Holy the Firm


by Annie Dillard
Harper & Row, $6.50
Julie Norwich was only seven when her father’s single-engine airplane unaccountably stalled after takeoff, plunged into a stand of fir trees, and exploded into flames. Julie’s father escaped the crash unharmed, but a rush of burning fuel enveloped the young girl’s face, virtually obliterating it. These events occurred on northern Puget Sound, in Washington State, where Annie Dillard went to live, alone, not long after winning a Pulitzer Prize for her essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her new book is a contemplative view of divine intent, a wrestling with the age-old paradox of a merciful God who allows such cruelty to be visited upon his children.
Dillard’s own answer seems close to a broadly shared traditionalist view that (as she describes it) “the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here. . . .” In short, human suffering is neither punitive nor capricious, but a link in the order of things.
In search of a metaphor for this theory, Dillard makes use of the language of an early Christian movement, Esoteric Christianity, which believed in a substance “lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual’ scale, and lower than salts and earths,” a substance “in touch with the Absolute,” a substance called “Holy the Firm.” General readers will find the theology heavy going (and so will a great many seminarians). But Dillard writes about the ferocity and beauty of natural order with enough grace to survive that objection.
—C. Michael Curtis