The Church of Annie Dillard

The Church of Annie Dillard

It’s been awhile since I’ve given you a good book recommendation. In Episode 32 Charlie and I discuss spirituality so I thought it would fitting to share a book by a woman who is probably my favorite writer of all time. Although I am not as big a fan of her fiction, her essays capture the mundane miracles of life in a way that almost perfectly overlaps with what moments of the divine that I have experienced. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is perhaps her most famous book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The book has been compared to Walden and it shares many of the same themes of solitude, writing, nature and god. Dillard writes about all of these themes using a tapestry of words, somehow managing to be poetic, elaborate, unexpected and plainspoken at the same time.

“Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

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.”

It is mind-bogglingly beautiful writing to me but I admit it can take a long time to read. Because there was no plot to pull me back in and because I was constantly re-reading passages in order to fully understand or appreciate them it took me the better part of a year to read.

For an easier and more explicit read I recommend her 1999 book For the Time Being. Like Pilgrim, this book deals with nature, death, god, and countless other seemingly trivial subjects. She winds together thoughts on clouds, birth defects, China, sand, and Hasidic theology and some how comes out on the other end making it perfectly clear how they all go together. She can be philosophical:

“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”

And she can be funny:

“There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China.
To get a feel for what that means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000.
See? Nothing to it.”

My thoughts and feelings about god and spirituality have changed a lot over the course of my life, especially in the last 10 years, but Annie Dillard’s writing is still something that rings true to me. She probably better expresses a theology that I can embrace than any of the holy books or tracts ever written. A religion without dogma or even certainty. A religion that teaches an exuberant love of life even while staring death straight in the eye. That’s my kind of religion.

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