From Dark Chamber To Baptismal River
Note: I posted this on Friday to paid subscribers to my Substack newsletter — you can subscribe to it here — but decided that the good news needs wider sharing. So, here it is:
Some very good news came today. Actually, it came to me weeks ago, but I have not been able to share it with anybody, until now. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I’m a fan of English writer Paul Kingsnorth, about whom Aris Roussinos wrote last year:
What does it say about England that her greatest living writer lives in exile on the west coast of Ireland? For some years now, Paul Kingsnorth has lived in rural Galway, tending a small farm with his young family, cutting hay with a scythe, and alternating visionary works of fiction with doom-laden essays on environmental collapse and the totalitarian seductions of late modernity. He is, perhaps, the English equivalent of Michel Houellebecq (another former exile to Ireland’s bleak and rural western lands). But instead of submission, Kingsnorth urges retreat and then resistance. Whereas Houellebecq is fixated on the supermarkets and holiday villages of modern France, Kingsnorth’s imagination, like his life, takes him to the last wild places of the British isles, to the moors and fens, to the rain-lashed Atlantic coast, and to the mythical Dark Mountain after which he named his deep ecological writing collective.
Well, Kingsnorth has updated the FAQ page on his website. It now says this under, “What about religion?”
I have never been a scientific materialist. My suspicion that there is more to the world than modernity will allow for has informed my sensibility since I was a child, and was the backdrop to all my environmental activism and writing.
Over the last decade, I have been on an increasing determined search for Truth which – as for so many lost Western people – has taken me to all quarters. For five years I studied and practiced Zen Buddhism; I’m still grateful for the insights that accorded me, but there was something missing. In search of what that something might be, I explored Daoism, mythology, Sufism, traditionalism, Alexandrian Wicca and all sorts of other bits and pieces. They all taught me something, but not enough.
Then, in 2020, as the world was turned upside down, so was I. Unexpectedly, and initially against my will, I found myself being pulled determinedly towards Christianity. It’s a long story, which I might tell one day. Suffice it to say that I started the year as an eclectic eco-pagan with a long-held, unformed ache in my heart, and ended it a practicing Christian, the ache gone and replaced by the thing that, all along, I turned out to have been looking for. In January 2021 I was baptised and received into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I don’t know where the path leads from here, but at last I know how to walk it.
Paul was baptized on Theophany (January 6) in the cold waters of the River Shannon, near his home in rural western Ireland. He sent me a photo of the moment he came out of the water, and it is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen. It is his image to share with the world, though, not mine. (Paul is a subscriber to this newsletter; if he gives me permission to share it, I will.)
I am always thrilled when someone has converted to Orthodox Christianity, but Paul’s conversion was special to me. I remember where I was — at my mom and dad’s house, sitting with my ailing father — when I first read online his 2014 essay “In The Black Chamber,” about going with his children into one of the prehistoric cave networks in the French Pyrenees. The piece begins like this:
It is a long walk, or it seems like one, especially if you are taking your small children with you. In reality, it is just over a kilometre; a journey which, on the surface, would take ten minutes or so. But we are not on the surface. We are several hundred feet below the slopes of a limestone mountain, and if we weren’t all carrying torches, the darkness would be entire and unending.
This is Grotte de Niaux – Niaux cave – in the French Pyrenees. The great rock overhang which marks the entrance is visible for miles along the river valley outside. The cave is a scribbled network of tunnels, most of them inaccessible now, at least to the public. As you move past the artificial entrance passage, through the thick steel door which is locked every night, your torchlight hits stalagmites three times the height of a human being, vast bulges and excrescences of rock on the ceiling and walls, dark crevices leading to chambers and side passages, icy black lakes and all the beauty and solidity to be found in the guts of an old mountain. It is cool, even and blacker than anything under the stars.
They enter the Black Chamber, a room where there are cave paintings of animals left here on the walls 15,000 years ago. Nobody ever lived in these deep caves, which are too wet. The people who painted these images came deep into the mountain, to this secret room, to create art. Paul goes on:
I’m overtaken by a number of emotions as I stand in the Black Chamber, but the one that proves impossible to shake off is a huge sense of awe: a physical sensation that I did not expect and don’t quite know how to handle. It is as if something age-old and darkly powerful has descended from the roof of the cavern and settled in me and will not leave. And as I look at the paintings, and take in the sensations of being in this place, I think that perhaps I begin to understand why people were here. I don’t know what they did, or who they were, but I can feel the power in the place, and it tells me why they might have come here.
It seems obvious to me – and I think the scant evidence bears it out – that whatever happened in the Black Chamber was not driven by utility. Whoever was here, and whatever they were doing, they were forging a connection to something way beyond everyday reality. These paintings are not expressions of economics or natural history. They surely sprung from the same sense of power and smallness and wonder and awe that I feel as I stand in the same place that the artists would have stood. This was a reaching out to, for, something way beyond human comprehension. This was a meeting with the sacred.
When I read those lines, I instantly thought of my more conventional theophany at the Chartres cathedral, which felt the very same way. I thought: whoever this Kingsnorth is, he is searching for God.
The essay goes on to talk about the sacred, and what it could possibly mean to someone raised in the modern world. Kingsnorth is English, and never had religion formally presented to him. He was a teenage atheist who thought Christianity was a matter of Victorian morality, nothing more. But as he writes, he began to feel a sense of the sacred in the natural world. Kingsnorth became a passionate environmental activist. More from the essay:
If the artists of the Black Chamber saw something sacred in the beasts they painted on the walls, I imagine that I see the same thing in what remains of the wild world today. A sense of the ‘sacred’, in other words, expresses itself to me in what Christians call Creation: in nature itself, in the self-willed places beyond the Pale of human control.
I don’t idealise this sense – or I try not to – and I don’t see it as necessarily a comforting thing. I realise that what I call ‘nature’ (an imperfect word, but I can never seem to find a better one) is really just another word for life; an ever-turning wheel of blood and shit and death and rebirth. Nature is fatal as often as it is beautiful, and sometimes it is both at once. But for me, that’s the point: it is the fear and the violence inherent in wild nature, as much as the beauty and the peace, that inspires in me the impulses which religions ask me to direct towards their human-shaped gods: humility, a sense of smallness, sometimes a fear, usually a desire to be part of something bigger than me and my kind. To lose myself; to lose my Self.
Here, perhaps, is one reason I remain haunted by what I experienced in the Black Chamber. I imagine – I can never know, and I am glad about that – that the people who created those works of art understood the sacred through the world beyond the human. I imagine that they saw something like what I see. I imagine that they saw something more than meat and sinew in the creatures that moved around them – creatures in which god, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it this great, nameless thing, was immanent.
In much of the world even today, and certainly for the decisive majority of our human past, this sense of other-than-human nature as something thoroughly alive and intimately interwoven with human existence is and was the mainstream perception. A world without electric lights, a world without engines, is a different world entirely. It is a world that is alive. Our world of science and industry, of monocultures and monotheisms, marks a decisive shift in human seeing.
Our world is not alive; it is a machine, not an animal, and we have become starkly desensitised to the reality beyond the asphalt and the street lights. There are no mammoths outside the entrance to Niaux today, only a car park and a gift shop. We are here now, above the ground, and above the ground is where we must live.
In the essay, Kingsnorth discusses at length the de-sacralization of the world, and what it has done to us in modernity. More:
Perhaps that word – holy – is the key. The Old English word halig, remember, has the same root as the word ‘whole’. If you see the Earth as whole, entire of itself, interconnected, then you see yourself as part of a wider living thing. If, on the other hand, you see the Earth as a machine and all living things as separate parts, then you have no reason not to tinker with them to your own design. What you will end up with then is men playing with toys, only the toys are living creatures, whole species – eventually a planet. This is Earth-as-playground. And what will your ‘valid criticisms’ be then?
I wonder if there has been a society in history so uninterested in the sacred as ours; so little concerned with the life of the spirit, so contemptuous of the immeasurable, so dismissive of those who feel that these things are essential to human life. The rationalist vanguard would have us believe that this represents progress: that we are heading for a new Jerusalem, a real one this time, having sloughed off ‘superstition’. I am not so sure. I think we are missing something big. Most cultures in human history have maintained, or tried to maintain, some kind of balance between the material and the immaterial; between the temple and the marketplace. Ours is converting the temples into luxury apartments and worshipping in the marketplace instead. We are allergic to learning from the past, but I think we could learn something here.
There is so much more to this essay, so please, read the whole thing. It is particularly rich if you consider it a prelude to Paul’s baptism in the Shannon seven years later. In any case it was, I think, one of my first introductions to his written work. I had heard about the Dark Mountain Project, which he co-founded with fellow writer Dougald Hine. It struck me as a kind of environmentalist Benedict Option. Here is a link to the Manifesto that Kingsnorth and Hine wrote to launch the project. The basic idea is that the modern world is cracking apart. The climate crisis is the most powerful manifestation of a broader crisis. We are not going to do what we must to stop the world from overheating, because what is happening is part of the deep logic of modernity, of Progress. From the Manifesto:
Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become – and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch. Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs; we cannot hear the message which reality is screaming at us. For all our doubts and discontents, we are still wired to an idea of history in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present. The assumption remains that things must continue in their current direction: the sense of crisis only smudges the meaning of that ‘must’. No longer a natural inevitability, it becomes an urgent necessity: we must find a way to go on having supermarkets and superhighways. We cannot contemplate the alternative.
And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.
Dark Mountain believes that it is time for writers and artists to meet the moment with a radical commitment to telling different and better stories, to make humanity resilient in the face of what is to come. They call this process “uncivilization,” and base it on these statements:
THE EIGHT PRINCIPLES OF UNCIVILISATION
‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
If you know my book The Benedict Option, you can see why I found consonance with the Dark Mountaineers. Both projects are ultimately hopeful, if not optimistic — hopeful, because they are committed to the idea of building a human future, but recognize that mere optimism is not going to be enough. When I first read about Dark Mountain, I had already started talking about the Benedict Option in my blogging. In Dark Mountain terms, the Benedict Option is a response to the decline of Christian belief and the disenchantment of the world. It is a relatively radical program to build the kind of disciplines, structures, and outlooks that would help Christians keep the faith through the cataclysm unfolding around us, which most Christians (and our leaders) do not wish to see.
When I read Paul’s 2014 essay about the Black Chamber, I told my wife about it. I told her that I hope Paul Kingsnorth becomes a Christian some day, first because I believe he is searching for Christ, and second because he sees so deeply into the crisis of our time, and has so many gifts to bring to the worldwide church in this time of immense need. Kingsnorth is a wild man who seeks nothing short of the re-enchantment of the world.
A year ago, we connected on e-mail somehow, and Paul told me he had been doing a lot of exploring in Christianity. Knowing his sensibility, I encouraged him to read Kyriacos Markides’s book The Mountain Of Silence: A Search For Orthodox Spirituality. I was confident that the ancient Christianity kept alive by the monks of Mount Athos, and by ordinary Orthodox themselves, would speak deeply into the heart of Paul Kingsnorth.
Apparently, it did. This is Paul’s story to tell, so I will stop there. My only role in this story was minimal: to point this seeker, early in his journey, East towards home, by recommending a book about Orthodoxy I thought he would like.
I am confident that Paul will launch himself onto deep waters, with ancient Christian mysticism and the thought and practices of the patristic era. Only God knows what He is going to do inside Paul. But selfishly, I am eager to see what Paul writes going forward, from the experience of his conversion, and the illumination of his imagination.
There are only two novelists of our time that I consider visionary: Michel Houellebecq and Paul Kingsnorth. Houellebecq is also a kind of collapsitarian, but his vision is bleak and without redemption. What is useful in Houellebecq is that he sees through the pretenses of late modernity. Though he offers no hope, he at least tells the truth about the unsustainability of our bankrupt culture. He knows that only God can save us, but cannot himself believe.
Paul is different. He sees the emptiness of our mechanical civilization with much wiser and more searching eyes than Houellebecq, but he also has hope, because even before he was a Christian, Paul believed in the sacred. He sensed the presence of the divine immanent in nature. He only needed to make contact with the Source.
I have every faith that God is doing a mighty and profound work out there in a little house in rural Ireland, in the stout heart and fertile mind of one of the world’s newest Christians. This fills me with such hope! The Church universal needs artists and writers to remind us who we are, who God is, and what He has given us. The Russian novelist Evgeny Vodolazkin (also an Orthodox Christian) revealed an enchanted world in his masterpiece Laurus, about a medieval saint. I think whatever Paul Kingsnorth writes next will be an Anglo-Saxon Laurus. Just wait.
To learn more about Paul Kingsnorth, read this 2014 New York Times profile of him, and watch this short Dutch TV documentary about him (it’s in English). And visit his website, where you can read many of his essays, and learn about his novels.