A Room Full of Friends: Annie Dillard
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 8, 2021
Annie Dillard, now 76 years old, is an American author, known for her works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as novels and a memoir. She attended Hollins College in Virginia, graduating as an English major. Her best-known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won her the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 29. “By the time I finished the book, I weighed about 98 pounds,” Dillard said. “I never went to bed. I would write all night until the sun was almost coming up.” She admits that she has changed since then…
Needless to say, her next work was a grueling, painful effort—I mean, how do you follow up a Pulitzer? Dillard is a bit hard to pin down—one of the reasons is the variety of topics and genres to be found in her writings—that cover everything from giant water bugs’ frog-eating habits to outrageous practical jokes her mother pulled at beaches and zoos. Dillard considers everyone from burn victims to stunt pilots, wanders everywhere from Virginia creeks to arctic ice floes, from the Galapagos Islands to Puget Sound. She is interested in Chinese writers, Eskimos, and Pittsburgh Presbyterians as well as moths, solar eclipses, and sycamores.
Environmentalists have compared Dillard to Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson. Others have reckoned her a naturalist, a scientist, a poet. Nevertheless, she isn’t one to take herself too seriously. In an interview she commented, “People are always trying to convince themselves that their times are really important. But if you really, truly understood that you are going to die, and how many people there are now and how many people there have ever been, just beads in this never-ending string, how, then, do we live? How can you take yourself seriously?”
She admits, “I am no scientist. I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts. As a thinker I keep discovering that beauty itself is as much a fact as a mystery…In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy.”
God and religion are recurring themes throughout her works and one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes happens to be about church.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
It was Evelyn Underhill who wrote that one of the worst things that happened with the Protestant Reformation was that we took all the poetry out of religion. To this I would add that we are also guilty of trying to remove the mystery. How often do we gather with hardly a nod to the wonder and magnificence and boundlessness of this God we seek to worship?
It is with the wonder and magnificence and ongoing creative nature of God in mind, that we will venture forth this morning reflecting on a few of Dillard’s words, particularly those regarding nature. Most of the quotes we will consider come from Dillard’s work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The plan is this: I will read a quote and then I will ask you to reflect on a certain aspect of it. After a moment of silence, those gathered here in person as well as those joining us via livestream will have an opportunity to share our responses. Now, don’t be shy—this is meant to be an interactive experience.
My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops…. 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. [Reflect on a body of water that holds healing or mystery for you.]
If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies…down aeons of emptiness…the whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. [Reflect on a landscape that takes your breath away.]
Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. [Reflect on a tree that speaks to you.]
I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should…and I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will. [Reflect on a creature and what it has taught you.]
It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. [Reflect on how you have experienced God’s grace in nature.]
The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork — for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl — but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the Creator loves pizzazz. [Your final prompt is to reflect on your image of God as Creator.]
The God we worship and love and seek to obey cannot be contained in a temple, in a church, in a tradition—Presbyterian or otherwise. God is always greater than our imaginings, deeper than our understanding. God is here and there and everywhere creating, transforming, renewing—even in nature—maybe, especially in nature—if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. Job 12:7-10 says it so well:
…ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.
Great is the mystery of our faith. Amen.
*Cover art photo by Karim Sakhibgareev via Unsplash, used by permission