Read an Excerpt
Living the Magical Life
An Oracular Adventure
By Suzi Gablik
Phanes PressCopyright © 2002 Suzi Gablik
All rights reserved.
I like to sit, in the evening, at my Black Madonna altar, its candles burning as if I were in Chartres or Notre-Dame or Saint-Michel. As the incense slowly turns to ash, its fragrance scents the whole house. I like to sit before the Black Madonna as a way of finding out what the gods want, even though I know that finding out what the gods want is held to be of little value in our society and has been discontinued as a practice. Inviting the gods in, I often wonder whether this "magical" dimension of life eludes us only because we have disavowed it. No longer the critic who stands back to analyze an issue, and wearing a different cultural lens, I can now step directly into the drama myself, to get at something "utterly heartbroken," as Annie Dillard puts it in one of her poems: "colors, which have no name, but are the real foundation of everything."
When I moved to Virginia in 1991 after living in London for more than twenty years, many things about my life changed: furniture, pictures, views from the windows, and even my thoughts. Most surprising of all was that I couldn't stand anything modern anymore. The tumult of urban cultural life behind me, I wanted to bask in the luxury of a beautiful wooded valley rimmed by hazy blue mountains. Perched on its own little hill, my new home reminded me of an alpine spa. Inside, I hankered after objects that looked as if they had existed since the beginning of time. Plexiglas and steel were unthinkable. They had no texture, and no soul.
The local flea markets soon became my Valhalla, a happy hunting ground for anything with a surface that was bleached, mottled, or weathered. I would quite literally jump for joy at the sight of a beautiful patina. Ploughing through piles of Depression glass and random heaps of silverware, I looked for extravagant baubles that called out to me. Perhaps it was an awkwardly lumpish peasant doll from Madeira, with babushka and braids, or a whorled and looping Victorian Christmas ornament made of spun glass, or an eccentric candle in the form of a young cadet with Hamlet haircut, wearing a Scottish kilt and standing at attention.
The business of the treasure hunt gives you an irresistible part to play in the national pageant. Once you really learn to stalk the piles, you may even catch sight of something William Gass describes in On Being Blue: you will discover "the love that hides inside of glove, and the ass inside of brass." You may even find "there is dung inside of dungeon" and "pee in perspective." Shopping in flea markets is very much like that. You learn that the things of this world are really containers, and every object is a mythic universe with its own intricate sonorities.
It was only after I became interested in making altars, and created shrewdly placed arrangements for these objects whose evocative soul dramas had stolen their way into my heart, that I discovered a deeper force behind the more mundane motives of shopping and collecting.
An altar is the outcome of many separate acts of attention. Making one affords noble, wild prospects for the soul as an expression of the way we arrange things. An altar is a way of orchestrating passion and articulating acts of perception with the whole being. You can make an inspired one with nothing more than the glow of a single marigold, or your love for an old handmade toy, or the ash heaps generated by prayer. In my case I expect I was, half-consciously, aiming at finding a magnificent obsession, some way to transcend the ordinary. Alone, I wanted to attune my mind to ways of seeing that have remained hidden or left out in our culture. But what I didn't count on, when I made an altar to the Black Madonna, was that it would bring about a stupendous change in my entire life orientation. What I didn't foresee was the peculiar turn my life would take when I discovered, in an unsettling way, that praying to the Black Madonna "works." Or that eventually a sense of faith that wasn't there before would appear, as if in answer to my prayers.
Now, when I light the tiny lamp whose purple shade gives off a smoky violet glow and cross over into oracular space, I signify my intention to live mythically and symbolically. I personalize my belief that the universe is communicating with me in a conscious and intelligent way. In a world that mistrusts and rejects magic, I feel as if I am reclaiming an older, half-forgotten way of consciousness, deep down in the senses. When I probe the realm of spirits, I create opportunities to subtly revise the script my culture has written for me. If my path at this point could claim to be "about" something, this would have to be it: heightening my mystical receptivity to experiences that don't fit into our rationalistic view of the world. "Psychic phenomena are like flowers," writes parapsychologist William Braud, "whose distinctiveness, brightness, beauty, and perfume attract attention, inspire awe, and compel approach." Slowly but surely, I am becoming a psychic gardener. I notice things I never noticed before.
Before I came to Virginia, I didn't have a spiritual path. For as long as I could remember, art was my religion. Growing up in New York City during the salad days of modernism, I belonged to a community of believers whose one true love was art. At eighteen, I was a devotee of John Cage concerts and the avant-garde productions put on stage at the Living Theater. While other girls' minds were filled with boys, proms, and football games, I was translating poetry by Baudelaire and Rimbaud and mingling whenever I could with glamorous artists at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. In those days, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were among my closest friends—rarefied macho companions, as solid as redwoods. Several biographers concur that it was I who introduced them to each other, although I don't remember it. I was, in those days, a sophisticated innocent, drawn by the intensity of the New York art world, which defined all of my ambitions, my relationships, my pleasures, and my pains. This was the community in which I felt at home, my urban "family." And though I wasn't yet sure what I wanted to do with myself, I had already figured out there was no future in being an ordinary person.
When I was young I thought I knew what I believed. I never stood back and looked at myself or questioned the habits of the culture that had imprinted me with its particular lures of prestige and power and career success. I lived in a world where ideas mattered. Issues mattered. But I never thought about prayer or having a personal relationship with the divine. In the circles in which I moved, preoccupations like those had less appeal than a rattlesnake's fang.
Much later, when I set out to write my own account of modernism and the art it brought into being, I didn't know I would end up crafting my own private elegy for its mandates. I had no idea that I would need to forsake, as my life progressed, beliefs that I was so well versed in, points of view that were the centerpiece of my entire world. Considering all the things I once took for granted, I sometimes amuse myself now with this thought: what if I had been like Josef Albers, who woke up every day knowing, with sure-footed certainty, that he would paint squares? Then I could have preserved my own traditions without having to court new ones. But life has not been that way for me. I have never stepped twice into the same river.
I didn't experience my first real moment of spiritual aliveness until two days before my fiftieth birthday. I was with about twenty other people on a pilgrimage journey in the Southwest desert, organized by Joan Halifax, a spiritual teacher who blends practices from Buddhist, shamanic, and Native American traditions. We were seated on the ground in a circle, perhaps in an altered state induced by the steady pounding of drums, the rhythmic handclapping and rattling, and the singing of chants. It was late afternoon, but despite the peaceful picture, several people were very tired and on edge. Joan decided to clear a space for healing.
In one hand, she held a pot of burning sage, and in the other, a white eagle feather that looked like a large white orchid, which had been given to her as a gift from a Native American elder. Moving slowly around the circle with her medicine objects, and shaking her feather, Joan passed wisps of smoke from the burning sage over the energy centers of each person's body, in an attempt to open up places where consciousness and pain were trapped.
When she bent over me, the effect produced by my contact with the feather affected me so intensely that I found myself weeping uncontrollably, releasing, like sparks from every point that was touched, feelings of grief in ecstatic shivers. It was a kind of annunciation, I think now, the vibrational influence of a sacred feather inviting me to my new destiny of reenchantment and opening me, urgently, to the world of myths, symbols, visions, rituals.
After that experience, I never felt the same again about my past or the Western worldview—the rational, scientific conception of reality and the disenchanted philosophy which has shaped the twentieth century by breaking the back of alternative, more magical ways of thinking about life.
By the time I moved to Virginia, I had already had two successful careers, first as an artist making and exhibiting collages, and then as a critic. I had written, most recently, two books that challenged the root metaphor for being an artist in our culture. The Reenchantment of Art, published in 1991, the same year I arrived in Virginia, was my attempt to rescue art from a cultural paradigm that privileges masculine attitudes towards reality and mistrusts the feminine. In many ways, what I wrote was outright blasphemy to the world I had grown up in. It was an act of disobedience to canonical presumptions that had been in place for hundreds of years. From that point on, I was no longer a contented product of the old system.
Taking on the patriarchal institutional dragons of art wasn't an easy or comfortable path, yet I never saw myself as cutting the ties to my past. But each of the last three books that I have written has changed my thinking, and this one was no exception. Imperceptibly my life was set on a new path. As a critic I had reached my limits. I had done my best work. I began to see art, and my critical function, as a region I had passed through that had given me a great deal and taught me much but could no longer tempt me to new accomplishments or inspire a fresh outpouring of creative energy. Only now, however, can I see the real reason for this desire to withdraw: an exiled feminine spirit was creating emotional resonance in me, and a hitherto idle and empty part of myself, the spiritual part of my heart and soul, was demanding the right to fulfill itself. This sacred feminine force, springing up everywhere in our culture like a nonstop geyser, is breathing fresh life into rejected modes of consciousness: the psychic, the intuitive, the mystical, and the sacred. Like a wand anointing the mind, it asks us to accept the world as a magical place.
"The soul can work in our lives only through magic," Thomas Moore writes in The Reenchantment of Everyday Life. Reenchantment is about putting soul back into the picture. It is about getting the sacred and the secular reembedded in each other. Reenchantment insists on the relational nature of reality—that sense of belonging to a larger pattern. It signifies striking a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, masculine and feminine, discursive and intuitive modes of knowing.
But reenchantment, I now see, demands much more than a critical treatise delivered in the scholar's high tone. More than intellectual lobbying is needed in order to change cultural paradigms that discredit the mystical as being fallacious or fantasy—something that needs to be outgrown. Reenchantment, I have discovered, is a risky personal task: a journey of initiation across an unfamiliar landscape. For if we do not learn it from our own experience—if we cannot teach it to ourselves—then how shall we ever learn it? Surely not from a society crippled by the arrow of unbelief stuck in its own heart.
"If the Goddess is to emerge in our time," writes Jean Shinoda Bolen in Crossing to Avalon: A Woman's Midlife Pilgrimage, "she will do so because women and men tell what they know. The Goddess comes to us in very private experiential ways. To bring about a paradigm shift in the culture that will change assumptions and attitudes, a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations."
We live in a time of stories, of people telling their stories—many of them somber narratives revealing struggles with grim childhoods, addiction, or incest. This book tells the story of how an encounter with the divine feminine has happened in my life. Not as a single anomalous occurrence, but as a complex of enigmatic and beguiling experiences suggesting a pattern with an apparent purpose that is often beyond my reckoning, and seems to come out of a place there's no explaining. After a lifetime of writing about others and their work, the thought of writing about myself—of seeing my own reflection in the pool—was not what I expected. Indeed, it had not occurred to me, until I began pursuing a path with the Black Madonna, that I, too, had a story to tell.
Like many others, I was first drawn to the Black Madonna through the books of Marion Woodman, a renowned Jungian writer. According to Woodman, images of the Black Madonna are erupting in the hearts and minds of many individuals today, often through dreams, demanding conscious recognition. Mythically, the Black Madonna speaks to the need in the West to reintegrate the feminine and the mystical into consciousness. Because of this, I approached her as a pivotal icon, a representation of everything for which I have striven in my own writing.
In my case, the Black Madonna didn't appear to me in a dream. One day I was walking around in the shopping area of downtown Santa Barbara when I noticed an unusual religious statue through the plate-glass window of a gift store. It was a carved, wooden, female Santos from the Philippines, about two feet high, and it was not really black, but more the color of bitumen or pewter, a graying wood that had lost its original coat of paint. To my eye the figure emanated the spirit of the Black Madonna. I couldn't help but buy it, in a flight of cosmic fancy, although I had no idea at the time that my relationship with this mercurial icon would one day become a conduit for the unfolding of a powerful mythic journey in my life.
People often ask me: who, or what, is the Black Madonna? They want to know why I am attracted to her. The answer is that she helps me to do the work I most love. She is teaching me the art of magical connection. We are born to be mystics, suggests Caroline Myss, a pioneer in the field of energy medicine and human consciousness. Our biology is wired for it. In our culture, however, this becomes something of a liability. The fact that divine mystery is at odds with our culture's scientific bias is what makes its pursuit so forbidding. Now that I recognize how the acceptance of the world as a magical place shapes human awareness in a particular way, I can also see the possibility for whole cultures and civilizations to be changed and renewed, even turned upside down, by individuals who undergo certain powerful experiences and retain enough stability and sanity to tell about it.
There are some four hundred Black Madonnas throughout the world, located mostly in Europe. The most well known, probably, are Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland and Notre Dame de Montserrat in Spain. During the Middle Ages, a number of chivalric and heretical cults, such as the troubadours of Provence, the Knights Templar (a Crusading order of warrior-monks), and the Cathars (an ascetic Christian sect that rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church) venerated the moral and spiritual authority of the divine feminine. During the medieval civilization of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, according to L'Énigme des vierges noires, a little known book written by a French lawyer, Jacques Huynen, who did extensive research to uncover "the enigma of the Black Virgins," Black Madonnas were placed in cathedrals that celebrated the cult of "Notre Dame." They were the central inspirational icons of pilgrimage and were connected with miraculous visions and cures.
The icons were often found in underground grottoes or crypts, built on old Druidic sites associated with dolmens, magnetic earth currents, or healing springs. It is thought that the monastic elites, mystery school initiates, and adepts of alchemy used these honeycombed vaults in the great Gothic cathedrals to do their work, and that this underground stream of Western heresy was undoubtedly the nerve center, the spiritual switchboard, for the worship of the divine feminine. Many of the original icons were destroyed during the Inquisition in the twelfth century, because the Black Madonna's supremacy was threatening to the male-only authority of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Precious documents that might have told us more about the esoteric significance of the Black Madonna were also destroyed at that time. Today the greatest concentration of Black Madonnas is in the Auvergne region of France.
Excerpted from Living the Magical Life by Suzi Gablik. Copyright © 2002 Suzi Gablik. Excerpted by permission of Phanes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.