What lesson does Lily learn from the Black Madonna in The Secret Life of Bees?

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Since losing her mother, Lily has been trying to fill a hole deep within her. She longs desperately for a sense of belonging that she certainly cannot find with T. Ray. More specifically, she longs for the love of a mother.

When she finds August and her sisters, Lily finds the mothers she has been searching for, but she doesn't realize it at first. Instead, she still lives in the past, in a place of hurt and loss—holding tight to the love she feels abandoned her as a young child: "There had never been any voice in the wind. No mother out there singing. No bottomless love."

In chapter 13, Lily breaks. In breaking, she finds her bottomless love in the black Mary. She releases all of the pain that she's been holding onto so tightly for years:

I felt a powerful sadness, not because of what I'd done, as bad as that was, but because everything seemed emptied out—the feelings I'd had for her, the things I'd believed . . . I lay in the emptiness, in the tiredness, with everything—even the hating—drained out.

After doing this, Lily allows herself to be filled back up with hope. She looks at the black Mary and imagines crawling inside a little hole just above her abdomen. Symbolically, this represents claiming another mother figure, one capable of the bottomless love she's always longed for. Later in that same chapter, Lily rubs honey into the Mary, bonding with the sisters she's come to love.

In the final paragraphs, Lily calls this Mary a "muscle of love," acknowledging that in her, and in this new family she's created, she finds the sense of acceptance her soul has longed for. She closes the novel with this realization:

And there they were. All these mothers. I have more mothers than any eight girls off the street. They are the moons shining over me.

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Throughout Sue Monk Kidd's novel, the Black Madonna is meaningful to Lily in different ways, but it provides consistency in terms of her relationship with her dead mother and her quest to find the truth about her. The photograph of the sculpture of a black woman, with its location of Tiburon, leads Lily to the community of women bee-keepers in South Carolina. The centrality of this mother figure within their social world provides an important contrast to the male dominance in Lily's family life, which was controlled by her father, T. Ray.

When Lily, who is white, meets this group of African American women, she is both puzzled by the attention they lavish on what seems to her just a statue and mystified by the lore surrounding her miraculous reappearances. She also understands it a symbol of her racial distance from the Boatwright women.

Left to her own, she tries to connect with Mary's power by imitating the women's gesture of touching her heart. After the death of May, Lily feels a communal connection with the women in mourning and learns of August's connection with her mother. She also comes to understand the importance of mundane activities, such as anointing and washing the statue, as a path toward spiritual insight. The Black Madonna teaches Lily about the relationship between power and strength.

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You might like to re-read Chapter Thirteen of this excellent coming-of-age novel, in which Lily and the Daughters all celebrate the festival of Mary by rubbing honey into the statue as a preservative. Having just found out about her mother the night before, and how she had abandoned her, Lily had also just thrown honey all over the Black Madonna by breaking jars of honey on her to express her rage. Having done this, she is able to engage in an act of restoration, as she learns that honey is actually a preservative. After her turmoil and agony, she finally is able to reach a place of contentment and peace:

We were preserving Our Lady, and I was content--for the first time since I'd learned about my mother--to be doing what I was doing.

Lily also finds that rubbing honey into the Black Madonna transforms her perspective on life, as she says when she comes to clean her hands. Instead of being a person full of violence and anger that breaks things and smashes them up, she realises through her act of rubbing honey into the Black Madonna that she can become a person who restores and preserves rather than destroys:

One by one the Daughters dipped their hands into a bucket of water and washed off the honey. I waited till the very last, wanting to keep the coating of honey on my skin for a long as I could. It was like I was wearing a pair of gloves with magic properties. Like I could preserve whatever I touched.

The Black Madonna, therefore, just like August, helps Lily to change her view of herself from somebody who is not lovable and who is an agent of violence to somebody who is lovable and who has the capability to preserve and restore, rather than destroy.

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