Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Big Sur Diptych II: Feast of the Transfiguration

[Please note that I will be traveling for two weeks. The next post will be around the middle of March, 2006.]

* * *

Big Sur Diptych II:

Star Fox/Lightning in the East

* * *

Star Fox

On the way to the water pipe yesterday evening I saw a lynx; he saw me, too, and slunk quickly off into the brush at the left side of the road where a grocery store of quail and wood rats awaited his leisurely selection.

I filled my jugs and heard crashing in the woods above; deer, from the sound of it. I went a little up the road, set my jugs down to rest, watched, and waited. The crashing began again. A doe appeared, slipped noisily down to the road, and began to eat at the edge, seeming indifferent, but checking things out for her fawn.

Impatient fawn leaps lightly down to road, frisking. His back is to me but doe sees and watches with dark eyes, ears twitching. I am upwind so I know she has my scent, yet she is unafraid. After a moment she leans down for another mouthful and I quietly pick up my jugs to leave these two in peace. They watch but do not start, do not panic. I am blessed.

Four A.M. and a broad-bottomed coon wakes me up, raiding my stores. I shine my light on him and he scuttles off into bushes, soon comes back. I chunk a clod of dirt after him and wait under the wheeling bowl of stars to see if he will return again.

A meteor shoots overhead. We are in the month of major star showers. This one is bright and yellow and goes from east to west.

And suddenly I see the fox, also moving east to west. I hold my breath: he trails stars from his tail as he floats along, soundlessly, no sound I can hear.

He pauses, dances even in his stillness. He calls down Aries the warrior and tames him: no war, only music and fire. He calls down the great star Aldebaran from the constellation of the bull (how well I know the bull), and fire strikes the earth. He laughs with the Pleiades, those shy maidens you can see only if you look from the corner of your eye. Look at them directly and they recede; look at them through binoculars and each shines brighter than Aldebaran, even the shyest.

Fox, little fox, there are no sour grapes or sweet for you here, only light, starlight, stars' dust, clouds of unknowing, but to you they are known. It is we with our names and intuitions who must grope. You flicker down the heavenly spheres bringing the whole population of the universe in your wake: centaur and scorpion, warrior and maiden, hunter and starry game. But there is no plunder of centaurs, no sting of scorpions, no rape of maiden by warrior, no killing of game by hunter.

You carry us, little fox, into this assembly; you help us seek the Maker of the Pleiades and Orion, you carry them to us. We wheel and dance; we plunge into the darkness and are dazzled with the light. We know deep darkness becomes morning and wonder at the stars' greater brightness as first light's sheer and gauzy veil slips over the eastern ridge.

Star fox, little swift, trailing starlight and constellations, forgive our heaviness, forgive our clay feet. Tell our Maker that we too would dance in the darkness and desert, we too would have your lightness and grace. Say, O little one of large eyes and huge ears, that we would see the Face unveiled and hear the whispered Voice. Speak for us: our words are clumsy, our eyes blurred, our hearing dulled.

Speak for us: we are dancers, singers; we trail fire in our hearts as we hurtle through space-time. Your eyes glow in the starlight and you look into our hearts and know; your ears move receptively, you hear our pleas, feel our longing, bear the Seeker in the dark.

But tonight, this moonless night of music and ever-changing, never-changing dance, speak for us, hear for us, dance for us, bring us into the starry company, bring them to us...

* * *

Lightning in the East

Awake from sodden sleep. Drugged with dreams from Bosch that sneak into the bushes as consciousness makes half-hearted return.

The night is getting warm. I went to bed in a flannel nightgown; it and my sleeping bag are soaked with sweat.

My left sinus hurts. Hurts with an ache sharp and dull and full all at once, sure sign of changing pressure.

Change. Something is happening.

I inch out of my damp cocoon and zip open the tent flap.

Twenty-three hundred feet below, muffling the surf, glimmering in the moonless night, is a bed of fog. Silly with sleep I contemplate a swan-dive and bouncing on it.

Then I wake up fast. There is lightning in the east. It dulls the stars when it explodes; they seem brighter when it is gone. I sense rather than hear the rumble of thunder. It comes through the mountain rock that stirs uneasily with pressure that both rises and falls. The water in its heart is summoned by the water from heaven falling in torrents on the valley to the southeast.

The stars seem caught in their motion, motionless. The temperature rises. The fog rises. It is both hotter and colder. Somewhere on this mountain heat and cold will meet; somewhere fire and water.

I am caught and cower. Earth trembles toward dawn as lightning etches ridges in sharp relief. All is hushed in waiting, all exhausted in tension. Little by little the fog creeps up the mountain. Sharper and brighter lightning flashes in the east.

Cry to the mountains, "Fall on us!" and to the hills, "Hide us!" Who can bear this tearing polarity, who can arc between fire and water, rock and bread, tears and wine? Who can stand a heart riven by darkling light; who can endure molten Love coursing through the earth?

A line of fire stretches from heaven to meet fog rising from the sea. What will be released in this elemental meeting? What energy from polarity? What mutation from collision?

I am caught halfway up, halfway down; I am caught between heaven and earth; I am caught by fire that speaks to fire indwelling and water that calls to my tears. I arc to meet the lightning and embrace the mercy of fog to cool my burns.

Star Fox and Red Bull swirl in the Dance; psalm-singers without number charge the silence with music no mortal ear can hear and live. The lines of fog and fire draw closer.

Who are we, O Fiery Name, that you are mindful of us? Who are we that you should make us a meeting place of these contraries torn between earth and heaven? Who are we that through us fire should erupt from creation and cleanse all things, that Beauty should return in her fullness, that star should marry sea and Peace kiss each one upon the lips?

The stars bend low. "Tonight?" I ask, longing through my fear, is it tonight? Star and fire and fog, the weight too much and nothing...nothing...

A little breeze rustles dried husks of wild oats, seed long fallen into the ground to wait for winter rains. Its sighing is my longing; the husks my food until I am consumed, grain planted and ground, leavened and broken. Sunrise dulls the stars; lightning fades; fog recedes. Star Fox and Red Bull sleep until the Feast of Feasts....

And yet...and yet....how is the sorrowing earth not transfigured this night? How is the sowing of fire not sparked, arced through our clay this night, this morning, this darkness and light both alike?

Time is our foolish booth in which we try to trap what has begun and ended and even now is borne in us. We are blind because we see, but it is in the cloud that envelops and leaves us senseless that we know a little Truth, dimly, stupidly, and return home rejoicing, not believing, yet hoping...

Sun burns its way into the morning, burns our staring eyes, burns us into new life of another day. We break bread at sun's zenith, cry, "O Christ come quickly!" Under sun beg for Sun; broken-hearted fed with Bread broken, hearts pierced with light too great to bear, burst asunder with all creation pouring out from each in floodlife, fountains, streams, rivers from stoneheartflesh, molten, living stones...

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Stammering in the Dark

A Stammering in the Dark

[Talk for the Carmelite Community, Langham, Norfolk
Week of Christian Unity, 2003]

I sometimes think all our troubles begin when we forget that religion is only a stammering in the dark. The trouble is, we start listening to the stammering, become fascinated with it, get stuck in its sounds instead of in the silence that surrounds the sounds, and finally insist that my stammering is better than your stammering. This is, more or less, what divides Christians, and Christianity from other religions.

What religion is about is a way further into the dark. There are as many ways as there are people. Some ways are similar, so those people group together. This is the beginning of institutional religion. When two or three are gathered together there immediately is politics, that is, there is a power struggle. Somebody has to be on top, telling those less sure of themselves how they should think and stammer.

Those on top want the spotlight, and soon are so dazzled by it that they lose sight of the dark. They forget about silence and hear only their own stammering. Then the people still out in the dark become convinced that they should be in the spotlight too, and that only the person already in the spotlight knows how to get there.

So the person in the spotlight makes up all sorts of rules and regulations about how to get into a spotlight and everyone becomes so busy comparing themselves with each other and other groups of stammerers that they, too, forget all about the dark and the silence. Then the battle is fought over whose spotlight is bigger and brighter, and whose rules for entry into a spotlight are more competitive and rigidly enforced, and whose stammering is so convincing that the rest of those left out in the dark don't have to bother but just sit around and let someone else do it all for them, and hope that somehow, someday, they will get into the spotlight too.

At the end of this process, those who have for a time been taken in by these crazy goings-on realize what folly it all is. They start creeping back into the dark and the silence, sometimes bumping into one another, giving what comfort they can, and continuing on their way as they are blindly led.

In the meantime, back in the spotlights, no-one realizes that the audience has departed. The combatants are fixated only on their own self-perpetuation. They waste all their energy trying to unplug their opponents' lights in order to add additional voltage to their own. When this process isn't pathetic or tragic, it's often very funny, but these days the humor is a bit thin on the ground.

I've just come back from an errand in Paris. It was my first time to walk around that fabulous and beautiful city, but I have to say that the churches leave something to be desired. I saw enough baroque horrors to turn the stomach of Baron Munschausen.

I went to a concert in the Madeleine. The sound was lost in the reverberation of that cavernous place, not to mention the fact that some idiot had decided to precede the Mozart Requiem, which surely stands on its own, with some of the sappiest religious music ever written.

As the audience turned mutinous, I just sat there and tried to take in the excess—nothing exceeds like excess— the utter camp of the fresco, which looked as though it had been painted by a bath house artist high on something pretty potent; the hideous statues that dwarfed even the gigantic Corinthian columns—well, you get the idea. I couldn't bring myself to go into St. Suplice, and as for the pile of meringue called Sacre-Coeur, legs and time gave way before I could get there, even if I'd had the desire, which I hadn't.

A carved baroque banality spoils the sightline and gothic architecture of Notre Dame in the same way that a similar statue of the Assumption does that of Chartres. In my limited experience, it is the rare French church that is untouched by grandiosity, possibly because so many of them were built or redecorated in service of gamesmanship among seigneurs. Few of the big ones in Paris have an atmosphere of prayer that is strong enough to override the display, though there's many a roadside shrine and tumbling down chapel soaked in it.

It could be argued that I shouldn't be such an aesthetic snob and should accept that what I am objecting to is simply part of the history of these buildings, but the bad taste, wild irrationality and multiplicity are not the point. It was perhaps a past Dean of Canterbury who, years ago, told me that buildings such as these when they were built demanded as much as 70% of the livelihood of every man, woman and child in the population. They claim to be built to the glory of God, but while I might be able to believe that of Chartres and Canterbury—that is, I could believe it if I didn't know their real history—the Madeleine is something else again.

I'm not suggesting we would be better off without Chartres or Canterbury. Far from it. And grace has a way of working through the most corrupt charlatan. This does not, however, make the corruption any less noxious, nor the charlatan any more authentic. And someone else always has to pay the price.

We are now reaping what our forbears have sown in terms of religious institutions—in various denominations, in religious life, in Christian life in general. I don't need to say anything about the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches; we are all too painfully familiar with their dying, a necessary dying, but very, very painful to live through.

In terms of religious life, many Orders are also in trouble: one ancient Order with which I am intimately familiar is, in my opinion, dying of alcoholism, spiritual pride and the repression and neglect of their nuns. Instead of returning to the roots of their original simplicity, they have gone back to the period of their greatest grandiosity and most entrenched Jansenism. This entrenchment in unreality is consistent with their alcoholic syndrome.

"We are the best" (I have actually heard them say this), and they are merciless in holding one another to an inhuman—one might even say heretical—and entirely abstract standard. There are perhaps a handful in the entire Order who live what they were founded to live, and what all of us are called to: beholding in God.

Unfortunately this scenario is repeated across the spectrum of religious communities. It is not always or even frequently alcoholism that is the problem. There may be immaturity in the members, or the desire to always be on the most spectacular 'spiritual' bandwagon currently passing by, or sexual difficulties, or a simple inability to sort out the essential from the insignificant, to figure out why a particular practice which was once useful and is now a stumblingblock. There is the perennial mistake of thinking that going through the motions has value in its own right, that contemplative living is a 'lifestyle' instead of conversion of heart. And there are communities that have lost their way because they are constantly comparing themselves to other communities.

At this time when many communities are staring the possibility of dispersal in the face, it may seem odd to suggest that the communities in biggest trouble are not those with few aspirants. Small but healthy communities have a tendency to worry, to get caught up in the numbers game.

These days aspirants seem to appear in function of well-designed websites. I know a Second Order Dominican house that hadn't had an aspirant in at least a quarter century that is now getting a steady trickle, one or two a year, thanks to a sexy—no, maybe that isn't quite the word—anyway, thanks to an attractive website. Aspirants these days go surfing and do their initial sorting out on the net.

Nor are floods of aspirants a good sign. Communities with this syndrome don't usually announce the departures that commonly take place shortly after profession, when the co-dependent young ladies (or men) finally start growing up, and waking up to the fact that their humanity is being taken from them, and that the seemingly charismatic leader is in reality a petty tyrant, enlarging his or her hegemony at the expense of the members. An instructive book here is Shoes Outside the Door about the San Francisco Zen Center.

From where I sit the communities that simply get on with their lives and listen in the silence and the dark of the present are the ones that are flourishing. They may not feel like they are flourishing, but they are inhabiting what they have professed. These communities and the individuals who make them up, by this simple inhabiting, proclaim their own authenticity. They don't think in terms of 'success' or 'failure', because they realize that these terms are irrelevant. How can humans judge what is of God?

What they see and hear of other communities around them is useful, but at the same time they realize that comparisons are truly odious, and that God has a mysterious vocation for each person and group, if only we will listen, that waiting in the silence is far more important than locking ourselves up in a box of abstract identity constructs composed of our own stereotypes or those of others. As a friend recently remarked, the slogan is wrong: you can't think your way outside the box.

Let me try to make these observations a little more concrete.

The way of unknowing is the heart of the journey into God in every religion, no matter how conflicting their theologies may be. It is not the denial of the intellect but its crowning, a knowing in unknowing that comes into play when the intellect has exhausted its faculties.

Various practices of the Church, such as the Office, were initially designed to enable this path into unknowing. The Office has many purposes. One of them is to give us prayers when prayer is difficult. Unfortunately however, like so many other practices, the Office soon became an end in itself, acquiring nuances that were perilously close to magic. As such the Office can be counter-productive.

Our friends the Carthusians in this regard have got it right, I think: the Little Hours are said in private, and silent prayer may be substituted for each one. But in some communities there seems to be a terror of letting go one jot or tittle of recited prayer, whether it is the Office or add-on devotions.

I am not advocating an 'if it feels good do it' criterion of whether to keep a practice or chuck it. I am saying that when a community is small and overworked, or under great stress, the need for adequate time alone for each of the members becomes even more important than it is under so-called normal circumstances, and women, who in every respect need more space than men, historically have always had less. Silence offers the opportunity to rest in God in every sense. It is sad that it is so often presented as something extraordinary, and even sadder that women's communities are especially prone to the 'keep busy' mentality that has been imposed on them by men.

Trouble is, we have got into the habit of reassuring ourselves that we are 'real' monks or nuns by the fact that we have carried out certain practices. We all know this is rubbish from a theological point of view, but these secret security blankets are reinforced by a surrounding culture where religion has become entertainment, and so-called spirituality has become a lust for 'experiences'. We fail to realize not only how simple silence and unknowing are, but also how radical a demand it makes on us in terms of letting go of our shibboleths. Unknowing is not some sort of metaphysical moonshine between the soul and God in isolation—as if God, who is relationship, could ever be isolated! Rather, this unknowing touches every aspect of our humanity, our solitude and our life together.

We spend a lot of time in religious life asking 'Who am I?' We have been taught to cultivate our spiritual lives like a garden. This is a necessary passage, but ultimately it falls apart. We come to realize that being made in the image of God is precisely that: an image without image. The unknowability of our selves, the other and God is the same unknowability. Everything we seem to have known about our selves is revealed as a delusional construct. I suspect the relinquishing of our ideas about our selves has at least as much to do with the phrase 'loss of self' or 'gift of self' as the service of others or adoration.

The trigger for this insight varies from person to person and from time to time. It's something we may start suspecting early on, and then a life event—for me, the death of the last parent and the final break-up of my family—will bring it into shattering clarity. Whether we are aware of it or not, a parent provides pressure and energy for both impetus and rebellion. No matter how mature we are, the withdrawal of the last of these two sources of energy provokes a crisis.

In the process of this crisis, we may think we have lost our passion, if not our vocations. But maybe it's something else. Maybe it's just that we don't need to inhabit that passion any longer in order to keep ourselves going. Maybe when we realize this we become aware that our vocations have a life of their own, and that after a certain point we are helpless, that we are given over far more than we realized, or maybe even wanted, and that much that we thought essential to our religious lives, the trappings that once helped us feel like 'authentic' religious don't mean anything at all.

This is a highly traumatic passage, but it gives us a glimpse, perhaps, of true apatheia. We learn that it is far more important to the process that is being done in us than our exercise of doing. This movement from action to being was beautifully summed up by Thérèse of Lisieux in her image of the offering of empty hands.

This crisis of passing from action to being is associated with another: the feeling that one has not merely lost but failed or even betrayed one's vocation. I think these are among the sorts of feelings that the counsel of the ancients urges us to ignore. Not deny, but ignore.

Just as the necessary idols we make for God and our religious practice are smashed one by one, so our perception of the vastness of the silence grows imperceptibly. In light of this, we are always going to feel that we fall short. Far from being a negative, such a groundnote of pain can be a welcome touchstone of realism in times of greatest exaltation.

Our capacity for unknowing has to grow and expand into that silence, and though we will be—and indeed already are by our shared nature—'onyd' with God, as Julian says, our capacity for unknowing will never begin to have the capacity to welcome the vastness of infinite Love that embraces us.

My sisters, be of good cheer. The essence of our lives in God has little to do with buildings or numbers or practices or rules. All of these, without exception, can help—but they can also also hinder. Our lives in God have nothing to do with success or failure by any human norm.
Our lives in God, rather, have everything to do with 'seeking into the beholding', in darkness and in silence, yielding all of our lives in responsive unknowing, being willing to be done to, being willing not to claim to know, and not to measure. After all, this is God's work.

We are only stammering in the dark.

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.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Big Oil and Death on Resurrection Bay

Update: 2 February, 2006

At this time when Exxon and Shell are reporting windfall profits, and when the American Chief Executive, an alcoholic who has not been through rehab, and a man whom oil has made (in every sense) is pushing the envelope of hypocrisy by telling the USA that it is 'addicted' to oil, it is salutary to remember not only that we are fast approaching the peak beyond which oil will be in increasingly short supply (calculated to occur between 2006-2010), but also to recall something of the human and environmental cost of oil in terms that have a reality beyond statistics.

I was still in the UK when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and before I left for Alaska I arranged to do a spec article for the Guardian in London. I traveled all over Alaska; the impact was not only statewide, it was worldwide. I believe that the world's horror at the cavalier attitude of Exxon over the spill gave Saddam Hussein the idea to dump oil in the Persian Gulf to create shock waves of his own.

But the main impact of the spill was and remains local. Sixteen years later, Exxon still has not paid its fine. Prince William Sound has not recovered; oil is still oozing on beaches where it was washed ashore and lies several feet under the sand. Wildlife, most particularly salmon runs, have not recovered, and the heroic efforts of the fishermen and women of Cordova to protect their stocks seem to have had limited success.

The spill has left a permanent scar on the psyche of Alaska, as well as on its landscape. Fishing families were torn apart due to the stress and whole villages had to be abandoned. But perhaps it was Exxon's arrogance and the government's foot-dragging at every level that left the most bitter taste in the mouths of all of those who cared about the fouling of some of the most pristine coasts left on earth.

In the end, the Guardian did not publish this article, although my editor fought hard for it. Years later I heard it was regarded as too sensitive to national interest (British Petroleum was the major shareholder in Alyeska at the time). Whether this is true or not I do not know. Eventually the Catholic magazine The Tablet published a bit of it. When the lawsuit against Exxon went to trial, it was considered some of the most embarrassing testimony waiting to be presented—but it was horse traded away at the end.

Readers may wish to know what happened to Patrick and Peter John. Both have gone to their ancestors. Patrick the Inuit song-maker died singing, preceding Peter John, the Athabascan Traditional Chief, who lived to be well over 100 years of age and died in 2004. They did their best to tell us how to live; whether we can take to heart what they and other Elders have told us remains to be seen.

In Alaska we deal with the effects of global warming every day. No part of Alaska is untouched. Juneau's soft mists have turned to torrential rains alternating with weeks of unprecedented heat and drought. The vast majority of glaciers are retreating so fast that it is possible to see the effect from summer to summer. Every year we are setting new weather parameters. In the last two years, Alaska has also set new records for wildfires: 5 million acres burned in 2004, and that figure had already been reached again by August of 2006. The fires were not put out by winter; they smoldered under the snow and broke out again in spring before the fire crews were even trained.

The arrival of each season is unpredictable. Fish runs are disrupted. In Juneau, plants that used to bloom at the end of July or in early August now bloom at the end of June. In Denali, the peak of fall color is delayed by at least 10 days.

Farther north, the permafrost is melting, and warm winters make it even more dangerous than usual for subsistence hunters to find food for their families. The river ice is no longer certain; the sea ice is not trustworthy. (In some areas of Siberia the permafrost has melted and is releasing methane in such quantities that the tundra no longer freezes even temporarily in the winter.)

In the summer of 2005 it was estimated that 235 Alaskan villages would have to be moved due to global warming. The effects of global warming in the North are twice as destructive as they are in the contiguous United States or in Great Britain.

Death on Resurrection Bay


The large plywood bin waited on the quay at Resurrection Bay. On its side were stenciled the words, "DEAD ANIMALS ONLY'.

I was standing beside Kenai Fjords National Park headquarters in Seward, Alaska, in a visionary landscape of mountains draped with glaciers and scarves of mist. The fragility of such grandeur was never more apparent.

The aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident has vanished form the British press, and this is a pity. In Alaska it is still front-page news, for the long-term effects are just beginning to become apparent. There is need for continuing awareness, not simply because British corporations have enormous investments, and therefore enormous responsibilities for the fate of Alaska. According to an international conference on cold-water oil spills held in Fairbanks last July, the toxins dumped in Prince William Sound will eventually affect every ocean in the world.

No part of Alaska is untouched by the spill. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I was able to travel over most of that vast territory, seven times the size of Great Britain, 2.2 times the size of Texas. But Texans and other Americans seem to regard Alaska as a sort of freak appendage to the United States, a cookie jar of resources to be devoured and forgotten.

During the recent crisis, the media have pointed to Alaska's boom or bust history, and its dependence on oil money. What has not been said is that neither the Russians nor the Americans have ever encouraged or helped the diverse peoples of Alaska to build an internal, stable economy in this harsh climate where mere survival, much less economic development, requires commitment, wisdom and fortitude far beyond the norm.

"Haa shuka," the Tlingit people say, "our Ancestors." The wisdom of the past can give us insight for an unknown future. But in this century, several generations have been deprived of their culture and language. Wisdom has been lost, and the spill seems to have driven a wedge of despair into efforts to preserve what little is left. The grim flip side of haa shuka is that the exploitation of the past shadows the future of the entire region.

Today, Native Elders in their 80s and 90s are the last people to have direct contact with the old ways and the wisdom of the land, a wisdom that people everywhere who are addicted to a consumer way of life badly need. One evening at Old Minto, in Alaska's interior, I watched the Athabascan traditional Chief, Peter John, attempt to talk into a tape recorder proffered by his own people.

At 92 he is still a huge man, straight as a spruce. He commands respect among Native and White alike. I saw birds fly about his head, looking for a place to land. But the old ways to not lend themselves to technology.

"There are two ways," he began, pointing each word with silence, "the Indian way and the White way. You must choose. But if you choose the Indian way, you must be prepared to starve...." He broke off, tried haltingly to continue. He shook his head. The taping stopped abruptly.

* * *

A few days later in Point Hope, hundreds of miles to the northwest where the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea converge, I listened to another Elder, an Inuit priest-shaman. This time there was no interfering technology, and in the joy of the moment—that weekend his son was being ordained to follow him—he spoke to us in the old way.

He sat rhythmically nodding his shaggy white head, his nearly blind eyes turned inward, waiting for the vision. He spoke in Inupiat first, then in halting English. He told us of sea ice that had disintegrated under him, and the way he survived in frigid water for nearly an hour—a miracle, a lesson.

He spoke to us as if we were his grandchildren, with respect, because he was communicating matters of life and death. The critical nature of this landscape allows little distinction between a lie and a mistake. If you observe wrongly, if your account is inaccurate, someone may die. Time and space are one in such narrative, and, as we listened, we were carried into its spaciousness, freed from our Occidental notion of time ripped artificially from its context to be devoured like any other commodity.

The ancient song-maker repeated nearly every line in a half-chant. The long pauses between phrases gave us time to listen and remember, communicated to us the deliberation and review vital to survival in a marginal environment. This intent listening, the revisioning of knowledge thousands of years old—the method, he seemed to be telling us, is as important to survival as the story's content.

* * *

The bush plane bounces on the gravel runway at Arctic Village, about seventy-five miles north of the Arctic Circle on the edge of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In spite of the congressional moratorium on oil exploration, the airstrip has been lengthened to handle giant Hercules transports, and Gwich'in people who are not working on spill clean-up or in the canneries are building a lodge.

They build it, knowing that oil exploration will further destroy their heritage and food resources: the fish in the river, the Porcupine caribou herd. There is an air of fatalism: with a president who made his money in Texas oil, what hope do we have?

Gregory Gilbert, the chief's son, takes us two hours north up the east fork of the Chandalar river in his flat-bottomed boat, about 25 miles as the raven flies; double that distance through the ox-bows. He leaves us at Nichenthraw Mountain, the massive, tumbled remains of an exploded volcano that guards the Chandalar's confluence with the Jinjuk.

It is deceptively damp as we clamber out, hoist our packs, and squelch through muskeg and a haze of mosquitoes. The tundra is a fragile desert, something the mining and oil developers wish to ignore. Years ago they promised to leave this area in peace if they could drill the North Slope. Now they are back, biding their time.

We leave them to the mosquitoes as we begin the ascent through willow and spruce on the steep flank of the sprawling peak. Nothing can spoil the magnificence that slowly impresses itself on us. We walk with care and awe, almost apologizing for the damage our clumsy boots inevitably incur. This willow twig I just snapped may have taken fifty years to reach shoulder height; that scraggly spruce may be centuries old. One of us blows a whistle every fifty steps or so to alert bears and moose of our presence, or cries out, as our Native friends have taught us, "It's all right, Grandfather, we're only visiting."

Exhausted, we reach the high shoulder of the mountain at dusk, make camp, and crawl gratefully into our tents, too tired to enjoy the 300 degree view. When my head stops whirling, I realize I have entered a primordial silence, a silence so profound that for a moment I wonder if I have lost my hearing. Here there is no background hum from traffic, electric wires, or microwaves; only the rattle of the rain fly shaken by a vagrant breeze; the quiet "tuk" of ptarmigan that wakes us when full daylight has replaced the eerie, silvery glow of the midnight sun; the whoosh of a gyrfalcon stooping from the heights.

I emerge to gaze over miles of tundra dotted with shallow lakes, home to millions of migratory birds. Far on the southern horizon, tin roofs wink, reminding me that the roar from a Hercules travels a very long way.

* * *

I had just arrived on Kodiak Island in mid-July when Exxon began cutting back its clean-up efforts after "treating" eleven miles of beach. More than a thousand miles of shoreline had been damaged by drifting oil in its various forms.

What people fear most in every place affected by the oil is that the toxins will invade the food chain, poisoning their way upward to kill salmon, deer, eagle, bear. But no one knows what will happen. Salmon fought their way back through the oil to spawn and die this season, but the fate of their eggs is unknown. Oil is so toxic that a third of the clam population in Valdez died from water that was "purified" after cleaning tanker holds and dumped back into the Sound. Yet even today, each tide slips more oil into coves and spawning streams, or draws it to the surface of deeply contaminated beaches.

While I am on Kodiak, the dead bird count reaches 25,000 (as of October it has passed 30,000 and is still rising). Dead whales wash up in unusual numbers, but it is difficult to autopsy such enormous animals, and no one will ever know how many other sea-mammals sank without a trace, or how many land creatures, sick from ingested oil, have hidden themselves in the heavy undergrowth to die.

But the human problems are all too obvious. Filipino immigrants, attracted by work in the canneries, fall through the welfare net. The canneries here laid workers off, while in Southeast they were frantic for labor. Compensation for workers is based on sums earned in previous years, not on the hopes of people who have uprooted their lives to gut fish that will never be caught.

In August, Kodiak mental health facilities report a 700% increase in cases, and elsewhere in Alaska, clinics are looking Outside for additional staff, bracing for winter when outdoors activity is at a minimum, and the lid comes off. What future have battered wives and children in this traditionally macho state?

"EXXON LIES" is the favorite bumper-sticker on Kodiak. Having exercised droit du seigneur on this pristine environment, it continues to act like a feudal lord, trying to keep at bay people wedded to the land and the sea, acting as its own judge and jury. In order to receive compensation, Kodiak set-net fishermen are required by Exxon (demands not made at Cordova just across the Gulf of Alaska) to be on their fishing sites, ready to fish, in a season that will never open.

With one stroke, Exxon compounds the difficulties of people already in shock by removing the possibility of useful work, work that might help grieving and restore self-respect, relieve anxiety and uncertainty. Everywhere people talk of Exxon's attempts to buy them off, meanwhile dividing the community, refusing to take local advice, driving people to the edge. I talk to workers who are given conflicting orders about their assignments every half-hour, and apply for a job with the subcontractor, Veco, to experience the chaos and incompetence firsthand.

* * *

The ferry grinds its way across the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak toward Prince William Sound through a five-foot swell, roughened by three-foot chop. Fine mist is falling, and the wind is cold, but I am glued to the rail. Every little while, amid the heave and lurch of the sea, I spot significant patches of smooth water. More oil headed for Kodiak. Something catches my eye and I look down. In the waves breaking from the ferry's side, far from their coastal habitat, two oiled Old Squaw ducks struggle away from the churning screws, spared for death by cold and starvation.

* * *

"The studies we've done suggest that the bird body count represents less than 4% of what has actually died--and 4% is a high estimate. The entire murre population of the Barren Islands has died, and we're finding more birds all the time."

I am sitting in biologist Bud Rice's office at Kenai Fjords. The facts tumble out angrily. He makes no apology for his emotion, nor does anyone else on this exhausted staff.

"My personal life is a disaster," he anticipates my question. "I was married just before it happened, and we're trying to adjust to a new home. On stress tests I'm off the scale. But a lot of people are just as stressed as I am. Considering that Exxon has been pushing people with disinformation and all, I'm amazed someone hasn't been shot.

"But it isn't just Exxon. Look at the Haul Road," he continued, referring to the restricted road built to service the pipeline. "Reports have just been published indicating that the road's impact on wildlife is far beyond any biologist's worst nightmares. Yet while the spotlight's on the Sound, they're letting Princess Tours and Westours run buses up there. They promised they'd never allow that."

I fill him in on what a Bureau of Land Management official in Fairbanks had told me. An army of volunteers spent the summer scouting every stream in the vicinity of the Haul Road with an eye to opening the area to "cheap recreation". BLM also announced plans for a $2m access for Beaver Creek, currently classified by federal officials as a "wild and scenic" river.

Ann Castellina is Superintendent of Kenai Fjords. She has been outspoken about devastation in the park. She has received threats. Her children have shown the worrying signs children all over Alaska have been exhibiting since the spill. Her dedication and courage have compromised her own health, beginning with the fumes she inhaled as she over flew the listing tanker on Bligh Reef. She forecasts illness among the clean-up workers.

Horror darkens her voice as she talks of sterile environments, of their silent spring. She speaks of nightmares and dreams. "Everything reminds you of it." She mentions Chernobyl, and, like Chernobyl, "There is no closure on this. It's not like a forest fire that helps new growth the following spring. We haven't begun to see the worst of what a cold-water spill can do. Ironically, the tar balls will hit Prudhoe seven months form now. We'll see how they handle it."

Alcohol, environmental and cultural destruction: the addictive process of denial and the illusory sense of control necessary to support that denial are at work everywhere on our globe, and our drug of choice is corporate, consumer and political greed. The analogy with Chernobyl does not stop here. It is now almost self-evident that we do not know safely how to handle and dispose of oil and its by-products any more than we know safely how to handle and dispose of nuclear energy and its by-products. The wreck of the Exxon Valdez is simply one visible example of the erosion of life in all its forms that continues invisibly in our ordinary lives, day by day.

* * *

In the early light of a misty morning, the ferry churned deeper into Prince William Sound. We were in the Knight Island area that was first, and perhaps hardest hit by heavy North Slope crude. For five hours I stayed by the rail. I had tried to prepare myself for the emptiness of these once-rich waters, which two years ago had given me new life in the time after my father's death.

There was nothing: not one salmon jumped, not one bird cried, not one whale sounded. It was utterly still, not the generative silence of the Brooks Range, but the ghastly silence that surrounds a poisoned well.

"It could have been four times worse if Hazelwood had been able to get that ship off the reef," commented Third Mate Tom Hopkins, who has lived in Alaska most of his thirty-odd years. "Its keel was broken, and there were racking stresses on the hull."

Hopkins alternates working for the Alaska Marine Highway with commercial fishing. Marine Highway jobs commonly have long waiting lists, but "there's always a shortage of licensed officers." Hopkins is not sure, after the spill, if he wants to continue to work as Third Mate with responsibility for navigation and safety. The liabilities are now too great.

He apportions blame equally among Exxon, the Coast Guard, Alyeska, and complacent State government. "The Sound is a sneaky place. It looks open, but it isn't. In spite of what the admiral said about a child being able to bring a tanker in here, it's easy to make a mistake, and in the mist it's often confusing.... And alcohol abuse is common a sea, especially among the older generation. I've been on ships where the Duty Officer was unable..... It's better now, but it's amazing we haven't had an accident before."

As he talked, cautiously at first, pain and pent-up emotion began to pour out under strict control. "It's money, greed, power.... Alaska doesn't stand a chance. I'd willingly give back all my Permanent Fund money if we could turn back the clock. I've never considered myself an environmentalist. I even fooled myself into believing the Valdez oil terminal could work safely...."

He worked on the Aurora, a ferry that acted as control centre in the early days of the spill. He describes hideous sights never seen on the Nine O'clock News. The memories burn in his mind: black ooze inches thick, bins full of dying animals, bins full of dead animals, mounds of animals burning on the beaches. He repeats now-familiar stories of chaos, cupidity, blame and deceit. "When I got off the Aurora I holed up for a few days. Nothing seems to heal the pain. My anger gets worse. Maybe time, years... will help the grief."

He looked me full in the face as if to try to open my understanding for what was coming next. "The honour of Third Mates is at stake, and they want to make the guy on the bridge the scapegoat.... Let me try to explain this. Even thirty seconds is enough to get way off on radar, and this ship was going much too fast. Remember the transmission that said, "I'm slowing to 12 knots?" That's way too fast. Anyhow, it's never a straight line anywhere; your course is always affected by wind and currents." He stops to make sure I am with him.

"You know those five minutes that are unaccounted for, when the ship failed to make the turn.... People BS up on the bridge, and there were two guys up there that night. What people generally don't know is that there was another Third Mate involved, a woman. She was licensed. She had been bumped down to Lookout because of Exxon's insane cuts in manning levels on its ships...." for a moment his control broke "...to save what??!!"

"Anyway, she told the bridge that the buoy was in the wrong place. She did her job. She reported twice and then ran back to the bridge. I think maybe they didn't make he turn because of one of those men-women things. I think those guys were hassling her because they didn't want a woman to be right."

* * *

It was a bright, hot day when I flew south over the coastal mountains on the first leg of my journey home. Ordinarily I would have rejoiced in their glory, but there had been too many clear, warm days. Only that morning, Nancy Peel, who works daily on Mendenhall Glacier welcoming tourists, told me that no one could ever remember the snowline so high.

To see exposed glaciers pour in frozen motion down slopes is an awesome sight. To see them unnaturally exposed on mountain summits dotted with turquoise lakes was frightening. The long line of coruscated eyes glared up at the jet spewing hydrocarbons in its wake. It was as if the glaciers were drowning in their own tears. Those eyes follow me, now, whenever I pull another plastic bag out of the box, or drive alone in a car, or I'm tempted by a new electric gadget.

Those eyes insist I re-examine my priorities. They remind me that my country, which uses half the world's oil, uses much of it needlessly, trivially, and encourages other countries to do the same.

What will teach us to listen again, in this environment made critical not by nature but by our own folly? What will keep our despoliation of the world's last wilderness from becoming just one more media event in the soap-opera of earth's calamities, momentarily riveting to a television culture, instantly forgotten?

On my return home I was momentarily heartened by the Green Party conference, but my hope collapsed when the press reported a member's complaint: "Can't we stop using words like consumer, that make people sound like some maw that's eating up the world....?"

But that is exactly what we are doing. And if we do not stop, we shall soon find ourselves the skeleton at the feast.