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 Renovare.org November 2021

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