White Man, Black Madonna: Reflection One

White Man, Black Madonna

A Journal of Prayer, Reconciliation, and Healing

Stuart Higginbotham

A replica of Notre Dame Sous le Terre,
Our Lady Under the Earth
from the Crypt Chapel at Chartres Cathedral, France

Back around 2002, I worked in the bookstore at Columbia Theological Seminary when I was a student there. While it was technically “work,” it was always a joy because of both the people I met and the access I had to resources.

One day, I stumbled upon a book of prayers and reflections that included a powerful image of God that I had never before encountered: the Divine Feminine. I have since lost the title of the book (some lucky person bought it before I did), but the image has remained with me: an image of the Divine that not only embraced what we might call “darkness” or “shadow,” but also challenged me to recognize and embrace these aspects of my own self so that I could nurture a degree of healing and wholeness that was truly transformative.  

I would return to that small collection of prayers several times as the wisdom of this image led me into a much more expansive awareness of the Divine than I had ever known possible. Such an image has embraced and transformed “darkness,” and it has allowed my own soul to remain more centered in very difficult times, such as my days as a hospice chaplain when the questions of “Where is God in the midst of my experience of pain, grief, confusion, and even fear?” demanded an answer–or at least a reflection–that was more authentic, honest, and vulnerable than the more narrow theology I had been raised with.  

Stumbling on that collection of prayers at Columbia was a moment of grace for me, because it planted a seed that has continued to bear fruit in my practice of prayer for two decades now. As I continued to struggle and wrestle with my own self awareness–to say nothing of the deep, painful struggles of the world in which we live–I became more and more grateful for an image of God that nurtured transformation through my wrestling, rather than ignoring it, bypassing it, or even defeating it from the outside. As I yearned for an image of God that I could honor deeply, I recognized that I really yearned for an image of God that deeply honored all of me–whatever this “me” really is. If we say that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” then I needed an image of God that affirmed the presence of God within all aspects of my life–no exceptions.

As many have said, our image of God and our image of ourselves are inherently linked, and we would do well to pay attention to how our image of God influences how we understand and treat ourselves and the wider world around us. Do we seek to nurture healing and reconciliation from within, honoring the subtle distinctions within our complex world that challenge any desire we have to grasp onto power and control? Does our image of God inspire us to lift our eyes and watch for the reality of rebirth all around us? Or, does our image of the Divine seem to reinforce a sense of “power-over” and even give license to act from the outside and change others (or the entire world) to serve our own sense of purpose? P

Put another way, are you drawn to images of the crucifix or does something in you want to avoid that? Are you curious why that may be the case?  We might see how such a reflection on what images of God we pay attention to is vitally important as we face the challenges of our day.

At this point in my life, I believe such a deeper reflection on healing images of God can speak to our suffering as we face so many struggles in this world. How can we make sense of the ecological crisis and the pain we are already experiencing through the changing climate? How can we make sense of the tensions and suffering of racial injustice and socio-economic and political upheaval? How can we discern (that is, make a conscious choice grounded in a divine awareness rather than our egoic grasping) a response to the cultural challenges we face? If we are honest, we will admit that we are in the midst of an enormous cultural transformation, and we would do well to pay attention to how our image of God shapes the way we live and act.  

` In my own life, the image of the Black Madonna speaks powerfully to the challenges we face, particularly from my perspective as a white man.  The broad image of the Black Madonna–and the many cultural embodiments of this image around the world–challenges me to look closely at how God is at work through and within the world, human suffering, the desire for transformation, and an authentic hope for healing. The feminine aspects of this image challenge any rigid sense of power I have as a man, and the blackness or darkness of Her entices my imagination to delve more deeply into the reality of God’s mysterious presence within creation, culture, and conversion.  

I have particularly been drawn to this image during the past two years of cultural struggle, from the challenges we faced with Covid, the social response to racial injustice, our growing awareness of our interconnectedness as a human race, and the heightened tension with climate change. For me, the Black Madonna is an image of God that is fierce in its insistence that God’s healing presence will act through our interconnected lives, challenging us to participate with the loving desire of the Divine that will rock us to our core and love us into a new way of being.  

In this light, I want to begin this Advent looking more closely at this image of the Black Madonna.  I want to highlight a few specific examples of Her, paying attention to the historical and cultural significance of these images. I want to also focus intently on how my practice of prayer with these images fosters this awareness of healing within my life–and how She nurtures a resolve in me to live more consciously in the world.  

I will post new reflections as I spend time with them, taking my time to weave in various threads into what I hope for me will be a very rich tapestry. 

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