Monday, October 29, 2007


We rest uneasily on Alaska’s shores. It isn’t just the light (or lack of it). Perhaps this sense of precariousness has something to do with its geological newness.

Here, the ice retreated only very recently. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Glacier Bay did not exist: it was under a mile of ice. Seven miles from my house, on the way to town, the Mendenhall glacier—what is left of it after the drastic melting of recent years—comes right down to the floor of the valley. We are perilously near the meeting point of three massive tectonic plates at Mt Fairweather, 80 boat miles distant. Catastrophic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis are normal life along the Pacific Ring of Fire.

And there is the weather. The Gulf of Alaska generates weather for much of the northern western hemisphere. Huge storms howl over the coast with complete indifference, sometimes without warning. Many waters meet outside my window, and these, too, generate weather. Sometimes the wind blows north and south simultaneously, incising a sharp line down the middle of Favorite Channel to the marker at the northern end of Portland Island. The prevailing rain wind is southeast, but snowstorms ride the Yukon Express, streaming down from the north.

The sea can only respond: flat, calm, oily, rumpled, frothing, churned by williwaws, roiled by waterspouts, tossed into chop, or piled up into gigantic rollers that churn relentlessly to the beach. How do you measure a wave? from the crest of one to the trough of the next, using whatever is available: ten large ducks or fourteen small ones, half a whale, a buoy that appears and disappears behind the liquid peaks surging past, a small boat smashing through the spray.

Wind: there is a fair-weather winter wind called Taku that blasts off the ice field that runs 1100 miles along the coastal ridges from just north of Vancouver, nearly a thousand miles to the south, to Skagway, a town about 150 miles to the north. The quirks of topography protect my house, but nearby the wind often exceeds hurricane force, with readings of over 100 mph regularly recorded on Sheep Mountain just south of town, eighteen miles to the south. Point Retreat, ten miles to the northwest, is the lee shore of the 100-mile fetch down Lynn Canal from Haines. Winds there at the lighthouse have been clocked at 226 mph.

But then, everything seems extreme in Alaska. It contains two of the highest visible geographical profiles on earth. The big mountain in the Alaska Range, Denali, rises 20,320 ft. from a 2,000 ft. elevation plain, while Mt St Elias, 200 miles north of here, rises 18,008 ft from the sea. By comparison, Everest rises 29,028 feet from a plateau that approaches 9,000 ft. elevation.

Even Alaska’s relationship to the magnetic pole is extreme. In our neighborhood at latitude 58 (by comparison, Oslo, Norway, is latitude 60) there is approximately 30 degrees magnetic deviation from true north. This deviation is continually increasing, the precursor of an expected global magnetic flip; in some areas you cannot trust a magnetic compass at all. If the charts no longer speak of lurking monsters in uncertain waters, they say “magnetic disturbance”. Hope that you will not be navigating one of these areas in fog or a snowstorm. Pray that a storm-from-nowhere will not erupt and smash your boat to fragments. People vanish here; their vessels capsize, they lose their way in the forest or get eaten.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October Night

We are not yet at the solstice, not quite. Just off the beach a few October ducks are floating, early harbingers of the scoters that will raft up in their thousands as they gather to fly south. Harlequins and Barrow’s Goldeneye will winter along this coast, food for eagles during starvation months. For now, the eagles are fat from fish and exhausted from a summer of feeding voracious young. After months of keeping their hulking children in the nest, they have finally brought them into the open to teach them what they can, and send them on their way down the path of the sun.

Ravens have returned from their summer sojourn in the mountains to reclaim the beach from their intra-genus enemies the crows with belling calls and guttural squawks. Their young, like the eagles’, have scattered, and there is little for them to do than sit on a branch, bill and coo, play tricks on the local dogs, or patrol for scraps.

Steller’s sea lions porpoise along the shore feeding on the last of the silver salmon. They gather in every greater numbers at their favorite haul-outs, frolicking, fighting, barking, bellowing. They will remain all winter, impervious to the cold. In March, when the eulachon run, favored shoreline rocks will heave with hundreds of fat brown bodies as they rest from the labor of replenishing their reserves of fat. Then in the waxing light they will disperse for the summer, meeting only at the bell buoys where they jostle for position, sprawling under the clapper until disturbed by the next tour boat, which panics them into the water.

* * *

A few nights ago—or rather mornings, for winter constellations have only begun to climb the sky—at 4 AM there was a break in the seemingly endless procession of rain squalls. By some strange lensing of the atmosphere Orion and his train were magnified to blinding brightness. They seemed to leap from the blackness of infinite space, fiery silver orbs at once suspended and rushing towards earth. A hunter’s moon played hide and seek in the roiling clouds, sending shafts of silver down the tossing sea.

Clear nights in autumn are rare for us, but when they do appear they often bring a stillness so complete that even faint stars make paths on the mirroring water; the moon suffuses fog banks with eerie luminosity.

The darkest hours draw me downstairs and outside onto the deck to soak in the silvery light. The undulating water gives birth to tides that creep soundlessly up and down the beach, bringing strange gifts, or reclaiming their own. Tonight I watch the rising water drown a scrap-wood fire in slow motion. A tug rumbles down Favorite Channel, its thrumming diesels somehow magnifying the silence. Wisps of cloud intersperse the stars, and in the last half hour it has become sharply colder.

The spread silk before me is shadowed with reflections of low hills and newly dusted peaks rising in the west. Somewhere to the south a whale breathes slowly and deeply. Fog blown from its valley by the glacier's perpetual cold breath trails white scarves out of Fritz Cove; her filmy progress will, by morning, obliterate everything in white.

Light: the light graph is very steep. As the earth leans hard on its axis we lose an hour of light every twelve days. As the gloom seeps over the brooding, mist-scarved mountains, it is hard to imagine that the light’s dying will ever be reversed, that it will return as rapidly as it is disappearing. The pounding rain soaks the earth and its inhabitants with insidious messages of doom, decay, despair: perhaps the earth will tilt too far....

You have to love rain to live here, and the dark.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

October Light

Light, light, north light....grey over the grey fjord, seas tumbling southward down Stephen’s Passage driven by the north wind of late autumn. Behind the boiling clouds the sun hastens towards the southern pole, each morning rising a little further to the south, each evening setting a little lower above the mountains of Admiralty Island, narrowing its arc, shortening our days. But still there is light, north light, transfixing those who dare to live in its consuming embrace, light of the visible spectrum and the invisible.

Clear light refracting through ice crystals layered too thinly to be seen as cloud; horizontal golden light pouring over the land when for a moment the sun finds a short-lived patch of blue. Fat rainbows arc the valleys, while snow showers plunge the peaks into whiteout, flakes whirling from every direction
Light: set against charcoal clouds, angled white light projecting through an unseen prism, touching the everything with fire as if lit from within: tree, wave, seaweed clump, boat, corner, roofline, fish, bear, each silver-tipped grizzly hair sharply defined and washed with light. And the colors—such colors!—as are never seen in their full reality except in this stupefying northern light.

North-light ever-changing in its otherness, yet always familiar, wild light that sears the heart; infinite light of ice and sea; light white and glistering against the black clouds piling in from the outer coast; the ephemera of fata morgana, floating ghost islands and flying Dutchmen; flat golden light casting long blue shadows across the snowfields, many times the length of the peaks that create them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Foreword to Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity

[available from Seabury Books, September, 2007]

The reappearance of Maggie Ross’ Pillars of Flame after twenty years could not be timelier. As I was reading it, I was frequently pulled up short -- it was as though I had spied my image in a mirror and did not like what I saw. By rights I should equally as frequently have ended up on my knees; far too often the model of power I have followed in my priesthood was certainly not that held up by Ross. For Ross the power of priesthood is self-emptying, kenotic. I have come to see how even in close personal relationships, I have often engaged in power plays, seeking to browbeat the other into a kind of submission,that was a far cry from the kind of healthy and mature relationships that ought to exist between equals. Thus I have come to understand a little better the Apostle’s exhortation that as believers we should not conform to the standards and ways of the world, but that our minds should be renewed and transformed to emulate the mind that was in Christ, who emptied himself, who did not throw his weight around or pull rank in order to get his way.

The ways of the world have infected God’s church and left us in a desperate plight. It is precisely because we have conformed to the world’s standards and ways of operating that we Anglicans are in such parlous state in our worldwide Communion. To observe the power games that have been played over the whole question of human sexuality is unedifying in the extreme.

No one in their right mind has ever imagined that we Anglicans would enjoy unanimity on every topic. It is doubtful whether at any period in church history there ever was such an idyllic state of affairs.. What has become particularly distressing, however, is how adept we have become in following the ways of the world. Where we should have been concerned to ensure that there was as much latitude to differ as possible, whilst accepting the bona fides of all and seeking to maintain our communion with one another, we have been far too quick to say, ”You are either for us or against us.” Our Anglican Communion used to boast of a distinctive attribute – namely, a comprehensiveness which appeared to accommodate even apparently incompatible positions. There was an eagerness to be as inclusive as possible. Today there seems to be the opposite – an eagerness to excommunicate one another, or to accepting other only on conditions they would find reprehensible.

We really could teach politicians a thing or two. Some of our church leaders are engaging in considerable self aggrandizement and the building of power blocs among people and institutions that barely tolerate one another. God must weep to see us strutting on our particular stages, seemingly obsessed with this matter of human sexuality when the world God loved so much is groaning under the burden of demeaning poverty, devastating disease, widespread corruption and conflict. We appear to be unable to say to one another, ‘I disagree with you, but accept you as my sister/brother in our one family.’ What hope of credibility for our message of healing for the world? “Physician, heal thyself!” is the cynical retort we deserve.

What is distinctive about our Christian concept of leadership? In Pillars of Flame Maggie Ross argues cogently and persuasively that we should provide the world with the paradigm of the self-emptying leadership of Christ – not self-serving, not self aggrandizing, but poured out in selfless service of others. Some of the leaders the world reveres seem to have lived out this understanding of what it means to be a true leader – figures such as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela. They have all in some way suffered in their service of others, thus proving that they took part in these endeavours only for the sake of others and not for what they could get out of it. May our church hear this heartfelt plea from Maggie Ross that its leadership be self-sacrificing, kenotic, and Christ-like.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

VIII Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

Presence and Absence

If we hold together these notions of the play of différance and Otherness, of presence and absence, we notice that there is something quite paradoxical in presence itself, that implicit in presence is absence. In the centuries before the middle of the last one, before the advent of telephone and telegraph, the fax machine and the camera, before travel became a commonplace, presence was a matter for profound celebration and thanksgiving.

In a society where there is high infant mortality, the joy of life is always attended by the shadow of death. In the ancient world, the arrival of a friend through all the perils of travel, the chances of accident, pestilence or brigandage was a cause of intense joy, yet shadowed by the knowledge that implicit in this physical presence was the possibility of never again laying eyes on the beloved.

Who can forget Paulinus’ efforts to reassure Ausonius of presence in absence? The translation is Waddell’s:

I, through all chances that are given to mortals,
and through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea though a world shall sunder me and thee,

Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.

Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do to-day.

Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.

Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be.
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.

So too the Anglo-Saxons never celebrated hearth and mead-hall, nor song, nor treasure-giving lord without recalling the fire that would one day consume, without a reminder of the transience of things that can be destroyed by storm or raiders, or the vagaries of fate that may lead to exile:

"Oft when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man, it seems to him in his imagination that he is embracing and kissing his lord and laying hands and head on his knee, just as at times previously in days of old he enjoyed the gift-throne. Then the friendless man awakes again and sees before him tawny waves, sea-birds bathing, spreading their wings, rime falling and snow, mingled with hail....

"A prudent man must recognize how appalling it will be when all the wealth in this world stands waste—as even now randomly throughout this middle-earth walls are standing, wind-blown, rime-covered, the ramparts storm-beaten. The wine-halls are crumbling, the rulers are lying dead, deprived of pleasure, the whole proud company has fallen near the wall; some war snatched away and carried off along the onward road; one a bird bore away over the deep ocean; one the grey wolf dismembered in death; one a sad-faced man buried in a grave in the earth." (from ‘The Wanderer’)

Then as now, for all of our technology, there is no way to guarantee presence. Although our perception of it is muted, presence till holds absence in its embrace; to try to guarantee this presence, however is only to guarantee its absence. But engagement with Otherness transmutes all of this: in Otherness is absence that guarantees presence:

". . . the mercy seat in the temple at Jerusalem was a vacant space between the cherubim in the holy of holies, the ‘great speaking absence’ that signified both Israel’s repudiation of earthly representations of the deity and the imageless space into which they sought to come by prayer and devotion. In the New Testament, the empty tomb is similarly eloquent in its absence of presence [and the cherubim surrounding this empty space wear the masks of tragedy and comedy]. The angel’s question in St. Luke, ‘Why seek you the living with the dead?’ signals the necessity of passover into a new perception of the living Christ and a putting away of the old certainties. Christ’s injunction to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ reinforces the sense of his transfiguration beyond the realm of earthly signification." (V. Gillespie and M. Ross, ‘The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich’ in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. M. Glasscoe, Cambridge: D. Brewer, 1992).


In speaking of sexuality, Otherness, and the truth of the self, I hope I have not given the impression that I a in any way idealizing either human nature or the situation in which we find ourselves. Rather, I am simply trying to suggest that there may be more creative possibilities to effect hope and a way forward by modeling the human condition in a different way, by using different language, and by relinquishing our presumption in regard to how much we mistakenly assume we know about sexuality.

I began by speaking about the joyous folly of living as if, which has a way of effecting hope, and the thrust of this lecture has been to remind us of the urgent necessity to shake free from the strangulating loop of comparison and stereotype, and of the importance of dialogue with différance and otherness in every aspect of our lives. For it is the Otherness that lies at the heart of everything that exists that is the source of life, and effects and receives its transfiguration. It is Otherness that makes the gift to us of the truth of the human person and is the deepest source of our commonality and communion. It is clear, then, that living as if demands that we remain steadfast in our refusal to yield to the temptation of short-term gratification by concretizing Otherness in a time-bound utopian social programme that demands to be imposed step by ruthless step.

Part of the dialogue with Otherness is willingness to live on the liminality of différance, the mutability from which the future that holds more than we can ask or imagine may unfold. If we eliminate différance and return to a life and identity that loop around transitional objects that we have turned into fetishes, then we are once again subject to tyranny.

God is able to give us more than we can ask or imagine, whether the truth of our selves or a transfigured civic order, only when we are willing to relinquish our self-consciousness and engage otherness. Only when we are able to commit our selves to the security of Otherness that enables us to live in insecurity, to its jouissance, are we able to hold on to our ineffable vision and its play, while at the same time respecting the Otherness of a frightened and immature culture that continues to be tyrannized by its fetishes, a culture that continues to persecute those who do not fit into the rigidity of its stereotypes.
The task is difficult but it is not impossible, and in the Otherness revealed between the two halves of the fractured Host we glimpse the eucharistic nature of Otherness, the brokenness we enter to find our healing. And we have also the example of those who have survived the utmost degradation that human beings can inflict on one another.

Thus, without claiming any particular moral high ground for our selves or for anyone in the human community, I would like to give a group of women the last word, who provide us with an unsurpassed example of how the vision of living as if, and the boundless compassion that springs from the sure boundaries of the truth of the self, may be effected. This is a prayer from Ravensbrück concentration camp, where 92,000 women and children died, a prayer that was found by the body of a dead child:

"O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; [rather,] remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruit which we have borne be their forgiveness." (from The Oxford Book of Prayers)