Annie Dillard and the Fire of God

by Bruce A. Ronda

Dr. Ronda is associate professor of American studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 18, 1983 pp. 483-486. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In her interfusion of suffering throughout Dillard’s contemplative writing, we find a paradigm of the mystic life in our time. Annie Dillard’s work proposes that suffering is a chief characteristic of the contemporary mystic way. Her connection between knowing deeply and suffering deeply makes her a mystic for our time.

One day, recalls the contemporary American writer Annie Dillard, a small, single-engine plane crashed on her island home in Puget Sound:

It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed into the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded, and Julie Norwich, seven years old, burnt off her face. . . . It is November 19 and no wind and no hope of heaven and no wish for heaven, since the meanest of people show more mercy than hounding and terrorist gods (Holy the Firm [Harper & Row, 1977]. p. 32).

Beauty and cruelty, intimacy and horror, extravagance and waste, are recurring themes in Annie Dillard’s prose. In her solitary retreats in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains and in Washington state, she experiences intense mystic moments, moments of new seeing, of profound oneness with the sources of life. But for Dillard these moments of deep connectedness are always accompanied by suffering, loss, despair, doubt, anxiety. God’s absence and God’s presence are felt simultaneously. In this interfusion of suffering throughout Dillard’s contemplative writing, we find a paradigm of the mystic life in our time. Annie Dillard’s work proposes that suffering is a chief characteristic of the contemporary mystic way.

Dillard’s first two prose works, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper & Row, 1974) and Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977), are reflections on the natural environment and on the qualities of human life engendered by living close to and listening to the natural order. Her similarities to Thoreau are considerable, and she acknowledges that she wishes to keep what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind." Like Thoreau, Dillard teeters creatively between careful and loving observation of the material world and reflections on her engagement with that world.

Dillard pursues two themes in Pilgrim, the theme of sight and awareness and the theme of extravagance, violence and cruelty in nature. The two are, of course, linked. To see the awesome profligacy all around us is to experience the suffering caused by the disjunction between natural beauty and natural malevolence. Even more, confronting nature’s mindless death wish evokes pain as Dillard reflects on the problematic place of humanity in such a world.

"It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open," she writes early in Pilgrim. A teeming living world is all around, but most miss it completely. What does a horse really look like? How do field mice sever blades of grass? How does a muskrat behave in its pond after dark? This intense Thoreauvian desire to see what is really there is accompanied by a growing awareness that human seeing is inevitably interpretive. But is it she who is interpreting, or she who is being interpreted? Dillard reminds us that there are two kinds of seeing. "I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head." That is one kind. "But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I am transfixed and emptied." Pilgrim is filled with such moments of intense revelation. This one occurs after Dillard reads about a newly sighted girl’s ecstatic description of a "tree with lights in it":

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where. the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focussed and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance [p. 33].

Of another moment of intense insight she writes that articulating her awareness guarantees that the moment will vanish. "It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator -- our very self-consciousness -- is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends."

Dillard’s seeing career, which is both receptive and highly conscious, is to be considered part of the tradition of seers whose mode of life she evokes:

All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West. . . . The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it . . . without utterance. "Launch into the deep," says Jacques Ellul, "and you shall see" [pp. 32-33].

But what does she see as she moves along that muddy river? What is the texture of the geography, through which she stalks or floats or, dreamlike, glides? Although she finds a natural world intense in its beauty, nature’s waste becomes Pilgrim’s second theme. Some of the most gripping passages in the book detail the meaningless barbarity in nature and her astonishment and horror in response. She describes a small green frog that, as she watched, "slowly crumpled and began to sag. . . . He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football." The frog had been punctured, poisoned and drained by a giant water beetle. Although Dillard balances this scene against others of genuine delicacy and grace, the frog’s death lingers in the mind.

Her descriptions of nature’s profligacy and violence are most obsessive and haunted in the chapter titled "Fecundity." Here she recounts story after story of natural horror -- of parasitism, of insects devouring their own eggs and of young devouring their parents -- until she catches her breath and says, "Just think: in all the clean beautiful reaches of the solar system, our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death."

For Dillard, the key point is that "evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. . . . Are my values so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves?" As she works her way through this dilemma, it becomes clear that the suffering which concerns her in Pilgrim is not that of nonhuman creatures, however close to the pathetic fallacy she comes. No, the suffering is hers. The very vulnerability that allows her to experience the hidden currents beneath the apparent has also brought her to this profound crisis: "Must I part ways with the only world I know?. . . I seem to have reached a point where I must draw the line. . . . We value the individual supremely, and nature values him not a whit." The inescapable dilemma is: "Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak." Dillard’s struggle with this problem is real and moving. Her suffering comes from the experience of having the ground shaken, the order disestablished. Her despair at nature’s moral indifference is the consequence of her contemplative living. Nature does not need salvation, she concludes; she does. "I bring human values to the creek, and so save myself from being brutalized."

The plane, we are told, fell like a moth, and only Julie was injured, singled out for a kind of brutal rite of passage into adulthood. As in Pilgrim, Dillard’s desire for intense experience, her very openness to moths or scorched gods, has made her vulnerable to Julie’s anguish and to all human suffering:

And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother’s body spoiled and cold, your infant dead, and you dying; you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting [pp. 42-43].

Ultimately, Dillard concludes, the only response to such brutal reminders of our creatureliness is worship. She buys a bottle of communion wine and Sets Out for the parish church. On the road, she has a remarkable visionary experience.

The world is changing. . . . It is starting to utter its infinite particulars, each overlapping and lone, like a hundred hills of hounds all giving tongue. . . . Above me the mountains are raw nerves, sensible and exultant; the trees, the grass, the asphalt below me are living petals of mind, each sharp and invisible, held in a greeting or glance full perfectly formed. . . Walking faster and faster, weightless, I feel the wine. . . It sheds light in slats through my rib cage, and fills the buttressed vaults of my ribs with light pooled and buoyant. I am moth; I am light. I am prayer and I can hardly see [p. 68].

In sketching out some of the major themes of Dillard’s prose, three points emerge that need to be made explicit and placed in a larger context. First, Dillard is a mystical, or preferably a contemplative, writer who deserves more careful study than she has yet received. Second, Dillard experiences her contemplative life very much as a late 20th century person, heir to the demythologizing that characterizes our time and culture. Third, Dillard’s reflections are marked, indeed dominated, by the experience of suffering.

In Transcendent Selfhood (Seabury, 1976), Louis Dupré has reminded us that the crisis of our time is not primarily an energy, resource, ecology or North-South crisis, but a spiritual crisis. For Dupré, Western culture’s acquiescence in the materialist and positivist view of creation has resulted in such a profound neglect of the transcendent life that references to contemplation, meditation or mysticism only bring smiles of condescension or else incomprehension. Recovering our lost connectedness to the unseen dimension cannot involve a resacralization of the cosmos, Dupré says. We live in an undeniably secular culture and a desacralized cosmos. God can no longer be thought of as "out there," entering life as an alien and other force.

How then can we recover the lost sense of the transcendent? Peter Berger’s discussion of this problem in A Rumor of Angels (Irvington, 1969) provides one useful approach. Berger suggests that we may find intimations of a hidden though intensely real dimension of meaning in several kinds of ordinary life experiences. We find "signals of transcendence" in our desire for order, our love of play, our use of humor and our experiences of hope and of damnation. Berger believes that human compassion and outrage at the encounter with suffering are instinctive, existing prior to socialization.

According to Berger, suffering of some kind may be essential if the self is to be opened to deep levels of consciousness and insight. The contemplative life, in which the hidden life of oneness with the divine becomes more and more central, may well begin in an experience of pain. For Evelyn Underhill and for many of the other mystics she describes, this insight would come as no surprise. Underhill’s first stage in the mystic journey is conversion, which she also calls "un-selfing." No real spiritual movement is possible without such unselfing; or as Tillich understood, we are stagnant until we become engaged in a critical struggle with old gods, loyalties and affirmations and confront emptiness and silence. Only through embracing our own brokenness and inadequacy will we experience growth and new life. Thus, as we recognize our own alienation, false gods and deluded hopes, suffering is inevitable. It need not be sought out; it is within, awaiting acknowledgment.

In our time, which has seen so much pain produced so efficiently, we have developed a peculiarly contemporary manner of responding to suffering. Dorothee Sölle has noted the extent to which middle-class societies have tried to insulate themselves from the pain of others and the pain of self. In the materialist desire for heaven on earth, such societies anesthetize themselves to feeling, and are thus all the more capable of inflicting suffering. In relationships, she says, contemporary people move toward the frozen, the orderly and, therefore, the unfelt. Political apathy is an extension of personal and relational apathy. A society that could wreak such devastation on Vietnam must be "a-pathetic," literally, unable to feel, Sölle writes (Suffering [Fortress, 1975]).

As Sölle, Tillich, Dupré, Berger and others remind us,. the willingness to suffer is essential to the contemplative life. Because suffering can bring new seeing, new feeling and new awareness, it is a path to God. Fully receptive and open, the contemplative is increasingly aware of her own pain and the pain around her.

From this perspective, Annie Dillard is indeed a mystic, a seeker after moments of vision, possession and yielding. As a 20th century person, she envisions God not as "out there," but rather as perceived among us through the proper angle of vision. Seeing from such an angle opens a person to suffering, decentering and feeling lost and dispossessed. In Dillard’s writing, one feels the awful inner tension between wanting to control and wanting to let go; one sees the amoral careen of nature that separates it from our sympathy. While there are moments of genuine celebration and ecstasy in her books, the more characteristic sequence is vulnerability, insight and pain. This connection between knowing deeply and suffering deeply makes her a mystic for our time.