Introductory Note:

“Have you ever been struck by the created world as if you were a bell? Why do you think God created such a world?” What wonderful questions posed by Foster and Smith as they pondered the following excerpt from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Devotional Classics). Maybe in this excerpt you will feel invited into the natural world to observe God’s grandeur. Maybe you will feel invited deeper into the Sacramental Life, also known as the Incarnational Stream, which “employs the material world to make real the spiritual world.”

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

See­ing a New World

It was sun­ny one evening last sum­mer at Tin­ker Creek; the sun was low in the sky, upstream, I was sit­ting on the sycamore log bridge with the sun­set at my back, watch­ing the shin­ers the size of min­nows who were feed­ing over the mud­dy sand in skit­tery schools. Again and again, one fish, then anoth­er, turned for a split sec­ond across the cur­rent and flash! the sun shot out from its sil­ver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just hap­pen­ing some­where else, and it drew my vision just as it dis­ap­peared: flash, like a sud­den daz­zle of the thinnest blade, a spark­ing over a dun and olive ground at chance inter­vals from every direc­tion. Then I noticed white specks, some sort of pale petals, small, float­ing from under my feet on the creek’s sur­face, very slow and steady.

So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white cir­cles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turn­ing, mute and per­fect, and I saw the lin­ear flash­es, gleam­ing sil­ver, like stars being born at ran­dom down a rolling scroll of time. Some­thing broke and some­thing opened. I filled up like a new wine­skin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a foun­tain the creek filled for­ev­er; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feath­er, bone.

The Realm of the Real

When I see this way I see tru­ly. As Thore­au says, I return to my sens­es. I am the man who watch­es the base­ball game in silence in an emp­ty sta­di­um. I see the game pure­ly; I’m abstract­ed and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suit­ed play­ers lope off the green field to their shad­owed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the com­men­ta­tor, to hush the noise of the use­less inte­ri­or bab­ble that keeps me from see­ing just as sure­ly as a news­pa­per dan­gles before my eyes. The effort is real­ly a dis­ci­pline requir­ing a life­time of ded­i­cat­ed strug­gle; it marks the lit­er­a­ture of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, dis­calced and shod.

The world’s spir­i­tu­al genius­es seem to dis­cov­er uni­ver­sal­ly that the mind’s mud­dy riv­er, this cease­less flow of triv­ia and trash can­not be dammed, and try­ing to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to mad­ness. Instead you must allow the mud­dy riv­er to flow unheed­ed in the dim chan­nels of con­scious­ness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mild­ly, acknowl­edg­ing its pres­ence with­out inter­est and gaz­ing beyond it into the realm of the real where sub­jects and objects act and rest pure­ly with­out utter­ance. Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, and you shall see.”

The Secret of Seeing

The secret of see­ing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it for­ev­er I would stag­ger bare­foot across a hun­dred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The lit­er­a­ture of illu­mi­na­tion reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most prac­ticed and adept, a gift and a total sur­prise. I return from one walk know­ing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the lau­rel blooms. 

I return from the same walk a day lat­er scarce­ly know­ing my own name. Lita­nies hum in my ears; my tongue flaps in my mouth Aili­non, alleluia! I can­not cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is pos­si­ble, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it par­ti­cle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of see­ing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spir­it till you your­self are a sail, whet­ted, translu­cent, broad­side to the mer­est puff.

The tree with the lights in it

When her doc­tor took her ban­dages off and led her into the gar­den, the girl who was no longer blind saw the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of sum­mer, in the forests of fall and down win­ter and spring for years. Then one day, I was walk­ing along Tin­ker Creek think­ing of noth­ing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the back­yard cedar where the mourn­ing doves roost charged and trans­fig­ured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was whol­ly fire, utter­ly focused and utter­ly dreamed.

It was less like see­ing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breath­less by a pow­er­ful glance. The flood of fire abat­ed, but I’m still spend­ing the pow­er. Grad­u­al­ly the lights went out in the cedar, the col­ors died, the cells unflamed and dis­ap­peared. I was still ring­ing. I had been my whole life a bell, and nev­er knew it until at that moment I was lift­ed and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the moun­tains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the moun­tains slam.

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.).

Pho­to by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Text First Published March 2015 · Last Featured on November 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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