In my native Catalonia, as in much of Europe, the countryside is dotted with shrines to local statues of the Virgin Mary. These are very old (Romanesque era), or copies of very old sculptures, and some of them are black. The most famous, Our Lady of Montserrat, is affectionately known in Catalan as La Moreneta, The Little Dark One, because both she and the Infant she carries are black.
My parents were married, and I had my first communion, at another such shrine, this one much smaller than Montserrat, dedicated to Our Lady of the Fields. The shrine is a one-room whitewashed church adjoining the sacristan\’s house. And next to that is a spring. This Virgin is not black, and the statue is a copy of a copy of a copy, but she has the same fierce, other-worldly look as the others, and the same story.
The story of what I call the “peasant Madonnas” is, with small variations, always the same. A peasant, or a shepherd, or a woodcutter takes refuge from the sun under some trees by a spring. As he rests, he becomes aware of a Presence amidst the foliage, a Lady who asks him to build her a shrine on that very spot, and then vanishes. The peasant/shepherd/woodcutter takes off for the village, where he breathlessly tells his tale. The priest, the mayor, and a crowd of villagers follow him to the spring, and there they find the statue of the Virgin.
The priest alerts the bishop, the mayor tells the governor, and among them they decide that the spring is no place for the Virgin and her shrine. She needs to be in a more public, more formal, more important spot. She needs to be in town.
But when they go to fetch the statue, she becomes so heavy that the strongest men, with the biggest horses, cannot budge her. So the notables throw up their hands and build the shrine right where she wants it.
Who are these peasant Madonnas? Why are there so many of them, and why do they favor trees and springs? Why do they insist on staying in the countryside?
The word “peasant” has the same root as “pagan,” which originally meant “country-dweller,” the countryside being the last refuge of the old religions. When Christianity eventually evicted the naiads and dryads and satyrs, the country-dwelling Madonnas took over, guarding the old sacred spots—under trees, near springs—and offering the toiling peasant a place of rest and refreshment.
Whether they are dryads in disguise, or manifestations of the Goddess Herself, I think of these country Madonnas, stubbornly clinging to their bit of earth, as the patron saints of environmentalists. They affirm the sacredness of wild spaces and invite us to share their mystery.
There is a huge old pine tree on a south-facing slope in our woods. Whenever I go by it, I look around its roots and up into its branches, hoping for a glimpse of something—I don\’t know what—that I wish were there.