Saturday, August 08, 2009

Review: Memoir by Deborah DeNicola

The Future That Brought Her Here: A Memoir of a Call to Awaken by Deborah DeNicola (Ibis 2009)

This spiritual memoir by a widely-published poet is both an inner journey and a geographical pilgrimage. DeNicola is author of 5 poetry collections and editor of an anthology of contemporary poems about Greek mythology. She is recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts plus other writing awards, and has taught at Massachusetts College of Art and Lesley University. She shares some of her wonderful poetry in this book, yet her background also means that DeNicola is an adept writer who knows when to use poetic language in prose (in this book she uses it sparingly and effectively) and when more direct diction is appropriate. This skill makes this book a pleasure to read.

The book starts with DeNicola's quest to heal from childhood trauma, ventures into (mostly Jungian) dreamwork, then soon enters the author's very intense visionary experiences, leading her to explore a variety of New Age and mystical Christian belief systems and authors such as Rumi, Gary Zukov, Caroline Myss, Stanslov Grof, transcendental meditation, and A Course in Miracles. She consults the psychic, David Hall, as well as a psychic healer, Jason, who discusses with her "The Brotherhood of Light" and "Master Avatars." She then starts attending sessions in the Boston area with a medium, Gerry Bowman, who claims he channels John, author of the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation. During this time she also reads books by Margaret Starbird and Elaine Pagels and visits Israel. This leads her to an exploration of Mary Magdalen (she spells it without a final e, so I'll use her spelling here, though I will also abbreviate it MM) and the Black Madonnas. DeNicola is guided in this ultimate quest by Deborah Rose , who has since passed over. In fact, DeNicola dedicates this book to Deborah Rose. DeNicola had access to the notes Rose made during their tour of sites related to Magdalen and/or Black Madonnas, and shares some of these notes with us in this book.

The journey to the south of France in 2000 takes up Chapters 19 through 27 of this 28-chapter book. Chapter 18, "The Gnostic Mary," deals with DeNicola's growing interest in MM after her 1997 visit to Israel, and in it she quotes (among others) Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Deborah Rose, Angeles Arrien, Ean Begg, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and various texts from the Nag Hammadi Library. As Chapter 19 begins, DeNicola and Rose get acquainted in a café in Cambridge, Massachusetts (at the time, they both live in the Boston area). They find (coincidentally?) that they have much in common; for starters: the same first names, same age, same religious background (reared Roman Catholic)–and they both majored in French in college. During this time, and throughout the tour, DeNicola continues to have visions, but she now seems to have found an on-off switch that I associate with more advanced psychic work so that the visionary experience feels more under her control; she opens herself to visions willingly in a meditative state, whereas at the beginning of the book she is sometimes thrown for a loop when they spontaneously appear.

The tour group comprises 6 women, as DeNicola puts it, "Two Joans, two Deborahs, Katie, and Elaine." Their journey takes them to Marseille, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Arles, St. Maxium La Ste. Baum, Provence, Le Puy en Velay, Clermont-Ferrand, Vezélay, Dijon, and Paris, and through the many myths and legends surrounding both MM and the Black Madonnas, which may or may not be connected, depending on the legend. Cathars, Merovingian kings, Knights Templar, Roma, Egyptians, the Phoenicians, et al. are considered, as is Le Tarot de Marseille. Regarding the whether there is historical truth in these stories, DeNicola writes, after viewing a relic that is supposedly Magdalen's blackened skull:

Was the relic real?....I seriously doubted it, but I didn't really care. I've learned to live quite happily with mythic truth....
This is similar to Deborah Rose's attitude, explained on her website,

DeNicola points out that three goddesses are associated with "the iconic Mary": Isis with Horus on her lap, "Cybele, who came to Rome in the form of a black stone, known as Magna Mater, and Artemis of Ephesus, who was brought to Marseille in 600 BC by Greek Phoenician traders." She says that the icon was originally dark-skinned but was later "whitened." She quotes Deborah Rose, who wrote in her tour notes:
When Mary appears as the black madonna, at the sites I have visited, she has independence and power unlike her white counterpart. It seems that blackness is the thread to the older deeper teachings...that a woman's body, like the Earth itself, is sacred....
So are the Black Madonnas originally Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) goddesses conflated with early portrayals of Mother Mary? Or conflated with Mary Magdalen and her child? My guess is the first, but since this is DeNicola's book, let's try to just enjoy the myth(s). DeNicola writes about the legend (from which the town gets in name) of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in which 3 Maries (Magdalen, Mary Solomé, Mary Jacobi–the latter two supposedly half-sisters of Mother Mary) arrive from the sea with Sara, their "servant girl"—or MM's daughter, depending on the version of the myth. The town church has a mural showing the 3 Maries arriving in "a crude, ruderless dinghy." Sara is always portrayed as black. DeNicola tells how each spring the people of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer have a festival honoring Sara [link has pics] and carry her statue from the church crypt into the sea. She says that the "gypsies" (i.e., Roma) in this town believe that Sara (aka Sara La Kali [link has pics]) is the daughter of Magdalen and Jesus.

In Marseille the group visits the Black Madonna called Notre Dame del la Confession. Marseille has a procession through the town honoring her on Candlemas which replaced the Demeter/Persephone ritual held there until 600 CE. DeNicola writes, sourcing Rose's notes:

...Notre Dame de la Confession is dressed in a green cape and lifted from her crypt to parade through the town followed by a crowd carrying green candles....The color green, also the color sacred to...Isis, is a representation of the coming spring....She sits straight up upon a throne just as Isis does, which gives her power and authority.

In Le Puy they visit the Enthroned Black Madonna, a replica of one burned during the French Revolution. DeNicola describes this Madonna as having

a black face, long narrow nose, and circumflexed eyebrows below a crown...topped by a golden bird. The child's gown is deep maroon and patterned with Greek crosses. The Madonna's dress has lotus mandalas rimmed with fleur de lis. On the cuff of her left sleeve are lettered designs like the words in the Hebrew Cabala.
I looked for a pic of this, as I was interested, among other things, in the "words in the Hebrew Cabala." I found these pics , and though they're great, you can't see the lettering.

DeNicola goes on to write that

The original statue has been traced to Jeremiah. It was passed to Moses' priests some 600 years before Christ. So she was part of the Babylonian treasure smuggled from Jerusalem during the first or second Crusades.
Sorry, but I can't buy all of this story, as much as I appreciate myth. Here's why: First, the prophet Jeremiah is notorious for railing against goddess worship. In the Hebrew scriptures, in the book bearing his name, he bellyaches about people baking "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven." Second, because of the Mosaic proscription against "graven images (see Ten Commandments)," it is very unlikely that "Moses' priests," would have any role in preserving a goddess statue. My guess is that had they gotten ahold of her, Jeremiah or Moses' priests would have destroyed her. However, another part of the myth DeNicola suggests--that the statue was "smuggled from Jerusalem"-- could be historically correct. Unless someone has specific proof, why assume it's origin was Bablylon? If it was taken from Jerusalem, why couldn't Jerusalem be its origin? As we now know, goddess veneration continued to be part of the religion of most Israelites, Judeans, and other ANE ancestors of present-day Jews through the Temple period(s). As I look at the pictures of the Le Puy Madonna, it occurs to me that the face does appear of ancient provenance, but the patterns on the clothing seem more recent and the iconography Christian. Even the Hebrew lettering could be part of a Christian design. (The first Jewish kabbalistic writings are dated 200-500 CE. Jewish kabbalalistic thought, probably influenced by an interplay of Jewish and Christian gnosticism, emerged in the 12th Century in Provence, France). Did the French Christians keep the "body" of an ANE goddess statue and place on top of it clothing with French and Christian symbolism?

There is much more in this book about various Black Madonnas and MM, but the space-time continuum precludes me from discussing them all.

Towards the end of the book we find that the tour also led DeNicola to include goddesses in her spiritual views. Near the end of the chapter on Dijon, she writes:

The Mother Goddess asks that we learn to produce only what we need in the moment. We do not need anticipate or fear scarcity, which can lead to senseless oppression of others.
And further on she refers to a chapbook she wrote that contains "several of my goddess poems."

Also near the end of the book, DeNicola describes how friends surrounded Deborah Rose at her death, and tells about a later communication from the tour guide and Goddess scholar. This book is a fitting tribute to Rose, and a fascinating trip for those who read it.

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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.