Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Big Sur Diptych I: Summer Solstice

Big Sur Diptych I: Summer Solstice

The Red Bull/The Psalm-Singers

The Big Sur Diptychs were written in the early 1980s when for more than eighteen months solitude meant a backpacking tent perched on a cliff almost half a mile above the Pacific Ocean. Although the human context below was fraught, the time on the mountain stands out in my memory for its simple happiness, spaces of freedom from anxiety, moments of terror—a density of glory that burns there like a jewel of the night.

* * *

Big Sur is one of the wildest, most spectacular coasts in the world. It runs some eighty miles down the edge of California from Carmel to San Luis Obispo. There are no power lines for much of its length, and telephones are unreliable. In some places the road is two-lane only by name: sections of it are forever falling into the sea, or buried by landslides from the mountains that rise straight from the ocean floor and overhang it. Some slides take years to clear. These slides cut off the sparse population from north-south communication, and the single east-west paved road over the coastal range can cause vertigo in the most intrepid.

For nearly two years as health and circumstance allowed, I lived in a tent pitched on a south-facing slope twenty-three hundred feet above the sea, through all seasons of Big Sur's Mediterranean climate. There were hurricane force winds that rolled monstrous waves unimpeded from Japan and smashed them against the cliffs with such force that the earth trembled; there were torrential rains, sleet and frost, and months-long stretches of calm sunshine.

These were months refulgent with stillness and the leisure to be and to observe. I watched lizards catch moths, the seasonal flights of birds, weather forming over the broad bay, the changing angle of the sun in the slow evening as the molten sphere flamed its way down the vault of heaven to slip into a sapphire sea. At night I would be visited by 'coons and foxes, and sometimes a mountain lion's scream from nearby brush would shatter the dark. The faint roar of surf wafted upward through the silence; the slow, wheeling dance of constellations turned overhead.

It sounds idyllic, and it was. But violating this chastity of wildness were flights of experimental aircraft and things that might not be so easily identified as aircraft flying low in the dark, so low I could see the heads of the crews bathed in the red glow of flight decks. One of these craft, I know now, was a prototype of the B-1 bomber, but I will never forget that night when the strange whoosh of its engines jerked me from sleep, and I gazed in horrified fascination at the bizarre shape skimming the mountain at treetop level. In daylight hours B-52s patrolled high overhead, and sometimes the shriek of fighter-bombers—planes with tail configurations even a commercial airline captain could not identify—would ricochet off the sea and reverberate against the cliffs.

Looking across the Pacific toward the rim of the world, I would see one or sometimes a small group of specks coming toward me flat out, two feet above the waves. In the moment you thought they would surely slam straight into the rock they would pull up, terrain-following. Only a few hundred feet horizontally from me they would howl past, bristling with missiles, gradually, then sharply, climbing to clear the peak that rose another twenty-five hundred feet, half a mile beyond my perch.

I got to know the regulars among the pilots. We developed a strange, waving acquaintance, an eerie well-wishing between people dedicated to opposite ends and means. They knew I was a nun from my tunic and my location; I knew they carried nuclear weapons.

* * *

The Red Bull

Last evening on my way to the tent I saw a coyote leap out of the junk pile at the dump. The hair on my neck stood up; I watched him disappear into thee pines, and as I approached he was there again, leaping through the high, dry grass. There was the sense of other life about, and as I rounded the line of trees I met a huge cow, bulging with an unborn calf.

Cows almost wrecked my tent in another place before I got an enclosure fence up; these are strays from the next ranch. There must be a fence down along the creek in the canyon.
Fearful for my fragile shelter, I pick up pieces of earth and start pelting the cow to get her to move off down the mountain, back across the creek. She is strangely unmoved.

Something deep inside gives a warning, and I turn. Not twenty feet away, just below the brow of the hill, an enormous red bull is shaking his horns in disapproval at my mistreatment of his cow.
With him are four other cows, more flighty and nervous than the one I have been assaulting.
In spite of my fear, I am transfixed. This is no ordinary domestic bull, lumpish and dull, hopelessly nervous or insane. This is the bull I met on a hike last January, but winter on the mountain has hardened him. He is secure in his power. Who knows what he has encountered in these months? I have seen him climbing vertical slopes, seen him on the way to water at the creek. Has he fought coyotes off from newborn calves, or encountered the cougar hunting an easy meal?

The red of his hide is intensified by the red-gold evening light; there is a sheen to it like kimono silk, like the red-gold embroidery on an obi I once had. His muscles are hard and flat and smooth under the supple, taut skin; his eyes are clear under his straight horns. He is relaxed yet alert; coiled potential. He is vitality, virility. Eros, and eros transfiguring itself. He is the love of God in creation, the hidden fire revealed in creation.

Here is a bull to dance with, straight horns to grasp and vault over in ecstasy, grasping dread and death, grasping mortality and transfiguring it with mortality. Here is a bull to charge the senses, to communicate the very life-ness of things.

I speak to him, apologizing for my aggression to his cow, and he resumes eating, watching me out of the corner of his eye. I slip down through the pines to my tent, make a few adjustments in case there is a cattle raid to avenge my hostile act, and climb once more through the dark passage in the trees.

He is there: startled this time as I emerge, his head jerks up. I speak to him again and he relaxes, lowering his head to eat. But he marks every ten feet of my progress past him by raising his head, making sure I will behave myself in his presence. I have broken protocol, not enough to be charged, but enough to be put on warning. I avert my eyes to lessen any possible interpretation of aggression, quietly pass by him and on down to the monastery for the night. I am not brave enough to risk meeting him in the dark on the way to midnight vigils. Behind me he grazes, glowing in the fading light.

All night and next morning I am caught by the bull. I dance with him in my dreams. At dawn I return to my tent, but he is gone and the cows with him, no vengeance taken for my intrusion.

The myths of the Greeks and Cretans come consciously to mind now: Zeus and Europa; the frescoes of red bulls at Knossos Mary Renault's The King Must Die, which I have read again and again. Now I understand: now I understand the bull-calf at Horeb, the yearning for vitality, the sign of potency and life in the desert. Now I understand the making of bull-gods, the suicidal bull-dances of the Mediterranean and, by extension, the bloody rituals in Spain. Suits of light process through my mind, and black Muria bulls charge into the ring.

Pagan: I am pagan if this is paganism, and thank God for it. Part of the genius of Christian is to incorporate primordial religious signs in its vision of the sacred, created signs of incarnation, arrows pointing back to that event two thousand years ago, and arrows pointing forward from the beginning of life. There is a naturalness about the liturgy, the Spirit's activity recapitulating in our own lives the events and mysteries of these special days. This is the pagan sense baptized in the Light; the unity of all things, the immanence of God, utter transcendence.

There are not four loves, nor two; there is only One. And I have seen this single unspeakable movement of Love in the bull, its transmutations, its form and expressions, its earthedness, the potency of mortality transfigured. As mute, as clumsy, as tongue-tied as such moments leave us, the Word yet seeks expression, even though by moving from direct perception to fumbling concepts, most of what we have been given is lost.

We move inward: this is our movement. Gazing on and united to that hidden Face of fire we are expanded, bursting from bondage into boundlessness, uncontainable, hurled outward by the force, the divine energy, the Fire (God's movement is outward). Even our bodies cannot contain it, this light of union. It shines in the glory of the human face, the glory of God radiating from the glory of the human face.

As we grow in single-heartedness, as the density of our pointe vierge increases, as the glory intensifies, we cannot but break out beyond mortality, just as the fruit tree's fire is the sign of its fullness, its fruitfulness. Though its seeds have fallen into the ground, and though its leaves will soon be dust, their fires expand to a spectrum of color so broad, so intense, that it cannot but resolve into white light. There is a link, an inseparable bond between our physiochemistry and our divinity, not a linear dualism, but a spatial continuum. What is fully incarnate reveals transfiguration within. Humility is divinity.

It is only at the end of life that we burst into flame, come to wisdom and fruition, only to die, yet this is not a waste or cause for cynicism. We cannot do otherwise. By the fruitfulness of contemplative being Love has expanded us beyond mortality's containment: we cannot but die.

This glory within us arcs across the barriers of death, deep calling to deep, to mingle finally and fully with the glory of the Creator. We are incarnated with one hand, given fire and glory with the other. What do accomplishment or doing, what do material fruits matter in this light? They matter not at all, for matter is fired and transfigured with density of being. It is the fullness of the curvature our being has made that signifies; the fullness with which we have gathered that density, enlarged our capacity for that density by embracing our fate, receiving and glorying in mortality, the godness, the likeness, the image that is caught for a time, its beauty , its terror and dread. The veil is no more.

The red-goldness of fruition links all creation: redness of the bull; leaves on fire—fruit trees and squalid old poison oak become burning bushes; joyousness of birdsong at rosy dawn and russet dusk; ruddiness in aged women and men; red-and-gold silk vestments; the blood of martyrs become bread for us in the fire of Love; fire of the Trinity, dancing wheel of love flaming in our center.

O Trinity of blessed light: your fiery sun goes its way, diffusing red-gold light through mortality, through life-giving atmosphere, to remind us that beyond the darkness is another day. O Unity of humble might, the flame colors of evening speak to us of fruition, the tiredness of time spent, bodies spent, lives spent in your Day. With night weariness presses down while our restless spirits, creaming contemplate your mysteries. United to you in our sleep is healing of body and spirit. We rest in You, we dance with You, we burn for You. Bring us into the fire of your life. Amen
* * *
The Psalm-Singers

Sometimes when I bow before the glory of God, singing the doxology at the end of a psalm, I see from the corner of my eye, as mirrors reflect into other mirrors, an infinite line of shimmering figures bowing with me. Sometimes I see them en masse, as crowds are painted in early Byzantine art. or sometimes I see a lone shepherd or hermit, voice roughened years of singing against wind and sun, wandering in solitude.

There is a reality to the communion of saints that becomes transparently apparent through psalmody, a reality that has force and power, a there-ness that seems more fully manifest in this way than any other. The music of the long-vanished psalm-singers lingers in the silence. You can feel it in churches; you can feel it in ruins; you can eel it wandering through mountains where holy ones have lived.

It's more than the knowledge of three thousand years of David's musical heirs, more than the psalms themselves, or the shock of recognition that sometimes comes at night when, from a crystalline sky, stars dangle over horizon's edge, and Psalm 8 echoes unceasingly: 'When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, who are we that you should be mindful of us, your only-begotten that you should seek us out?'

Big Sur is far enough from the lights of civilization that the stars hang one behind another. There is depth in the heavens, a depth that draws you, an expansive infinity, an abyss that opens to eternity, a dark window into the apophatic pointed with stars, with worlds and universes being born and dying, all rushing toward something at great speed. Yet the One who creates this unimaginable vastness merely with his 'fingers' is mindful of us, seeks us out, and the awe of seeking ravishes our senses and not-senses, looking into the dark abyss of creating Love.

As we gaze we realize our union with the divine assembly: at one time or another in their lives, each of the psalm-singers must have looked into these same heavens, humbled by God's seeking. They too bowed before the unfathomable, incomprehensible knowledge that the Maker of the starry abyss pursues us through our mortality, exalts us as sons and daughters especially in our mortality, engages us even as we are formed in the womb, receives our longings, is faithful beyond our ability to ask, imagine, or respond.

Often the psalm-singers seem unreal to us, two-dimensional paper cutouts on a flat plane; the personae of an ephemeral drama that is presented once and fades; figures in a diorama depicting a culture remote in its strangeness. The best biography portrays a fantasy, and hagiography feeds the phantasmagorical.

That these strangers were also psalm-singers adds the fourth dimension. They too were moved to muteness, only psalmody could begin to express the Love at work within, the bewildering darkness, the consuming desire for the radiant Face. They too wept in frustration at sparks momentarily manifest, drawing them deeper into free-falling lostness, manna-filled desert, dew-fallen music, bread of faithfulness, bread of faith.

They sang, sing, through nights and days, heat and cold, in home and hearth, desert and monastery, in dressing-gowns, skins, heavy wool, jeans, ornate great-schemas, leaning in the weariness of the small hours against a bed, a stone wall, a carved misericord or, as I once did at midnight with a Cistercian friend, against the hard plastic seats of the New York subway.

But now there is no day or night for them as they sing: their time-bund, time-hallowed music lingers with us, though we know there is no time, only motion and bending of space-time. Their density, their holiness, their heart-songs bend with us, bend the continuum, bend before the glory of God, with the glory of God. And as we bow before this glory, we too add density, become mirrored in those mirrors, become massed in these masses, people become Eucharist, one Bread for all.


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