Wednesday, November 14, 2007

From "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

I have become entranced by Annie Dillard's writing. I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a college student when a friend recommended it. I enjoyed Dillard's style so much that I taught one of her essays in my freshman composition courses several years later.

When Kitty and I were discussing books to choose for the reading group we were starting at Lake Murray and as we prayed over possible titles, Annie Dillard again came to my mind. As the fires burned in San Diego, I reread her book joyfully, enjoying her specificity in detail, her poetic insights, and her metaphysical and mystic streak revealed in her writing. Her writing overflows with Scriptural references as well as quotations from Van Gogh, Thoreau, and many other writers, artists, thinkers, scientists, theologians. Unfortunately, not many of the Logos group liked the book, but at least they learned to appreciate Dillard during and after our discussion.

Here are a few quotes that demonstrate Dillard's gorgeous poeticism, her attention to detail, and her transcendental bent:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. (Three by Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek p. 22)

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. The surface of mystery is not smooth, any more than the planet is smooth; not even a single hydrogen atom is smooth, let alone a pine. Nor does it fit together; not even the chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are a perfect match, for, even after the atom of iron replaces the magnesium, long streamers of disparate atoms trail disjointedly from the rims of the molecules' loops. Freedom cuts both ways. Mystery itself is as fringed and intricate as the shape of the air in time. Forays into mysteries cut bays and fine fiords, but the forested mainland itself is implacable both in its bulk and in its most filigreed fringe of detail. "Every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden," said Pascal flatly, "is not true."

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? This is where the great modern religions are so unthinkably radical: the love of God! For we can see that we are as many as the leaves of trees. But it could be that our faithfulness is a cowering cowardice born of our very smallness, a massive failure of imagination. Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy. If we were to judge nature by common sense or likelihood, we wouldn't believe that the world existed. In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation has been left up to me, I'm sure that I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that. No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe.

The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?
(pp. 141-142)

What do I make of all this texture? What does it mean about the kind of world in which I have been set down? The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek. (p. 137)

The creek is the mediator, benevolent, impartial, subsuming my shabbiest evils and dissolving them, transforming them into live moles, and shiners, and sycamore leaves. It is a place even my faithlessness hasn't offended; it still flashes for me, now and tomorrow, that intricate, innocent face. It waters an unserving world, saturating cells with lodes of light. (p. 102).

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton's prayer, "Give us time!" It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek. You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You'll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day. (p. 103).

The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock -- more than a maple -- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you. (p. 258).

I'm looking forward to reading more of Dillard's works, especially The Writing Life. Her writing dazzles me and inspires me. I'm definitely jealous of her Pulitzer at age 29....

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