Friday, August 3, 2012

Meeting Madonnas: Virgins along the Way

Lisa and I launched our trek to Santiago de Compostela from a plaza in Pamplona with a mysterious name: the plaza of the Virgen de la O. As we scoured the city, making certain the pilgrim route was not the same as the route for the running of the bulls (!), we searched for the mysterious Virgin. We wanted to ask her: "What does the 'O' stand for?" We left Pamplona without an answer.

We walked for miles considering the possibilities. Was the "O" shorthand for "oest," Spanish for "west," as the plaza did face the setting sun? Could the "O" have been an unrecorded preface to the "Magnificat," which Luke records as the Virgin's response to her impending impregnation?? Might it even register some tiny spark of pleasure that accompanied her pregnancy??? Debating the questions was better than 200 mgs of ibuprofen.

When I got to a computer, I discovered the "Virgen de la O" was a popular icon in the Basque regions of Spain -- where Pamplona resides. She's a pregnant virgin -- we had that much right -- often depicted with a bulging belly, even occasionally a cut-away revealing the baby Jesus in her womb. In my favorite image above, both mother and child raise their hands in similar gestures of blessing.

Indeed, the way to Santiago was blessed -- and populated with other virgins, their gestures frozen in blessing.

This summer's trek also had a virgin: the powerful Madonna di sotto gli Organi, from the Cathedral at Pisa. Once again, we stumbled onto this icon at the beginning of our pilgrimage. Its placement in the cathedral signaled the image commanded great reverence. Medieval piety dictated that the icon be shrouded in no less than seven veils. Was that to protect the image from stray dust, candle smoke, possibly even desecration? Or was that to protect the viewer from the icon's power at closer range? Equally mysterious was the image's origin. Was it stolen from Lucca in a raid in the 13th century, having been discovered in the hands of a servant girl fleeing the city during a Saracen raid in 1016? Or was it picked off in a raid on a Lombrici castle in 1225? No one really knew, and debating those questions had entertained medieval historians across the centuries -- just as the "O" had entertained Lisa and me across the miles.

Regardless of origins, the Madonna portrayed an ancient Byzantine gesture of blessing: she was "Hodegetria," "she who shows the way." This time the baby Jesus has made it outside the womb. With one hand, she holds him; with the other, she gestures toward him. Her hand says: "Here it is. This is the way forward."

It was a wonderful way to begin pilgrimage: accompanied by a Madonna who would show us the way forward.

And, as in the first pilgrimage, we saw other Madonnas along the way: the fabled "black Madonnas," who walked with us in Viterbo and Sutri, the ubiquitous Madonna, Ignatius of Loyola's Madonna della Strada (literally, "Our Lady of the Streets") in Rome, and countless Madonna's della Corona (Queen of Heaven). We walked with the solidarity we needed.

But the question that remained unanswered: What do you do when the way forward is marked by a Person -- not a Map? It's the question of discipleship, and it reaches across centuries. The earliest disciples of Jesus would have far preferred a Map: they could have simply consulted it -- and found the way on their own. Instead, they got a Person. Not just any Person, but one who told them stories without any obvious point, took off without telling them where he was going, and address God with a little too much familiarity.

It's harder to follow a Person than a Map.

We even had trouble following the Maps. I love Maps -- almost as much as I love people -- and I quickly got charged with deciphering.

Along with that, I was christened with the title: "She who shows the way." I wish that made me a good disciples as well, but it got us through the final stretch of pilgrimage in Rome, from the crowds in St. Peter's Square, along the Tiber in rush hour traffic, and to our hotel in the cool reaches of the Aventine.

I'm still working on following the Person....

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