reflection and moaned in fear, moments before the hounds of his own hunting party sprang upon him and tore him to pieces, as he raised his eyes to Mount Olympus.” —Wikipedia, with my edits.
Perfection. Ahhh, me. I recently had occasion in a lovely women’s group I’ve been participating in the past four months, to come to a shattering realization of just how much of my life has been built around needing to be ‘perfect.’ From all the judgments and subtle ‘not good enoughs’ that mill around most of the time in my brain about myself and others, to the feelings of insecurity I have around people I admire, that voice of Perfection has been a relentless companion. (Though I plead less and less guilty, as my Observing Self is now watching this happen!) After that women’s group session, I picked up Marion Woodman’s "Addicted to Perfection” from my bookshelf. I had read this brilliant book some years ago, underlining, underlining! Now I opened the book to a part where she speaks of the split that occurs in many women (and men, but especially women) between their spirits and their bodies. Anorexia, bulimia, an obsession with outer beauty as defined by others, are all symptoms of a sub- or semi-conscious rejection of our own material, messy, painful, wonderful bodies.
I had read this book before, but now it took on new and greater meaning. (It’s fun how we spiral back around to re-realize things at deeper and deeper levels, isn’t it?)
In yearning for the spiritual, as some of us do, we take from our Judeo-Christian culture that to be spiritual means to reject our imperfect physical incarnation. Even if we consciously do not buy into Christian thought, it's remarkable how our unconscious self may have taken on these ideals. We split ourselves into parts and hide away those parts that are ugly to us. And in so doing, we limp along, unable to be fully, wholly (holy) ourselves.
Woodman speaks of how nature can help us heal this split.
She speaks of how, in healing ourselves, our bodies have to be prepared, be ready, to absorb the work we may do on our psyche. I take this to mean that we have to recognize and accept our bodies in order for the psyche to fully integrate its learning. She says that in (consciously) bringing our Spirit to nature,
“ . . . the psyche recognizes something of itself in the matter of nature. And the unconscious responds by becoming the perceived object [in nature]. What happens is in some sense a reciprocity in which conscious and unconscious, mind and matter, join to produce a third. That third is the meeting of body and spirit, bringing with it an act of joyous recognition."
For me, this profound insight re-affirms the power of nature to heal and whole us. By learning how to really see and feel the essence of a tree, for example, in all its imperfections (it seems that any tree of a certain age has some part of it dying or dead), that gap in our psyche that is created when we yearn for God— ”Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” — dissolves into just being who we are. Human. Alive right now. Working on perfection perhaps, but grounded in our humanity. That third thing, the integration of body and spirit, is when our true joy arises.
I went to the next women’s group meeting feeling slightly that I should apologize to everyone for being such a mess. But one wise woman in the group said, “Messiness is more helpful than perfection.”
Practices for the integration of spirit and body, of heaven and earth, can be this simple: stopping on the street to look deeply at a bug, or a small sprout growing through the cracks in the sidewalk.
Looking ”deeply” is the trick here. It’s seeing with your entire body, not just eyes and mind. It’s imagining you can feel what that bug or sprout is experiencing, having an empathic experience with that tiny being. You can do it in 30 seconds . . . but it’s often challenging to perceive with a clear and completely open beginner’s mind, the mind of a child.
If you happen to be a parent of a small child, lucky you! You have the opportunity to do this every day.
Perhaps taking 30 seconds every day to shift our attention in this way is actually a spiritual practice for integration that brings spontaneous joy. Try it and see!
Early this month (March 2013), I gave the opening keynote at the First Eco-Feminism Conference, “InSpirit: Reviving Our Communities, Our Spaces, Ourselves” put on by the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Utah. A task force of several women worked for a year to conceptualize and realize this conference, in response to their own questioning about what feminism is today and where it is going. In preparing for my talk, I loved wrestling with the question of “what is feminism now?” As the task force of women intuited, I also felt that ‘feminism’ had expanded in its definition and scope and was inextricably tied up with our relationship to the earth. Thus the term ‘eco-feminism.’
The talk that came out of me was my own story of coming into awareness and connection in my own life. I found that my own story was indeed a story of this most current incarnation of feminism. Feminism for me, and I think for many, is now coming to be about the primordial energy of the Feminine; the receptive, creative, moving and magnetizing force of the universe which is expressed in all things — the Feminine that is relational and requires deep connection—with self, others, place and the earth.
It’s difficult to make an ‘ism’ out of something so big!
When we define the Feminine in this way, it does not polarize, but include. We move beyond victimization (acknowledging fully all that has been historically done and continues to be done to contain, control and subdue the Feminine) and into a more powerful place of acceptance and integration.
After I spoke, the entire audience and I gradually moved into a giant circle where we continued the conversation. The circle was somewhat ceremonial in that we used a talking piece, a big backbone of perhaps a cow or bull, and spoke sparingly but strongly from our hearts. It was a risky thing to attempt at a public gathering, but may I say, it has been a secret dream of mine for years!
I was completely blown away by the depth and wisdom of the group. People spoke of their own connections to nature. They spoke of their sadness at the losses of natural places and the hope and exquisite beauty of creation . . . of the amazingness of the moon! An 84-year-old woman spoke of her first circle, in 1965 in a consciousness-raising group. A woman sitting next to me, whose life is dedicated to spiritual consciousness, wept . . . she herself was born in 1965. A man spoke of his questions about evolution and the environmental movement. A young woman asked for the group’s blessing as she embarked upon her education in environmental law—with the intent of bringing the Feminine to her practice in a big way.
And for all the beautiful words, what I remember most powerfully was the energy of the group. There was a profound presence, a deep connection of heart amongst all 50 or 60 of us, all of us listening with our whole being, each of us feel each other’s true nature, each of us giving our attention and authentic caring.
I felt both my uniqueness and my utter embeddedness simultaneously. This is what it means to be in community. Communing-in-unity, while holding and respecting our diversity. This is how the greatest wisdom is accessed—the wisdom of the whole.
May our cultural swing toward the Feminine and the earth embrace the Masculine and all that we’ve created in the last 5000 years . . . and may we sit in circles and circles and circles together.