The Heart of the Black Madonna

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Assumption and the Human Soul

Meteor Shower Mid August, 2015


For those who have known me for a long time, they realize that heat is not my friend. I am one who longs for Winter like most pine for Spring, I always hated living in Southern California with it's endless brown and skin scorching six month long Summers. I have moved North in search of cool, and sort of bide my time during the Summer months as an exercise in endurance. When August rolls around, I am feeling the heaviness of the ambient nature of the "dog days." but sort of getting the hang of it, and trying to enjoy the start of the harvest season with her melons, grapes and other delicious gifts of the earth that have been growing since early March.

15th Century Russian Orthodox Icon of the Assumption of Mary


One break in the monotonous days comes around in mid August, with the festival of the Assumption of Mary. This event is the celebration of the ascension of Mary into heaven. Raised as predominantly Protestant, this festival was new to me in my adult years. One can see artistic representation of Mary as she enters heaven in early Coptic and Armenian Icons from the first centuries of Christianity. A letter attributed to our friend of Divine Darkness, Dionysus the Areopagite (baptized by the Apostle Paul and contemporary of Luke the Evangelist,) mentions Mary's Assumption. 

15th Century Icon of the Assumption of Mary


It was not until November 1st, 1950 that the Catholic Church recognized Mary's assumption into heaven as official church dogma.Social historians point to many reasons for this turn of events. During the late 40's the world was coming to terms with the horrors unleashed onto and by humans since the First World War. After the insanity and mechanized slaughter of 1914 - 1918, humanity thought it had fought the war to end all wars. A frenzy of frivolity occupied the 20's only to be followed by a great economic depression, which sowed the seeds for the rise of fascism and ultimate war in the 30's and early 40's. When victory of the allies was declared in both Europe and Japan, humanity came to terms with both the Holocaust as well as the atomic bomb.

Ethiopian Coptic Icon of the Assumption of Mary


Rudolf Steiner states that art is one way that the spiritual world communicates with humanity. As Iconography can illustrate, the images used for meditation and focus illustrate great truths of the Christian mystery tradition. While Christians, and myself for that matter, consider Mary the mother of Jesus to be a historical figure, her symbolism is deep and multi fold. The Virgin Mary depicted in so many expressions can be considered as the symbol for the human soul. She was the first human to be told of the imminent arrival of Messiah, and her part in this miracle. She was the first to say yes, "May your word be fulfilled in me," she responded to the Archangel Gabriel. Mary for many has been more accessible mainly because she was human.

In the face of coming to terms with slaughter, cruelty, mechanized killing and ultimately the unleashing of the atomic bomb which had the possibility of killing all life on Earth, people of faith were struggling after World War II. In the United States, there was  the numbing with materialism and a booming economy. I have often thought this was a way to distract a basically good hearted people from what was done to Japan, and the future of the Earth in the name of "preventing more deaths."

The genre of Japanese monster movies dominated the 1950's. The character of Godzilla actually was a creature of nuclear fallout. My brothers and I used to be thoroughly entertained by these cheesy badly acted form films, later I used to think wow, those poor Japanese people, always escaping some big monster smashing the heck out of their cities. It was only as an adult, when I started to look at film as a reflection of society, I started to realize that these monster flicks were a way that the Japanese were dealing with the aftermath of having two of their large cities obliterated by bombs the size of cars.

I spent New Years Eve, 1999 - Y2K at a weekend vigil through an organization called "The Nevada Desert Experience." Yes, I spent the night before the new millennium at the one and only convent in Las Vegas, playing bingo with nuns, awaiting a dawn prayer service at the nearby test site where the atomic bomb had been developed. The days leading up to New Years Eve were spent in prayer, fellowship and workshops with interfaith people to bring in a new age of peace. We heard from Imams, Shoshone Shamans (these are the Native Americans who's land was confiscated in order to test the nuclear bombs) Catholic Priests, Buddhists Priests, Protestant Ministers and anti nuclear activists.

The speakers that most moved me were the Hiroshima survivors, who traveled from Japan to pray with Americans on the land that initiated the demise of their cities and killed so many of their citizens with radiation disease. These dignified people came with open arms of friendship, and deep requests to the Americans that such an event, nuclear bombing, would never happen again. We were shown pictures of little girls in Kimono's, heads bowing with tears flowing, offering flowers begging us to never do that again to them. At 4 am on New Years Day, I made the drive to the test site. The vigil had been all night long, with people crossing the line to be arrested for trespassing. I decided my prayers outside of jail would be more useful and joined the morning mass outside of the gates. We heard prayers from all different faiths, and danced to greet the dawn, pledging to work with all our efforts to promote peace in the new century before us.

I can see why Pope Pius XII "dogmatically defined" the Assumption of Mary as official Church belief when he did in 1950. Humanity had unleashed a power never thought possible. In the past, while wars were horrific, life did go on. Now, through our so called science, we were capable of blowing up our precious planet, or at the very least making it uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years. A counter to this was the hope of transformation of humanity, that life indeed would triumph over death, that goodness would circumvent the evil.

Mary, as image of the Human Soul, was recognized as having an "immaculate death." While not excusing responsibility for creating a culture of annihilation that the bomb unleashed, this recognition did show that Divinity had come to transform humanity and that ultimately, there is no death of the true and beautiful human self.

This year, 2015 has so many anniversaries. The end of the Civil War, the beginning of Wold War I and the end of World War II, specifically the double atomic bombing of Japan that we are told ended the terror. A former love of mine who is now an Orthodox Priest on the east coast of the states posts interesting things on his facebook page. A recent scan of his current focus is justifying the killing of the Japanese in 1945. They were terrible, they did awful things, they would have killed more Americans, we had to do this, it was the right thing to do, besides - the Japanese were not Christians, they worshiped the emperor as a God. I had an uncle that survived one of the death marches forced by the Japanese. His daughter once told me that she was glad that the US dropped the bomb, because her father could come home. What many Americans do not know, is that Nagasaki was the gateway where Christianity came to Japan. The original Japanese Christians suffered greatly to worship and the first Japanese Cathedral, dedicated to Mary, was obliterated by the blast, only the head of the Virgin Mary statue in the church remained. The response of the Christians at the time was to pray and sing, and help those who had been injured, and never blame anyone for the tragedy, only to work towards understanding and the spread of love. 

The Black Madonna of Rocamadour, France


Morality is not easy, especially in times of war. I often think, like the bumper sticker says, what would happen if there was a war and no one showed up? I think of the pictures of those little Japanese girls crying and praying to Americans to please never do that again, I remember the warm embrace at dawn in the Nevada desert from a survivor of Hiroshima, and I see the beautiful Icons of the Virgin Mary as she ascends to heaven.

How do these things all relate? How do I act and think in my poor attempts to be a true witness for both the Virgin and the Son? What is my response to people of faith who think mass murder is somehow justified as a response for mass murder and torture? I have no answers, but I do draw comfort that the beautiful images, specifically of the somber Black Madonnas remind me that we are in an age where we must be awake, we must use our wills and inspire moral imagination through our actions. It is my hope that deep, vast, beyond space and time love can transform all the pain and sorrow of our age. My hope comes from the beauty of the natural world, the immensity of the stars above, and the inspiration from the spiritual world through art that reminds me of what lies beyond my senses. It is this, that helps me transcend the searing heat of mid August, and helps me prepare for the coming festivals of the new Liturgical Year.


Blessings on your journey!

The Black Madonna of Cusset, France