Mat Osmond wrote about the visionary American artist and writer Meinrad Craighead and her weaving of prayer and attention in Issue 13 of Dark Mountain, published in spring 2018. She died the following year at the age of 83, leaving an extraordinary body of work that draws on her powerful lifelong sense of the divine feminine, while circling around the central image that had always stalked her: of God the Mother, often in animal form, and immanent in the sacred landscapes to which she repeatedly returned.
Osmond’s essay is shaped around a series of Craighead’s reflections on the numinous roots of her creativity, to which he brings his questions about why she was drawn to animal figures. He begins with the act of attention – ‘paying heed’, in the poet Kathleen Jamie’s words – as a form of prayer that can invoke artistic vision, before taking the depth psychologist James Hillman as a guide to the heart not so much as an organ of feeling, which is how we usually understand it, but as an organ of sight and of imagination that works in images, and as ‘an animal mode of reflection’… and from there he leads us back to the unsettling power of Craighead’s animal imagery. It’s a wild ride. (AL)
Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox. This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a fringing mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.
– D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, 1929
It’s a memorable passage. But it’s her friend’s off-hand reply to his own question: ‘Dunno, Great Mother, or something’, that’s stayed with me. Jamie’s pared-back notion of prayer, eloquent as it is, left me looking for a way to respond in kind. I see I’m not really in step with her dismissal of a Who – or perhaps whos – on the other side of prayer. So I wanted to search for another understanding of how we might approach art practice, as well as our own immediate experience, in terms of prayer.
Something in her waters
Before I could read, when words were only sounds, not yet ciphers in a book, when words arrived as melodies to my ears before my eyes could decipher them, I heard a word which forever made of word, water and God one round whole. Lying with my dog beneath blue hydrangeas in my grandmother’s garden, shaded against a hot Arkansas afternoon, what I heard within my little girl body was the sound of rushing water. And in the roar, ebbing and flowing as I listened, a word: Come. And I knew that the watery word was God.
Meinrad Craighead (born Charlene Craighead, 1936) is an American painter and writer whose unusual artistic career has included 14 years living as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, England, where she received the name Sister Meinrad on entering Holy Orders. Craighead’s life and work have been coloured, first to last, by an intense religiosity – in particular, by her lifelong sense of encounter with the unmistakeably feminine presence which first flooded into her child mind during the experience she recounts above.
Whatever happened to the young Charlene on that hot summer afternoon, the memory of it has run like a central current through her adult life, and has remained foundational to her understanding of herself as an artist. As she herself once put it, ‘It was water that first told me I was an artist, and I believed the water.’ And whatever or whoever it was that this upwelling rush of water first introduced her to, its sustained influence on her life has been closely associated, at all times, with her intimations of landscape as ‘sacred place’.
The passages from Craighead’s memoirs in this reflection span her long life. They lead us from that abrupt childhood awakening to the year she spent alone, aged 28, drawing beside the mountain shrine of La Moreneta, the Black Madonna of Montserrat in Catalonia. They track her eventual return from monastic life in England to the desert landscape of New Mexico. It was there that Craighead recognised, in the face of Crow Mother1, the immanent feminine presence who had shadowed her since childhood.
What interests me here, in particular, is how and why this mingled current of sacred presence and sacred landscape has manifested itself within Craighead’s imagery as a mutating flux of animal or half-animal figures, shifting personifications of the ‘animal mysteries’ towards which she’s understood herself to be in lifelong pilgrimage.
Angels talking back
If a forest is a metaphor for the unknown, a drawing is the stroke-by-stroke journey through the unknown: a laying this in, a wiping that out, all the time watching for the image to take shape and lead you into its very specific story. The image begins to give itself to you; you follow it, you serve it. Hence the kinship of making and prayer manifests, with each evoking and shaping the other, creating images which walk right out of the emptiness which has contained them.
First, though, a word about angels. In his 2011 essay ‘Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception’, the Dutch anthropologist Jan van Boeckel offers a rough – and clearly leaky – distinction ‘between two basic orientations in the way the natural environment is approached’ by artists who work within an ecological paradigm. On the one hand, Boeckel notes practices that involve the cultivation of new organs of perception: that approach art-making as a process which ‘nourishes a state of receptivity’, where the artists adopt an ‘observant, minimally interfering, and attentive’ attitude to their environment. On the other hand, Boeckel considers a category of practice he names ‘angels talking back’: ways of working which lead the artist into ‘an active engagement with the circumambient universe’, that one way or another involve them in a ‘dynamic, open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking’.
What kind of intimacy, what manner of seeing, do Craighead’s zoomorphic figures invite us into?
Underlying Boeckel’s distinction is the optimistic assumption that ‘artistic experiences improve one’s ability to see’: that, in one way or another, art helps us to know the world around us more authentically, more intimately. So what kind of intimacy, what manner of seeing, do Craighead’s zoomorphic figures invite us into? Boeckel’s use of the phrase ‘angels talking back’ is a nod to the Jungian art therapist Shaun McNiff, renowned for his clinical innovation of the ‘image dialogue’: literally, inviting patients to talk to, rather than about their images, and to invite their images to talk directly back to them. McNiff’s understanding of art as a daemonic, transformative force, capable of initiating a spontaneous process of recuperation in both maker and viewer, flows in turn from the work of the archetypal psychologist James Hillman. So perhaps Hillman might offer a useful approach to the improvised ritual of ‘praying with images’ that we encounter in Meinrad Craighead’s work.
The captive heart
It was at Monserrat that I first understood Crow Mother’s fierce presence moving within a Black Madonna. Although I had been in Italy for some years, away from the land of New Mexico, I was never not there, for the spirits of that land clung to me in dreams, in memories, and in the animals sacred to the spirituality of its native peoples.
There in the semi-darkness, I stood before La Moreneta, the Little Black Virgin of Monserrat. This daily rhythm – walking up the mountain, walking down to my bell tower – shaped the solitude of those months, as if I were inhaling the silence and exhaling the potent darkness into the charcoal drawings. The double spiral of beginning-midpoint-ending imprinted each day as the phases of the moon imprinted the nights.1
So how, then, might Hillman read Craighead’s assertion of the ‘kinship of making and prayer’, and what connectivity might he observe between her imagery and her engagement with landscape? It’s just such a root connectivity between imagination, prayer and the ‘circumambient world’ that Hillman proposes in his seminal essay ‘The Thought of the Heart’, in which he reflects on the classical notion of the heart: both of what the heart is, and of what the heart does. Before he can get to this, though, he first has to set out our own prevailing stories about the heart: those accreted fantasies which have, he suggests, long ‘held the heart captive’ in Western culture.
The most obvious of these stories is also the most recent – what he calls The Heart of Harvey: the heart of post-enlightenment scientism: a circulatory organ, a pump, and as such, an interchangeable spare part within what is, so the story goes, merely a complex organic machine. Prior to this, and still suffused through our everyday use of the word, Hillman observes The Heart of Augustine: a deep-rooted notion of the heart as the seat of our person, and as such, an organ of sentiment, an organ of feeling. In this story, what we know of the ‘secret chamber of the heart’ is that this inner core of our person is most authentically revealed through intimate confession, which is, by definition, a confession of personal feeling.
What would it mean if we were to suggest of an artist like Craighead that she works from the heart? Especially if that phrase came parcelled, as it often does, with ideas like ‘following her intuition’, or ‘working from her imagination’, it might invite a certain suspicion – of suggestibility, perhaps, or of sentimentality. A lack of hard-headed conceptual rigour. If any of that sounds familiar, it may be that such robust dismissals of imaginal visitation reveal something curious at work within our post-religious, clear-eyed criticality: a specifically Augustinian brand of Christianity, alive and well, enshrined in that most everyday of secular assumptions: that we exist as interior ‘persons’ somehow or other set apart from the phenomenal world within which we arise, and upon which otherwise meaningless body we bring to bear the light of our own consciousness.
And there’s more: within the ‘contemporary cult of feeling’ spawned by this Augustinian notion of the heart as interior person we’re also presented with the self-deceiving, distractive, and ‘unconscious’ chimera of imagination. As Hillman puts it, ‘we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both.’
In dreams we go down, as if pushed down into our depths by the hands of God. Pushed down and planted in our own inner land, the roots suck, the bulb swells. In her depths everything grows in silence, grows up, breaking the horizon into light. We rise up as flowers to float on the line between the above and the below, creatures of both places. She who gives the dream ripens the seeds which fly in the air and float in the water.
Prior, then, to scientism’s motor part, prior to Augustine’s organ of sentiment, Hillman steers us back to the classical understanding of the heart, drawing his sources from Ancient Greece, from European alchemy, and, through the work of the theologian Henry Corbin, from Islamic tradition. The central idea within Hillman’s essay is one that he takes directly from Corbin: what Islamic culture calls himma – a word which translates, roughly, as the thought of the heart, the intelligence of the heart, the action of the heart.
‘imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively’
Here, crucially, the heart is not understood to be an organ of feeling, but an organ of sight. A way of seeing. And the mode of seeing peculiar to this classical notion of the heart is that which arises through images: through the spontaneous movement of images within the mind. The kind of seeing which arises, in other words, through imagination. Hillman proposes Corbin’s studies on himma as the foundation stone for a renewed culture of imagination, whose first principles declare ‘that the thought of the heart is the thought of images, that the heart is the seat of imagination, that imagination is the authentic voice of the heart, so that if we speak from the heart we must speak imaginatively.’
An animal mode of reflection
The movement towards pilgrimage begins as a hunch, perhaps a vague curiosity. We cannot anticipate these whispers, but we do hear them, and the numen aroused has teeth in it. Thus a quest is initiated, and we are compelled or shoved into the place of possible epiphanies.
Among the many aspects of James Hillman’s reading of himma that illuminate what’s going on in Meinrad’s Craighead’s work, perhaps foremost is his take on why this heart of imagination is shown, mythogically, as animal: within European tradition, as the ‘Coeur de Lion’, the lion in the heart. For Hillman, what this image remembers is that imagination constitutes ‘an animal mode of reflection’, an instinctive faculty prior to the ‘bending back’ of deductive reasoning, which, by contrast, arises after the perceptual event, and moves away from it.
In himma, then, we meet imagination as something continuous with the ‘sheen and lustre’ of the phenomenal world. In the self-presenting display of imagination, we see ‘the play of its lights rather than the light of the consciousness that [we] bring to it’. And just as we might say of the animal heart that it ‘directly intends, senses, and responds as a unitary whole’, so this upwelling of imagination within the human mind presents us with a mode of ‘mental reflection foreshortened to animal reflex’.
But where does all this leave intimacy? What about the vulnerable interiority of the personal, feeling heart? Hillman suggests that in returning the heart to its rightful place as the seat of imagination, we release intimacy itself ‘from confession into immediacy’. What the animal in the heart brings, he tells us, is ‘the courage of immediate intimacy, not merely with ourselves, but with the particular faces of the sensate world with which our heart is in rapport’. Surely this sits right at the centre of what the arts have long held out to us? That rather than being specific to human relationships, intimacy is a quality of being which pervades all aspects of our lived experience, something intrinsic to the fathomless imaginal body within which we inhere.2
This ‘animal in the heart’ seems, at any rate, to illuminate the intimate species of seeing-though-imagination at work in Meinrad Craighead’s paintings. Not the bending-back of ironic, critical reflection, nor any sophisticated interrogation of form and language. What we meet in Craighead’s work, as she reaches out towards The Black Madonna, towards Crow Mother, forever stuck on the mutating face of her animal God, is something simpler than that. It’s something more urgent – more needy, even – than the disembodied conceptual athletics that characterize so much of our visual arts. And the gaze returned by Craighead’s work confronts us with something altogether more interesting than such addiction to our own cleverness. In both Craighead’s words and her images we’re presented with a dogged, needful return to the slow work of recuperation – to that recuperation of the lost soul which Hillman and McNiff propose as the central imperative of both depth psychology and prayer.
Kathleen Jamie – along with many others of course, East and West – offers a notion of prayer as a close attention to our own direct experience – to caring for and maintaining, as she puts it, ‘the web of our noticing’. Here in himma, in the heart’s ‘animal awareness to the face of things’, James Hillman retrieves a valuable name for the more indirect manner of noticing that Meinrad Craighead’s improvised icons invite us to. And if Craighead’s lifelong imaginal recuperation can be understood as a form of prayer, then perhaps such prayer is also, in its own way, an attentiveness – a paying heed. As Hillman says of the instinctive intelligence which himma restores to our wayward human behaviours: ‘In the blood of the animal is an archetypal mind, a mindfulness, a carefulness in regard to each particular thing.’
Wolfmilk Nursing, 1992
Colour-washed drawing on scraperboard
(c) Meinrad Craighead. All rights reserved.
During the years that Craighead lived as a nun at Stanbrook Abbey she developed a slow, trance-like process of sanding into scraperboard to conjure images fed by her wide-ranging studies of mythology and religion. In the years that followed her departure from Stanbrook this work took on greater clarity, its imagery now openly focussed on her lifelong intimation of God the Mother. Wolfmilk Nursing, which comes from this period, concerns a vision of a lactating female wolf that Craighead encountered during work with a shaman in New Mexico, both of whom – shaman and wolf – became important mentors to her during this period of her life.
Woman with Ravens, 2000
Paint on paper
(c) Meinrad Craighead. All rights reserved.
Having travelled far from the confines of monastic life, Craighead has nonetheless retained a strong sense of fidelity to her Benedictine vows of obedience to spirit, as they have led her ever-deeper into the ‘animal mysteries’. In her numerous late images of female Christian mystics, Craighead is visited by the spirit of her subject, only undertaking these portraits in response to such visitations. As well as evoking the ever-present figure of Crow Mother, the two corvids in Woman with Ravens echo the legend of St Meinrad, Craighead’s spiritual ancestor and (male) namesake.
O Fountain Mouth, 1989
Colour-washed drawing on scraperboard
(c) Meinrad Craighead. All rights reserved.
Among the many animal psychopomps frequenting both Craighead’s dreams and her imagery – woodpecker, turtle, wolf, crow, badger – her closest spiritual guides have been her own beloved dogs, pictured here. The upwelling water that first came to Craighead as a child, bringing her into the feminine presence of the sacred, is another recurrent motif in her work – as in O Fountain Mouth, whose title evokes the Marian litanies of her Catholic childhood. This ‘living water’ has also found an outward echo and embodiment in the great rivers – Danube, Arno, Rio Grande – towards which she has consistently gravitated.
1. Crow Mother is a Hopi kachina spirit. All of the biographical information in this essay, whilst cited throughout Craighead’s various books, can be found within the catalogue raisonné of her work, Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God – see below.
2. For a brilliant discussion of this idea and how it plays out in the practice of poetry, see Alyson Hallett’s Geographical Intimacy: Relationships between poet, poetry and place, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Jan van Boeckel, Angels Talking Back and new Organs of Perception: art making and intentionality in nature experience, paper presented at Shoreline International Symposium on Creativity, Place and Wellbeing, Ayr, Scotland, 2011
Katie Burke (ed.), Meinrad Craighead: Crow Mother and the Dog God, Pomegranate, 2003