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Belief and the Black Madonna

Creole Archive Project — Little Haiti Mural (K022), Mixed media, 2018.
I found a lot to agree with in Bernie Lambek’s reflection on the oddities of belief in our fractured postmodern context (“The Way I See It,” The Bridge, Feb. 7, 2023); how belief is conceived of as a “choice” often made independent of evidence; how it’s portrayed as a question of avoiding divine wrath in a possible afterlife and irrelevant to the real world. 

It all seems quite silly, especially in our era of culture wars and scandal in religious institutions.

Yet stepping back, I was struck by what a minority perspective this is outside of our disenchanted culture. For most of human history and most peoples of the world today, “belief” is not even an intelligible concept. The “conundrum,” to use Lambek’s term, is not an abstract philosophical question but finding the power to live now. 

I saw this most clearly in the lives of my maternal grandparents. In early 1940s Poland, my grandmother, walking home from school in her small town near Krakow, was thrown into a truck and into the Nazi prison camp system. My grandfather and his brother went through Auschwitz; the brother died there, Dziadziu ended up in a German work camp.

Both survived the war and spent a number of years in the resettlement camps in Germany before coming to the U.S. through a Catholic religious order. They fulfilled their service as common laborers and pieced together a house on the site of an old town landfill. 

We went to their house every month. It was like entering the Old World, one where trauma hung almost as thick as the Catholic icons and White Eagles on the wall. In fourth grade, the planes and tanks of WWII were big toys to me, until a teacher encouraged me to interview my grandfather. I no longer have the cassette tape but will never lose the apparition-like memory of him rolling up his sleeve to show me the numbers on his arm.

I never had the chance to ask my grandparents what “belief” and “choice” meant to them. My sense is that these concepts remained as foreign to them as the English language.

 But they did tell us what was their most important act of their new American life: building a shrine to the Virgin Mary in their front yard. This was to fulfill a vow my grandfather made in the camps. 

The Shrine was the typical bathtub Mary statue common in the U.S. at that time. Inside the house was their true image: Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland who bears three scars on her right cheek. Legend says the Tartar invaders wounded the Black Madonna with an arrow, and that she has helped hold the Polish nation together through waves of invasion and conquest. I saw Czestochowa hold my family together. She battled the Nazi ghosts that would not relinquish their grip, allowing a family to take root in the soil of a new land.

Later in life, I was surprised to learn that the Black Madonna did the same in Haiti. Czestochowa arrived there via a Polish legion sent by Napoleon to try and re-enslave the newly liberated nation. Haitians saw her Black face on the Polish regalia and recognized the Spirit that sparked the Revolution. Called “Twa Mak,” or “Three Scars,” because of the lines on her cheek, Czestochowa became a permanent part of Haitian spirituality, both Catholic, Vodou, and everything in between.

And the Poles became a permanent part of Haiti. They saw in the Revolution their own centuries of struggle and switched sides. They became Black in the eyes of the Haitians, and their descendants live in Haiti today. 

Haiti struggles. My grandparents did too, never fully recovering. But they survived.

Despite their suffering, I think my grandparents would say they were never alone. Evil is all too real and inexplicable, but so are the Spirits. Saying that they are real and fulfilling vows to them are not “choosing to believe” in the context of a long-term wager. It’s about honoring living relationships that bestow the power to live now. And the best Spirits, like the Black Madonna of Poland, are the ones that bear our scars too. 

Certainly, many of us who don’t come from that kind of culture and context prefer talking about belief. But I think underlying our battles over believing is the realization that in the era of climate change and lingering nuclear arsenals our situation is more akin to Haiti and WWII-era Europe than we want to openly admit. And that regardless of our thoughts on belief, we share the same yearning for the power to live that that most of humanity has sought and still seeks from the Spirits. 

At least that’s what I choose to believe.