The Accidental Pilgrim — Part I
(my photo: ceiling fresco at the Loreto in Prague of Mary as Queen of Heaven)
So I promised I would write about this, because it was a most unexpected part of my journey this July. I went initially for two reasons: an artists’ residency and an ancestor pilgrimage and both were immensely fulfilling, and the latter more profound an experience than I have the words to express. During those two experiences, however, I also sort of did a Marian pilgrimage. I ended up visiting seven traditional Marian sites, leaving offerings, and coming to terms with Her place in my devotional life.
I never had much of a devotion to Mary until a few years ago. I have several ancestors who were deeply devoted to Her in life and one day while I was cleaning and rearranging my shrine, I got a strong push to put a statue of Mary (and it had to be a particular statue, with her robed all in white) on my shrine. I did divination which confirmed and bought a statue. When it arrived, I walked over to my shrine and knew immediately which ancestor had wanted it. That was the start of a bit of space being given to Mary on my shrines, and I was deeply vexed and uncomfortable about it. Still, my ancestors wanted it and I figured that was their space so ok.
Over the past two years, that tiny little space for Mary has slowly grown to a regular, working shrine. Until this pilgrimage I was still very uncomfortable with it. I’m not Christian. What the hell am I doing venerating Mary? Well, that’s the thing. Personally I think She’s the best part of Catholicism as evidenced by how fervently their hierarchy keeps trying to squash Her veneration. I finally came to terms with the fact that She’d inched Her way into my devotional life for three reasons:
- Some of my ancestors really loved Her and wanted Her to be a presence on my shrine. She was important to them and had helped and nourished them. That alone was enough for me.
- Here is a Holy Power who has allowed Her image and iconography, Her cultus to be used by numerous indigenous Goddesses so that They may continue to receive offerings. No one will ever convince me that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the same Being as the Virgin of Czestochowa, or the Virgin of the Eastern Gates, etc.
- Finally, She’s a good patron for godatheow. This is probably the least of my reasons, but it is one and sometimes I find inspiration there.
(My favorite Lithuanian Madonna: Lady of the Eastern Gates. My photo of a prayer card in my collection)
This all really solidified for me this trip. I did not in any way intend to do a Marian pilgrimage. In Krakow, however, we went to Wawel castle and I went to visit the Black Madonna there, a copy of the one at Czestochowa. One was only allowed in that chapel to pray – it was barred to tourists—so I went in and prayed for the health and well being of my Catholic relatives and friends. Then later that day, we went into the Church of St. Thomas. It was right down the street from our hotel. This was where I first began to notice the striking piety all around me. Oh I felt like a parched man suddenly presented with a rushing river of life-giving water. Everywhere I saw people unashamed and unafraid to show their devotion. It nourished my soul. The Church was almost closing and I went in and looked at the icon there and it made me cry. I saw people of all ages on their knees praying to Her. They were pouring out their hearts to this Holy Power and I thought “would that our communities had half that devotion.” We’ve a long way to go. Even I occasionally feel self-conscious expressing devotion in a public place and we shouldn’t. It should be as natural as breathing. We shouldn’t care what others think about it, or how they respond. That is inessential. I found myself evaluating where I fell short in devotion and in courage. I didn’t want to take a photo inside the church, (I didn’t want to disturb worshippers, or appear disrespectful and there was a very fierce nun standing guard) but I was quite moved by the power of the icon, so I did a collage later that night with my own interpretation of it.
(my collaged interpretation of the icon at St. Thomas)
The next day, MAG and I went into St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow. This is a stunning church. Part of it was closed to tourists and I wish I had gone in just to pray—there was an icon I would have liked to visit in the side that was closed. Still, Marian icons and imagery were scattered throughout (as well as images of various saints including Therese of Lisieux). While MAG took photographs, I just sat and found myself weeping. There was a powerful presence there, ancient, indigenous to that particular place, an old Goddess Who was very aware of the suffering of Her people. She may have been wearing Mary’s face, but it wasn’t Mary. That place had been sacred to Her since long before Christianity had come to that soil. Her people were there, praying and I could sense the intensity of their devotion, of their pain, their hopes, their longing, their suffering, their joys…everything those present were pouring out to their queen of heaven, and vestiges of everything former generations had poured out over the centuries. It overwhelmed me and just left me shaking. When we went outside, we sat by a fountain and I realized, touching the water, that it was a sacred spring. I anointed myself, got up and made an offering to the Lady of the place (in this instance by giving a few coins to each of the beggars sitting by the door of the church), and gave thanks for the grace I had been shown.
After Krakow, we went to the artists’ residency in Myslenice and all I could paint were icons of Mary. Land speaks to me very strongly. This happened when I was in Taos as well. Suddenly all I could paint were Native dancers. I’ve never had any desire before or since to do so, but while I was there, that was what the land gave me. In Poland, I painted Madonnas.
(my own painting, simply titled “Madonna”)
While we were at the residency, a lovely potter we met there took us on a day trip, first to her coffee shop and studio and then to Kalwaria Zebrydowska, a Marian pilgrimage site (and a UNESCO site). Here, there was a stunning altar image of Mary, and a chapel wherein people lined up on their knees on the hard stone six and seven deep outside the chapel to pray before its icon. I sat and prayed and thought about many things, including how I had been sustained through a pretty bitter and dismal childhood with enough spiritual health to be able to throw myself into veneration of Sekhmet when She came calling and then Odin. I had been sustained and the people who sustained me as a child were people with deep reverence for Mary. Their devotion was the best education in what it means to love a Deity that I could ever have been given. It gave me a positive model and one that I have never forgotten. It was the one place without scars.
(my very blurry photo, taken from afar, of the altar piece image of Mary at Kalwaria Zebrydowska)
As we traveled to and from this Basilica and monastery, we saw so many shrines by the roadside. Some were small boxes on posts, the boxes containing images of Mary usually with glass to ward off bad weather, some were larger, more elaborate dotting the crossroads. All were well tended with offerings of flowers and candles and other things too at their base. These were everywhere and almost all of them in this part of Poland showed images of the Virgin. Of everything I saw, I think it was these roadside shrines, some simple, some elaborate that moved me the most where Mary was concerned. I came home thinking, “I’d love to do that for some of the Norse Gods!”
(my photo, the chapel icon at Kalwaria Z.)
We went from Poland to the Czech Republic by car and it was interesting…as we hit parts of Lower Silesia, those roadside shrines suddenly became sparser and began to feature the crucifixion rather than Mary (and I lost personal interest in them, though I still think it’s a fabulous devotional idea). Arriving in Prague, I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer beauty of the place. There were so many colors and it was just magical. Mary was all around too. There was a black Madonna appended to the side of a building overlooking the square. I’m disturbed by this one a little: she is in a cage and I’m not sure of the history.
(my photo, Black Madonna in a cage in Prague)
Another Madonna looks out over the main part of the square, standing as Queen of Heaven on the crescent moon. We visited the Infant of Prague (Ellegua!) in the Church of Our Lady Victorious and She was there too, both riding the moon and unexpectedly within: another black Madonna. We paid homage. Then there was Kutna Hora followed by the Loreto…but that has to wait for another day. It was there that I realized I was on this pilgrimage too and there I sank into a moment of Mystery, and there all the threads of my devotional life resolved into a rich, if somewhat rough tapestry, and there I made my peace with this Being’s place in my devotional life. Stay tuned for part II.