Recently in Vichy, France, I was delighted to discover a powerful Black Madonna. I drove from the medieval city of Carcassonne to Vichy, through a region called Aveyron, a region of volcanoes, gorges and hot springs. Black Madonnas are often located and worshiped near these kind of geological formations. The land there was potent and alive.
As in Montserrat, the deep inner earth, the darkness, calls us to retreat to her for healing and quiet. The rich nutritive qualities these places offer both soul and body are palpable.
I had brought Ean Begg’s book, The Cult of the Black Virgin, with me as a guide. I looked up Vichy in the morning and was excited to find an entry about a Black Madonna in a church there: Notre Dame des Malades. This Madonna in particular is related to Isis and Venus. Shrines to those two deities have been found in archeological digs in the area.
The town of Vichy, now a spa town offering healing waters, is also famous for its sports facilitates where athletes from all over the world come to train. The streets were full of people eagerly checking out the January sales on clothing and shoes.
Amidst all this bustle, I began my search for this entity, following the path on the map of the narrow and crooked streets that led to the church of St. Blaise that houses Notre Dame des Malades. The building is odd shaped, tall with an oblong dome. Inside are many colorful mosaics, scenes from the bible and the lives of the saints. I walked around the interior of the church, visiting the various shrines along the edges, but could not find the Black Madonna.
At the back of the church, behind the altar, was an area partitioned off with red curtains. When I peeked through the curtains, I heard a soft female voice praying aloud and a male voice uttering in response. It felt quite sacred and personal. I did not feel comfortable entering. When I left the church, I noticed what seemed to be an older church, shorter and less grand, attached to the front. It seemed to be where I heard the prayer coming from.
I walked through the reddish brown doors of the separate entrance and indeed this was it, an entire church devoted to her: Notre Dame des Malades. She stands at the top and center of the altar, a starry backdrop behind her, a crown of gold on her head, a white cape wrapped around her. Her face is compassionate, caring and beautiful. Her energy is inclusive, embracing and gently female. Icons of various saints surround her and rows of lit candles stand in front of her. Pews were there to sit in where one could, in silence, receive her.
The voice I had heard was coming from a Catholic Sister sitting in one of the front pews. Her soft potent prayers in French were all addressed to her—Notre Dame—prayers of devotion to the mother of all. She recited her prayers; the man behind her recited the responses. Every now and again, in the middle of the prayers, this young beautiful Nun sang praises to the Madonna in a soft, melodic voice. I felt very blessed to be in this field of devotion and love and loyalty to the Black Mother. It seemed amazing to me, all the tourist attractions outside, all the frenzied shopping and speeding cars of the secular world, and here in the middle of all this modernization, cloaked in the veils of a Catholic Church, was this blatant pagan ritual going on, open, for all to see.
When paganism was the norm, this black woman would have been in an underground cavern or cave or grotto, because, being the inner earth, she supports all above from underneath, within and below. One would have descended into the underground to meet with her and listen to her. This is a new configuration of that reality, but powerful still.
If I lived in this town, I would come and pray to her often.
~Theresa C. Dintino