Her face was everywhere. Growing up Catholic in the 1950s, statues of saints and their pictures on “holy cards” were a part of daily life. But the scarred face of the Madonna of Czestochowa was special. In our immigrant community, she represented the Polish people’s struggle for nationhood.
A fifteenth-century Polish historian wrote that the work of art was brought to Częstochowa by Prince Wladyslaw Jagiello (who gets a brief mention in my novel, Where the Stork Flies), from a Russian castle, and monks created a shrine around it. When the Hussites (Czech forerunners of the Protestant reformation) attacked the shrine in 1430, they damaged the Madonna with arrows and slashed her face with a sword.
She represented suffering, and as a young woman in the 1970s, I wanted no part of that. I had seen too much of it in the women I knew. Remember “assertiveness training?” Passivity was weak. And the Madonna was the picture of passivity, cradling her crucified son in the Pieta, never smiling, eyes forever downcast.
Many years of living have taught me that most lives have their share of suffering. Sure, my religious upbringing went too far. I still cringe at the bloody body on the cross. But human suffering and even death can teach us compassion and solidarity with those who suffer, like the people struggling against oppression. Like abused women. Like refugees and asylum seekers.
In the process of living our lives, most women have been scarred. Most of us at times feel unattractive. Our faces need moisturizer and makeup and the aptly named concealer.
A few years ago, I learned there are hundreds of Black Madonnas all over Europe, mainly of medieval origin, all with dark skin. I visited one at a monastery in Montserrat, Spain, and stood in line to touch her hand. While researching my next novel, I discovered that the gypsies or Romany people honor St. Sara, a dark-skinned Egyptian Black Madonna, at a chapel in France, calling herSara la Kali, a connection to the Hindu Goddess. Since the main characters of my book will go on a pilgrimage to Czestochowa and meet up with some gypsies, I’m excited to write what ensues.
For some reason, this mysterious mother figure fascinates me. Joan Didion famously said “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
What about you? Has there ever been a feminine icon in your spiritual life? How do you think of her now?
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