The place closest to my heart in the whole of Switzerland is the Monastery of Einsiedeln. “Einsiedeln” is a German word for “hermitage.” Surrounded by a dark, mysterious forest, situated near a scenic lake, adjacent to glorious mountain peaks, the place is second to none of the famous holy sites of the world in its beauty. It is in this area that Paracelsus was born, and perhaps more importantly – it is a place of worship of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, a delicate statue carved lovingly in lindenwood in the first centuries AD. She was a gift from Abbess Hildegarde of Zurich to Saint Meinrad, a monk who established the hermitage of Einsiedeln.
Meinrad was born into a privileged family but he felt he needed to walk his own path instead of rising in the ranks in an established monastery of Reichenau. He wanted to leave the familiar and the predictable behind, because above all he craved a life of solitude and contemplation. He chose the life of an eremite at Etzel, a mountain pass close to Einsiedeln. However, because his wisdom was widely known, he was visited by countless pilgrims, which disturbed his inner peace. Like Dante in Divine Comedy, he felt the pull of the Dark Forest, which seemed to hold a promise of the long awaited silence, solitude, contemplation and the intensity of deep inner work. He moved into the Finsterwald (Dark Forest), taking the Black Madonna statue with him and making Her the centre of his hermitage. “Finster” is a curious and mysterious adjective in German; it means darker than dark, pitch black, impenetrable, but at the same time it does not carry any sinister connotations. It just denotes a complete lack of light, similarly to the word “Sonnenfinsternis,” that is the solar eclipse.
Meinrad died the death of a martyr at the hands of two robbers, who clubbed him to death. According to the legend, the robbers were punished thanks to two ravens, who alarmed the locals about what had occurred. The legend of the two ravens is very compelling and symbolic of Meinrad’s individuation path. In his book on the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Fred Gustafson wrote this of the ravens, who symbolized the nigredo in alchemy – the first stage of the alchemical work:
“… as Meinrad made his way into the Finsterwald he noticed a nest in a fir tree, above which two hawks were hovering threateningly. The hermit chased the hawks away, climbed the tree, saved two ravens, and fed and cared for them. Finding a suitable clearing, he built a cell and a little chapel beside it. Meinrad dedicated the chapel to the Mother of God; today this is the site of the Monastery of Einsiedeln. The ravens stayed with him at his new hermitage.
In the Egyptian myth of Horus’ sparrow-hawk, as well as in the myths and symbolism of the Graeco-Roman age, the hawk is very definitely associated with the sun, that is, with the patriarchal values of logic and linear thinking. The raven, on the other hand, traditionally represents only the darker aspects, the shadow of consciousness. That the hawk would thus descend upon the young ravens symbolically represents the hostility of consciousness towards contents of the unconscious, especially embryonic contents – such as new awareness of attitudes or opinions – that need to be nourished and cared for. Meinrad’s rescue of the ravens is a spiritual victory for the emerging unconscious. The Finsterwald and the two ravens are closely related, one being the prima materia of the unconscious, the other, one’s personal relationship to the contents that begin to arise from it.
Ravens are indeed worthy and appropriate companions for St. Meinrad in that they fulfill their traditional role as messengers of gods, i.e., carriers of the vital messages of the unconscious to consciousness.”
Fred Gustafson, “The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln: An Ancient Image for Our Present Time, Kindle edition
As in the case of the Dark Forest, also the darkness of the Madonna is not viewed as sinister or evil. Rather, it is peaceful, good, enveloping, and also creative, fecund, powerful and potent. It embodies the creative forces of the unconscious. The central part of the monastery is her chapel – octagonal, carved in black marble, lit by candles. In the centre, she resides surrounded by the blindingly golden halo of clouds and lightning. Her robes are extremely elaborate and ornate, and come in many shades and colours. Gustafson continues:
“She is elevated to a celestial-spiritual and dynamic position, the clouds emphasizing the former and the lightning the latter. Both have long figured as fertile, life-giving forces. In this respect, Augustine compared the apostles to a cloud because of the fertilizing nature of prophesies which, like clouds, come from a higher order. It is also said that lightning has an illuminating, vivifying, fertilizing, transforming, and healing function. Lightning, especially, is representative of energy and power; it symbolizes psychic energy in its most dynamic form. From another perspective, however, the gold lightning and clouds are just not a glorification of the Black Madonna; they are in fact eclipsed by her.”
The last sentence seems to say something very crucial about the Black Madonna. She is the creative force, the veiled mystery of darkness standing for the creative matrix. Her extremely potent and alluring quality, says Gustafson, “represents that side of the psyche that leads and entices an individual into life in its fullest measure.” She fascinates because she cannot be fathomed; she just suggests that what is apparent is just a thin layer covering the vast ocean of truth. She reminds us, according to the same author, that “for renewal to come in our time, it must be borne in the arms of the black, unknown maternal night of the unconscious, where humanity will once again open its psyche to that rich natural soil that is the mother of all human thought, invention, doctrinal formulation and truth.”
It is quite paradoxical that with Her mighty, formidable presence which makes one humble and full of reverence, She can simultaneously be related to in a very personal and direct way, as if She carried an individual healing message for each pilgrim’s soul. She is both of the earth (warm, accessible, maternal) and of heaven (distant, striking, regal). She is always surrounded by numerous pilgrims, both men and women. It is worth remembering that after Meinrad’s deaths Benedictine monks had full control over who had access to the Black Madonna statue and who was allowed to worship her. In that time, the so called Forest Sisters continued to live in loose communities of nuns without following any strict rules. They gathered herbs in the forest, practiced mystical arts and healed the pilgrims that flocked to Einsiedeln to visit the monastery. In the 16th century, the Benedictine monks came to the conclusion that the free community of Forest Sisters was not to be tolerated on the land of the monastery. The women were evicted from the town and had to live according to strict Benedictine rules in the town of Au. In 1703 they lost their free status. In addition, they were ordered to wear black robes. They were also banned from visiting the monastery and the town of Einsiedeln.
It is astounding how that tyrannical decision goes against the all-encompassing, all-loving wisdom of the Black Madonna, who obliterates all barriers and accepts every soul based on its inner depth rather than any accidental social status. The exclusion of Forest Sisters from the cult of Black Madonna is also symbolic of the Catholic Church patriarchal slant. However, this bias stands in direct contradiction to the true spirit of the religion and its dark, impenetrable roots.