Annie Dillard is my favourite contemporary writer. Her work is impossible to categorize. She has an astounding eye for the intricacies of nature, but she is not a biologist. Her work is full of fascinating tidbits of history ranging from the diaries of arctic explorers to tales of ancient China, but she is not a historian. Through, under and over her work run profound threads of theological and spiritual insight, but she is not a theologian. Twenty-nine years ago after her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, she was so besieged by clergy asking for her spiritual advice that she moved across the continent to escape them.
In the end, she is simply a writer, but what a writer. Her prose is as sweet as the honey-throated sound of the blackbird and she sees, really sees, the world around us in all its fascinating and often disturbing detail. Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek started me on a 10-year quest to learn more about the relationship between natural science and theology.
Her 1999 work, For the Time Being, seems at first to be impossibly disjointed, juxtaposing sections on the personal life of the great Jesuit scientist and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, with bits of Chinese history, Jewish mysticism, observations of nature, facts about natural disasters, descriptions of babies born with terrible genetic defects, a natural history of sand and a catalogue of clouds.
Gradually it dawns on the reader that this a profound and multi-layered book about God, natural evil and individual existence. One can return again and again and find fresh nuggets in For the Time Being. If you enjoy good writing and discovering a spirituality that arises from experience of life and a great breadth of knowledge rather than a theological system, you will enjoy this book.
Archbishop Crawley is Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon.