I re-read this book as a sort of healing balm as I grieve the loss of my brother. I’ve read it a few times before. It is short, just 80 pages in print, and one of my favorite books. I don’t know how to classify it. It reads like a memoir but isn’t, as far as I can tell. It isn’t a story either, and it isn’t an essay. Perhaps you could say it is a “fictional memoir?” I don’t know. It is certainly a beautiful thoughtful prayerful long-form prose-poem.

Linguistically it is remarkable. Philosophically it is a work of genius. Liturgically it is an anguished unsermon. It is a holy book like no other, one that does not placate, does not explain, and does not parabolize. It only evokes.

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 […] 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.

Is it jeopardy, a book of answers in the form of questions?

As an aside, it has my favorite So in all of English literature. (I think everybody should have a favorite So. Is there any other word in the English language like So? I’ve written it three times now; it has lost all meaning. But I’m not sure, even if it hadn’t, that I ever could have explained even a hundredth of what it means.) Here is Dillard’s exquisite So (emphasis mine):

A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials. (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives, with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives in the mind, that warehouse of forms, and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit. So.)

Anyway, what is she grappling with here? Every sentence is grasping and nothing holds. The book is as much about art as it is spirituality. It may be better to say that it recognizes (or posits?) that art is the language through which we can connect with the holy, which Dillard calls “reality”. What you and I might call reality, she rejects outright:

The universe is neither contingent upon nor participant in the holy, in being itself, the real, the power play of fire. The universe is illusion merely, not one speck of it real, and we are not only its victims, falling always into or smashed by a planet slung by its sun—but also its captives, bound by the mineral-made ropes of our senses.

(Stop for a minute and admire that last phrase. “Bound by the mineral-made ropes of our senses.” Oh my.)

And to what ecclesiast do we turn to make sense of all this?

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 […] There never has been. […] 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 what of that artist? Shall we bow our heads to them?

How can people think that artists seek a name? A name, like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone. There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.

And so in the end I think what Dillard has really written, above all else, is catharsis for the life she herself lives, and all those like her. Holy the Firm is a desperate and occasionally incoherent insistence that it was all for something, and that all that sacrifice was essential. And I believe her. I believe her.