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Miriam Leading the Women in Celebration

This quilted icon depicts Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, leading the women in celebration after crossing the Red Sea. Since women were usually marginalized in that culture, it is unusual for a woman to be named a prophetess and even more unusual to lead anything!

“Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…'” Exodus 15:20-21

I call this hearty group the Red Sea Band!

I chose to name the women after my favorite women in scripture and give them more modern instruments. So from the top clockwise are Miriam, with the necessary casseroles, Tamar on tamborine, Lydia on electric guitar, Mary Magdalene on drums, and Hannah on Native American flute.

Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflection on this icon:

What most attracts you to this icon?

Which woman do you most identify with and why?

How has God triumphed in your life?

What makes you want to dance and sing?

The Black Madonna

I am standing in front of an antique statue, about four feet high, encased in protective plate glass, listening to the wisdom of one of the most intriguing women I’ve ever seen. I am alone, amazingly enough, in a Benedictine monastery nestled into the side of a mountain in Montserrat, about thirty miles from Barcelona, Spain. This is the second day of my silent retreat here, which is an important part of my pilgrimage to Spain to visit sites honoring two of my women mentors.

I have already been to Avila to connect with Teresa, a 16th century reformer and Christian mystic and now I am here at Montserrat, on a retreat with the Mary, the mother of God in the form of the Black Madonna. I come to see her early in the morning and late in the afternoon before and after the thousands of pilgrims visit. I am staying here by myself and am the only English speaker except for the young monk who registered me and showed me to my room.

Why had I chosen to visit the Black Madonna? It’s a long story. A short version suffices. Several years before my pilgrimage I heard about this mysterious phenomenon, of statues or paintings of Mary the mother of God, frequently with Jesus on her lap, whose skin tone was black. There were various explanations, like the fumes from candles causing the darkening, but there were statues with no candles that were also black. I was intrigued. I read a book describing holy female figures in several religious traditions who represented compassion, strength, suffering and pain well embraced. I found out that Lech Walenca, the solidarity poet and hero in the freeing of Poland from Soviet rule, and later it’s President, wore a Black Madonna lapel pin. I read about various sites of the Black Madonna all across Europe and how millions of pilgrims came each year, some crawling the last mile, to be in the presence of the Black Madonna.

Some nearly cultish stories have surfaced recently about her but I don’t believe them nor find them compelling. In searching for information I found a more in- depth MA thesis by Frederick Gustafson, which helped me to understand why she was so appealing to me. In eastern and southern Europe she had come to signify life’s suffering as redemptive and transformative. Gustafson writes:

The Black Madonna not only touches those in the “valley of tears,” she is the “valley of tears.” She is life with all its entanglements…She is intriguing to so many simply because of her ability to entice the agony of death, senseless pain and suffering, meaninglessness, futility, sense of loss out of a person’s soul into harsh but clear consciousness. In her case, there seems to be another quality here, however, in that she not only entices these out of a person; she also blesses them. She blesses the despair, so to speak…She blesses these experiences in turn as holding a viable place in the harmonious balance required if life, as known through the psyche, is to have not only depth and continuity but also hope and promise. She blesses the dark side of life and places the unanswerable within the context of a greater master plan, which lies, for the most part, outside the consciously visible.

I was in a difficult time of my life, struggling with choices I had made that were wreaking havoc on my life. I felt there was no way out of my self-made prison and I was trapped. I wish I could have called on the other version of Mary, the virgin Mary, to walk beside me as many people could, but my childhood had pretty much sanitized her to the point of uselessness. She was a totally submissive woman and if you weren’t like her you were in danger of being labeled more like Mary Magdalene, who in those days was depicted as a prostitute. It seemed those were the only alternatives. It left me with no female role model to relate to who was at all in the inner circles of Jesus.

So when I learned about the Black Madonna’s sense of pain and suffering while still being a strong woman, I could relate to her. Her blackness for me epitomized the wisdom of the Black experience which has emerged out of deep pain and injustice and which, in a deeply moving way, has mostly transcended that pain by not revenging it. The Black Madonna represents, for me, an internalized post-resurrection image of Mary, as the woman the mother of God became.

When I visited her site at the Benedictine Monastery I felt soothed as I looked into her face.   She had a deeply compassionate look about her, the look of a woman who knows all pain and has not only survived, but has become who she was meant to be. Her dark face and eyes were intense, yet searching and loving. If you faced her for a few minutes, her eyes penetrated your soul. I knew this was a holy place and that she would be my teacher. As I stood there in front of her she instructed me by saying, “I understand pain. I transcend pain.”

The next morning I went to a small chapel behind the statue. There was a hole in the wall so we could see her. I wanted to have Eucharist in her presence and the brochure said all were welcome to participate. There were just two of us in the chapel so it was intimate. But when I went forward to be served, the priest refused to serve me. I sat back down feeling shamed and unclean. I looked up at the back of the Black Madonna in a lament of how broken the church is. And she soothed me with these words. “There is so much shadow in the world, even here in my home, right here in this room. Don’t let this deter you. I am shadow. I am beyond shadow. I represent all. I care for all. I heal all. Peace. Let peace prevail over shadow.”

I’ve had this experience of injustice, misunderstanding, and hurt from men before. She knew it. She spoke into my pain. After that I knew her heart personally. And I knew she would be my guide for life. I went to the quiet prayer corner of the monastery and lit a candle for that priest. I carried her healing light, giving it to him, to overcome shadow. Now, on my prayer altar, along with my sculpture of open hands, my scripture cards, and my candle, I have a small statue of the Black Madonna of Montserrat with Jesus on her lap. I can feel her soothing me and smiling just a little bit in recognition of our shared strength.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

Which historic religious/spiritual figures do you most admire and why?

When have you taken an intentional trip or pilgrimage to be in touch with a spiritual person or place?

What did you experience and how did it affect you?

What truths about yourself did you uncover?

How has your faith changed as a result of this experience?

Animals as Angels

Humans have had special relationships with animals for a long time. Some good. Some not so good. In Biblical lore there was the divisive talking snake in Eden, all the plagues in Egypt, and the big fish Jonah encountered. On the positive side there was the warning from the talking donkey, the bird scout who returned with the olive branch after the flood, the dove that showed up for Jesus’ baptism and the image Jesus used of a mother hen with her chicks to depict his love for Jerusalem.

Many of us have special relationships with animals. Domesticated animals like birds, dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep. Our pets are very significant to us. People in senior housing do better when there are pets around. Even the pets do better when people are around. Horses and dogs are used as therapy animals because of their ability to read people’s moods. Cows are healthier when they have personal names and are loved. What is it about pets that is so important to us that when they die, it is like losing a family member? Is it love, companionship, protection, something to care for, a forgiving presence? Maybe all of the above. One of the most important things we get from pets, I think, is loving attention and touch. Our pets love to be touched and to touch us in return—contact with another living being. We are starved in our culture for non-sexual loving touch. Pretty simple. Pretty core.

Then there are the contacts and relationships we have with wild animals. These contacts are even more intriguing because they are more mysterious and seemingly happenstance. When people are willing to talk about these experiences a lot of soothing stories emerge. One friend, whose daughter Robin died young, encountered a robin at her daughter’s gravesite nearly every time she visited. Another friend who had breast cancer, and who had as her personal story the image that she was emerging from a cocoon, watched as a butterfly landed on her shoulder and stayed for forty-five minutes only to brush her cheek as it flew off.

I have had a lot of memorable contacts with birds. On the anniversary of my co-author’s death a bird sat on my shoulder for thirty minutes. Then a few years later when I was arriving to teach our material at a venue that made me anxious, another bird came and sat on a friend’s hand just a few inches away from me and looked at me for a full minute. Another time when I was on retreat and was making a difficult decision I encountered an owl in the wild for the first time and we just watched one another for about twenty minutes. Coincidences? Could be.

I know this is more spiritual than rational but I like to think that these unusual experiences with animals are little angel appearances. In scripture angels come to deliver messages, to warn, to comfort, to challenge and to call. Women who were powerless in those cultures heard some of the most revered messages. Hagar, Hannah and Mary are good examples. They were all called to be courageous and to enter into a new way of life. Their stories still inspire us.

So our animal contacts, if we think of them as angel appearances, can bring more meaning to the encounter. I’d like to think that the robin in the cemetery is a personal sign of comfort for my friend in the loss of her daughter. I felt the presence of my co-author with both bird experiences. As I walked into that new venue to teach I was calmer and more prepared, knowing he was with me. We’ve all heard other more amazing stories about contacts with porpoises, eagles, owls, and turtles that defy conventional wisdom.

What about the domesticated pet encounters as angel presences? This may seem far fetched but let’s explore it anyway. Take my cat, Mr. Nelson. He, like many other cats, has an uncanny sense of me and other people. He picks up my moods and acts accordingly. When I am sad or grieving he sits on my lap in a certain way so his warm tummy is in contact with mine. It is amazingly comforting to have a pet sit so close to me when I am sad. In the morning during my prayer time, he normally jumps in my lap and eventually rolls over on his back so I will rub his chin, neck and tummy while he purrs. Soon he’s asleep with his soft snoring. Bliss.

But on those days that I am a bit tense, he either doesn’t turn over on his back or he doesn’t even sit in my lap. So now I can measure how calm I am by whether he jumps into my lap, turns over, or does all that and falls asleep. He’s like a barometer for me and he is so honest. He never pretends to be or feel anything other than what he is, so I can trust that. He seems like an angel presence to me, comforting me but also helping me to monitor my moods and get back on track. Each time he comes near my chair, he looks into my eyes and scans them to see what my mood is. It feels as if he is looking right into my soul.

Speaking of looking into people’s souls, when I have clients at my home I can gain additional perspective on their level of anxiety by the way in which Mr. Nelson reacts to their presence. If he just sits next to me on the sofa or on a chair or in another room, it is a sign of calm. But if he noses around them or even nips at their feet, it is a sign to me of their inner stress. I just escort him into another room and take in this information so I can be more compassionate with my client. The same holds true for me. If I am too stressed or wound up or busy he will turn into a warning cat or will even get nippy with me. Sometimes when I’ve been on my computer too long, he will even jump up and sit right on the keyboard so I can’t type any more. I know then, that it’s time to take a break, maybe even follow him to the sunniest spot in the house (all cats know where the sunniest spot in the house is) and take a catnap with him.

Perhaps these deep encounters with pets are simply God’s ways of continually comforting us so we feel connected and loved. That would be enough. But to me a cat’s purr sounds like an angel hummingJ

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a pet that you felt knew you at a deep level?

How did your pet affect you?

What encounters have you had with “wild” animals?

When have you felt there was a more-than-coincidence factor with a wild animal?

How do you encounter angels or God’s presence in any of these encounters?

Dear Subscribers,

For the next several weeks I am going to send you essays, poems, videos and photos that are what I would call “farther out on the margins” or “farther out on the limb” from what I normally write about. Bear with me. Some of these may seem even strange to you (like animals as angels), but I hope they will make you ponder, maybe even chuckle. And God is in all of them in some way or other. So enjoy.

As usual, I value your comments whether on line or in person. I’m also very close to publishing the book I just finished on suffering and intimacy with God and will let you know when it is available.


Is Money the Culprit?

Money is complicated. I think most of us have had issues with money at some point in our lives and may have issues now; how to make money, what to do about credit, how to manage money, how to release it, how to be lovingly detached from it, how to keep it from ruling us, how to appreciate it, how to be generous with it. Money can liberate us, free us from anxiety or it can cause anxiety, no matter how much we have. No matter what our relationship is with money, it is a teacher because it taps into our basic security and trust issues.

Money is complicated in scripture too. In Acts the new believers share what they have generously with each other. The Good Samaritan is held up as an example of neighborliness. Jesus shares all of his resources with those he encounters, lives on little and gets refilled by being alone with God. But in scripture people also steal money or withhold it from the community. The rich man who comes to Jesus just cannot part with his wealth when Jesus invites him to give it away. Judas betrays for money. Jesus says that we can gain the whole world and still lose our souls. In the book of Timothy, Paul says that leaders who lust for money bring nothing but trouble, lose their footing and the faith, and live to regret it later.

So is money the culprit? I don’t think so. Money just is. Our relationship with money, God and ourselves determines how money affects us. I’ve found that when I am vulnerable in my life, like during a major transition or in a time of crisis, money takes on more significance, because I am dealing with basic issues of safety and security, the bottom rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Several years ago I was faced with one of those turning point times in life. I was single, no longer able to travel and do public speaking for a living because of the stress to my system, and wondering about my future. Where would I live, how would I earn a living, who was I called to be. I shared my journey with my spiritual director, therapist, friends and financial counselor. I cited my level of anxiety about money as a score of 93 out of 100. It was an almost constant source of fear and insecurity. It took me several years to learn (and I am still learning) that money is none of the things I had mistaken it for. It is not love or health or security or peace or wisdom or inner power or faith or generosity. I do think money helps to supply my basic safety, security and sustenance needs, so I am not naïve about money, but money itself is not powerful. It is what we do or buy with money that give us power in our culture.

I’ve learned my most important lessons about money from three different sources. The first source of insight about money and resources is marginalized people; refugees, homeless people and prison inmates. In the midst of dire straits, many of them exude a surprising perspective of gratitude, generosity, sufficiency and trust. When I have been able to put my fear aside in favor of those qualities, I find a new spirit within me.

The second source of wisdom for me is my financial counselor who had helped me to be a wise steward of whatever resources I have, and has worked with me  for years to be mindful of how I think about money. During my time of unease and anxiety about money he asked me to choose my top values in life and then suggested that we make decisions about my finances based on my values. He asked for my permission to remind me of those values if I was going off in a direction of fear or uncertainty. My core values are spirituality, integrity, friendship, creativity, diversity and generosity. These values guide my decision making like a north star.

The third and most important source of wisdom about money is God. God is the one who has made money a spiritual issue for me. God teaches me not to panic but to wait, listen and trust. God has helped me to follow my heart in my work instead of only going towards the most money. In fact, in a financial fox-hole time of my life twenty-five years ago, I made a request of God. I promised to do whatever God called me to do each day and in response I asked God to provide for me financially.  God’s response: “My dear, I already have.” God’s part of that request has always been secure. It’s my part that wavers at times. But when I keep coming back to God’s promise, and when I can bring my fears and anxieties to God, I can see the path and the grace much more clearly. I don’t always get more money but I learn to live more simply, to let go of what I thought I needed to be happy, and receive from God’s largess at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. I have learned that gratitude sparks generosity. Sometimes when I get an unexpected check in the mail, God asks me to give half of it away. I do.

God also uses my finances to teach me about anger, fear, jealously and greed in my life. I’ve gone into business for the sake of money and security, used money to buy love through expensive gifts, and used money to fuel status and greed. Not pretty. I’ve seen people move to a different state thousands of miles away for the tax breaks, even though they are not happy there. I’ve seen people control children by taking them out of their wills or by giving them too much. I’ve seen expensive travel take up so much time that friendships were lost. Most all of our wounds show themselves through our use of and relationship with money.

This is what I’ve found out about money. My life is richer with less. Money is not love. Gratitude counts. Generosity frees me. Receiving is as important as giving. Self-sufficiency is not powerful. I can’t out-give God. And God, not money, is my source of love, trust, gratitude, security and contentment.

My anxiety level, which was at 93, is now below 5 even though my finances may be less secure. But what has changed is my trust. Thanks be to God.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What does money mean for you?

Which scripture stories about money most resonate for you?

How have you changed your relationship with money?

Who in your life sees money differently than you do and challenges you?

How is money a spiritual thing in your life and where is God in your finances?

How have you misused money?

What healing do you desire around the issue of money?

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