We live in a time when it is difficult, if not impossible, to take into our hearts and our consciousness all the suffering, death, and destruction going on around us. We also, in contrast, find it even more daunting to see ourselves as co-workers with God in building and divinizing the world. With great clarity and clout, Annie Dillard compels us to bring these two great challenges together as she unspools a series of brief essays designed to shake us up and startle us into a deeper awareness of our connection with all and our holy calling to fashion a more loving world.
Dillard visits an obstetrical ward where she charts the horrific tragedy of disfigured infants. She ponders the calamity of April 30, 1991, when a few typhoon waves drowned 138,000 people in Bangladesh. On a visit to China, she reflects upon the immortality project of Qin, an emperor who interred 7,000 clay soldiers to guard his afterlife. And she wonders what could possibly have led the Romans to flay Rabbi Akiva, an 85-year-old Torah scholar in 135 C.E. Putting these all together, she asks, "How can an individual count?"
The answers come from Teilhard de Chardin, a merry Jesuit paleontologist, who believed "the world is God's body." Dillard also looks at the life and ministry of the Baal Shem Tov, the modern founder of Hasidism; he often shocked people by turning cartwheels and by proclaiming that "God is with us doing marvelous things." Both of these religious leaders accepted the challenge of transforming and completing the world. Both understood the holiness of the present moment.
Dillard concludes: "There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said 'Maid, arise" to the centurion's daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture."