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St. Benedict & The Dark Mountain

Mont-St-Michel at night (rui vale sousa/Shutterstock)

I have been quite taken lately with the essays of Paul Kingsnorth, the co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. I bought his recent essay collection, Confessions Of A Recovering Environmentalist, And Other Essays, on Amazon Kindle. By “recovering environmentalist,” Kingsnorth, a former activist, doesn’t mean that he has ceased to care about conservation and environmental causes. Rather, he has come to believe that environmental activism is futile. Kingsnorth and others involved in the Dark Mountain Project

have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

Elsewhere, Dark Mountain defines itself by stories that

do not seek to avert crisis or radical change, but which acknowledge that we are already living through those things and that we are going to have to deal with the consequences.

The objection might well be the same as the one I get to the Benedict Option: that if you “give up,” you are accepting a fate that we might yet avoid. With the Ben Op, I say that fighting it in conventional ways is futile, because it cannot be averted, only ridden out as best we can. Those who understand this now and act accordingly are in a better position to do this, and to help their communities do this.

A lot of what Kingsnorth writes resonates with me because it tracks so closely with my Benedict Option ideas. I restrict my thinking to the religious and cultural unraveling in the West; Kingsnorth’s view is more expansive. I don’t say that he’s wrong, but only that the Ben Op is more limited in its scope.

Kingsnorth is not a religious man, at least not formally, but he has a religious sensibility. Take a look at this essay, “In The Black Chamber,” in which he talks about the awe he experiences visiting an ancient cave once in habited by prehistoric people:

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 view cave paintings that are 15,000 years old. Fifteen thousand years old.

Theories abound, of course. It has been speculated that the drawings would have been created by an elite class of artists and offered only to the cave: no-one else would have seen them. It has been proposed that they were created for mass religious rites which would have been held here. Others have suggested – and this suggestion is perhaps backed up by drawings of half-human, half-animal creatures found in some of the caves – that these were depictions of, or aids to, shamanic journeys: visits to another world in which humans became animals and animals became humans.

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.

Kingsnorth then talks about how he is not conventionally religious, but he has come over the years to understand that the way he regards nature is grounded in something primal. More:

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.

Here’s one more passage:

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.

The rationalist delusion has a strong grip on our culture, and that grip has been getting stronger during my lifetime. Every year, it seems, the areas of life that remain uncolonised by scientific or economic language or assumptions grow fewer. The success that science has had in explaining what can be explained has apparently convinced many people that it can explain everything, or will one day be able to do so. The success that economics has had in monetising the things which science can explain has convinced many that everything of significance can be monetised.

Environmentalists and conservationists are as vulnerable to these literalist trends as anyone else, and many of them have persuaded themselves that, in order to be taken seriously by those with the power to save or destroy, they must speak this language too. But this has been a Faustian bargain. Argue that a forest should be protected because of its economic value as a ‘carbon sink’, and you have nothing to say when gold or oil of much greater value are discovered beneath it.

Speaking the language of the dominant culture, the culture of human empire which measures everything it sees and demands a return, is not a clever trick but a clever trap. Omit that sense of the sacred in nature – play it down, diminish it, laugh nervously when it is mentioned – and you are lost, and so is the world that moved you to save it for reasons you are never quite able to explain.

I’ll say it plainly, because I’ve worked myself up to it: in ‘nature’ I see something divine, and when I see it, it moves me to humility, not grandiosity, and that is good for me and good for those I come into contact with. I don’t want to be a god, even if I can. I want to be a servant of god, if by god we mean nature, life, the world. I want to be small in the world, belong to it, help it along, protect myself from its storms and try to cause none myself.

I know there are others who feel like this, and I know there are others who don’t. It is not a position to be argued from. I don’t want to try and convince you if you’re not already convinced. If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it. I do, and I can’t argue it away. There it is.

But here’s my suggestion: this feeling is not an awkward and embarrassing stumbling block in the way of a rational assessment of the reality of ecosystems. It is not something to be ashamed of, not something to be dismissed as ‘romanticism’ or ‘religion’ – both curse words in the culture we have made. It is something else. It is an old, animal intuition that serves me, and others, well, as it has served humanity for millennia, from the caves at Niaux onwards. And those of us who do feel it &emdash; well, we have a duty. We have a duty to talk about it, openly, calmly, incisively, without recourse to pseudo-science or the alienating language of established religions or New Age cults.

We have a duty to talk about it. Yes, we do. In The Benedict Option, I identify the loss of a sense of the sacred, of the divine “everywhere present and filling all things,” as at the heart of our catastrophe. As a Christian, I see this somewhat differently from Paul Kingsnorth, but we are far closer to each other than I am to a fellow Christian who regards the world, consciously or unconsciously, as dead matter that we can use as we like.

Christians should read Paul Kingsnorth, I believe.

You know what else you should read, along these lines? This long 2014 David Brooks speech given to a Christian group. It’s all good, but notice especially the passage about “Adam 1” and “Adam 2”. I wrote about these distinctions myself — they were defined by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his great little book The Lonely Man of Faith. Adam 1 believes his job is to conquer the world. Adam 2 believes that his submission of the world must be done in the context of his own submission to God, and to the divine order.

Adam the First is active; Adam the second is contemplative.

We need more contemplatives. We need more St. Benedict. We need more Paul Kingsnorth. Read more about him and his movement in this 2014 New York Times Magazine profile. The name “Dark Mountain” comes from the last line of a Robinson Jeffers poem called “Rearmament,” in which the California poet foresaw the world hurtling unstoppably towards World War II. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, written by Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, says:

Outside the stockades we have built — the city walls, the original marker in stone or wood that first separated ‘man’ from ‘nature’. Beyond the gates, out into the wilderness, is where we are headed. And there we shall make for the higher ground for, as Jeffers wrote, ‘when the cities lie at the monster’s feet / There are left the mountains.’ We shall make the pilgrimage to the poet’s Dark Mountain, to the great, immovable, inhuman heights which were here before us and will be here after, and from their slopes we shall look back upon the pinprick lights of the distant cities and gain perspective on who we are and what we have become.

For us Christians, the dark mountain is the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. There we kindle the flames — in church candles, in kitchens, and great hearths — shoring up the light against the long night ahead.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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