By Anne Z. Parker
(This is a much-shortened version of the original essay, which can be found at www.bouldermasterbuilders.com)
From my pilgrimage journal: “Why are Americans so interested in the Black Madonnas?” a French friend asked. I replied, “Well, to me they represent a window onto a wider, older, and more mysterious role for the sacred feminine. They seem to be some kind of gateway into a deeper connection with land and the feminine, a gateway to something older and long forgotten.”
Dreams, images, intuitions are the doorways that prod us on to the sacred journey. When the call of the land, the holy hill as I came to call it later, came in a dream I knew it was important. Like a passport stamp on my soul, I knew a journey was calling, but when, where, and how were not clear.
It was a landscape with mountains and rivers in certain shapes and patterns. In the center was a small hill, seen from above like a bird’s-eye-view. It was one of those vivid dreams that only come rarely. I jumped straight out of bed on waking and, grabbing an atlas, I sat on the floor flipping through pages. Surely this must be some landscape I had seen. I skimmed over the western USA, land of my youth and many adventures on foot. No, nothing there. On to the Himalayas—Nepal and India, even Tibet where I have spent years exploring. No. I slowly flipped through the whole atlas page by page. The map of eastern France arrested my attention. I found the place. Lyon. In the dream, I was above Lyon and the surrounding region. “This is important,” I thought. “Someday I must go there. It must have something to do with my ancestry.”
The signs and dream tucked away but not forgotten, some three years later my son and I headed to Europe. Without knowing much about them, I imagined that I would visit Black Madonna sites. Why, I did not know, but they were some kind of language of something special, perhaps “sacred,” in France.
At last we arrived in Lyon in the south of France. We descended from the main train station and stood looking out at the huge city. How do you address an entire landscape that called you, I wondered. There in the center was the hill. When I had seen the hill in my dream, I knew it was in the center, but now it seemed small compared to the mountains beyond. I had imagined the hill in some quaint village, a village where my ancestors must have come from. But there was the hill. In the city.
A few hours later, we were walking up the hill, ascending through layers of history, ancient and Roman ruins, and then to the top, where the Basilica of Our Lady of Fourvière, devoted to Mary, was constructed approximately 130 years ago.
I had done some research and found that my mother’s ancestors had been early French Protestants, called Huguenots. They had been given an ultimatum of “Catholicism or death” in the 1500’s Wars of Religion. My ancestors had escaped. I had also learned that Lyon had had a high concentration of Huguenots at that time.
Despite my Huguenot background, my footsteps led me inexorably to the Catholic church on the top of the hill. Walking into its dark and dazzling interior, so ornate it stopped my mind, I felt a moment of visceral panic. I walked to a side chapel and lit a candle, saying, “Hello, ancestors, I am home, all is forgiven, I am here.” This was all. I knew, though, that I would return.
Back home in Colorado, I sought out information about the hill. It had been a very important sacred site in pre-Roman France. The Romans took it over in their earliest efforts to take strategic control at a time when Paris was a backwater. The hill was dedicated by the Romans to Cybele, the Dark Mother, the Earth Goddess, acknowledging under a different name the older local goddesses associated with the location.
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Several years later, I returned to Lyon with my friend Francesca, determined to find the medieval Black Madonna statue mentioned in Ean Begg’s book, The Cult of the Black Virgin. Unfortunately, I had accidently left the book and its gazetteer behind, so I had no idea where to look. We searched in three of the oldest churches in town without success. Then our eyes rose to the modern basilica on the hill. Surely it was too new to be the home of a 1000-year-old Black Madonna? But once our eyes locked on the basilica, we knew we needed to go there.
Up again through the layers of history, debating aloud where the Black Madonna could be. As we approached the great shining basilica, we suddenly saw what I had not seen before: a smaller, much older chapel beside it. The information plaque said the chapel was built in 840 CE*. Plunging into the chapel, we saw the Black Madonna immediately! There she was, high above the altar, facing the long rows of pews. She was at once elegant, feminine, motherly, and tremendously powerful.
These early Romanesque statues of Black Mother and Child have been found to have the exact proportions of the statue of Isis, a sacred geometric shape designed to magnify the specific energies of the earth below where it is placed. My research indicates that special healing sites have been revered for centuries, even millennia. These sites were chosen as the location of sacred dolmens (stone table-like formations, often 5000-6000 years old) or standing stones, then pre-Christian Roman temples, then early Romanesque churches with Black Virgins. One striking thing one encounters in the literature on the Black Virgins is the incredible persistence of the statues in their original locations over time, despite often repeated destruction, particularly during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution.
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Months later, I returned alone to Lyon to spend more time on the hill. I had come to understand the “power of place” underlying the Black Madonnas and the power of this place to call me home to my ancestry. This time I spent three days on the hill, wandering, measuring earth energies, meditating, simply sitting looking out at the far-off Alps, watching fellow pilgrims, and literally letting myself fall in love with it all. Basking wordlessly in love, in the middle of a huge urban area, was strange and heart opening.
The day of my departure I was booked on a small regional train. I woke late and rushed to catch the train. Throwing my bag overhead, I plopped into the nearest seat as the train jerked into action. As I looked up, I was transfixed by the view of the hill and the basilica squarely framed in my window. My heart opened in love, only to be followed by a sense of deep panic and heart-rending loss.
My holy place was being ripped from my heart. Only then did I glimpse how it feels to be ripped from your holy place. A sense of deep gratitude rose up in me as the train rumbled out of sight of the hill. I felt full, known and loved by the holy hill that had called me to make this journey and to re-discover my living lineage of connection to the earth.
* CE stands for “Current Era.”
Anne Z. Parker, PhD, is passionate about leading towards an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and balanced present and future world. She is a professor of Environmental Studies at Naropa University, where she teaches about geography, new science, environmental leadership, pilgrimage, sacred landscape, and related subjects. She lived and studied with Aboriginal communities in the Central Desert of Australia and spent many years living in the Himalayan region studying traditional agriculture, land use, and sacred places.
She has explored sacred sites in Europe, including walking the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France and the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Her research on European sacred sites has recently focused on the Black Madonnas and megalithic sites. Anne is trained in sacred/natural geometry and geomancy and their practical application to harmonizing homes, public buildings, and spaces. She is available for home consultation utilizing these techniques. Anne also teaches Beginning Dowsing, Art of Stones, and Sacred Geometry Mandala classes in Boulder, CO. Anne is co-author with Dominique Susani of Earth Alchemy: Aligning your Home with Nature’s Energies. Dominique will be leading an experiential tour in southern France in June. For more information, go to www.bouldermasterbuilders.com.