a few years ago, when Jonathan and I were traveling a lot through Europe to come back and forth between California and India, we had the good fortune to visit an incredible Catholic church in the St-Germain-des-Pres area of Paris, in France.
we'd taught a few courses in Paris and held some meditation evenings, and a few of the students and people we bumped into there showed us a Catholic medal they were wearing. (I'd seen the medal as a child, when they forced me to attend Catholic school although I was an agnostic unbaptized daughter of scientific types who praised rationality and scientific 'proof' over faith, belief and religious ideas.)
it's a beautiful depiction of the Divine Mother as Mary, Jesus' mother, in a radiant form. on the back, there is an interesting design -- a yantra, actually, though the Catholics prob'ly wouldn't call it that -- of a cross intertwined with the letter 'M' for Mary. in English, it's called "The Miraculous Medal."
anyway, our friends and students in Paris all wore this medal, no matter what spiritual background they came from or what form of worship, or not, they practiced. they all said -- 'you have to see this church. it's a miracle church, many healings have happened there in Mary's name. She appeared there, Herself, in the 1800s, to a young nun who became a saint because of her visions of Mary.'
this was at a time in our spiritual study with Kaleshwar where he was really beginning to talk a lot about the Divine Mother, and how to get Her darshan (a face-to-face meeting with Her in a divine form) and what Her energy is like, and so on. neither of us, at that time, had seen the Mother and although we were preparing for such an eventuality, I have to say that we really didn't have a clear idea of what such a thing meant.
what does it mean to SEE the Divine Mother, in a divine form? usually in India, we're talking about a fierce form of Her, like Kali, whom I've written a bit about on this site already, or Durga, who's two degrees away from Kali. they're fierce and dark and kind of ferocious-looking. most pictures of Maha Kali scare the Western students I've come into contact with -- She's kind of hideous on the surface and so people feeling uncomfortable looking at Her.
they REALLY feel uncomfortable imagining that our loving, divine Mother might look like that!
but when we talk about Mary -- she's always depicted as the sweet, loving mother of Jesus, and usually looks very beautiful, very soft -- it's easier for people to gain some sympathy for the idea of the Divine Mother.
the reality is that the outer form doesn't really matter, Mother is Mother, no matter how She looks. sweet, gentle, loving Mother Mary is just as ferocious and deep, inside, as Maha Kali appears to be. and Maha Kali is just as loving and sweet, inside, as Mary looks.
so much for the illusion of appearances!
anyway, we didn't know much about the Mother in France, and so we went to see the church, La Chapelle Notre Dame de la Medaille Miraculeuse.
it's attached to a convent -- the order of nuns there was founded in the 1600s by St Vincent de Paul, a huge saint of the poor and the desolate. although he enjoyed a position of huge power in France at the time (he was even the king's confessor!) -- he was first and foremost a kind, compassionate human being who was often referred to as 'the conscience of France.'
the young nun, Catherine Laboure, wasn't even a fully (ordained?) nun -- that is, she was still a novice, hadn't taken her full vows, when in 1830 she had the unbelievable experience of seeing, in form, the Mother Divine in the form of Mary, in this very church.
the story goes that Catherine had seen a procession go by in the streets, on St. Vincent's remembrance day. the saint's day is where the French believers cart the relics of that particular saint -- various parts of their bodies, preserved -- through the streets in a holy procession. it's thought that you can get a boon, a divine blessing, from that saint on that day. Catherine saw the relics of St. Vincent go by, in fact, his heart! and asked to see the Mother Divine, the Mother Mary.
|The chair Mother Mary sat in, to speak with Ste. Catherine, in front of the statue |
of St. Vincent de Paul, & the golden reliquary holding his heart
it was only a few days from the moment she made that wish, to a night when she was awakened in her bed, in the convent where she lived, by a young child she'd never seen before. the child told Catherine to come 'right now, to the church. Mother is waiting for you!' it was near midnight. over Catherine's protests about propriety and convent rules, the child convinced her to come to the church.
she wrote, more than 40 years later, that the church "looked as though it was set up for midnight mass. all the candles were lit..." and no one was there.
she knelt at the altar to pray, and within a few moments heard the swish swish of silken robes, and the Mother came, sat down in a chair in front of the young nun, and began to talk to her.
Mary gave the young nun many instructions, including to have the miraculous medal made in a specific way, with a specific posture of Mary depicted on it -- arms outstretched, jeweled rays streaming from Her open hands, showing that She offers succor and healing to anyone who has faith in Her.
Mary told Ste. Catherine that France would soon be facing a great deal of strife and calamity, outbreak of illness in addition to civil violence. whoever had the medal and prayed to Mary for relief, would be spared. (this happened before the Paris Commune.)
the medal was made, and Ste. Catherine, the young nun, was sworn to silence for more than 40 years. she lived in the country and took care of the old and the poor.
believe it or not, it happened, IN this church, and you can feel the power of those experiences that Ste. Catherine had, in 1830, even today. the atmosphere in the church is positively DRIPPING divine love.
since the time of the first medal distribution, many many many healing miracles have happened in and around the humble church, on the rue du Bac. even in the alleyway as you're walking in, there are hundreds of marble plaques that say 'Merci' ('thank you') and the date of the healing or miracle that took place in someone's life. there are plaques from the 1800s and the 1900s and it is emotionally moving, just to walk along and see all those.
there are hundreds more, lining the walls of the altar, all inside the church itself. just walking in that place, a simple chapel but exquisite, all pale blue and gold and white mosaics -- made me cry. literally cry, in joy.
reading and photographing all of those plaques, all of that outpouring of gratitude for healings that clearly came from the divine -- it's an exquisite pain, a bittersweet, beautiful, unspeakable feeling that wells up inside, feeling that love.
even more remarkable, that nun's tomb is IN the church, it's an open tomb because her body's been incorruptible since her death in the 1870s. Ste. Catherine's just lying there, behind some glass, with the most tranquil, divinely peaceful expression on her face, in her full nun's habit, clasping a rosary in her hands.
it was an AMAZINGLY powerful place. remarkable.
it felt a lot like places I've been in India -- one of the first Western power spots I've been to where the spiritual energy is that intense. the divine is flowing full tilt in the Church of the Miraculous Medal.
whoever said spirituality is dead in France in general or Paris in particular has clearly never been to that church of the Medaille Miraculeuse, there.
it was flourishing, populated (we were there before and during lunchtime and it was crowded), and people are so humble, so devout. I saw Catholic sisters from other orders sitting for mass, Indian women in full saris bending down in prayer, I saw French housewives and homeless people and African people and Asian men and Filipina women and Americans and and and -- it was a hugely vibrant, diverse community, in and around that church.
quite surprising. and celestial.
I walked away with a sense of awe and wonder.
I also walked away understanding, in a visceral and indescribable way, something about the resonance, the universal resonance, of the Mother Divine and Her care, Her love, for this planet.
that She's chosen, in every culture, to show Herself in whatever form the people can relate to, and that She wants the people to see Her, to know something of Her incredible love and power, the magnitude of the Divine Mother's energy in this creation.
finally I understood, deeply, that She's not at all limited to the East and its esoteric teachings. She doesn't have to be Maha Kali, in a fierce guise with a bloody tongue hanging out of Her mouth, all the way to Her breasts. She doesn't have to be exotic, or foreign, or alien-feeling to us at all.
She is, She is -- and She lives in all of us.
it sounds simple to say -- and it IS simple to say -- but until I spent some time in the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal I didn't have a rounded picture of what is possible, anywhere in the world, through Her divine grace.
Mother is everywhere!
how lucky indeed we are to be in Her lap, in this creation!