My friend Brandon has created an online shrine to Mary that I want to share here. It’s lovely and a fitting offering, I think. There are a few prayers (I’m sure in time there will be more) and a place where visitors can leave prayers and light digital ‘candles.’ I talk a little bit about why some polytheists may honor this particular Holy Power in this article here. If Mary is part of your devotional life, you may want to check this out.
(The photo is mine from the ceiling of the Loreto in Prague).
I’ve updated my bone lady blog with a post about today’s adventure. Check it out here. Below is my photo of the relic shrine.
(my photo: Cologne Cathedral at twilight)
After five days in Prague, we went by car to Cologne. It was again, a pleasant and uneventful drive save for a bit of cognitive dissonance as I made the mental shift from Czech to German (the latter of which I can actually get by in). Our purpose for visiting here, as I’ve already noted in my accounts of my ancestor pilgrimage was to visit St. Ursula’s and the Goldene Kammer but I actually paid homage at three Marian sites as well.
Hermes guided and protected throughout this entire journey and nowhere was His presence stronger and more immediately palpable than Cologne. I suppose this makes sense: it began life as a Roman settlement and He certainly received major cultus there (in fact, one of the most touching moments of confirmation that I had successfully completed my ancestor pilgrimage occurred in Cologne. I kept feeling that we should go to the Germanic-Roman museum, though I’d been there before. I was tired, but we went in anyway and immediately in the gift shop I found the Hermes statue that I’d been searching for forever. It was exactly what I wanted and I felt it His way of telling me that this part of my journey was successfully concluded, a mark of His blessing and protection and all I can say to that is Hail Hermes!).
(my photo of my Hermes shrine)
I had not known that there were two Madonna statues in Cologne cathedral that were traditionally visited and reverenced by pilgrims. The first I sort of stumbled upon. We went to the Cathedral about two hours after we arrived, so we were both pretty tired, but we wanted to at least get a bit of a peek before making a proper visit the next day. I went in and immediately saw about a dozen candle stands so I gravitated right to them. It was nice that they were all in one specific area (there are single candle stands also in various places throughout the cathedral). I lit numerous candles, praying for various people and then happened to look * up * and right in front of the candles, separated only by a series of benches was the most well-loved and remarkable Madonna that I have ever seen: Cologne’s jeweled Madonna.
(my photo: the Jeweled Madonna at Cologne Cathedral)
She is magnificent! Over the generations many offerings have been made to her, most notably jewelry, which has been appended to Her garb. I spent quite a long time meditating before this particular image of Mary. Of all the Madonnas that I visited in this long, long pilgrimage, I had the strongest sense here of Her connection to the well-being of Her people, and of how well-loved She was and is.
The other is the Milano Madonna. In contrast to the Jeweled Madonna, She is particularly regal. Both are lovely. The Cathedral also hosts a gold reliquary containing the skulls of the three magi, but while we could see it, we were not able to pass under it. That is permitted apparently only on very special occasions like Epiphany. Still, it was nice that there was another reliquary present.
(this is a photo of a page in my travel journal. It’s a picture of the Milano Madonna that I collaged around)
We were scheduled to leave on the 25th and I woke feeling quite ill. I had also, the night before, discovered that there was a Black Madonna at a Church on Kupfergasse, what I have since learned is one of the most venerated images of Mary in Germany. I was rather wistful, wishing we had time to visit that as well, but technically my pilgrimages were over and we were leaving quite early the next morning. That’s not exactly what happened though. I happened to pray to Hermes something along the lines of “I’m feeling so poorly, I wish I didn’t have to fly like this. If possible, can You please help?” I meant, help with my pain levels. Well, He had other ideas and took the easiest way possible to provide assistance: we got to the airport the next morning to find our flights had been cancelled. After the initial shock, and a bit of cussing, I realized what happened, thanked Hermes, called the hotel, booked new flights, took a taxi back and MAG and I went to Kupfergasse and spent a lovely afternoon visiting the Black Madonna there, flying home the next day.
(My photo of the black Madonna of Kupfergasse)
When I returned home, it was to find a card from a Catholic friend with whom I took Latin Prose Comp. in grad school. He was in England and had visited Walsingham, a site of Marian devotion and pilgrimage reverenced by both Catholics and Anglicans alike. He had sent me a lovely card, with an image of the Walsingham Madonna. On the card, she is adorned as lavishly and beautifully as any of the Madonnas I visited in Poland, Czech Republic, or Germany. I took the card as a particularly favorable omen, as my friend did not know I was on a Marian pilgrimage.
That is pretty much all I have to say for now about my pilgrimages. I have already noticed dramatic shifts in my ancestor practices, and in my religious taboos, particularly around miasma. I have no idea yet how they will ultimately impact my work but I think figuring that out is one of the things that will really root these experiences in the fabric of my devotional life.
I know that I will do this again (though it will be awhile. This is an expensive process). My military dead have already indicated that I should visit Verdun (and the ossuary there), Somme, perhaps Normandy and several other WWI and II battlefields, that there are things I must, for my work, experience there; moreover, the bone yards call with a siren song that is almost painful to ignore. I want to root myself there and if I could choose the work that most calls to me now, it would be tending those places of the dead and inviting their veneration. I think that I will go to many throughout my working life, that I must to renew and refresh my connection to the dead, to keep my work with them clean and honed. I think there is powerful medicine for this ancestor worker in such places. How I will manage it, I do not know, only that I think I must.
(photo of the Loreto by Mary Ann Glass, used with permission)
My impressions of Prague are bracketed by astonishingly beautiful colors, profound engagement with the dead, and deeply emotional stops on my Marian pilgrimage, which upon my arrival in the Czech Republic, I hadn’t yet realized I was on. The day after we arrived in Prague was the day we went to Kutna Hora, and to Sedlec to see the dead. We also stopped at two Cathedrals, both Unesco sites, both powerful Marian shrines. It wasn’t until shortly before we left for Germany, when we visited the Loreto though that I truly realized what was happening and that I was doing two pilgrimages instead of one (and oh I almost didn’t go. I was in a great deal of pain that day we were scheduled to go to the Loreto and so many things were lining up indicating I should go but I didn’t want to. I was feeling so pulled and yet was so resistant that I finally divined and asked Hermes’ guidance and was told in no uncertain terms to go there immediately. So I did and it was yet another gift given by the God of travellers on what had been an already blessed and fruitful journey…but I’ll get to that in a moment).
It was odd…and strangely discomfiting after Poland to find the chapels and churches largely barren of worshippers in the Czech Republic. There’s a different history there, and different things sacrificed I think upon the altar of survival. After the bone chapel in Sedlec, which was full of people – many of them praying, we visited the Cathedral of St. Barbara (Chango! Yes, I made offerings to Chango there) and the Church of the Assumption of Mary. There were the bones of saints displayed for veneration. There was a Gothic Madonna, which I had to circle about in my heart for a long, long time before I could truly find a point of connection. It wasn’t until I sat with Her later, meditating upon a photo that I had taken, that I was truly able to connect to the power of the image. After walking through the sanctuary of the dead, so much of the rest of my visit there passed as if in a deep dream, a whirl of Presence, light, color, and bones. It took me some time to process my experiences in the Cathedrals.
(my image of the Gothic Madonna)
One of the images at the Church of the Assumption really gripped me by spine and heart and gut and I had to sit and pay homage for a long, long time. It was supposed to be Mary but I immediately called Her the Lady of Lions and Her image took me elsewhere, stole my breath, and gave me for the briefest of moments a glimpse into venerations long past.
(My photo, Lady of Lions)
Both Cathedrals were beautiful and very moving though very, very different. I think I found St. Barbara’s the more barren of the two…there were no bones or reliquaries whereas in the Church of the Assumption, I had a moment’s engagement with the bones of a man reverenced as St. Felix (which St. Felix, I’ve no idea. There were a few. This man’s presence was strong and very comforting though) and I was primed on this journey first and foremost for the dead. I think that’s why Mary was able to sneak behind my guard!
(my photo, one of the Loreto frescos)
It all really came to a head at the Loreto. This was and is a major pilgrimage site to Mary. It contains a replica of Mary’s “house,” and it is beautiful. The entire walkway into the chapel is covered with frescos of the Madonna in various guises, lined with small chapels and candle naves. There is a church guarded by two saintly reliquaries and She is there, another black Madonna, beautiful, quiet, and full of subtle healing magic.
(“The Loreto” photo by Mary Ann Glass, used with permission)
They would let you in for free if you were only going to pray but we knew we’d want to document our journey by photographing and so we paid, and the kind lady let us in on one fare. I started making the rounds of the square, studying each fresco and praying – some images calling more than others. Where I could, I lit candles and prayed for a very long time to a number of Holy Powers, including Mary since it was Her home.
(my photo, the Loreto, my own private labyrinth)
The small chapel was beautiful and She was there. I stayed for a very long time. In the actual church (there is both a chapel and a church), I didn’t take any photographs. I couldn’t. I just sat and sobbed while She opened me up and deepened a process of internal cleansing and restoration that I began with help shortly before leaving the US. What passed between us there I will not share. It was a moment of profound heart healing and that was the moment I realized I was on this second pilgrimage. It was also the moment that any qualms or discomforts I had about venerating Mary disappeared. She’s not always an easy fit into my devotional life, but She has a place I don’t contest now.
We spent only an hour at this shrine, but it felt like days and days. I think my sojourn there was spent walking and praying between worlds and between the passing moments of time. It was passage marked by reverence and tears.
(my photo, taken in very dim light on my iPhone, of the Loreto Mary in Her small chapel-house)
I was sorry to leave Prague. The city has its own siren song. It’s seductive and compelling. There’s so much I want still to see there, and oh I would love to spend days and days in Sedlec. Already I long for the moment that I can return, if not to Prague than at least to one of the blessing places of bone.
(my photo, Sedlec, the sanctuary of bone)
Coming soon: Part III
(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.
My purpose for making this trip was two fold: an artists’ residency (thankfully fully funded by the city of Myslenice and the EU), and an ancestor pilgrimage. I ended up doing two pilgrimages, but one was purely by grace and chance. I went over with the intent of visiting four ossuaries and/or bone churches and it’s that pilgrimage I want to recount first.
It was odd: immediately prior to this visit I pretty much stopped painting. Whereas many of the artists socialized and dabbled the first week, I painted almost everything in the first week at a frenetic pace and then slowly allowed myself to transition into ancestor stuff during the second week. There was a very palpable point where I was finished with the art part of things, and ready for the dead-work.
We set out for Czermna, Poland early on the morning of July 15. It was at least a four hour drive from Myslenice (due to traffic, we ended up not getting back till after eight pm). Of all the ossuaries that I visited, I think this was my least favorite. Part of that is due to the difficulty of actually visiting. You see, unlike the other ossuaries, we were not allowed in alone. We were only permitted in with a group tour (which granted, ran frequently). The small chapel was packed, and it was very hard to pray. The dead there also seemed somewhat chaotic in feel. Still, I managed, and given that it is located right adjacent to a cemetery, I managed to slip into a pretty deep altered state almost before I even entered the chapel.
I kept my head covered and made sure to cleanse before and after entering the bone house. I could palpably feel the miasma as I got within a certain distance of the bones. Miasma isn’t always bad. It’s a side effect, a very natural side effect of some experiences, and certain types of contact. Weddings cause miasma for instance, (something that cracks me up every time I think of it lol) from which one must be cleansed. Death has its own kind of purity but it’s very different from the potency of the living. It is miasma, and cleansing is required after contact. From the moment I sat foot on the grounds, I knew I was in a state of intense miasma, something that pretty much continued until I returned home and cleansed. Actually, given the level and type of ancestor work that I do, I’m pretty much always in a state of mild miasma. I realized this and it’s import on this pilgrimage. I’m not yet sure of the consequences of this to other ritual work. I do know that I cleanse frequently but likewise given the frequency of my contact with the dead….I’m not sure how it’s all ultimately going to work. I suppose figuring that out is part of moving to the next level as an ancestor worker.
At any rate, the moment I stepped on the grounds of the church, bone chapel, and cemetery I felt the shift in my energy. I made sure my head was covered and when the tour started, went in. I ignored the tour guide (the tour was in Polish anyway, of which I only have a smattering). I connected with the dead there, introduced myself, paid my respects, and made my prayers.
This ossuary (called Kaplica Czaszek – skull chapel) was a pretty late construction: 1776-1804. To create what he called a ‘sanctuary of silence,’ a Czech priest Wacław Tomaszek dug up over thirty thousand skeletons and used at least three thousand of them to adorn the chapel. The rest are in a pit beneath the chapel. There are an awful lot of military dead there: from the Thirty Year’s war, the Silesian wars, as well as victims of various epidemics. It is apparently the only such chapel in Poland, at least as far as my research has shown.
When I was there, squeezed into a corner next to a wall of skulls and bones, I noticed that many people had brought their children. One poor little fellow was doing ok until the guide opened up the trap door to show the ossuary beneath the church, then the child began to cry. I suppose seeing the pit with the bones frightened him. His parents comforted him quickly and well but I wish I’d had enough Polish to tell him that it was ok. That this was a special place, a good place, that our dead watch over us, and that really, they need somewhere to keep their stuff (i.e. their bones)!
Despite all of this, visiting this chapel was intensely moving. I petitioned them for help breaking through any blockages in my ancestor work and promised to consistently honor them (and brought back a small token to facilitate just that). It was disorienting being in such close contact with over thirty thousand dead and their remains. I had the sense of a lot of people whispering around me. I think this was a really good introduction for my pilgrimage. It was the least intense of the places that I visited, and a nice way to ease into what could have really knocked me on my ass. It allowed me to get a sense of what the remaining sites would be nice, and how I could better prepare. I also got to see what the emotional texture of the experience would be like, and what aftercare I required.
Ironically, by this time my Marian pilgrimage was already underway – I just didn’t realize it yet! I’d already visited St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow and the Black Madonna at Wawel castle – both pilgrimage sites. We had also inadvertently gone to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, another site of Marian pilgrimage where we had the opportunity to pray before Her icons. This was one of the most amazing gifts that I was given during this pilgrimage. For years, I’ve had a surreptitious devotion to Mary. I started honoring Her a couple of years ago because several of my ancestors, who had all had devotions to Her in life, clamored for me to add Her image to my ancestor shrine for them. Occasionally they would ask for things for Her. I was sort of ok with that, but it was uncomfortable. It’s been something that I’ve struggled to integrate into my other practices since they requested it. I was always deeply ambivalent about it though. That all resolved with this pilgrimage. Poland and its intense piety gave me that gift and I am immensely grateful.
I honor Mary now for three reasons: 1. My ancestors want me to. It’s important for them. 2. Here is a Holy Power that allows Her image to be used by numerous indigenous Goddesses so that They can continue to receive veneration. All Marys are NOT the same. I respect this immensely; and 3. She’s a good patron for a godatheow. I also think it’s good to acknowledge where we come from. Mary sustained many of my ancestors through some very dark times. When I first went into ST. Mary’s Basilica, I had to stop and just sit in one of the pews and cry. Firstly, there was a powerful sense of Presence, of a Divine Presence very, very old (and I might add indigenous to that place, well before the advent of Christianity) that heard the prayers of Her people and gave them comfort. There was also the sense of generations upon generations of pain and hope and love and fear and desperation and so many other emotions having been poured out before the shrines and icons. I could sense it layered into the very stones of that Church, and I could sense it pouring from those worshippers present today. It doubled me over. There is something about Marian theology that supersedes the narrow constraints of the Church into which it is tied. …possibly why since the counter-Reformation, Her veneration has been attacked. At any rate, as I spent my days dealing with the dead, She brought a necessary breath of comfort and coherence to my journey.
It really was a place where all the disparate threads of my religious journey came together: Odin, the Norse Gods – my home–, Mary, the Orisha, the Roman Deities…I saw vestiges everywhere and the land itself spoke to me; and always, everything was guided by my dead.
We left Myslenice, and indeed Poland, on July 18, taking a car to Prague. I made offerings the night before we left, to Poland, to Krakow city spirit, to Myslenice town spirit, and to Hermes, and asked for safe passage to Prague, which was granted. It was a quiet, uneventful journey notable only for the shift in colors, and the sudden change in roadside shrines – whereas they were largely to Mary in Poland, suddenly in the rural Czech Republic, the shrines all began to show the crucified Christ (much less interesting to me lol). By Prague, even those vestiges of devotion were lacking. Prague is glorious, beautiful, and was the staging point for the next phase of my ancestor pilgrimage. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.
(all photos are mine. Please do not use without permission).
So, based on a conversation going on as a result of my last post (about my travel journal), here are two pics of my ancestor shrine. The first is one third of my shrine (it covers nearly three walls) and the second shows a close-up of the Marian shrine that is part of my ancestor shrine (by specific request of several of my dead).