Crash helmets and life jackets in church? So suggests Annie Dillard

A week ago I posted one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard.  My friend and former Baptist colleague (former colleague, not former Baptist) Ashley Smith commented (on my Facebook Page): “Dillard is one of my favorites as well; I’ve read Holy the Firm over and over, and used these quotes more than once in preaching and writing.”

I wrote her back: “Ashley, her (Dillard’s) words maintain their freshness, don’t they? The other perennial quote from her, which I can’t seem to find, is about how people should be wearing crash helmets during church services because of the danger of the holy.”

And she found it.  Thanks Ashley!

It’s from the essay “An Expedition to the Pole” in Dillard’s volume Teaching a Stone to Talk:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”  (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982)

“Described with such grace:” the writing of Annie Dillard


Another of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard, whose wonderful  Tinker at Pilgrim Creek earned her the Pulitzer Prize at age 27. That book features vivid descriptions of a closely-watched natural world, the kind of thing Gerard Manley Hopkins might have written had he been an essayist.

Like Hopkins, Dillard became a convert to Roman Catholicism, a move she once admitted in a interview had an inevitability about it.  She has a rare appreciation for the mysteries that surround us every day, and the gift of words to bring them alive on the page.

In a later book, Holy the Firm, she demonstrates that she also observes the inside world of the human soul as well as the outside world of Tinker Creek. Here is an excerpt:

“I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were; God kann nicht anders. This process in time is history; in space, at such shocking random, it is mystery.

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is none but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day. Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved. So. You learn this studying any history at all, especially the lives of artists and visionaries; you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and you learn it, fitful in your pew, at church.” (Holy the Firm, Harper and Row, 1977)