But the sorrow is radiant, like light shining in the darkness of a black stone lying over the heart.
– Lodestone, Meinrad Craighead
Call and response
In March last year I joined Extinction Rebellion for a five-act Funeral for Extinct Species in the nearby city of Truro. As this sombre, oddly cathartic piece of street theatre began to paralyse the city’s traffic, we agreed to cooperate with police requests to relocate its central act: a call-and-response litany of species extinctions since 1930, their names standing in for the countless thousands of unnamed others lost over that period. In this way we found ourselves unintentionally assembled on the steps of Truro Cathedral.
With the front edge of Storm Freya fast approaching, our windswept performance finally got underway: Santo Stefano lizard, 1965; Arabian ostrich, 1966. As each name was read out then shouted up at the Cathedral’s façade by 200-odd voices, the whole scene began to feel like an invocation, or maybe a summons: ‘Earth’s web of life is dying around us: not metaphorically, but quite literally and with terrifying speed. Our so-called leaders remain incapable of even saying this aloud, let alone doing anything to prevent it. Religion, have you nothing to say?’
There are many replies to this aching need emerging from monotheism’s cool stone interiors. Indeed, when a week later the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams repeated his support for Extinction Rebellion’s popular uprising in the face of ignored catastrophe, it felt like he might have heard our ragged extinction choir gathered at his front door.
Or perhaps what caught his ear was silence. The silence falling over fields and rivers, over the ever-diminishing wild, as human civilisation progressively wipes Earth clean of her remaining communities of non-human life. Over 98% of American old growth forest has gone since the arrival of European empire. In my own lifetime, over 60% of wild animals have been killed, 75% of the insects gone in one human generation. And then there are the oceans. Crushing new statistics seeming to arrive by the week now. Taken in the round, there’s surely no more coherent response to that anthropogenic silence than grief. And if we’re to address this situation in positive, measured terms like eco-spirituality and deep adaptation, a foetal-positioned moaning might be the most honest place to begin.
But what, anyway, does spirituality mean? For me, that slippery idea has become more or less synonymous with prayer. Not mindfulness, not contemplation or insight, valuable as these may be, but prayer as Alcoholics Anonymous might speak of it: a reaching beyond the self, the admission of a fundamental inability to stand alone or to complete ourselves in this matter of being human. So in speaking of ecological grief and the Black Madonna, what I’m really groping for here is an understanding of prayer itself: of what learning to pray might allow, and what learning to pray might restore.
What I’m really groping for here is an understanding of prayer itself: of what learning to pray might allow, and what learning to pray might restore.
Extinction Rebellion offers an introductory talk for those new to its take on our collective predicament. Wherever you find it, the title and the basic pitch remain the same: ‘Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It’.
What to do about it? Of the replies to biological annihilation which have blown into my life, one has us sitting in traffic declaring rebellion against an ecocidal social order; the other, clutching the dark mother’s muttering garland, learning to trust in her help. That other is called ‘The Way of the Rose’, an interfaith rosary fellowship with a subversive mission: to come together in reclaiming this old grassroots mother-devotion from the various weaponised agendas she’s been enlisted to. A re-wilding of the rosary.
Perhaps it’s a mistake to entangle these two responses to ecocide here. But here I am entangled in both, as 12 years left becomes ten and the wicked graphs continue to spike. Wondering what we’ll be doing about all this when the reassuring deadlines have come and gone and here we still are, with no more years to pretend we have left. Wondering if it might be an idea to start jotting notes now, for the story we’ll be telling and the response we’ll be forming then. And wondering if we might find a role for prayer in that, as we meet what our culture’s made of this one wild and precious Earth and decide how best to spend our time here together.
An English Buddhist priest once taught me that in learning to pray, we learn to get smaller. To get lower, closer to the ground that supports us. Of the many valuable things which I’ve received from the hands of Buddhist teachers, that priest’s idea of prayer is the one I hold closest: when we get down to it, all that we are and all that we value in this life comes to us as unearned gift, and what we cultivate, in prayer, is a grateful awareness of this condition. Which is one of abundance. Which is also one of permanent, radical dependency.
If we understood prayer as lowering us to Earth, coming back to ourselves not ‘as gods’ but as the barefoot, teeming mutualists we are – something more like moss, or fungi – the question remains: who, then, do we imagine we’re praying to? And what does it mean to address this gravitational, interspecies who in personal, singular – rather human – terms? Over the five years since I stepped away from a longstanding involvement in Buddhist practice and picked up the rosary to see where this fusty ancestral bead game might lead me, the Black Madonna has become the figure that, for me, best fathoms questions of this sort.
Her image is not one that entered my life through books. The dark Mother of God haunted my imagination long before I began hearing about or even had a name for her. I met her in my early twenties and thirties, in dreams that preceded by decades any interest in the insipid cliché of my childhood nativities, Mary. I’d hazard a guess that the Black Madonna is the Marian icon most widely associated with spiritual ecology, especially with its eco-feminist thread. Be that as it may, the conversation with her is not one that I started. She did. And the quiet shift in perspective provoked by this conversation has, it seems, allowed me to uncouple from the compulsive, wearying hope which I stumbled after across all those intervening years. And right now, that alone will do.
My current understanding of her owes much to the mystical confessions of the artist Meinrad Craighead, who died last April. Other voices have chimed in more recently, mingling their perspectives with hers. The New York-based academic Neela Bhattacharya Saxena observes that even the many atheists she speaks with are curiously clear about the God they don’t believe in being a male. In her 2015 book Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity & Judaism, she considers what this entrenched cultural bias negates, turning from the word Goddess as she does so, to speak of God the Mother. Saxena’s reticence about popular Western notions of the Goddess is rooted, in part, in her Bengali upbringing within a shakti tradition of Kali devotion. In place of a monolithic female creator, wide-hipped counterpoint to monotheism’s bearded overlord, she offers our dark mother Kali-Ma: the fluid, gynocentric matrix of her own Bengali religious heritage; the primal ground or womb of all spiritual experience.
From this Kalian perspective Saxena maps the eradication of the mother from the Western spiritual imagination – that long matricide which bears heavily on our present failure to be especially bothered about our culture’s ongoing extermination of the living world. As many others have done, she frames the Black Madonna as one thread within this generic mother-culture, which she imagines as an instinctual current confined by no religious border. In Saxena’s Kali-ma we meet ‘the mystic river that connects the world’s religious ways’, whose dark surface mirrors our present and passing need in a profusion of sacred forms, all of them – as with the many Black Madonnas found at the leaky edges of European monotheism – peculiar, vernacular, local.
Crucially, Saxena also presents Western monotheism’s millennial quest for a totalising, singular ‘truth’ as inseparable from its war on this ambiguously plural mother, and likewise, its war on the dark – on darkness: twin campaigns which eventually spawned the ballooning, light-addicted extinction-engine of industrial civilisation.
Our Lady of the Fireflies
Where Saxena grew up surrounded by Kali-ma, the childhood of US psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés was steeped in another of the dark mother’s local, compound forms: Nuestra Señora, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Drawing on the mingled Nahua-Catholic heritage of her Mexican upbringing, and that of her own immigrant Hungarian family, her 2011 book Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul is a 400-page rambling love letter to Guadalupe, who Estes herself first encountered, much like Meinrad Craighead, as a young girl – through an apparition which saved her from drowning.
For Pinkola Estés the Church’s association of Blessed Mother with a docile, obedient purity is simply irrelevant to the visceral compassion that she embodies. Nuestra Señora, as we meet her here, is a ubiquitous presence who arrives at the point of dumb need. The healing that this presence brings is neither a reward for good behaviour nor a thing achieved by skill, or ascetic striving. While invoked personally – as You, or She – Pinkola Estés recalls that of the great many encounters with Blessed Mother which she has listened to over the years, far fewer are a matter of human-faced, spoken apparition than they are moments of intimate connection with a reciprocal, animate world.
Among the many things I’ve kept from Pinkola Estés’ writings on Blessed Mother is a quite ordinary, un-miraculous childhood memory. In a passage on the Black Madonna, ‘Our Lady of the Fireflies’, she recalls her old aunt Katerin rummaging in the still-warm ashes of a fire in search of the charcoal-shard madonnas which she’d plant along the edges of her vegetable patch. Presented with one such burnt mother the young Clarissa improvised a bedside shrine for her, illumined by a jam jar that she filled with fireflies at each dusk, releasing them again when she woke.
As someone who gets queasy around most Marian imagery in Western art, I find in this gift from the young Clarissa’s elderly Hungarian aunt a provocative and sustaining icon, one that speaks to a generic current of spiritual longing rather than to anything specifically Catholic, or even Christian. Something as ordinary as calling for help when you’ve no clear idea who or what it is you’re calling to. And for Pinkola Estés, it’s in this very act of begging for help that Blessed Mother is already at work in our lives with the ‘black light’ of her compassion, an intimate darkness able ‘to heal the soul of a person all the way down to the radical, to bless the cringing spirit with the deep blessing most needed for repair and re-emergence, in ways that carry deepest meaning for the individual.’
The nurse log
Who knows what Extinction Rebellion’s revolt against ecocide will amount to? Whatever comes of it, among its ten core principles there’s one in particular which I believe will outlive this phase in the cascading process of change now upon us. We need a regenerative culture. Regenerative culture: to my ear it’s a more pragmatic, tangible proposition than spiritual ecology. The slow, ground-level process of repair – at once social and ecological – already at work in the vulnerability and intersectional solidarity integral to this understanding of revolt.
What if such re-setting of our broken relationship with the living world turned out to have more to do with adapting to this culture’s inevitable collapse than it did with convincing ourselves we can still somehow prevent that, if only we can find and tweak the right eco-spiritual dial? Or even – welcoming all of catastrophism’s spectres to the table now – with coming to terms with our own potential ‘near-term extinction’?
With no guarantee of where things go from here, perhaps the sheer, radical vulnerability of our present situation has a dark gift for us, after all. As anthropocentric religion’s bright dream of the human evaporates in the face of what civilisation’s become, what if ecological grief came to be understood as an undertow, drawing that prodigal spiritual culture home? Perhaps the measure of any regenerative spirituality in the years ahead will need to begin with how well it enables civilised humans to inhabit this gathering current of mourning, together. To help each other to meet it, and be realigned by it. That sort of help seems to be a thing that will come about locally or not at all, and at a scale far removed from late stage capitalism’s screen-addicted crowd mind.
Suppose the dying religion I was raised within were understood as a nurse log – a fallen ancestral giant … from whose decaying body a tangle of adaptive cultures is even now emerging?
In his 1947 diatribe against the soul-murdering machine consciousness of British Empire, The Vision of the Fool, the artist and writer Cecil Collins suggested, like the good modernist mystic he was, that Western religion lay like so many overturned goblets whose spilled contents were now openly shared, even as the institutions that once held them collapsed beyond recovery. My preferred image for this regenerative collapse feels close to Collins’. Suppose the dying religion I was raised within were understood as a nurse log – a fallen ancestral giant slow-releasing its nutrients, from whose decaying body a tangle of adaptive cultures is even now emerging? Such new, regenerative shoots might turn out to have less to do with belief or exhausted argument than with recovered behaviours. Behaviours which allow us to entrust our lives to mystery – to the unearned gift of being here at all. The patterning miracle within which our lives swim, moment to moment, good times and bad. Or as Pinkola Estés might put that, to release our brief human lives into the reciprocal, animate currents of Rio Abajo Rio: the river beneath the river.
If the Black Madonna offers me one makeshift form through which to negotiate that dark river’s subtle currents, what I meet in her compound, always more-than-one-thing face isn’t complicated, difficult or clever. And the unhurried rhythm of turning to her each day has no more to do with a self-extinguishing path to enlightenment than it does with monotheism’s desire-phobic purity. What that rhythm amounts to is a way of carrying on: a game, as her rose-garden devotion has long been known; an unproven experiment, whose step-by-step, wheeling dance requires no particular opinion about who or what we are.
However we choose to address her or not to address her, the dark mother in her myriad local and personal forms is surely synonymous with the ungraspable, all-enfolding river whose eyes we see through, whose lungs breathe us, and whose intricate life-mothering processes are so ancient, from a human perspective, as to be to all intents and purposes eternal. In her presence, be it one we paint on air or carry in our bones, we meet a patience deep enough to swallow the wave of loss gathering around us, an unpredictable and ferocious love already seeding pockets of regenerative culture within this ecocidal civilisation’s dying body – tentative, deviant shoots that may yet prove themselves capable of fostering a gradual ecological healing, irrespective of where things go from here.
a lovely charred Madonna from my grandmother,
one found in the fire pit after the flames had burned
most everything except this little dark holy woman
made of half-burnt log.
– Our Lady of the Fireflies, Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Elsewhere, a cooling cinder
Madonna, pressed into poor soil,
whispers the garden awake.
The tubers hear her
secretive smile, begin to grow.
We know the father may come
to disallow, as fathers sometimes do.
Let’s not speak of that.
Charred little sort-of-Mary,
fireflies round her head,
tucked between green shoots,
she breathes her black light
into their swelling roots.
MAIN IMAGE: Till Dawn Break Through the Branches by Kate Walters
Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper
This painting, one of a sequence, came after some years working as artist in residence at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall. I’ve been spending time tuning into the slow and mighty spirit of trees, and becoming more and more aware of ‘interbeing’. Many indigenous cultures see the tree as one of the shaman’s instruments for attaining sky consciousness (‘I climb my sky tree’).
Kate Walters is based in Trewarveneth Studios, Cornwall and published by Guillemot Press. Time spent in wild places – Shetland, Orkney, Italian national parks and the Hebrides – inform her painting and her writing. Most recently she has been working on a poetry pamphlet with Mat Osmond in response to a dream of an ancient sacred feminine force, The Black Madonna’s Song. katewalters.co.uk
The Black Madonna’s Song, a pamphlet of poems and pictures co-produced by Mat Osmond and Kate Walters,will be available for £15 from Atlantic Press within a few weeks of the current lockdown being lifted. Copies can also be pre-ordered for £10 by contacting Mat Osmond directly at [email protected]
On a Buddhist understanding of prayer
Brazier, David Authentic Life: Buddhist Teachings and Stories, Woodsmoke, 2019
Itsuki,Hiroyuki Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace, Kodansha, 2001
On the Black Madonna
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul, Sounds True, 2011
Finn, Perdita & Strand, Clark The Way of the Rose: the Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, Spiegel & Grau, 2019
Osmond, Mat, ‘Meinrad Craighead and the Animal Face of God’, Dark Mountain: Issue 15, 2018
Osmond, Mat and Walters, Kate The Black Madonna’s Song, poems and paintings, Atlantic Press, 2020
Saxena, Neela Battacharya Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity & Judaism, LEX, 2015
Strand, Clark Waking up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, Spiegel & Grau, 2015
On culture and ecocide
Collins, Cecil The Vision of the Fool and other writings, Golgonooza, 2002
Powers, Richard The Overstory, W.W. Norton 2018