Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim on Tinker Creek has been holding my attentions this number of weeks past. I enjoy naturalist writings, and being a Christian, hers has an underlying appreciation of the big blue marble that is often lost in scientific-trending tomes. This last week, I was quite struck by a portion of the book that deals with our appreciation of the present. As I walk through various conversation and interaction that suggest interpretation on how we might do church (denominational, emergent, not-denominational?, etc.) - I find the unique combination of moments gifted to us to experience, making up our particular ‘here and now,’ are occasionally lost to a fumbling grasp of collective self. It is as if to say, “We do this in a fashion unique from them - but I am certainly outwardly humble enough to suggest that the way you do it is part of some plan me and my like minded pals don’t truly comprehend.”
I had tried to develop my thoughts in writing over these past weeks, but was often redirected to polishing hardwood floors, pondering the elusive qualities of the domesticated feline pet and mowing the lawn. After you move I find it takes a moment, or two, before you finally open up enough to allow your new surroundings to speak to you; rather than standing in the moving waters of leaving your previous apartment camp, and waiting for the fish to bite.
In this season I find wonder in the difference between how we connect with the great big not-me part of the universe, and often settle for entering into tasks rather than life. Do I work myself up to go out and have myself a collective evangelism moment, or am I invited to the homes of those I have come to know and love? Do I miss what the Lord has for me in living in the present (the opportunity to live missionaly?) for those odd segregated and contrived tasks, for which I wear different hats, dependant upon the audience? Do I live for, and in, today with a pursuit for innocence rather than a mask of self-consciousness?
It’s a good book, and rather than struggle to reword it, I offer this small portion for your perusal. In concrete, real and personal terms – where are you at?
I am more alive than all the world.
I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. 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. I get in the car and drive home.
This is it, this is it, right now, the present…catch it if you can.
No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed (promised), for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it.
“As you sit on a hill side, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door opens.” Stephan Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping
That the Christ’s incarnation occurred, probably ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place, is referred to – with great sincerity even among believers – as the “scandal of particularity.” Well, the “scandal of particularity” is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal…I never saw a tree that was no tree in particular; I never met a man, not the greatest theologian, who filled infinity, or even whose hand, say, was undifferentiated, fingerless, like griddlecake, and not lobed and split just so with the incursions of time.
Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present open at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce memory of whatever it is taking place.
Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. So long as I can lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, the tree stays a tree. But the second I look over my own shoulder, as it were – the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It dams, stills, stagnates.
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people – the novelist’s world, not the poet’s…I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year…I’ll start living; next year…I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world.
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds the world enough, and time. Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit’s good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine.
It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: single mindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration. One needn’t be, shouldn’t be, reduced to a puppy…