Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm VI

Annie Dillard ends her meditations with a prayer for Julie.

There is Julie Norwich. Julie Norwich is salted with fire. She is preserved like a salted fillet from all evil, baptized at birth into time and now into eternity, into the bladelike arms of God. For who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? People are reasoned, while God is mad. They love only beauty; who knows what God loves? Happy birthday, little one and wise: you got there early, the easy way. The world knew you before you knew the world. The gods in their boyish, brutal games bore you like a torch, a firebrand, recklessly over the heavens, to the glance of the one God, fathomless and mild, dissolving you into the sheets.

You might as well be a nun. You might as well be God’s chaste bride, chased by plunderers to the high caves of solitude, to the hearthless rooms empty of voices, and of warm limbs hooking your heart to the world. Look how he loves you! Are you bandaged now, or loose in a sterilized room? Wait till they hand you a mirror, if you can hold one, and know what it means. That skinlessness, that black shroud of flesh in strips on your skull, is your veil. There are two kinds of nuns, out of the cloister or in. You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. Forget whistling: you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or a child. Learn Latin, an it please my Lord, learn the foolish downward look called Custody of the Eyes.

And learn power, however sweet they call you, learn power, the smash of the holy once more, and signed by its name. Be victim to abruptness and seizures, events intercalated, swellings of heart. You’ll climb trees. You won’t be able to sleep, or need to, for the joy of it. Mornings, when light spreads over the pastures like wings, and fans a secret color into everything, and beats the trees senseless with beauty, so that you can’t tell whether the beauty is in the trees–dazzling in cells like yellow sparks or green flashing waters–or on them–a transfiguring silver air charged with the wings’ invisible motion; mornings, you won’t be able to walk for the power of it: earth’s too round. And by long and waking day–Sext, None, Vespers–when the grasses, living or dead, drowse while the sun reels, or lash in any wind, when sparrows hush and tides slack at the ebb, or flood up the beaches and cliffsides tangled with weed, and hay waits, and elsewhere people buy shoes–then you kneel, clattering with thoughts, ill, or some days erupting, some days holding the altar rail, gripping the brass-bolt altar rail, so you won’t fly. Do you think I don’t believe this? You have no idea, none. And nights? Nights after Compline under the ribs of Orion, nights in rooms at lamps or windows like moths? Nights you see Deneb, one-eyed over the trees; you vanish into the sheets, shrunken, your eyes bright as candles and as sightless, exhausted. Nights Murzim, Arcturus, Aldebaran in the Bull: You cry, My father, my father, the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof! Held, held fast by love in the world like the moth in wax, your life a wick, your head on fire with prayer, held utterly, outside and in, you sleep alone, if you call that alone, you cry God.

Julie Norwich; I know. Surgeons will fix your face. This will all be a dream, an anecdote, something to tell your husband one night: I was burned. Or if you’re scarred, you’re scarred. People love the good not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well, or even just the living, for the world of it all, and heart’s home. You’ll dress your own children, sticking their arms through the sleeves. Mornings you’ll whistle, full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live. I’ll be the nun for you. I am now.

–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)

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