One of the biggest draws at Chartres Cathedral has long been Our Lady of the Pillar. One of the hundreds of Vierges Noires, or Black Madonnas, of France, she has been the object of veneration of countless millions of devotees. Every morning, businessman with their briefcases come to spend time with her before heading off for the office. Grandmothers bring her flowers, children shyly kiss the pillar and look for acorns carved under her skirts. One of my most surreal memories is of the year that I fell asleep for a nap, and awoke to find the entire town swarming with thousands of Indians, bedecked in colorful saris and sparkling jewels, chicken tikka and samosa carts wafting the tantalizing smell of curry throughout the crowded streets. It was the Tamil pilgrimage to the Black Madonna, and the priests were chanting in Sanskrit as the pilgrims carried a copy of her around the town in a flower covered palanquin.
So imagine my shock when I returned to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pillar and found this statue gazing back at me instead. Not the ebony Queen of Heaven, but a rosy cheeked, blue eyed blonde. I must confess that my first reactions were horror and disappointment . I felt that in their efforts to return the Cathedral to a 19th century vision, the state was betraying an older, deeper legacy.
But using the lens of alchemy, I can offer another perspective, one that is bit more hopeful.
In the Medieval world, psychospiritual development was understood to follow a fourfold path. The first step towards spiritual maturity is called the Negredo, or blackening. This is the place where everything falls apart. All is chaos and disintegration. Its symbols are darkness, the color black and even excrement. In our vernacular, we would say, this is the point where everything is simply shitty! The step out of this is called Albedo, the whitening. It is a time of deep emotions, a time of purification. The symbols are water, the moon, silver and tears. It is the time of the deep feminine, a time of profound healing and cleansing. The third stage, citrinitis, is symbolized by the color gold and the sun. It is a time of the dawning of new consciousness, and the awakened masculine. Finally at the end of the cycle is the rubedo, or reddening : the culmination of the spiritual journey where the tension of the opposites is transcended and the divine self is born.
I have studied on and lectured about this material for years. Knowing about the great tradition of alchemy from Pythagoras through Nicholas Flammel to Jung and the Gnostics, and even Mozart and The Wizard of Oz, has enabled me to hold what is happening at the cathedral in a symbolic, with a fragment of hope.
Perhaps we are collectively moving out of the stage of Negredo (spiritual darkness, emptiness , violence and despair) into a time of deep emotional catharsis. Maybe the whitening of the cathedral and the Madonna is not some governmental mechanism of controlling the populace and raping mystery (as I heard one irate pilgrim opine), but a symbol that we are heading towards the deep currents of what will nurture and heal our wounded hearts. Perhaps it will be a time of immersing ourselves in the purifying streams of beauty and tenderness. A time of slowing down, a time of dreaming by the light of the moon, a time of collectively washing ourselves clean of corruption, despair and cynicism to embrace- all of us- the feminine within that will eventually led to new awareness and rebirth. May it be so. It can't come too soon.