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What happens when a former Zen Buddhist monk and his feminist wife experience an apparition of the Virgin Mary?
“This book could not have come at a more auspicious time, and the message is mystical perfection, not to mention a courageous one. I adore this book.”—Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit
Before a vision of a mysterious “Lady” invited Clark Strand and Perdita Finn to pray the rosary, they were not only uninterested in becoming Catholic but finished with institutional religion altogether. Their main spiritual concerns were the fate of the planet and the future of their children and grandchildren in an age of ecological collapse. But this Lady barely even referred to the Church and its proscriptions. Instead, she spoke of the miraculous power of the rosary to transform lives and heal the planet, and revealed the secrets she had hidden within the rosary’s prayers and mysteries—secrets of a past age when forests were the only cathedrals and people wove rose garlands for a Mother whose loving presence was as close as the ground beneath their feet. She told Strand and Finn:
The rosary is My body, and My body is the body of the world. Your body is one with that body. What cause could there be for fear?
Weaving together their own remarkable story of how they came to the rosary, their discoveries about the eco-feminist wisdom at the heart of this ancient devotion, and the life-changing revelations of the Lady herself, the authors reveal an ancestral path—available to everyone, religious or not—that returns us to the powerful healing rhythms of the natural world.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Way of the Rose
Am I Not Here Who Am Your Mother?
How does an ex-Buddhist monk who isn’t a Catholic, and no longer even considers himself nominally a Christian, end up praying the rosary? In the ordinary course of events, it would never have happened. But, then, these are hardly ordinary times. The rosary wasn’t anywhere on my list of last-ditch efforts to make sense of a world on the brink of ruin. I’d tried everything—from meditating alone in the mountains in the middle of the night to experimenting with all manner of spiritual practices, some so obscure that the religious experts I consulted could tell me almost nothing about them. In the meantime, I struggled with the demands of raising a family, worried about the choices that Perdita and I were making as parents. Panicked about climate change and what it would mean for our children and grandchildren, I sought out experts who would tell me what to do. But it never occurred to me to pray the rosary. It’s the classic fairy tale in some respects—a man undertakes a quest over many years, only to find that the thing he has been searching for was always close at hand.
After the birth of our second child, Perdita and I were struggling financially. A book I’d spent a year writing hadn’t sold, mortgage and health insurance payments were due, and our bank account was practically empty. We had a Visa card, but only one hundred dollars of credit left on it, and we had no idea how long that was going to have to last. Perdita rummaged for spare change in various containers around the house one day and sent me to the cheapest grocery store, the next town over, for milk and eggs.
On the way home I drove past a small antiques shop that someone was running out of the second floor of their home. In the dormer window, just visible from the road, was a statue of a dark little woman with an expression of such unfathomable sweetness it made me pull over and stop the car. She reminded me of the statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, from the temple in Upstate New York where I’d once lived as a Zen Buddhist monk—only dirtier. Dirtier . . . and more loved. Blackened over time, she looked like she’d had candles burned at her feet for at least two centuries, and possibly a lot longer. She wore a headdress with a crown and, with her head tilted slightly to one side, she gazed pensively at the sphere she held in one hand. I was pretty sure it was the world.
The antiques dealer thought she was a replica of a medieval statue of the Virgin Mary, but she didn’t know for sure. I didn’t know either, but I could tell she was no replica. You didn’t get a patina like that from any workshop or factory. How she’d gotten to Woodstock, New York, was anyone’s guess.
It was a crazy thing to do, but I just couldn’t help it. I feared that if I left her in that little window overlooking the road, the next time I drove by she would be gone. I’d live out the rest of my days with that sense of a missed connection that people sometimes speak of that haunts them for the rest of their lives.
The dealer wanted a hundred dollars, so I handed her my credit card. And that was that.
When I got back to the house, Perdita was exasperated. “I send you off with a cow, and you come back with magic beans!” But her irritation was short-lived. Or maybe the Lady had already begun her magic. By the end of the day, Perdita had transformed the mantel above our fireplace into an altar, complete with an offering of wildflowers she’d picked in the backyard with the kids.
That was when I first learned that, as a small child, Perdita was always making altars to the Virgin Mary—in her room, in the hollow of a tree in the backyard, and pretty much everywhere else. There was no precedent for it in her family. Her mother was a bohemian artist, her father an atheist surgeon who’d utterly rejected his parents’ pious Irish Catholicism. Perdita had never seen the inside of a church when she was a girl, but she told me that she felt protective of a small broken Mary figure that she had found as a child, the remnant from some lost Nativity scene. Now, after a lapse of three decades, she was creating an altar to Mary again. In an old chest of memorabilia, Perdita found her childhood figurine and leaned it against the statue of the medieval Queen of Heaven.
Perdita and I were not brought up with the rosary. I grew up a southern Protestant. That meant that I knew the Our Father but not the Hail Mary, God the Father but not the Mother of God. When I was eighteen, I left home, left the church, and became a Buddhist. Perdita had briefly converted to the faith of her ancestors while in college, mostly because of her commitment to social justice, but no one in the church had bothered to teach her the rosary. With her feminist leanings, there was no way that she could remain a Catholic for long in any case. Soon, she, too, became immersed in Zen meditation practice.
As parents, we were trying to raise our children as Buddhists. Perdita had started a children’s program at the Zen monastery where she was a student, and I was traveling around the country teaching workshops on a simple meditation practice I’d developed that didn’t require masters or gurus of any kind, including myself—which meant, of course, that it wasn’t a very profitable venture.
It was on one of those teaching tours, with stops in California and New Mexico, that another Madonna unexpectedly entered my life.
Strange things happened on that trip that I couldn’t begin to make sense of at the time. The tour began at a former Dominican convent in San Rafael, California, with statues of Our Lady of the Rosary everywhere. I don’t recall being particularly moved by any of these, but I liked the meals in the large convent refectory, where she gazed down benignly from her perch above the tables. Inspired by their meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, these ex-Dominicans were doing their part to bring greater peace to the world by opening their home to workshops on all kinds of spirituality.
On the final morning of the ten-day retreat, I left hurriedly after breakfast to get to the airport. The former sister who drove me said we’d have plenty of time to get there, but it didn’t work out that way. We ended up in a tangled mess of traffic on the expressway that left me leaping from the car on the exit ramp to make a dash on foot to the airport. I figured I’d have just enough time, if I ran, to check in and get to the gate.
My heart sank when I saw the line at the ticket desk. There was no way I would make my plane. I’d miss my connection to Taos on the once-daily single-engine flight, and that meant I would miss the large weekend retreat I was supposed to be conducting with a friend. Without the money from that retreat, I’d just break even for the trip. No loss. No gain. Two weeks away from my family, with nothing to show for it but good karma. It was the way things often went in those days. At least Perdita wouldn’t be surprised.
With no alternative, I joined the line anyway. If I missed the retreat, I’d still have to book a flight back home. But then something strange happened. I suddenly felt the impulse to pray.
As near as I could recollect, I hadn’t prayed in almost thirty years. I had chanted. I had meditated. I had contemplated the dead. I had invoked all kinds of protective spirits in the traditional Buddhist way. But in all that time I had not once, very simply, asked any Higher Power for help.
Maybe it was my stay in the convent amid all those holy icons and statues. Or maybe it was just the financial desperation of a tired husband who felt bad about coming home empty-handed yet again. I closed my eyes and searched for words to pray with. I could think of nothing but “Have mercy on me!” The universal prayer.
I said it once . . . twice . . . three times.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.
A dark, heavyset man in a uniform was standing beside me. “Are you on the connecting flight to Taos?” he asked.
For a long moment I just stared at him, blinking. Finally, I snapped out of it and stammered, “Yes! I am.”
“Come quickly then,” he said and motioned to the electric cart he’d arrived in seconds before. He took my ticket and stepped to the front of the line, whispering something to the agent, who glanced briefly in my direction before checking me in. Then we were off.
Clark Strand, a former senior editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than thirty years. The author of Waking up the Dark, Waking the Buddha, Meditation Without Gurus, How to Believe in God, and Seeds from a Birch Tree, Strand has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” blog. He is the founder of Way of the Rose, a growing nonsectarian rosary fellowship open to people of any spiritual background, with members around the world. He lives on a dark road with no streetlights in the southern Catskill Mountains.
Clark Strand and Perdita Finn are co-founders of The Way of the Rose, an inclusive fellowship of rosary friends dedicated to the Earth and to the Lady “by any name we wish to call Her.” Strand is the author of numerous books and articles on spiritual practices, including Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Finn is a children’s book author and former high school teacher. They live with their family in the Catskill Mountains.