"These things are not
issues; they are mysteries"
-- Annie Dillard
Some Mystical Elements in Dillard's "Holy the
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- 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."
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
- 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
- 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
- We learn of the terrible plane crash that horribly burns the
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- Do you find the notion of Holy the Firm a satisfactory "philosopher's
stone"? Why or why not?
- Does suffering really make us beautiful? Must God use it to
- How does Dillard understand the church? What do you think?
- Are you comfortable with Dillard's doubts? With her willingness
to express them?
- How would you answer her?