Sunday, October 21, 2012
I have been busting my gut at my fall practicum this semester, hence a sparse number of posts on Bridgetsfire! My apologies all! But I am here in spirit, because every day at my practicum site, a Catholic university, I pass a Marian grotto on my way to my office. . . and I always stop to say a prayer to Mary, Bridget, and all the saints. The grotto itself is gorgeous, and from its hillside site, I can see off over Westmoreland County to the highest peaks of Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands. For a place to start a new journey, the Marian grotto is about the best place to be.
Marian grottos are small caves, often with images or statues of Mary, built into hillsides and gardens. Grottos can be small or large, contain huge statues or only a small icon, come bedecked with flowers and waterfalls or stand alone in forgotten churchyards. I have been visiting Marian grottos for thirty years, taking sustenance from the source, the cave, the dark. If you want to create anew, a cave is a blessed place to begin.
Grottos predate Mary the way Mary predates Christianity. . . Apollo had a grotto at Delphi; before the Romans, Eileithyia had a grotto in Crete. Eileithyia, the bringer of life, dates to pre-Indo European times, and by Roman times she was a fate, older than Cronos, time itself. At her cave on Crete, votives to Eieithyia can be dated to neolithic times. Goddess grottos thus predate time indeed.
Our connection to caves as humans even pre-dates the wonderful cave paintings of Lascaux, from a mere 17,000 years ago. The human archaeological record centers on caves, in Africa, in Europe, in Asia. Our ancestors buried cave bear skulls in their homes, while Lascaux shows us the wonderful creativity and expression of our ancestors. In northern Iraq, a cave still used to shelter flocks today has been excavated over and over, with the latest remains dating back 100,000 years. In Wales and Cornwall I visited cave after cave dedicated to Celtic saints, where people today still go for healing and spiritual renewal. Standing at a Mary Grotto, I am reaching back through pagan and Christian traditions, going back to our earliest human meanings.
In Christian times, mystics retreated to caves, and Mary showed up in her first apparition to James the Great in A.D. 39, along the banks of the Ebro river. As everyone knows, she has been showing up ever since. Grottos built for her invoke both traditions, the Marian tradition of apparitions and prehistoric traditions of caves and their symbols. Build a grotto to Mary, and you invoke her; stand in a grotto and you are standing in a symbol of human home, dwelling, healing, creation. Put the two together and you have powerful magic.
Mary herself, mother of God, is always out in our Western histories rescuing and saving people. Having Mary on my side at a small, Catholic university, has been immensely supportive and healing for me. I pray every day at her grotto before going to my office, and I pray again before I drive home. May in the Middle Ages rescued accused innocents from hangings, wronged neighbors from slander, helped those in need and in distress. I figure she continues to do so today. I will solicit her blessing, and left her a holy medal to Bridget back when I begin my practicum.
At the beginning of my new career, I also find a grotto a peaceful place of darkness, emptiness, possibility. Caves are interior, dark, fertile. I am not gonna jump on the cave as womb bandwagon, but will go with cave as underground, as root. In graduate school I find my professors and advisors are all pushing me to choose a direction, to choose a specialty, to establish a map for myself in upcoming years. And in the grotto at school, I find myself resisting. Here in the dark, with Mary silently watching, I have a space and time to open to all possibilities. Growth will come, but right now my own direction is unformed, ephemeral, waiting to choose shape. In the numinous presence of Mary and Cave, I have time and space to see what and where and who I will become. I want to continue trying on new shapes and new talents, before I settle into choice. In a Marian Grotto, I have support and fertility. No wonder I find grottos sacred.
Marian grottos do not require denominational affiliation. Pagan me has never had lightning strike me down in a grotto! I could as easily leave a pentagram to Mary as an offering, as well as a Cornish cloutie ribbon to the grotto itself. Whatever your religious tradition, in other words, a grotto is a place to go for space, for support, for creativity and new inspiration. Grottos abound all over the world, so none of us are ever far from a sacred space of new.
We are in mid-October as I write, heading to All Hallow's, time for the spirits to come, and to plant bulbs and bring in the last of the basil. Grottos fit this interior and darking time of the year. Numinous support is something we all need and deserve: find a cave, feel Mary, open to the empty dark.
A good ritual and a good puja. This halloween, go find a Mary Cave. Let go of knowing, and see what you create.