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?