While at the Festival of Faith and Writing last month I bought a stack of books, mostly from the irresistible tables of Eighth Day Books. One of those books is the new collection of essays by Annie Dillard: The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. It's a wonderful collection, gathering together much of her classic work along with some that is less well known.
The last essay in The Abundance is "An Expedition to the Pole," from Teaching a Stone to Talk, an essay collection of which I'm a big fan. In characteristic Dillard fashion she weaves together very different threads. Here in this essay, she is sitting in a church service and takes off in her imagination comparing congregants to polar explorers in pursuit of the "pole of great price." One of the threads she weaves is her observations of that church service complete with all its human fumbles and foibles. Her tone here is not exasperation and judgment but mercy – and challenge.
Here's an example of the mercy:
A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples' dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.
Who can believe it?
Here's an example of the challenge:*
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.
In the Foreword to The Abundance, Geoff Dyer writes about Dillard: "Waking up (coming into consciousness), remaining awake, leading 'a life of concentration,' rather than sleepwading through life, have been her abiding concerns." Yes to all that.
[Photo: taken, again, of art on the campus of Pratt College; this piece, being of rocks, is particularly appropriate for this post that quotes from Teaching A Stone to Talk]
*I was pleased to see our minister included part of this Dillard quote in a recent monthly letter to the congregation.