On my final day I walked with friends in the mountains. Climbing above a cloud inversion, we gazed through opaque silk to lake and mountain ranges dissolved by sunlight into a fairy tale distance. The chamois passing darkly between the forest trunks seemed befuddled by the perverse warmth of the late November day, stopping to blink at us, when we felt they should have run. My rock-climbing mind and muscle were briefly woken from hibernation as we pulled up onto the summit of Kleine Mythen above the village of Brunni, and shared the space with hungry choughs, while the still sky above us was grazed by the croak and sweep of ravens.
Then down into the cooling shade-filled valley to Einsiedeln where dusk gradually turned the clear sky a brittler blue above the sweeping façade of the cloisters and abbey which perch above the village. The gilded clocks on the twin towers were luminous with last light. The interior immediately hushed and stilled us. Our heads dropped back to revere the vault in which, high above us, was collecting the monks’ soft chanting for vespers, and their huffs of incense. Between the ceiling murals a candied impression of pink piping on a cake brightened the abbey against the black marble of the lady chapel that we stood close to.
When the chanting stopped, a dark line processed from the chancel, led by two lit candles. The monks lilted uniformly as they walked to the rear of the abbey - one long dark rhythmically swaying creature. They faced the entrance to the Lady Chapel, and lifted their voices again for the Black Madonna and Child within. Soft prickling stepped across skin.
The Lady Chapel is built on the site of a previous chapel said to have been established by 9th century hermit, and later Saint, Meinrad, who withdrew into the dark forest. He stayed there with only two ravens for company, experiencing visions until two men, seeking his supposed treasure, beat him to death. The ravens retaliated, pecking and pursuing the murderers so that the men were finally apprehended. The site became a centre of international pilgrimage, famous for the black Madonna, a carving from at least as early as the 15th century, who now appears in Spanish courtly dress, coloured according to the season.
Although it’s not exactly a religious feeling, I respond to the symbolism and the stories of early saints. I also take note of coincidences and strange synergies when they present themselves. The raven had made her mythical flutter felt . Having recently made a radio play in which a raven plays a significant role (wait till 22nd December!), and edited a book for Two Ravens Press, I was taken by the village sign for Einsiedeln which honours the two ravens of Meinrad’s story.
The Black Madonna drew me too. Although the Abbey authorities claim that it was candle soot over the centuries that coloured her skin, the congregation demanded she be painted black when a 19th century restoration tried to pale her skin tones. In Jungian thought, the darkness of the Madonna is closely connected with mysterious deep forests, the underworlds of Persephone or Isis, and represents an archetype of rebirth and renewal arising from the deepest darkness. My walking friends drew my attention to a paper by Jungian psycho-analyst Cedrus Monte which expands on this. Within the paper a beautiful poem was quoted, and the lines below struck me as relevant to the whole experience of the day – the brilliance of the walk and aspects of the abbey, the melancholy of Meinrad’s story and the shuffling monks.
‘Sadness, I need
your black wing.
So much honey in the topaz
each ray smiling
in the wide fields
and all an abundant light about me,
all an electric whir in the high air.
And so give me your black wing,
Somehow it wasn’t such a great surprise when I found it to be by Pablo Neruda, from the collection ‘Fully Empowered’ (1967. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) And the translator? Alastair Reid.