Are You Ready for an Initiation?
And the world cannot be discovered
By a journey of miles,
No matter how long,
But only by a spiritual journey,
A journey of one inch,
Very arduous and humbling and joyful,
By which we arrive at the ground
At our feet,
And learn to be at home.
— Wendell Berry
It’s not a way forward but a journey in
Sue Monk Kidd, the author of the famous, The Secret Life of Bees, also wrote a non-fiction book, Traveling with Pomegranates – about the trip she and her daughter, Ann took to Greece.
She imagined their trip as a pilgrimage.
She tells us that when she turned 50, she wrote in her journal “Is there an odyssey the female soul longs to make at the approach of fifty? – one that has been blurred and lost within a culture awesomely alienated from soul? If so, what sort of journey would that be? Where would it take me?”
She saw her trip to Greece as a pilgrimage in search of an initiation. It was an initiation into her older self – and indeed, at 71 I can relate. I can also use an initiation. Into what? I guess, into elderhood.
I suspect that women can imagine the necessity for undertaking such an initiation at the start of any decade: 50, 60, 70… it’s about aging and our ever-increasing knowledge that our time on earth is shortening.
But, for me – well, here’s the thing.
Traveling in Place
Unlike Odysseus’ journey on a ship on the “wine-dark sea” that lasted ten years and involved many challenges. And unlike Kidd’s pilgrimage from Charleston to France to Greece, Crete, and Turkey where she and Ann wander around on the Acropolis in 105-degree heat – unlike them, I’m not leaving home. My pilgrimage will be conducted - from my desk, in my office using, yes – the internet as my traveling chariot.
I know. Not the same – but I’m still going to travel…just virtually. Come with me. I’m going to let my intuition have a say but also rely on books that I’ve collected over the years. (There are many.) I’ll share what I learn with you and you can see if any of it speaks to you and maybe I will encourage you to go on a pilgrimage, too.
My Real Pilgrimage
The last time I went on a real pilgrimage was in May 2011. I, coincidentally, was turning 60. I went with my friend Barb to France, and women came with us, on retreat. We visited Paris and Chartres. It was magical.
Professor Michelle Campbell was our tour guide in both places. We had asked her to take us to the sites identified with the Divine Feminine. We called the trip, Journey to your Sacred Self. At the time I was still learning (and of course I still am!) and now looking back I realize the Divine Feminine is within. And it’s within everyone – not just women. But more of that discovery later.
Here are some of the places Michelle showed us:
- Notre Dame where I was so taken with the Joan of Arc statue.
- The Church of Saint-Marie-Madeleine (L'église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine), or less formally, La Madeleine is a Catholic parish church on Place Madeleine. It’s a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, or the Madeleine, a follower of Jesus who witnessed both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ.
- The historic church of Saint Sulpice. Dan Brown's 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code was an international bestseller that brought crowds of tourists to Saint-Sulpice. This note has been on display in the church:
Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a «Rose Line». It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris.... Please also note that the letters «P» and «S» in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, not an imaginary «Priory of Sion».
Of course, all of our small party had read the Da Vinci Code and were very curious to see the places named in the novel.
- Chartres and the Great Labyrinth
And then on we traveled to Chartres, a 40-minute train ride from Paris, where I had my first labyrinth experience. Walking a labyrinth is all about journeying in - into the center. At Chartres, the great stone labyrinth installed on the floor of the nave of the cathedral takes 30 minutes to walk slowly in and then another 30 to walk out. It’s a lot of time to contemplate. I’ve written an earlier blog about my experience in Chartres.
Both Notre Dame in Paris and Notre Dame de Chartres are dedicated to ‘Our Mother”, meaning Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some of you might be rolling your eyes right now. “Is she going to get religious on us?” I’m going to be taking you on my own realization journey about Mary. I wasn’t raised with Mary in my life. I was raised a Protestant. Growing up I was told that Mary was worshipped by Catholics, not Protestants, and it was clear to me from my Sunday school lessons that Mary wasn’t a part of my Protestant faith. She only came into the story at Christmas and Easter. Praying with prayer beads to Mary? No, we didn’t do that.
I never thought it was strange that there was no feminine side to all that I learned in church. It was all very masculine.
So, I had no experience with Mary until coming to France and finding her everywhere. We arrived on Mary’s Day, May 1st and there were women selling bunches of Lilies of the Valley on the sidewalk, Mary’s flower.
I can relate to Sue Monk Kidd’s upbringing. She was raised a Baptist. “Growing up Baptist in a small town in Georgia, I was virtually unaware of Mary except at Christmas, when she turned up life-sized in the outdoor nativity scene beside the church, wearing a sky-blue scarf and kneeling over the manger.”
Then she finds a print of da Vinci’s sketch, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist. She is struck by Mary’s mother, Anne. Both Mary and her child are sitting in Anne’s great lap.
The Great Mother
Referring to Anne, Kidd writes: “She looked for all the world like the Great Mother who births, contains, and encompasses everything, even the male savior. That was probably the first time I grasped that the image of a female could be a symbol of the divine. And Mary was her mother’s daughter. I amended my opinion of her, coming to understand that she’d inherited the role of the ancient Goddesses, however, sublimated their earthiness, grit, and authority had become in her. The human soul needs a divine mother, a feminine aspect to balance out the masculinity of God, and yes, Mary had carried it off the best she could.”
Yes, the balance had been definitely off for me but I was about to change that.
I wonder when I first began to connect what I had learned about the Great Mother and connect it with Mary. I had read that the newly formed Christian church worked hard to suppress people’s belief in the Greek and Roman gods and especially in the goddesses. I had read that the early church purposefully placed their large cathedrals over pagan worship sites.
But from what I could tell they didn’t erase the feminine aspect of the divine at all. Whatever pagan goddesses had been worshipped in Paris (there is a belief that Isis was the predominant goddess – and that there had been a temple to her), it seems like they all seemingly dissolved into the personage of Mary, the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene.
As I start on this virtual pilgrimage I have more questions than answers. I still need to come up with the questions. It seems like so much of what I want to know and uncover on this pilgrimage can be wrapped up in this one question – what happened to the feminine, the divine feminine, and how does that influence me and my sisters today?
Sue Monk Kidd ends up writing The Secret Life of Bees after her journey with Ann to Greece. She writes that she was most moved by her experiences around the Black Madonna at Palianis Convent in Crete. (There is so much in her book that I’m just briefly touching upon. It is worth a read!) After the publishing of her novel, she returns there with an offering to the Virgin who resides in a tree, an offering of honey from her home city of Charleston.
“As I look at her, though, I know she is not a figure in a tree or in a church, but a presence inside. She is a way to meet the divinity in myself.”
I look forward to uncovering that presence inside of me. She’s there. I just need to pay her more attention.
See you on the next stage of our journey, dear Heroine!