At first, I thought she was simply a delusion. Looking back, I had every reason to think so.
I was a month into recovering from a traumatic incident that left both my brain and my body in a compromised state when the dreams started. Slowly, subtly at first, but over the course of a few weeks she had become a nightly presence. The dreams weren’t always about her, necessarily, but as soon as I drifted off, she was there.
And then, I started to see her when I was awake. Again, slowly at first, but suddenly she was everywhere. And it took me a while to convince myself that this was not just symptomatic of the trauma I endured, nor a figment of my imagination.
I had never met a god before. Not like this, anyway. I had communed with a myriad of lesser spirits, and I surely had attempted to communicate with gods in the past. And while I liked to think that such attempts at communication were reciprocated, and I accepted any sign from the blowing of the wind to a warm feeling inside to confirm such reciprocation, it was still all very much up for interpretation.
This, however, was not up for interpretation. She was very real, she was trying to get my attention, and she was inserting herself nearly everywhere I looked, from the bark of a tree to the face of a woman on the subway. She was quickly becoming impossible to ignore.
And I had no idea who she was, nor what she wanted, and wasn’t sure how to proceed.
After a few months, after I was solidly convinced that this wasn’t simply a manifestation of my altered neurology, I brought it to my teacher.
“I’m being visited by someone, and I have no idea who she is. I have no idea what she wants. But she won’t leave me alone. It all seems very intrusive, frankly.”
“You don’t know who she is?”
“No, and I have no idea where to start.”
“Well, did you ask her who she is?”
No, actually, I hadn’t. Of course. How obvious. And so the next time I caught a glance of her, I demanded to know who she was and what she wanted. That night, she came to me in my dreams and provided plenty of answers.“I am Sara-la-Kali. I have come to you because your work is my work.”
My work? Up until that summer, I had been working at a 24-hour diner in Park Slope, a job that I planned to go back to once my health was back to normal. What did my work have to do with her?
I didn’t know, but in the meantime I did my best to find out everything I could about this strange deity who had foisted herself upon me.
II. The Myth
There are two versions of the legend of Sara-la-Kali.
In both tales, the story starts with the ‘Three Marys’ – Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe. Mary Salome was the mother of the apostle James the Greater, later known as St. James Matamoros who is venerated at Compostela in Spain. Mary Jacobe was the mother of the apostle James the Lesser. The Gospels of Mark and John place all three Marys at the crucifixion of Jesus, and they were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Christ three days later.
Some years after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Three Marys were forced to flee Palestine under threat of persecution.
A medieval legend concerning the Three Marys first appeared in the 13th century and states that the Three Marys fled Palestine by boat without either sails or oars. They eventually landed on the shores of Gaul, which is now Provence in southern France, in the town now known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Saint Sarah, or Sara-la-Kali, first appears in Vincent Philippon’s The Legend of the Saintes-Maries in 1521.
Depending on which version of the legend one chooses to believe, the figure that came to be known as Sara-la-Kali, was either a slave of one of the Three Marys who traveled with them by boat, or the head of a tribe living on the Rhone who had a premonition of the Three Marys and met them at the shore of the Mediterranean when they landed in Provence.
It was apparently a medieval-era description of Sara as a dark-skinned charitable woman who collected alms that first caused people to identify her as a ‘gypsy,’ and over time the Roma claimed her as one of their own.
Saint Sarah became known as the “patron saint of the Gypsies,” and for several hundred years Romani travellers from all over Europe have annually pilgrimaged May 24, her feast day, to venerate her in the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. During that veneration, the pilgrims re-create the legend by removing the statue of Sarah from the crypt of the chapel in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and they bring her down into the Mediterranean Sea.
Over the years, many comparisons have been made by both anthropologists and historians between the yearly veneration of Sara-la-Kali and the various Hindu celebrations and venerations of Kali Ma. And while I experience them and regard them as definitively separate entities, the connections and similarities cannot be ignored, especially given that the Roma people originate from India.
III. Doctor Number Six (One Year Later)
“You need to understand that there is not much more that can be done. I don’t know how to say it to you softly, so I am just saying it as it is.”
I stared at her blankly.
“There are things we can try, and I am more than happy to work with you, but I need to tell you right now that you are assuming and expecting a level of recovery that simply cannot happen given what you have experienced.”
She was the sixth neurologist that I has consulted over the past year, and the first who did not either label me a hypochondriac or suggest that the neurological problems I was experiencing were rooted in mental illness. She was quick to validate my experience, and she was the only doctor I could find in all of New York that had dealt with my condition before. And yet I did not want to hear what she had to tell me and, at first, I dismissed her analysis just as I had dismissed the opinions of the five doctors prior to her.
To say that I was starting to ‘lose it’ was putting it mildly. In the previous months, I had gone from hopeful to desperate to highly unstable and contemplating suicide for the first time in my life, a state that was only exacerbated by the dismissals and misdiagnosis of the first five doctors. When I left her office that day, I was determined to ‘prove’ her wrong somehow, and yet deep down a part of me knew that she was the first one to speak the truth that I had been dreading and denying for months.
A few blocks from her office, an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary stood prominently in the courtyard of the local Catholic church. Walking home, I glanced at the statue momentarily and did a double-take. In the face of Mary, there appeared Sara-la-Kali. I walked into the courtyard, collapsed in front of the statue, and sobbed.
“You said that your work is my work, but I may never be able to work again. And I understand even less what you want from me now now than I did a year ago.”
“What you were doing before? That’s not your work,” I heard her say.
“Your work will be revealed to you in time. But right now your work is with that doctor.”
And so I returned to Doctor Number Six, who eventually I came to rely on as a therapist as much as a neurologist. She had been born and educated in Russia and, after several casual mentions on her part of having experience with shamans in her home country, I decided to tell her about Sara-la-Kali.
She laughed when I told her the tale.
“Would you like to know what I think?” she asked.
“Well, you have been courted by a deity who is the patron saint of a landless, oppressed, impoverished people. And she came to you only weeks after your own life circumstances changed in a way that has made you similarly vulnerable, at least by American standards. So perhaps when she speaks of your ‘work,’ that work has nothing to do with waiting tables and everything to do with working on behalf of those who share your plight here in America.”
I nodded again, and she continued.
“Especially given the lack of support and resources available to you, your potential plight is also the plight of millions of others, both in America as well as in Europe. Right now you believe that your life no longer has purpose because you can no longer live the life you once did. But I ask you to challenge that position. Your life has plenty of purpose, but perhaps your ‘work’ is not what you thought.”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “Sometimes it is only through tragedy and trials that we find out true purpose at all.”
IV. The Vow
While working with Doctor Number Six, my contact with Sara-la-Kali once again began to intensify. It was almost as though Sara and the doctor were co-conspiring. And then, over the course of a week in late May, right around the time of Sara’s feast and pilgrimage day, I had a series of dreams and visions of the sea, of a quaint little beach town, and of thousands upon thousands of people following a procession taking Sara into the sea.
“One day, one day you need to join me here,” she told me.
“I can’t do that now,” I replied. “I mean, I would love to, but you know as well as I do that such a trip is impossible for me right now.”
“I did not say now. I said one day. One day you will join me here. Yes?”
I couldn’t possibly imagine any scenario in which my circumstances would afford me a trip to Europe. And yet I knew better than to say no.
“Yes, one day. I promise.”
V. The Preparation (May 2015)
Over the years, my work did indeed become her work. And through the course of that journey, I also came to recognize the wisdom of Doctor Number Six. In time, I pretty much dedicated my life to aiding and advocating for the landless, the oppressed, and the poor here in America. And among many other things, such work constantly led me to contemplate both the similarities and differences between the homeless ‘travelers’ in America and the Romani in Europe.
I immersed myself in what I now understood to be my work, and continued and strengthened my devotional relationship with Sara-la-Kali. But admittedly the idea of pilgrimaging to Europe had erased itself from my consciousness. And then in the spring of 2015, a few weeks before Sara-la-Kali’s feast day, she reminded me of my promise.
“I know, I know,” I told her. “But I am in no more of a position to do it now than I was ten years ago.”
“You can do it, but you will have to ask for help,” she replied.
And so I reached out to a close friend, a fellow polytheist who was the veteran of several pilgrimages to Europe.
“I need to do this thing. In France. And I think I really have to do it next year. I promised Sara-la-Kali that I would do it one day, and she’s making it very clear that I need to fulfill my vow.”
“Well, I was thinking on and planning another pilgrimage to Europe next spring anyway. So yeah, I’m game, lets do it.”
* * *I spent the next year preparing for the pilgrimage on every level. I sold most of the assets of my long-failing business, parted with many treasured possessions in exchange for the money that they were worth, and clearanced out hundreds of dollars’ worth of art and clothing via Facebook. And without my even asking, several members of my community stepped up and offered financial help, with at least one confiding in me that they were also visited by Sara-la-Kali and felt an obligation to help me make this pilgrimage.
By the time I was ready to leave in May, I somehow had amassed exactly enough money to make the trip safely. I bought my tickets, made the arrangements, and was set.
The night before I left for Europe, Sara-la-Kali once again came to me as I drifted off to sleep.
“I told you,” she said with a smile. “I told you that you would have help.”
VI. The Pilgrimage
We arrived in Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer just before Mass started in the chapel at 10.
Immediately, I felt both her presence and the strength of her devotion among the crowds of people. Mobs of people were streaming in and out of the chapel. I briefly pushed my way inside and felt her so strongly that I immediately started to cry. Her devotees had come from all over the world; people of all races and colors and languages, singing and crying and holding hands.
“Gitane! Gitane! Regardez les gitans!”
Outside of the church, Roma women were dancing in frenzied celebration, while the men surrounding them played lively music and clapped along. As people poured in and out of the church, the dancers held a consistent and festive energy, equal parts lighthearted celebration and deep devotion. Their rhythms and steps were mesmerizing, unlike any performance I had ever seen before.After Mass was over, it would be another five hours before the beginning of the procession to the sea. We went down to the sea and napped on the beach for a few hours. The beach was nearly empty, and as I lay there napping, my head filled with scenes and visions of the past ten years and of everything that got me to this moment. What we did not realize at the time was that the spot where we had chosen to nap was the exact place that the Three Marys had washed up on the shore, and where the procession would be headed later that afternoon.
By mid-afternoon, we returned to the church as Sara-la-Kali was removed from the crypt.We climbed up to the roof of the church, where dozens of others were gathered in order to watch the ceremony and procession below. People of all ages, from young children to old women, braved the heights and the narrow staircase and the slippery stones of the roof in order to secure the best seat of the house. I was terrified, both of the height in general as well as the lack of treads on the bottom of my shoes. However my fear quickly subsided in the face of the bravery and devotion of everyone else on the roof. We watched from above, and then eventually descended back to ground level as the ceremony wrapped up and the procession to the sea began.
It took nearly an hour to walk the five or so blocks from the church to the sea. As we walked, hundreds of people sang songs and hymns in French, songs for the Three Marys and Sarah alike.
“Viva Mary Jacobe! Viva Mary Salome! Viva Saint Sarah!”
Eventually the procession made it through the streets, up the ramp to the sand, and down to the beach. As we walked up the ramp, I then realized that the crowd was focused on the exact spot that I had been napping earlier in the day.
And then I saw the people. Thousands upon thousands of people, along the beach and the rocks and the streets, all waiting to see Sara-la-Kali into the sea. I gasped. Not only were there more people there than I had ever seen in one place, not only were they all there for Her, but it was also the identical scene that I had witnessed so many times in my dreams and my visions.As the procession headed towards the water, I swallowed a lifelong fear of the ocean and did something I never thought I would do: I yanked off my shoes and socks and ran into the sea with the crowd. I ran through the water along with thousands of other people, mobbing Sara-la-Kali and the horseback riders who accompanied her procession. And as quickly as the procession ran into the sea, it emerged back onto shore, and we were all nearly trampled by Camargue ponies as the procession charged back into our direction.
I was soaked, sunburned, and exhausted, but it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my entire life.VII. The Aftermath
On the bus back to Arles, I momentarily closed my eyes to ward of the inevitable nausea when I suddenly felt her presence very strongly.
“I finally did it,” I said to her silently. “I’m sorry it took me so long…I understand now why it was so important to you.”
“This was never about me,” she replied. “It was always about you, about getting you to where you needed to be, about showing you what you could accomplish if you believed you could not fail.”
“It was as much about your heart as it was about the sea.”Notes from the author
- In the United States, the term ‘gypsy’ is generally regarded as a pejorative by the ethnic group that it is intended to signify. Most folks of Roma ancestry living in the USA identify as either ‘Romani’, ‘Roma’, or ‘Rom’, and tend to take offense to the term ‘gypsy’. However, in France, the Roma and related groups primarily self-identify as ‘gitane’, a French word that directly translates as ‘gypsy’, and will often also use the English word ‘gypsy’ as a self-identifier and do not consider it offensive in its normal usage. For this reason, due to the fact that I am writing primarily about the Roma in France, I have used both the terms ‘gypsy’ and ‘gitane’ in this piece. But I want to be clear in that I am only doing so because of the very specific context of this piece, and that I am very aware (and wish my readers to be aware) that the term ‘gypsy’ is generally considered to be an ethnic slur in the United States.
- The entire collection of the pictures I took of Sara-la-Kali’s veneration can be seen on my Instagram account.
- Special thanks to those whose support and generosity made this experience possible. You know who you are, and I humbly hold you in my heart.
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.