I have been meditating on the topic of this blog post for a long time. Over 8 months. My perception of interest in interfaith dialogue among Christians is that Abrahamic and/or major (normally patriarchal) institutional religions are preferred as partners. Yet, what about more eclectically-sourced and individualized forms of faith and spirituality? For instance, what about self-identifying Neo-Pagans and practitioners of Wicca (Witches)? This blog post is about one such exchange.
A while ago I approached my friend Elissa, an artist, about commissioning a piece of art with a ‘Marian’ theme. I have always been moved by the gesture of spiritual boldness provided by Mary, Jesus’ mother. I cannot over-emphasize how crucial I believe her decision was to birthing a reality that would shock and undermine the status quo yet inspire and bring God into the world in a new way.
However, my request to portray ‘Mary’ was not limited to the mother of Jesus but included other Marys and women from the bible, for instance Mary Magdalene and Mary who lay at Jesus’ feet, among others.
I had more than one reason to want to work with Elissa. As her friend, I knew we would enjoy our conversations on how the artwork would take form. I am an admirer of her particular style using ink and watercolours which yield images that flow and express themselves organically.
Yet, another reason I wanted to work with Elissa was knowing she has a spiritual practice different to mine and I was excited to see how this would inform her portrayal of Mary.
Elissa self-identifies as a ‘solitary eclectic Pagan witch’. She draws her faith and spiritual practices from various pantheons of gods and goddesses: Greek, Celtic, and Voodoo. While she does not belong to a coven (a group of witches) she is involved in several Pagan communities in Montreal.
Elissa grew up in an Evangelical Baptist Church community. She sought out Paganism as a way to reconnect with the feminine divine and to heal her relationship with the masculine divine. She describes her relationship with the divine as constantly evolving, with different ‘facets’ understood to be deities unto themselves, making themselves known along her life path.
When I first approached Elissa about portraying Mary, she felt some hesitation about portraying a subject from a Christian context. She asked me to gather some images and other materials that could guide her understanding of Mary and how I viewed her. I collected a variety of images ranging from established artistic portrayals of the Virgin Mary to Joan of Arc (!) to particular animals and other parts of creation that, for me, point to (yet are not of themselves) dimensions of Mary. I also sent her some biblical stories about Mary and other virtuous women in scripture.
What Elissa created, an ink and watercolour now hanging in my living room, was beautiful and inspired. It prompted me to ask Elissa to sit down with me and talk about how the process of creating it felt to her and what she took away from the experience. In her words:
The process [of creating this artwork] made me look at what inspires a piece. I was inspired by the images you proposed, the fire within you to create this. I wasn’t sure about the biblical context; yet, searching and seeing in stories and texts, doing my research into who each of these women were, I was able to find inspiration in each of their roles in the Christian story.
Despite my original hesitation, this work is one of my best, most inspired recent works. Really intentional. I tried to create an image that spoke to you spiritually, in so doing we had a spiritual dialogue. I also gained a sense of strength of the female figure in the bible.
Which Mary captured your attention most?
Mary Magdalene: she is more of a mysterious figure who held an unspoken power in her heart. Unspoken because parts of her life were left unrecorded, changed throughout history. There is a shroud of mystery surrounding her. In those words that no longer exist there is a possibility of who she was.
Elissa described the experience of creating the work as healing of the male divine that she has perceived abused and abusive, leading to oppression. She felt relief when she discovered femininity in Paganism; and likewise it was wonderful to uncover the feminine in Christianity through this art project. She admits that on some level she has always sought to heal that part of herself unreconciled with the spirituality she was raised with.
I asked Elissa if she had ever experienced healing within Christianity. She described a specific church space in Montreal where she finds the energy to be peaceful. Moreover, she connects with the healing energy of Jesus. When I asked her what she believes can obscure this healing power, she named dogma, perpetuating feelings of guilt, power abuses, even the architecture of designated Christian spaces.
Elissa finds healing in spaces that are more closely grounded in nature, like the woods and along the ocean. In fact, she finds it challenging to live as a Pagan in an urban centre surrounded by concrete.
Elissa’s favourite part of the artwork, which I have named Marian Manifesto, is where Mary, the mother, is feeding the plants that are growing up into the form of a cross:
Planting anything feels like you have faith and hope that something will grow. It is an act that occurs despite the violence and sadness of the crucifix; it is a peaceful act by both Mary and Jesus; it brings hope that something larger, more beautiful will carry on. It is a mother’s hope for the legacy of her children.