This piece was contributed by Soeur Marie Verité
Today as we celebrate the igniting of the sacred fires of Candlemas, as we seek within ourselves for that which is our deepest inspiration and hope, in Italy and around the world devotees of the Madonna of Montevergine prepare for a festival honoring Her and Her place in their lives which begins this weekend. They will sing and dance up and down Her holy mountainside which used to be, and perhaps still is, the home of a temple to the great mother goddess Cybele. They will play tambourines and sing songs to Our Lady of Montevergine, and floats will be drawn up by to the monastery where Her icon lives by oxen or horse-drawn carts as they have been at this time of year for hundreds of years.
The Madonna of Montevergine is an icon thought to have been painted by St. Luke as a hodegetria, the “One Who Points the Way” to salvation, and in the painting we see the Madonna with the Christ child on her lap. She is pointing to him to indicate that faith in him is the way to salvation. But the people of Italy and around the world look to Her as well, and have developed a love and reverence for her as their “Madonna Bruna,” their “Mamma Schiavona,” their slave mother, because of Her dark skin. They thought that because She had brown skin instead of white, She must be the protectress of those with equally dark skin, and that’s how She came to be associated with the slave or servant classes. They reach out to Her as their own, who understands hard work and sweat and tears, what it means to be marginalized and persecuted. She is not an icon of the wealthy or the privileged, the “white” class. She belongs to those who know what it’s like to work for a living, to be looked down at, to be pushed aside or thought to be somehow “less than.”
She is beloved of the sexually marginalized because of the story of Her saving two gay men in the thirteenth century who had been beaten and run out of town, driven up onto the mountainside to die of exposure to the cold and the harsh elements. The sun shone down on them unexpectedly and helped them get to safety and find warmth, which they then celebrated by having sex on the spot. Or so the story goes. The celebration of human sexuality in all its forms is part of what makes Our Lady of Montevergine special, and perhaps what hearkens back to the rites and rituals of Cybele that used to happen on that very mountainside: the sacred union, the refusal to see human sexuality as something sinful or as something that needs to be hidden in dark places. Her festival is sometimes seen as a time to celebrate the joyful rites of spring, which you can imagine many of the monks of the monastery at Montevergine occasionally getting a little wiggy about. They are monks and have chosen the path of sacred celibacy, after all.
But still they come, christians and pagans alike, to do their rites and make their offerings to the Holy Mother in their own holy way.
Her festival today includes music, dancing, and all forms of celebration: pilgrims sing and dance up and down the mountainside to celebrate Her. But it might also be said that they celebrate the coming spring and the welling up of potential, the coming of new life, which is a miracle after the hard winter. And it’s a miracle for everyone. The Black Madonna, Our Lady of Montevergine, Mamma Schiavona, smiles on us all after all our work, our struggles. She lifts up those who have been left behind, and brings them into the comfort of hope for a new beginning for everyone.