Non-fiction

by Annie Dillard
Vintage Books, Random House, 1999

I’ve been drawn to montage writing of late – the laying down of seemingly disparate stories and then discovering that in the end there is a certain “confluence”  as Eudora Welty liked to say.  Annie Dillard has been long doing montage writing for years and in For the Time Being she does it in spades.
I couldn’t help thinking that if anyone else but Annie Dillard had sent in a manuscript such as this it might not have seen the light of publication!  This is one fractured piece of work.  Each chapter is divided into the same subsections: birth, sand, china, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil and now.  And within those sections there are subsections as she roams from birth defects to birth, from Teilhard de Chardin discovering the skull of Peking Man, to the words of martyred rabbis, from her own reflections to the reflections of others, from her own experience to the experience of others.  As she writes, she braids and braids until in the end the stories become one story.  Though we are now aware of the almost archeological layers that create the whole.
What stays with me after reading any Annie Dillard book are a handful of quotes I can’t forget – her own or those she quotes from the works of others. Below a sampling of my favorites (though if left to me I would edit out the masculine language for God.  But that is a personal issue.)

Dillard’s thoughts:

“We are earth’s organs and limbs; we are syllables God utters from his mouth.”
..God does not direct the universe, he underlies it.  (133)

Like clouds we travelers meet and part with members of our cohort, our fellows in the panting caravans of those who are alive while we are.”  (135)

…”the more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it on earth…”  (140)

“Our lives come free; they’re on the house to all comers, like the shopkeeper’s wine.  God decants the universe of time in a stream, and our best hope is, by our own awareness, to step into the stream and serve, empty as flumes, to keep it moving.”  (175)

“It could be there is a universal mind for whom we are all stringers.” (191)

Favorite prayers:

“An observant Jew recites a grateful prayer at seeing landscape – mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts…Blessed art though, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, The maker of all creation.  One utters this blessing also at meeting the sea again – at seeing the Mediterranean Sea, say, after an interval of thirty days….”

“That night there was a full moon.  I saw it rise over a caperbush, a still grove of terebinths, and a myrtle.  According to the Talmud, when a person ins afraid to walk at night, a burning torch is worth two companions, and a full moon is worth three.  Blessed art Thou, our God, creator of the universe, who brings on evening; whose power and might fill the world; who did a miracle for me in this place; who has kept us in life and brought us to this time.”

Gleanings from others…

” ‘If I should lose all faith in God,” he wrote, ‘I think that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world.’” (44, Teilhard de Chardin)

“…’faith’, crucially is not assenting intellectually to a series of doctrinal propositions; it is living in conscious and rededicated relationship to God.”
(146, Teilhard de Chardin)

“Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl:  ‘Al being itself is derived from God and the presence of the Creator is in each created thing.”  This double notion is pan-entheism- a word to which I add a hyphen to emphasize its difference from pantheism.  Pan-entheism, according to David Tracy, theologian at the University of Chicago, is the private view of most Christian intellectuals today.  Not only is God immanent in everything, as plain pantheists hold, but more profoundly everything is simultaneously in God, within God the transcendent.  There is divine, not just bushes.”  (176-77)

“..Meister Eckhart said, ‘God needs man.’ God needs man to disclose him, co9mplete him, and fulfill him, Teilhard said.  His friend Abbé Paul Grenet paraphrased his thinking about God:  ‘His name is holy, but it is up to us to sanctify it; his reign is universal, but it is up to us to make him reign; his will is done, but it is up to us to accomplish it.’ ‘Little by little,’ the paleontologist himself (Chardin) said, ‘the work is being done.’” (195)

” ‘For the Jew the world is not completed; people must complete it.’ So said a nineteenth-century Frenchman, Edmund Fleg.  Recently Lawrence Kushner stated the same idea powerfully and bluntly: ‘God does not have hands, we do.  Our hands are God’s. It is up to us what God will see and hear, up to us what God will do.  Humanity is the organ of consciousness of the universe….Without our eyes, the Holy One of Being would be blind.’ ”  (196)

“The work is not yours to finish, Rabbi Tarfon said, but neither are you free to take no part in it.”  (202)