Recently I have had the pleasure of returning to one of my favorite books of all time, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This Pulitzer Prize winning work was initially published in 1974, so it is getting some age on it. By now it probably can be called a classic. The first time I read it, I was captivated. And I experience that every time I read it. Dillard has an amazing facility with words to express and elaborate a world of nature she sees so much more intricately than I ever have seen.
Dillard’s classic is a great example of what I might call, subtle spirituality. You read her book and God seldom appears clearly and without obstruction. Rather God dances on the margins of her narrative about experiencing God. God is behind the scenes. It seems that God does not reveal as much as peek and peer into our reading of the text. Dillard teases us with hints of the Divine. She wants us to read, pause and reflect. Maybe this is the way the biggest truths of life really come to us.
In my recent reading of Dillard, I was in the chapter she entitles, “Spring.” So much of her writing can seem like some banal description of the stuff in nature. It is easy to get bored or even dismiss her details as so much stuff about nothing. I know this tends to be the conclusion of my students. And in the process, they claim she is hard reading. They are correct! But that is where the fun begins.
We have to learn to read Annie Dillard. We have to learn to slow down and soak it in. I like that word, soak. It takes time. It requires a kind of lingering over what we read. If God is going to peek out from the words we are reading, we cannot go so fast that we will miss the Divine hints. A trick I have learned over many readings of this book is to pay close attention to the end of the chapter. There is where Dillard seems to be the most revelatory. There glimpses of God and of truth seem to be the easiest.
In that “Spring” chapter, Dillard finishes with a story with a look at monostyla rotifers! She made me laugh when she talks about the “tiny career” of these little creatures. (122-3) She gets more serious when she notes, “These are real creatures with real organs leading real lives, one by one. I can’t pretend they’re not there. If I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer.” And in this moment she sneaks in the Divinity.
She talks about the fact that we humans were created and “set in proud, free motion.” She assumes the same thing for the rotifer. Then she asks about the point of it all? For humans and for rotifers? And boom, comes a question, which I think is a rhetorical question. She speculates on the purpose of humans and rotifers: Ad majorem Dei gloriam? Luckily, I know Latin: “to the greater glory of God?” is how this phrase translates.
Interestingly, she chooses to put this phrase in Latin and to italicize it. I can guess that to many of our ears (Catholic ears used to hearing much of Mass in Latin) this signifies holy language---the language of the Church. I suggest this is a rhetorical question because I think she wants us to say, “Of course, we are created to the greater glory of God.” “And so are rotifers!” I am ok with that reason for my being. It certainly is something to live up to. It is a mighty calling in life. Sadly, it is too easy to aim much lower and squander life.
Dillard is not done with us yet. She says, “If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. ‘Never lose a holy curiosity,’ Einstein said…” (123) I love that short phrase: never lose holy curiosity. Normally, our culture simply talks about “curiosity.” I hear this language among innovators and entrepreneurs and, certainly, among scientists in their quest for truth. But “holy” curiosity? Holy curiosity is my willingness to join Dillard and Einstein in chasing down new things and new truths.
It is more. It is my willingness to be available in those times and places where God may choose to peek out from the normal. It is to be available when and where God may move from the margins of my world straight into the middle of my awareness so that I may see and claim the truth that I, too, am here ad majorem Dei gloriam---to the greater glory of God.
If I can come to be clear that I am living my life to that end, I would be humbled and glorified in the same breath. I hope it’s true. I want to live into that truth. And I am grateful for the holy curiosity that propels me to be in quest of that truth for my life.