Annie Dillard's Ambivalent Mysticism

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"These things are not issues; they are mysteries"
-- Annie Dillard

Some Mystical Elements in Dillard's "Holy the Firm"

  • Apophatic theology -- the recognition that God is present in all aspects of the Creation
  • "Stalking" of the Divine -- a continual search to uncover divine activity in nature and humanity
  • Observant Vision -- an active stillness, a close attention to whatever is nearby in order to experience the divine.
  • Practicing the Presence -- a daily attempt to be aware that God is present in daily circumstances
  • Holy the Firm -- the belief that some aspect of the material world "touches" God; therefore, God is both immanent in the world yet transcendent above it.
  • Beautiful Suffering -- the notion that suffering is part of God's "art".  It results in beauty.

Dillard and Theodicy

theodicy: a vindication of God's justice in the face of the existence of evil, suffering, pain, etc.. From the Greek words for ‘God’ and ‘justice.’ It involves attempts to understand how evil and suffering can be consistent with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God.

  • Dillard seeks to make sense of a universe full of apparently meaningless suffering, e.g. the burning of the moth in the candle or the disfigurement of Julie Norwich.
  • She carries on a passionate, if contradictory, relationship with God, one full of both radical faith and radical doubt.
  • She seeks to address God, who is infinite, while still in time with all its limits of understanding.
  • This calls for complete honesty: "I do not understand you, but I love you.  I know you are just, but you appear unjust to me.  It would be false of me to say otherwise.  Yet I also have faith in you."

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The Triptych of "Holy the Firm"

The three parts of the work, along with the introductory section, act as a kind of Hegelian argument:

Thesis: The divine is present in the world.   The mystery is celebrated.
Anithesis: Suffering is present in the world. The mystery tortures.
Synthesis: God uses suffering to make things beautiful.  The mystery is sublime beyond understanding.

Introduction: The Spider, The Moth, & the Prayer for Understanding

  • She recounts the insect carcasses she finds around the spider's web.
  • She describes the death of a golden female moth and its strange burning as a wick.
  • The writer's life is like that of the moth's -- beauty comes from giving your life away; it arises out of suffering.
  • Her purpose: to learn the ways of God admist the mystery of "hard things".
  • She seeks to sort out the relationship of time and eternity, as well as the role that the mystic and the artist play in it.

I. Day One: Apophatic -- Observing the Divine presence in daily life and a sense of createdness.

  • Because "holiness holds forth in time" all aspects of the world have a divinity to them (a "god").  She celebrates the divine presence in the Sound and her cat and rejoices at her sense of being created (by God).
  • She personifies the day as a little god (fairy?), who accompanies her about the mountains.
  • The next god is more child-like and innocent and the following more boy-like and enthusiastic.

II. Day Two: Theodicy -- The joke of the world: God's "tooth"

  • We learn of the terrible plane crash that horribly burns the seven-year-old Julie.
  • She recalls having seen Julie before and what she was like.
  • This begins her meditation and deep doubt about suffering and God.   She wonders if humans are just left to suffer in this world, abandoned by God.
  • She recalls that "love is greater than knowledge," but begins to wonder then if God despises us.
  • She goes further, questioning if Christ's incarnation was powerless and if God perhaps is powerless to care for us.
  • Yet she knows that she must pray, even if she believes that time itself is "bad news" because it is full of suffering.

III. Day Three: Holy the Firm -- Learning to see the wholeness of the world

  • Still, she insists that she wishes to worship God, even if his acts in this world are a mystery.
  • She examines the generation of the late 70's with its loss of innocence and sense of exhaustion, but ends up praising the small church she attends.
  • The church unknowingly plays with the explosiveness of God's presence and power.
  • She still questions why God would allow so much suffering, yet she also stresses that because we are created beings, this world is not our final destination.
  • Her obtaining of the communion wine is an expression of how she needs to learn to love admist this world.
  • This world in its wholeness must be attentively perceived.  We must learn to see the holiness of the creation.
  • God may speak into the text: "You must rest now.  I cannot rest you.  For me there is, I am trying to tell you, no time."
  • She thinks upon the concept of Holy the Firm, reflecting that if it is so, then God's immanence and transcendence are one, as are the sense of subject and object and time and eternity.
  • Ultimately, God is like an artist who must burn his work in order to make it beautiful.
  • Julie can be a kind of nun who is set aside for God, or rather Dillard can -- a nun/artist for God and Julie.

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  1. How would characterize Dillard's spirituality?   What is God like?  What should humans be like?  What is the world like?   What is the relationship between God, world, and humans?
  2. Do you find the notion of Holy the Firm a satisfactory "philosopher's stone"?  Why or why not?
  3. Does suffering really make us beautiful?  Must God use it to that end?
  4. How does Dillard understand the church?  What do you think?
  5. Are you comfortable with Dillard's doubts?  With her willingness to express them?
  6. How would you answer her?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding