Annie Dillard’s HOLY THE FIRM remains, along with Anne Sexton’s THE AWFUL ROWING TOWARD GOD, one of my indispensable spiritual touchstones. Ms. Dillard, writing in the wake of a plane crash in which a seven-year-old girl was severely burned, meditates not on the existence of God but on God’s relationship to the world (and vice-versa):
Faith would be that God moved and moves once and for all and “down,” so to speak, like a diver, like a man who eternally gathers himself for a dive and eternally is diving, and eternally splitting the spread of the water, and eternally drowned.
Faith would be, in short, that God has any willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us. For I know it as given that God is all good. And I take it also as given that whatever he touches has meaning, if only in his mysterious terms, the which I readily grant. The question is, then, whether God touches anything. Is anything firm, or is time on the loose? Did Christ descend once and for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide, or ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home? Is there—even if Christ holds the tip of things fast and stretches eternity clear to the dim souls of men—is there no link at the base of things, some kernel or air deep in the matrix of matter from which universe furls like a ribbon twined into time?
Has God a hand in this? Then it is a good hand. But has he a hand at all? Or is he a holy fire burning self-contained for power’s sake alone? Then he knows himself blissfully as flame unconsuming, as all brilliance and beauty and power, and the rest of us can go hang. Then the accidental universe spins mute, obedient only to its own gross terms, meaningless, out of mind, and alone. The universe is neither contingent upon nor participant in the holy, in being itself, the real, the power play of fire. The universe is illusion merely, not one speck of it real, and we are not only its victims, falling always into or smashed by a planet slung by its sun—but also its captives, bound by the mineral-made ropes of our senses.
But how do we know—how could we know—that the real is there? By what freak chance does the skin of illusion ever split, and reveal to us the real, which seems to know us by name, and by what freak chance and why did the capacity to prehend it evolve?
I am at the window, chewing the bones in my wrist…
Who will teach us to pray? The god of today is a glacier. We live in his shifting crevasses, unheard. The god of today is delinquent, a punk with a pittance of power in a match. It is late, a late time to be living...Everything I see—the water, the log-wrecked beach, the farm on the hill, the bluff, the white church in the trees—looks overly distinct and shining…it all looks staged. It all looks brittle and unreal, a skin of colors painted on glass, which if you prodded it with a finger would powder and fall. A blank sky, perfectly blended with all other sky, has sealed over the crack in the world where the plane fell, and the air has hushed the matter up.
If days are gods, then gods are dead, and artists pyrotechnic fools. Time is a hurdy-gurdy, a lampoon, and death’s a bawd. We’re beheaded by the nick of time. We’re logrolling on a falling world, on time released from meaning and rolling loose, like one of Atalanta’s golden apples, a bauble flung and forgotten, lapsed, and the gods on the lam.
Theodicy—the justification of God’s ways in a world of pain and suffering—does not get any better than HOLY THE FIRM.
More from HOLY THE FIRM:
We had a wretched singer once [in our church], a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation, I believe, would be genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
Personal note: I have watched a number of videos of live performances by contemporary Christian singers like Kari Jobe and Kim Walker-Smith (Jesus Culture). The performances are utterly extraordinary and sometimes astonishing, passionate and erotic in the fullest sense of those words; and I find myself thinking as I watch that I would not be one bit surprised if the singers, the audience, and the concert halls themselves either levitate or burst spontaneously into flames. Whether there is a God on the receiving end of our religious fervor I do not know, but I do know it is unwise to underestimate the power of the religious impulse itself--for better, of course, and for worse.