What had I expected to find here, in this place named for another religion’s saint? This was a shrine to the mother of God – but not the mother of any of my gods.
By Eric Scott
The Virgin Mary is made of steel. The Virgin Mary is fourteen feet tall. The Virgin Mary is spinning in place. I am timing her spins with a stopwatch – the Virgin Mary turns once on her metal heel every four minutes. Her arms are outstretched, her hair unfurled, her left foot forward contrapposto; just now she is looking straight at me through an arch of fountain jets, as though she is about to step off her plinth and wade through the water to me. The Virgin Mary sees me here – me, a Witch, wearing my Thor’s Hammer necklace to her holy shrine – and the Virgin Mary turns away from me again.
The Virgin Mary is the gaudiest thing I have ever seen.
I am in one of the tourist traps that dot the Lake of the Ozarks in the center of Missouri. Specifically, this is the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church, a Catholic shrine that swells with pilgrims in the summer. Below the statue is an amphitheater where outdoor Masses are held between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But the Masses have not yet started for the year. I am visiting on a chilly and gray Friday afternoon in May of 2021, and I am alone except for two old ladies tending the gift shop. I wander down into the pit of the amphitheater and look up at the grassy terraces, buttressed by walls of black granite. It’s so quiet that I can hear the Virgin’s gears turning.
The walls are inscribed with the names of pilgrims’ mothers – a brochure says I can add mine for $400. I look up at Mary and frown. This is an odd statue, not just because it spins. It has none of Mary’s traditional iconography – no headscarf or halo, no sacred heart or starry cloak, and, pointedly, no baby Jesus in her arms. She is young and thin, her dress’s waistline tightly fitted above her hips. If it weren’t for the shrine’s name spelled out in tall golden letters beneath her, there would be no way to identify this figure as the Mother of God at all.
But then, the shrine doesn’t make much of a secret about what it means by “motherhood,” either. On the road in, there is a field marked by dozens of tiny white crosses, which mark the number of abortions that take place in the United States every hour. In October there is a special “Respect Life” mass (“Bring the whole family!”); in the gift shop there are prayer cards for the pro-life movement, “that all people will come to value human life as God’s precious gift to be accepted and loved rather than a burden to be destroyed.” The shrine is young, only established in 1988, well after Roe vs. Wade. And in that respect I suppose this depiction makes perfect sense: this is a woman being called a mother who couldn’t possibly know of her pregnancy without an angel of the Lord to tell her.
I sit down on the edge of the fountain at the center of the plaza and sigh. I have been visiting all of the shrines to the Virgin Mary within a few hours of my house outside of St. Louis, hoping to crib some notes for my own attempts at a Wiccan pilgrimage, and this was one of the last ones on my list. I had tried not to come in with any expectations, but I did expect the place to have a little more mystery to it. A shrine is supposed to be a liminal space, somewhere set aside from the everyday world, where a pilgrim can confront the divine in all its terror and majesty. I hadn’t expected one to be so – well – so tacky.
The overcast sky reflects against Mary’s steel face. What had I expected to find here, in this place named for another religion’s saint? This was a shrine to the mother of God – but not the mother of any of my gods.
“Mother Mary,” I ask her, “what am I doing here?”
As often happens, to ask the question is to receive the answer.
I find myself kneeling on the black stone at the base of the Mothers’ Wall. I know that Mary is not a goddess – not mine in any case – and I know that the vision of motherhood that surrounds me does not match with my beliefs, either religious or political. But still. Even a gaudy and suspect shrine is a place to go when one needs to pray.
“I know I’m not one of yours,” I say. “But have mercy, Mother, on one who has spent a long time looking for a child.”
“When are you going to give your mother a grandbaby?”
I did not know the woman who asked me this question, except that she is a neighbor to my mother, who lives by a pond in southern Missouri. I was visiting for the weekend, a few weeks before my visit to the Mother of the Church, and had walked down to the lake to be alone with the water and the moon and the earth, three faces of the Great Goddess I had been raised to worship. I had wandered onto this woman’s property, and she ran out to chase me off before she realized I was her neighbor’s son.
“We’re trying,” I stammered, taken aback by the abruptness of the question.
“Are you?” she said. She lit a cigarette and began to ask whether or not we had talked to a doctor about it, that maybe there was something wrong with me – “you know,” she said, gesturing somewhere in the vicinity of my crotch, “down there.”
We had been trying, of course – we had been trying for years, through dozens of pregnancy tests and ovulation kits and bottles of prenatal vitamins. But we had started late. My wife and I had put off the thought of children again and again throughout our twenties: maybe after graduate school, we said, after we get steady jobs, after we’re on solid ground. We were lucky enough that we did get to that solid ground, eventually. I became a union organizer after school, and though the hours were long, we finally had enough money to think about the future. But we were in our mid-30s by then, and with every month that passed, we worried that we had waited too long. We even turned to magic for help, using a ritual lifted from Aleister Crowley – during our attempts to conceive, we focused on the image of catching the soul of our child-to-be in a butterfly net. “That was how we got you,” my father had told me once (Witches talk about the birds and the bees differently than most).
When my wife finally brought me her positive test, we fell onto our bed crying. We couldn’t restrain ourselves. We told our parents as soon as we saw them, even though we were still so early in the pregnancy. Her parents – both of them deeply devoted Catholics – were dumbstruck after waiting so long; her father could only repeat the words “God bless you” again and again. My parents were more sanguine – my father guessed what we were up to before we could actually get the words out. “Congratulations, son,” he said. “This is the beginning of the great adventure.”
We miscarried in the sixth week of the pregnancy. There were no magical rites to carry us through that, nothing anyone could do to comfort us that would not drive the knife deeper.
One thing Catholics and Pagans have in common is that we spend a lot of time arguing about how many gods we actually have. They have their confusion over the Trinity; we have our confusion over whether the gods are all ultimately aspects of a greater divinity, or whether they are separate, as unique as individual humans. The Wiccan standpoint is traditionally the former, speaking of a Great Goddess and her consort the Horned God and then assigning a myriad of historical deities as representations of that underlying pattern. For some in the Pagan community, this is as much a heresy as Arianism. To them each deity is irreducible, to the point that one acquaintance of mine considered the Norse god Odin and the Anglo-Saxon god Woden to be two different entities despite their obvious relationship.
After visiting a few Marian shrines, I found myself asking a similar question. Were these places dedicated to one saint, or to dozens? Even in this small patch of earth, Mary appears in so many guises, and they have seem to have little to do with one another, or with the original woman from Nazareth. A few weeks after my visit to Mary, Mother of the Church, I came to Mary of the Magnificent Medal, a shrine in Perryville, Missouri, not far from where my grandparents grew up. In the gardens there is a labyrinth surrounded by twelve marble statues of Mary, each absolutely distinct from the others. The Virgins have been carved with care to show their unique attributes, from the hammer and pincers on the crucifix of Our Lady of La Salette to the flower-embroidered Gnadenröckln robes of Our Lady of Altötting. How am I supposed to understand them? Are they twelve, or are they one? At the center of the labyrinth I stop and spin in place, marveling at all the ways the Mother of God had appeared to the faithful.
Mary, Mother of the Church, is not among the Virgins in Perryville. She does not have their history or their symbolism. In so many ways, these figures are more to my taste, with their exotic garb and their esoteric lore. But the Mother of the Church is the one I am thinking of as I finish spinning, just as she is spinning, a few hours to the west of me. In the past few weeks, I have met Mary as Our Lady of the Snows, as Our Lady of Sorrows, as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, and so many more in the past few months. But it was only the ridiculous, slim-waisted, steel-skinned statue who moved me to prayer, who seemed like she would listen.
Nobody gets to decide when the Virgin Mary appears, or how she will look when she does. That’s what makes it a miracle.
St. Mary’s Church is only a block away from my house in Belleville. I went to a service once, just after I’d finished my tour of the shrines. After being cornered by a parishioner who gleefully told me about how members of the church had stood up against Black Lives Matter protestors, I’d decided against coming back. But out behind the church, hidden from the street, is a recreation of the Lourdes Grotto, where a vision of Mary appeared to a teenage girl in 1858 and sparked an international pilgrimage that continues to this day. I found recreations of the grotto in nearly every one of the Marian shrines I visited, as ubiquitous as the Stations of the Cross or the gift shop.
My wife and I found out that she was pregnant at the end of my summer of pilgrimages; our baby is five months old now, born premature but remarkably healthy for that. Our only real problem is that the baby gets gassy in the evenings, but a walk around the neighborhood helps to clear that up. Most nights we go to the park, but tonight we go to St. Mary’s.
The sun has started to set by the time we get to the grotto, and floodlights are shining on the figure of the Virgin. The baby, nestled in a sling, has started to settle down and fall asleep against my chest. I kiss my two fingers and press them to the hem of Mary’s robe.
“Do you know who this is, buddy?” I ask the infant, who responds only by drooling into my shirt. I rub the baby’s fuzzy head and we turn back toward home. “That’s Mary,” I say. “She helped us find you.”
Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He writes about his life as a second-generation Pagan, pilgrimage, pop culture, and politics. He is the Pagan Perspectives Editor for The Wild Hunt and a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha.