All abuzz about the Black Madonna

An Interview with Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd was happily writing inspirational essays for Christian magazines, driving carpool for her two kids, and generally being a good Southern Baptist wife and mother when she found herself in the midst of a feminist awakening.

That spiritual journey led her to join the Episcopal Church and affected nearly every aspect of her life, including her writing. But she could have never imagined where she would end up—on the bestseller list.

After chronicling her transformation in two spiritual memoirs—When the Heart Waits (1990) and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996), both by HarperSanFrancisco—she turned to her first love: fiction.

Her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, published last year by Viking, has sold more than 1 million copies and been on the bestseller list for the better part of a year. Although ostensibly about a young girl's coming of age in the South in the 1960s, it also has been called "one of the more interesting books about Mary" by Publishers Weekly.

The Secret Life of Bees is basically a story about a young girl named Lily, but it also contains many religious symbols and themes. How do you describe it?

It's about a girl who has lost her mother and who finds these women who teach her about a Black Madonna and love her into healing. Lily's great quest was for her mother, but not only for an earthly mother. It took me a while to understand this as I wrote it, that she was longing—as most all of us are—for a larger mother. We're all really looking for that great mother.

So there were two quests going on—one, for the actual mother, whose loss had left this terrible hole in her. I don't know about that particular quest personally because my own mother is still alive at the age of 82. But as I was writing I understood that I did know about that other longing for this larger, we could say, spiritual mother. In the book I let the Black Madonna carry all that.

What exactly are Black Madonnas?

There are hundreds of these images of dark-skinned Black Madonnas in Europe, and they are some of the most ancient images we have of Mary. The most well known is probably Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. Many of them are in great Gothic cathedrals, like Chartres, France, often in the crypts.

There are a lot of inventive speculations about why they are black. Some people have said it's about candle smoke (I think that theory has been more or less rejected), but some scholars believe they are black because they have connections to pre-Christian goddesses, many of whom are pictured black. Their history suggests that there may have been a kind of underground nerve center for worshiping the divine feminine within the medieval church, and it often came through in the Black Madonna.

If that is the case, we've got a very powerful amalgamation going on, a blending of the Christian Mary and these old earth goddesses. And there's an amalgamation going on not just in her history, but in her spirituality, in her mythology, in the stories that evolve around her and in the way people relate to her.

How do people relate to her differently?

C. G. Jung said, "Dogma or not, Mary is experienced as divine." That is because the human psyche or heart really needs a divine mother, and we will figure out a way to have one. In the case of the Black Madonna, I think we can begin to see reflections of the sacred feminine, of the feminine face of God.

Because of that, these images carry enormous power.

There are many Black Madonnas in the novel—the image on the honey label, the statue of Mary, even the beekeeping women who live in the pink house.

Yes. It wasn't enough to give Lily this intangible mother, even though I think you can create a relationship with Mary, with the Black Madonna, with what she represents, and it can be healing. But it wasn't enough really for Lily whose loss was so terrible. She needed these real mothers, too, so she could sit in their laps, not literally but figuratively.

People ask, "Who was the queen bee in the story? Was it the Black Madonna?" It really alternated. Sometimes it was August, who stood in as that earthly Black Madonna. Sometimes it was the Black Madonna reflected in the masthead statue. But ultimately as I tried to portray in the end of the novel, it's something within us. As August said to Lily, you have to find that mother inside yourself.

At one point in your novel, August tells Lily, "Everyone needs a God who looks like them." What did you mean when you wrote that?

Well, I didn't have an agenda, but it seemed that this thread of the sacred feminine wanted to be a part of this novel, and so I just allowed it to happen. Often it would come through August and some of her sayings of wisdom.

That we all want a God who looks like us resonates very deeply in the human psyche. I know that humans have a tendency to create God in their own image, which is not a particularly good thing to do; but on the other hand, it's good for us to be able to understand God in language and in symbol and in image that reflects the deepest thing in our own selves.

Secret life of bees

What I was getting at there is that we have left the feminine out of the divine. And when we leave a particular image out of that picture, then society becomes less whole. We can't be whole until we can be inclusive and understand our pictures of God as embracing the whole community.

So do you believe God is a woman?

My understanding of the divine is that God is neither male nor female. I believe that God is beyond gender. As theologian Sallie McFague says, "God is she, he, and neither." I really believe that is true.

There is no image that creates an adequate picture of God, but we have to have a way to speak about God, and in order to do that, we have to use images and forms and symbols and metaphor and language. The crux of it is we want these images and forms and symbols to be inclusive. Religion has mostly told us that there was only one form or one image, and that is male, so we've had a rather limited picture of God.

It's very important, as August pointed out, for us to understand that the image of God can be in a feminine form, too, or a feminine symbol. When that happens, women are able to wake up in profound ways to their own spiritual depths.

It's a pivotal thing for a woman, psychologically and spiritually. They often are able to break free of a lot of silence, dependence, even self-hating. I have seen this, and it is true in my own life. It has profound and pervasive implications for women and for little girls.

As a Protestant, how did you become so close to Mary?

Mary had been left out of my experience completely. When Lily in the novel says, "We didn't allow Mary in our church except Christmas," that was really Sue speaking, and that was true of my experience. I had no relationship really with Mary other than this sort of Christmas figure that appeared now and then.

When I had my own feminist spiritual awakening, as I describe in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I went on a quest for images of the divine feminine. Mary wasn't one of the first images I found. But then I began to wonder about the Christian tradition, because my roots there are deep and important. So I looked at the threads of the sacred feminine in our tradition. Sometimes I wish they were stronger, but they're there.

I first discovered icons of the Black Madonna at a Greek Orthodox convent in Greece, and later at a Benedictine monastery in Switzerland, where this very dark-skinned Black Madonna was enthroned and they sang "Salve Regina" to her. I saw in their faces how this symbol functioned within the Catholic Church, how it kept alive this enormously important feminine aspect within religion.

Then I began to cultivate my own relationship with the Black Madonna and with Mary in general. I began to read about her, put icons of Mary in my study, in my prayer room. I bought a rosary. As a Protestant, it was really quite new. I was sort of a blank slate, because I didn't have all this background with Mary. I saw her as carrying such a fierce independence, almost a dissidence, about her.

Of course, that is not how most Catholics see Mary. They have experienced a very white madonna.

Yes, a lot of Mary's independence has been whitewashed in the white Mary. She got herself tamed, and that was not particularly helpful for a lot of women in the church. The Black Madonna is a whole other story.

Her darkness has great power in it. She becomes a flashpoint for independent spirit, for women conjuring up their own strength and their own power, being their own authority. Which is why in the novel the masthead Black Madonna has her fist balled up. I didn't mean that as an image or symbol of aggression; I meant it as an image that could reflect this great sense of dignity and empowerment and authority that the Black Madonna has.

She also has a subversive streak in her, which I resonate with. Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm pretty much a dissident sort of Christian in a lot of ways. The Black Madonna is not submissive. You rarely will see her with the dipped chin, the lowered eyes, that kind of handmaiden look. In most of her images she looks directly at you with a stare that rattles your bones. She has that powerful, fierce look about her. In many cases she was the Madonna of oppressed people.

I think we have a large frontier here, ways to begin to develop and understand powerful divine feminine images that come right out of our Christian tradition and see how they can begin to reflect what is missing to us.

You often describe yourself as a dissident. What does that mean to you?

In some ways I'm not particularly dissident at all. I was always the "good girl." But then I began to wake up to all kinds of things about Christianity, things that had been left out, the lack of inclusion. I was on the threshold of entering my 40s, and I began a long process of looking at my life as a woman and what it meant to be spiritual as a woman.

It was a profound awakening, and initially very tumultuous, as I describe in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. It was not a comfortable place for me to find myself, and yet I was compelled to follow my own truth. The journey can be long and painful but ultimately very freeing. Often we have to let go of so many things, and at the time it feels like loss. But in essence we're really stepping into our destiny.

I think dissidents and mystics are kind of like first cousins. A mystic is one who encounters and follows the divine voice within him or herself, even when it veers from tradition or the convention. I think a dissident does the same thing. Dissidents listen to the dictates of their own conscience. A dissident is one who must come to know what his or her truth is, which is really difficult, and then have the courage to stand by that truth and voice that truth, sometimes even in the face of enormous backlash.

You've mentioned the importance of religious imagery. What about the image of the bees in the novel?

When I first started writing it, I had no idea either that bees had any kind of spiritual symbolism. This is kind of interesting, as writers and creative people often need to be led by the unconscious. Creativity is really just letting images well up from the unconscious and trusting them. And so here came the bees!

Monk Isn't Just
Her Middle Name

How did you become interested in monasticism?
I grew up in Georgia as a Southern Baptist, but as a young woman I began reading Thomas Merton. Reading The Seven Storey Mountain marked the beginning of my contemplative life, and it was like coming home.

It's always the thing that you don't grow up with—that missing thing that you have to go in search of. I did not grow up with an understanding of the interior life, of the contemplative aspect of Christianity.

This was—and I don't think I'm overstating this—for me, it was the discovery of my life. I had grown up in this evangelical church centered on the Word, and when I read Merton I discovered the world of the Eucharist, the world of ritual and spiritual symbol and metaphor.

I think inside I was a contemplative and I was trying to find my way there. It's a curious coincidence that my maiden name is Monk, but there really is a monk inside of me.

I hear your next novel is set in a monastery.
Not exactly set in the monastery, but there is a monastery in the book. It's set on an island off the coast of South Carolina, and there's a Benedictine monastery on the island. My character is a South Carolina woman who returns home and has a great awakening when she falls in love with one of these monks. So I'm writing about the kind of awakenings women go through—erotic awakenings and spiritual awakenings. And sometimes those are two sides of one thing.

The more the bees wanted to be part of this novel I thought, "Maybe I should do some research." When I did I was floored. I came across all these medieval hymns to the Virgin Mary that refer to her as the bee or as the beehive, the sacred bee. "Her womb is the hive from which Christ the honey flows." The symbolism of the bee even predates Christianity; some Greek goddesses were associated with the bee. I thought, "Oh, my goodness, there's a whole level here I just had no idea about."

Then I realized, of course, a hive is a feminine community, and that's exactly what I was writing about in the pink house. It was like a hive of women who were trying to make something good out of their loss and sorrow, out of the struggles with civil rights, out of the pain that they live with. It's like you take these holes life gives you and you make honey.

Racism is another big theme in the book. Why did you include that?

It was important to me to write about race because I am from the South and because I did come of age in the 1960s. My own awakening came along with the civil rights eruption. It was formative for me. I feel strongly about the importance of inclusion and harmony and all of us being human beings together, regardless of color.

There are references in my novel to how ludicrous it is to judge and exclude and value people based on something like skin pigment. We have to transcend that, and I do think the Black Madonna can help us to do that. We need these kind of images that have wide laps that can hold all of us in one place as a family. Her lap's very wide, large and nurturing.

Do you think things have improved since the '60s?

We have come a long way since 1964. At the same time, we have so much farther to go. We still have not figured this out the way we need to, but we have made strides. One thing we need are new images, images of unity and inclusion. As a human family we have to expand our hearts.

That's why I put the heart on the Black Madonna in the novel and had the characters come and touch it. What I was suggesting is that there is a wisdom in the heart of the Black Madonna and we must make contact with this or we are not going to survive. I think it's urgent that we begin to widen out our hearts and become more compassionate.

You have written two books of spiritual memoir. Now that you've written a novel, how do you feel about memoir?

I want to write another memoir. In my spiritual journey I need to give voice to what's going on in my soul. Sometimes I wish that wasn't so because it makes me feel very vulnerable and exposed, and that's not exactly comfortable. I'm an introverted, contemplative person who loves her solitude, but I have this really strong soulful compulsion to write about my spiritual experience. So many things I've experienced become somehow finished for me when I'm able to write them in a memoir.

It sounds so selfish to be focusing on your own experiences in writing, poring over them and dissecting them. But I found it so freeing. It helps us transcend our experience; it frees us from the ego in a strange way. I guess it is a paradox.

Is that why spiritual memoir has become such a popular genre these days?

Yes. People really respond to it. We want to read other people's experience in order to understand our own. And writers are writing it to understand it in order to step beyond it.

There are common themes in both your fiction and your nonfiction. Is that intentional?

I think I really am at heart a fiction writer who took a side trip with my non-fiction writing for a while. I'm sure I will write other nonfiction books, but at my core I'm a fiction writer. And as a fiction writer, I must tell a true story that comes out of my own depths, my own unconscious. It won't be factually true, but true to life, true to the deep human pathos we all experience and also the kind of overcoming and healing that we can experience.

I didn't set out to include themes from my nonfiction in my fiction. I don't think we should set up a social agenda for fiction writing and then try to write a story to make a point. That was never in my mind. But if you write your most authentic story—what you're put here to tell—it does weave together your own experiences and ideas. It's just a natural process.

I'm a spiritual person. My orientation to the world is very spiritual. So if I write authentically it's going to reflect my own spiritual orientation and view.

As a person with a spiritual slant, I don't just want to mirror a society or culture that is lost and filled with hopelessness. There are enough books about that. I think writers can reflect the reality of the world we live in, but we can go beyond that and also say there is hope, and there is transformation, and there is this transcendent power of love that can change our lives. 

The interview was conducted by Heidi Schlumpf, managing editor of U.S.Catholic. This article appeared in the November 2003 (Volume 68, Number 11) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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