Tara and the Black Madonna

By China Galland

Viking. 392 pp. $21.95

Black Madonnas are specially miraculous: At their shrines all over Europe and the New World babies were resurrected, and the shipwrecked, the barren, the sick and sinners of every stripe prayed for deliverance and were heard. Many of these potent cult sites, like Montserrat in Spain and Guadalupe in Mexico, still attract huge pilgrimages. New devotions to different icons and statues of the Black Madonna have also sprung up, while old ones have been charged with new energy, like the cult of the Queen of Poland and patron saint of Solidarity, Our Lady of Czestochowa, who is one of the many black goddesses China Galland sought out in her personal spiritual odyssey, "Longing for Darkness."

There is "no reason" for the blackness of the Madonna, a priest at the monastery of Einsiedeln in the Swiss Alps informed the author; another authority proposed that it was connected to the cult of Cybele, who arrived in Rome from Asia Minor "in the shape of a black meteorite." China Galland avoids the minefields of origins, and concentrates on the meaning of "redeeming dark" rather than its cause. She doesn't refer to the enraptured passage in the Bible when the beloved Shulamite says of herself, "I am black but comely," which is sometimes inscribed on the images of the Black Madonna, nor does she explore the rich folklore surrounding the Queen of Sheba, legendary founder of the Ethiopian royal house, who incarnates wisdom in female form in many cultures -- African, Islamic, Judaic and Catholic.

Her approach is metaphysical rather than historical, ecumenical rather than partisan, and following the example of medieval female mystics, she has produced a diary of a soul in search of God. Only in her case, her home base is California, she would qualify for a frequent-flyer club, operates with tape recorder and a camera, sometimes scribbles notes on her hand, and the divine power she seeks is feminine.

In Poland, seven years into her quest, a parish priest wonders aloud, "What kind of person are you?" It's easy to empathize with his astonishment, for China Galland in many ways represents the phenomenon of Western liberties: a mother of three, a former white-water rafter and explorer of the American wilderness, a longtime student of Buddhism and devotee of the female Buddha Tara and at the start of her quest an alcoholic. Addiction and spirituality are linked, she declares, and quotes Jung's pun on the word "spirit," used of both the psyche and the bottle.

Trying to connect the Eastern and Western strains of occult goddess worship, Galland balked at nothing: She visited three continents, climbed -- or tried to, until she broke a leg -- the Himalayas, drove through the deserts of the American Southwest, trudged up to 50 miles a day for a week on a pilgrimage to the monastery of Our Lady of Czestochowa, with blistered feet in gusting rain and not a word of Polish.

In Delhi, she talked with the Dalai Lama, who told her, "Regard your enemies as your greatest treasure"; she also met a Buddhist nun who had been a surfer in her youth, and emerged from the encounter strengthened in her belief that enlightenment can be reached in a woman's body, contrary to mainstream Buddhist teaching. Enclosed in a small room, she was present when two visionaries of Medzugorje in Yugoslavia went into trance during an apparition of the Madonna. Back in Poland, she met Lech Walesa, who was wearing a picture of the Virgin of Czestochowa pinned on his jacket. He recited his prayer to the Virgin, "My life is yours, you should be working in my life." But unlike the Pope, whose motto is also Totus Tuus (All Thine), Walesa was circumspect about the religious commitment of the workers' movement.

Galland was disappointed; she is looking for ardent conviction as well as darkness. She found them both in the Sanctuary movement in south Texas, where other black Madonnas give comfort to migrant workers and destitute refugees from Central America's wars. One of the nuns working there commented dryly, "Americans consider unions heroic in Poland, but not in the United States."

As a lapsed Catholic, the author resisted the seductions of the church; but by the end of the book, she has found God the Mother in Mary as well as in Tara: She declares herself the champion of "a fierce Mary, a terrific Mary, a fearsome Mary, a protectress who does not allow her children to be hunted, tortured, murdered and devoured."

In spite of its candor and brave soul-searching, "Longing for Darkness" misses the intense clarity of other books of spiritual quest, such as Alexandra David-Neel's accounts of Tibet, or Bruce Chatwin's "Songlines," and some of the issues raised remain frustratingly unexamined. Religions can upset the hierarchy of accepted values and create new symbols to live by -- the Christian church made a humble and criminal gibbet a sign of transcendence -- and it was a compelling idea, to save darkness from its symbolic connotations with evil and terror, and affirm instead its identity with mother love, with female strength and wisdom, to look into blackness and find light. But "Longing for Darkness" contains such a jostling, eclectic crowd of messages that it ends up feeling inconclusive. Like a knight who has passed through a hundred ordeals but still does not prove worthy to behold the grail, the author leaves us standing in the wrong kind of dark.

The reviewer, a novelist and historian, is the author of a "Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth of the Cult of the Virgin Mary."