The past two weeks I was in France with my wife, where we had traveled to see her grandmother.
Her grandmother’s health is in decline, and family felt that we should come for a visit sooner rather than later. As we had some time in Paris before heading to Amiens, we planned to see some of the classic tourist sites. One of those was the Catacombs of Paris—underground ossuaries that hold the remains of more than six million people. And when I say remains, I mean bones. Miles and miles of bones. Femurs and fibulas and everything in-between, stacked floor to ceiling, interspersed with rows and rows of skulls, staring into the dark.
As I wandered through these walls of bones, I was overwhelmed by a sense of the stories they all held—loves and joys and longings and sorrows. Now forgotten. Now nameless. And yet still there beneath us, supporting us. I placed my hand on a skull and felt the cool smoothness of the bone; the touch a conversation. A prayer.
And then I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye—green. I moved closer to be sure. Yes, green! And spreading. Down here amidst the shadows and the bones and the dark, there was green. Green, growing on, growing out of, a pile of bones.
“I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
These are last words of the Apostle’s Creed, said daily in Morning Prayer, at baptismal services, and by many at the beginning of the Rosary—which was a constant companion for me as we traveled, the beads in my pocket or hanging from my hand and moving through my fingers as we walked through church after church, spotting Mary, Our Lady (“Notre Dame”), the Holy Mother, almost everywhere.
I don’t know what others mean when and if they pray these words, but for me they mean something like these pictures of bones turning green. Right here is the resurrection of the body, life everlasting. The promise that, eventually, we all turn green again. The body of the universe, of our Mother, is continually reshaping itself into ever new forms of life, new expressions and modalities of consciousness, new experiences of beauty and sorrow and joy.
Mary’s title Theotokos, the God-bearer, has become for me another name for our Mother Earth, for the universe; really, another name for everything. What in existence, after all, is not fundamentally God-bearing?
I looked at this patch of green and my heart swelled. This is what hope looks like, I thought. This tomb under the ground filled with miles and miles of bones is actually the womb of our Mother. Of course it is. Of course every tomb is.
Days later, in a shop in Amiens, I spotted this image of the Dark Madonna—Our Lady of the Dead. (Actually, “Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte,” Our Lady of the Holy Death; celebrated as a Mexican folk saint, in my mind she is fused with the Mother herself—one of her many and most profound faces.) And of course, she was robed in green. Our Lady of the Dead is Our Lady of Life. Really, there is no death—only the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
As we lean into the days ahead—into accelerated climate change and ecological collapse, I will remember how my heart swelled when I saw those bones growing green.