Excerpted from “Longing for Darkness” by China Galland
The story of the Madonna at Einsiedeln begins with St. Meinrad, a ninth-century Benedictine hermit who passed this way over one thousand years ago. At thirty-one, he retired from the world of teaching in a monastery school to seek solitude on Mount Etzel, overlooking when became Einsiedeln, (Switzerland), in the year 828. Over the next seven years more and more people came to pray with him and hear him preach from his homemade altar. Word of his special piety grew.
Needing greater solitude, he left the mountain and retreated to the forest, called the Finsterwald, across the Sihl River, in A.D. 835 when he was thirty-eight years old. Finsterwald means ‘dark wood’, or ‘dark forest’. He took little more with him than the Rule of St. Benedict, a missal, and a statue of the Virgin for whom he built a small chapel adjacent to his monk’s cell.
Meinrad noticed two hawks threatening a nest of young ravens in a fir tree as he walked into the Finsterwald. The good priest chased off the hawks and saved the two fledglings in the nest. Thereafter, the legend goes, the ravens lived with Meinrad at his tiny hermitage.
During his years in the Finsterwald, Meinrad’s sanctity grew. Surrounded by terrifying demons at one point — so many, it was said, that he could not see the light of day — he fell to the ground, commended himself to God in prayer, and an angel from Heaven appeared to drive them away and to console Meinrad.
Meinrad’s death was divinely revealed to him while he offered mass on January 21, 861, after twenty-five years in his forest hermitage, as Gustafson relates the legend. His ravens shrieked, setting off the whole forest with their cries, as the two men who would club him to death made their way towards his simple cell. When they arrived, Meinrad greeted them courteously, fed them, gave them clothing and the following instructions, much to their surprise:
“When you have killed me — and I know you have come to do that — light two candles and put one at my head and the other at my feet.”
They proceeded to club him to death — we are not told why — but before they could set a match to the candles, the candles ignited themselves, “lit by heavenly fire”; a sign from Heaven that they had murdered a saint.
The ravens screeched and cried, flapping around the heads of the murderers, and followed them from the forest. Thinking themselves safe in a local inn beyond the forest, the men began to drink. But a local farmer who knew Meinrad and the ravens had heard the birds’ cries and, sensing that something was wrong, set off to Meinrad’s cell while sending his brother to follow the birds. When he found the hermit dead, he returned to the village to find his brother, who was standing outside the inn the murderers had entered. As they opened the door, the ravens flew in at the murderers, knocked over their tankards, and pecked at their heads, thus identifying them. The murderers were subsequently convicted of their crime, tortured and killed, their bones broken, their bodies burned, and their ashes thrown into the water.
Today the monastery’s flag bears the two ravens. It is from this ‘dark wood’, the Finsterwald — so Gustafson contends — that the Black Madonna, the “schwarzemuttergottes, Black Mother of God”, emerged.
The chapel of the Black Madonna is reportedly located over the original hermitage of Meinrad in which he was murdered. Until recently his skull lay in a small gold casket near her feet.
Meinrad retired to the forest, withdrew from the bounds of civilization, and confronted the demons of Hell itself. He left the sunlit mountaintop retreat that he first built on Mount Etzel. He too was longing for darkness; the broken, shadowy light of the forest beneath the trees, a shelter of greater solitude.
Meinrad’s story follows the pattern of the stories of many, whether the desert fathers, the Buddha, or Christ: the retreat into the wilderness, temptation and torment by demons, and, if one survived, consolation from God. The wilderness, be it desert or forest, becomes the crucible in which the transformation takes place.
Alchemy was the medieval analogue for the process of transformation, and (Carl) Jung studied it at length. Gustafson draws on Jung’s study of alchemy to make the argument that the development of devotion to the Madonna at Einsiedeln parallels the process of alchemy. A striking emphasis is placed on darkness or blackness as the initial stage of the alchemic work. And that blackness, Gustafson notes, in medieval times was called the “Raven”. The legend of Meinrad and the ravens takes on another layer of meaning.
The blackness with which the alchemic process begins is also known as the nigredo. It carries many levels of meaning. The nigredo is a symbol full of ambiguities. According to Jung, the “crow or raven” or “raven’s head” is the traditional name for the nigredo. “To nourish the ravens is to nourish the contents of the dark experiences of one’s psyche and life,” Gustafson tells us. The possibility of wisdom and insight comes from including the dark, chthonic secrets of life. Citing Jung, he points out that “it is of the essence of the transforming substance to be on the one hand, extremely common, even contemptible… but on the other hand, to mean something of great value, not to say divine. For the transformation leads from the depths to the heights; from the bestially archaic and infantile to the mystic ‘homo maximus’.
Jung’s description of this essence reminds me of addiction. The disease draws one into an increasing loss of self-respect, to the point where, at the bottom, it is felt that hardly anyone could be more “contemptible” than oneself. Yet in recovery, the very wound that drains one’s life is the greatest source of healing and transformation, “from the depths to the heights…”