I was walking on a dirt road. Rolling potato farms stretched away to the horizon on one side. A ten-mile-deep woods stood on the other. It was a perfect set-up for wild animals. The grazers could leave the shelter of the trees to feast on crops and grasses, keeping the woods nearby as an escape hatch. And the predators could prey on them. I had seen deer there through the years, lovely cotton-tail rabbits, and field-mice and rats. Thousands of birds. Squirrels. Dozens of raccoons and possums. Skunks. Even a grumpy badger who glared at me and snuffed with contempt before scuttling back into its hole. And I had found the tracks of foxes, coyotes, and wild dogs, and watched hawks swoop down on the vegetarians. Once, at dusk, I saw a huge owl pick up a screaming rabbit in its talons and fade away into the murk.
It was a dirt road through a merciless Paradise, merciless and heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
That particular time the sun had set, though the sky was still stained by it. A whippoorwill had begun its flute-like evening prayers, lonely, lonely prayers, deep in the darkening woods.
When I turned a bend I came upon a foot-high Virgin Mary placed at the edge of the road with the woods rising just behind her. Before her someone had lain stones and sea-shells and a bouquet of wild-flowers, by then wilted. There she stood, with her sweet, tragic face, her colors mostly faded away, so that her pale plaster form glowed in the shadows.
I have been moved many times by the Mary shrines in churches, in homes, and along roads — moved by the Blessed Mother herself, but also by the evidence that despite a few thousand years of fanatical efforts to snuff out the feminine element of the sacred, the yearning human soul won’t allow it. But never was I more moved than by that humble little holy thing propped up alongside a dirt farm road.
Assuming it was a human being who placed her there and arranged her so sensitively — let’s assume for now it was a human being, though I don’t dismiss out of hand the idea of some other inexplicable force at work — I asked then and ask now, why was a shrine to Mary placed there? Who was around to appreciate her? In all the years I walked that road, I never encountered another person. I may now and then have seen a guy on a tractor a long way off, but I never bumped into anyone close enough to even wave to.
So, why? The simplest answer is that Mary was brought there by a devout farm-worker, who happened to be assigned to that area for a time when I was absent, and thought to grace his or her working day with the presence of the Blessed Mother.
Or, less simply, she was placed there in that out-of-the-way corner of the world by someone with a very interesting and unconventional idea of of the deeper meaning of Mary. For instance, that Mary is much more than the mother of Jesus, much more than the consort of God the Father. That Mary is a goddess in her own right. In fact, that she is the latest manifestation of the Goddesses who are found in every culture (with a couple of notable exceptions), and who have been around forever.
I can imagine that person thinking that the Goddess Mary, therefore, doesn’t need to be displayed in a church, near a church, or linked to anything at all that locks her into a subservient position on the holy totem-pole. And furthermore, that the Goddess Mary doesn’t need to exist only in the company of the Human Race, nor to be worshipped by human beings. In fact, she doesn’t even need to be envisioned by human beings at all!
I can imagine that person thinking that the Goddess exists independently of us since ultimately she is — the Earth. The Goddess, the Great Mother, Mary in this case, is the Earth itself — Mother Earth. And Mother Earth, or Nature, doesn’t exist because we made her up and placed Her into a pantheon of gods to be prayed to in times of trouble. In fact, we exist because of Her. We are entirely dependent upon Her, like an infant upon its mother, no matter how much we strut and swagger behind our gadgets and gizmos and so hide from terrifying eternity.
And so, just possibly, the person who erected this shrine for Mary thought this way and placed Her with great reverence where She could contemplate, and be contemplated by, the immense and unknowable Mystery behind everything.
Have I imposed my own thinking upon this unknown shrine- builder? Ah, yes! How can I deny it? But then, all religious belief is an imposition on the Unknown, isn’t it? An overlay? A graspable story? Well, so I think, anyway. And personifying the Earth and its miraculous and ongoing gifts in the form of the Goddess, the Great Mother, is a religious exercise, to be sure. So I’m in the tradition. That’s my excuse.
Not too long ago, the farms were bulldozed and transformed into an immense golf-course with perfect grass, little flags, and a fancy club-house, where, rest assured, you won’t find the farm-worker we’ve mentioned among its members. The ten-mile woods were also torn out and replaced by a ten-mile housing development, whose grid of solid streets were named after Indian tribes.
Well, this is the Sprawl Age, isn’t it?
I wonder if anyone — the shrine’s creator, the surveyor, the developer — removed tiny plaster Mary in time to escape the bulldozer’s blade.
Though whether the little effigy was saved or crushed to powder, Mary is still there. She’s there and here and everywhere else on earth because she is the earth, this very planet, this dear, dear planet rushing through cold, infinite darkness. And she will be here, mothering Life, long after we are gone.