Holy the Firm
To immanence, to the heart, Christ is redundant and all things are one. To eminence, to the mind, Christ touches only the top, skims off only the top, as it were, the souls of men.
-Annie Dillard, Holy The Firm, (Harper & Row: New York, 1977), 80.
Is it possible to live in this tension? Can humans achieve the “peace that passes understanding” (John 14:27, Phil 4:6-7) in a world that appears increasingly chaotic and distant from God? With her wonderful novella, Holy The Firm, Annie Dillard engages theologians like Pseudo-Dionysius and Julian of Norwich to share compelling insights about the soul and embodiment. What she accomplishes that is distinctive, however, lies in her astounding envisioning of the material world through poetic language. Her writing draws earthly things up to God using imagery of sacramental sacrifice. Dillard makes the material eminently real by wrestling with the notion that God “abandoned us, slashing creation loose at its base from any roots in the real” (45-46).
The plot of Holy the Firm centers on the horrific disfigurement of a young girl named Julie Norwich. The accidental plane crash that caused Julie’s misfortune incites Dillard to question the effectiveness (and existence) of God’s plan for the universe. If Jesus Christ became incarnate, was crucified, and rose again to actively redeem creation, why do we still need “blind men stumbling about [Jn 9:1-12], and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can—and will—do?” (61). Does such continued, real suffering in fact prove that God actually “despises everything” (45)? Tracing recurring poetic imagery through the novella’s three chapters, we find a symbolic journey of faith that parallels Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The reality of this salvific narrative is at the same time “arcing,” “burnt,” and “dazzling.”
Dillard’s method of paying conscious attention to the details of her environment emerges early in chapter one. Reflecting on the contents of her bathroom, she speaks of how a spider “works miraculously, to keep her[self] alive and me amazed” (13). The spider is beautiful not only because of her work, but because of her unexpected presence in a seemingly sterile environment. Dillard remarks: “The web itself is in a corner behind the toilet . . . in a place where there is, I would have thought, little traffic. Yet under the web are sixteen or so corpses she has tossed to the floor” (13). These corpses are a reminder that the spider must kill in order to survive. This violence is not unnatural; there is beauty in nature’s work. The empty skins “lie on their sides, translucent and ragged” next to the hollow corpses of earwigs and moths (14). Why does Dillard spend so much time describing these cast-off shells? Why does she drop to her knees to examine the corpses of earwigs?
The carcasses in the corner remind Dillard of a riveting incident at a campfire. Traveling alone in the Blue Ridge mountains, Dillard stops every night to read. She describes how one night “a moth flew into my candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held” (16). Paradoxically, the death of the moth causes the “creation out of the darkness” of something new—the “sudden blue sleeves” of Dillard’s sweater are illuminated by a burst of light:
This moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick … She burned for two hours without changing … only glowing within … like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light. (17)
Dillard’s memory of this moth’s death inspires her to see the beauty of the corner spider’s show. While the average person might react to the macabre scene by sweeping it all away—retrieving bleach to purge the area—Dillard has learned to appreciate the mystery of the spider’s hunt. The fresh corpse of an earwig “shines darkly and gleams,” while headless moths “stagger against one another … in a confusion of arcing strips of chitin like a jumble of buttresses for cathedral domes” (13). Dillard compares the work of nature to the work of humanity—both generate artifacts that praise God. Cathedrals make use of arching supports that lift up the building in reverence of a higher presence. In the same way, the earwigs and moths sacrifice their lives so the spider can live to weave webs as offerings to the beauty of God. By illuminating the hidden significance of what appears to be dead matter, Dillard challenges the reader to rethink assumptions about the processes of decay that accompany embodied life. She elicits a sense of awe at the deep connection between temporary material bodies and the Creator’s purpose—the mystery of how flames from a dead moth can illuminate an entire campsite.
Into this dynamic yet relatively stable atmosphere, into this world of new life emanating from all things, “into this world falls a plane” (35). Chapter two’s opening words fire a salvo that initiates the novella’s rising action. Entitled “God’s Tooth,” this chapter is a wrenching meditation on the implications of the truth discovered in chapter one: something has to die in order for other things to live. The “something” that must die in this chapter is the beautiful face of young Julie Norwich. Her visage is brutally disfigured in a plane accident. How could this event—whether chanced or destined—positively influence another life, or the world in general? Could there be a purpose behind Julie’s suffering?
These, and other questions, cause Dillard to confront her observations about the arcing, incarnational nature of life as it emerges from death. The plane “fluttered in a tiny arc, and struggled down” (35; note the moth like imagery). This passage may signify the triviality of human attempts to communicate with the transcendent—our failure to draw out meaning from the chaotic material world. The crash spurs Dillard to ponder an ultimate philosophical question: does a logos exist for creation? She does so by remembering Julie’s innocence, exploring the consequences of her “death,” and by “groaning” under the weight of suffering that permeates both (Rom 8:22). “If days are gods,” Dillard exclaims near the end of this chapter, “then gods are dead” (50).
Is earthly life only intelligible on a surface level? Is the outer shell of the flaming moth merely a husk, a deceptive signifier that points to nothing real? What if the material universe is like Julie’s plane: sent “fluttering in a tiny arc” by God, then crushed down to damnation by the tyranny of time? Are we “released from meaning and rolling loose, like one of Atalanta’s golden apples, a bauble flung and forgotten?” (50). Turning her attention to a single memory of Julie, Dillard recalls how the girl forced a cat named Small into a long black dress. This image is then compared to a nun’s habit—a detail that contributes to the portrayal of Julie as “God’s chaste bride” in chapter three (74). But it also harkens back to chapter one, in which Small is depicted exerting violence toward a “gasping and perfect” creature. Just as the capricious cat nearly destroyed something beautiful (giving Dillard an “evil look” when Dillard makes her drop it), so the universe seems to have cruelly spit out Julie with no concern for her fate, “as though we the people were playing house” (43).
The tragedy of little Julie Norwich finds its parallel wherever the experience of love is present. Loving something as temporary and changeable as an embodied human being is risky. For love is a vaulting act, an act that
arcs to the realm of spirit bare. And you get caught holding one end of a love … you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, to a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting (44).
Memories of Julie at play with Small haunt Dillard into questioning whether the immaterial core of love “has any roots in the real” (45-46). How can the playful, childish essence of Julie be reconciled with the disfigured personage lying a hospital bed, “drugs dissolving into the sheets?” (41). Accepting the unavoidable consequences of the accident, Dillard watches with horror as the “dazzling day” of chapter one twists into the dark and barren night of chapter two. Groaning under the weight of shared human suffering, Dillard cries out to the “one God” who seems “a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged” (46). Unlike the campfire moth in the flame, any redemptive results of Julie’s immolation are not apparent. A “gob of flung ignited vapor, or something flaming from the plane or fir tree hit her face,” rendering her once-childish smile, eyes, complexion—completely unintelligible” (43). Such a disaster seems impossibly bereft of purpose; a brutality without the promise of beatitude.
It is shocking, then, that chapter three opens with these words, “I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand” (55). The calm and obedient tone of this passage reflects a disturbed heart turning to God in humility, not a reckless soul torn to pieces or fueled to rage by grief. Why has Dillard experienced such a sudden change of attitude at the dawning of the third day? The answer is, once again, suggested by the form of the book itself. Through a detailed analysis of the imagery found in chapter three, we discover that the developing themes of chapters one and two are just that—developing. In fact, the first two chapters can be seen as a microcosm of the third, and only make full sense in its light. Thus, the three sections are inseparable: the third is the apex or culmination of the narration, but it could not exist without the first and the second. For in chapter three are planted both the vaulting optimism of chapter one and the disturbing pessimism of chapter two. The mature harvest of both yields “a good measure, pressed down, and shaken together” through the power of prayer (Lk 6:37-38).
This conclusive note about the scope of chapter three is by no means meant to mitigate the overwhelming arbitrariness that Dillard continually senses in the material world. The question, proposed in chapter two, of whether Christ descended “once for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide” (47-48) remains just as relevant in chapter three. What changes, however, is the introduction of an answer in the form of a metaphysical key. This key is called “Holy the Firm,” a view of reality in which
the world creates itself, by the gradual positing of, and belief in, a series of bright ideas. Time and space are in touch with Absolute at base . . . Matter and spirit are ‘of a piece’ but distinguishable; God has a stake guaranteed in all the world (70-71).
Such a view is only possible if Christ did not “ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home” (47-48). God is radically present not just in heaven but in the Ground of all created things, in “the Firm” itself. The implications of such an ontology are many, and run deeply throughout Dillard’s novella; but the most important is directly related to the primary plot point of Julie’s suffering. “Holy the Firm” is a schema of reality that preserves the worth of both the material “Absolute at base” and the immaterial “bright ideas” that animate existence. The true significance of this system becomes apparent if we return to the image of the burning moth body broached in chapter one. Although the moth provides beautiful and unprecedented light in the moment of its destruction, this temporary blaze cannot alter the facts of what must occur next:
The light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackling like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone (16).
This poignant language might partially transmit the deep sorrow Dillard sees inherent in the human condition. If readers find the tone of this excerpt to be gut-wrenching, then how much more must we understand that Dillard deems the suffering of poor Julie Norwich an incomparable travesty? Nevertheless, it is critical to note that the quotation above is addressed toward a creature that most would deem insignificant. For “when the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination” (72). Perhaps Dillard is using the violent moth imagery to suggest a subtle truth. Perhaps Holy the Firm was written to speak out against a “selective” care for God’s creation in which “lower” things are freely disdained and misused. If Julie’s parents ceased to love her because her body was disfigured, what further pain, agony, and destruction would certainly result? In the same way, the universe becomes a junkyard of randomly colliding objects if one does not believe that God imbues physical things with some inner purpose.
We have reached the heart of life’s mystery, and we have begun to grasp the tense balance between material and immaterial (or “eminence” and “immanence”). Little Julie has been “salted with fire” (73). Such an occurrence remains as arbitrary as the fact that Dillard did not need another candle wick to illuminate her reading on that night in the Blue Ridge mountains. Yet the purpose of the steady and unchanging moth-wick is not pragmatic. In the same way, a person’s life may undergo painful change in accordance with God’s will. The suffering of Christ teaches us that the road to spiritual purification cannot be wide and comfortable. Only when the moth gives up her struggle to flutter about, and abandons the desire to simply circle the fire of divine love without dipping in, does she become most beautiful in the eyes of her beholder. So it is with our lives in God’s eyes—only when we willingly “take up our cross” (Lk 9:23-27) are the twin activities of our will and God’s will united. Like the glowing body of the moth, we are enabled to participate in Something much greater than ourselves.
Dillard’s novella teaches that we “are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all” (62). It also offers newfound reason to live in anticipation of the moment “when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated,” when “the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time” and “it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will … it’s time to break our necks for home” (62). This logos for living is why Dillard can say to Julie:
You might as well be a nun. You might as well be God’s chaste bride, chased by plunderers to the high caves of solitude, to the hearthless rooms empty of voices, and of warm limbs hooking your heart to the world. Look how he loves you! (74).
While God’s “gut reaction” to our sin would rightly be to purge everything, to burn the world and start all over again, we can take comfort in the promise that even in the midst of disaster, the world remains intelligible—in a mysterious and wonderful way. Christ, who lived the perfect human life, still condescends to us, still “meets us in our humblest needs” of suffering. This solicitude would not be genuine, and would not be as deeply comforting, if God were to spare us completely from the “hurdy-gurdy” of our embodied times (50). Just as the novella’s third chapter is incomplete without the framing provided by chapters one and two, so any conception of heaven must be mediated by the things and events of this world—all under God’s guidance through the “Absolute Base” of “Holy the Firm.”
With masterful use of form and imagery Dillard inspires us to cry out, “Teach me thy ways, O Lord!” (19). Holy the Firm teaches us, through its piercing language, that suffering is real and that time is redeemed through the same suffering. Dillard draws us in to ponder how, at an evening party, the flames from candles “move light over everyone’s skin, drawing light to the surface of the faces of friends.” Yet after everyone leaves Dillard’s home, she never blows the candles out, but falls asleep allowing them to “flame and burn.” In the same way, let us support Holy the Firm, and graciously allow its words to illuminate the conversation of history by passing it down to our children. For, like the unchanging, flaming wick created by the “dead” form of the moth, Dillard’s book can throw much light on the human condition. May our lives be “a wick,” our heads “on fire with prayer,” our bodies and souls “held utterly . . . in the world like the moth in wax” (76).