Monday, August 23, 2010

Column: Sensible of Conditions

The full quote from Annie Dillard's Expedition to the Poles is
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
It's a fascinating essay on liturgy and life.

Meanwhile, this article about technology and the national parks, which notes that the National Parks Service has added a category to their list of contributing factors to accidents (in addition to "darkness" and "animals"): “inattention to surroundings”

And this essay by Dennis Hamm SJ remains my favorite introduction to the Examen.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 19 August 2010.

Keep a close watch on yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. — Tobit 4:14b

We left before the sun reached the top of the ridge, hoping to make the four-mile loop before the heat became unbearable. Trooping up the mountainside after Victor’s brother, we were headed for a couple of rock formations at the top, all that can be seen of ancient mountains that once scratched the stratosphere.

Reaching the top, freed from the confines of the trail, the boys were enjoying exploring the rocks. Watching their long strides easily spanning narrow crevasses that reached 20 or more feet into the mountain, I relaxed my vigilance and sat to savor the breeze, still touched with the cool dampness of the night.

Suddenly Mike called out, “look at the snake skin!” A closer look revealed the snake was still very much inside of its skin — and a venomous copperhead to boot. Both Mike and Chris had stepped over the snake napping in the cleft of the rock before noticing its deadly coils. Those were our last carefree steps of the hike!

In her essay on liturgy, prayer and life, Expedition to the Poles, Annie Dillard muses that we are often “insufficiently sensible of conditions.” We can be easily distracted by what is around us, particularly the superficial, and fail to watch where we are stepping, or imagine what might be hidden just below the surface or around the corner.

Tobit urges his son to watch where he is going, but also to let such watchfulness teach him how to go forward. The early Christian monastics, too, understood the discipline of vigilance, the need to be “sensible of conditions” with respect to their souls. Bessarion, a fourth century desert monk, taught, “A monk ought to be like the Cherubim and Seraphim, all eye.”

How can we become “all eye?” St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discipline of the Examen is one practice of vigilance. The Examen begins by recalling that God is present and then, gratefully, reviews the day. Where did I encounter God today? What drew me closer to God? What did not? The point is to become sensible of conditions, sensitive to where God is calling me. The Examen closes by looking forward, learning from the experiences of today.

The trick on our hike was not to let the threat of snakes lurking underfoot blunt our awareness of other dangers or, perhaps more importantly, blind us to other marvels. We hiked to a second, similar set of rocks, clambered (carefully) to the top to see spread out in the distance layer after layer of blue shaded ridges. A reward for being vigilant.

The Examen seeks to work a similar balancing act for my life’s journey. Day by day I learn where I can reliably put my spiritual feet and where the footing is less sure. I grow gradually more sensible of conditions.

Let your Word, Father, be a lamp for our feet and a light to our path, so that we may understand what you wish to teach us and follow the path your light marks out for us. — from Daytime Prayer, Wednesday, Week III


  1. One of my favorite Annie Dillard essays.

    One of the other counselors where dd was this summer was BIT by a copperhead. Apparently they like to stretch out on pavement at night to stay warm. A group of counselors were up on the Parkway one night, and hopped out at an overlook to look at the stars as they are sometimes wont to do and, in the dark, one of the girls stepped on the snake. Needless to say, it retaliated. (She's fine.)

    DD says she wins for worst day off story of the summer.

    Vigilance ~ no taking of one's safety for granted, physically or spiritually.

  2. thank you for a wonderful post. it's hard to believe but i've practically forgotten about the Examen. thank you for reminding me and redirecting me to a wonderful spiritual discipline.

    i'm also excited to have read your quotes of Annie Dillard. i heard her name bantered around at seminary but have not read her yet--something i'm going to correct asap!

  3. revhipchick....definitely enjoy some Annie Dillard, this one is perhaps my favorite of her essays, but I've relished reading them all

  4. Robin - oh, my! I told my boys this story over dinner and they agree -- top honors for "worst day off story"!!

    Trivia we learned - copperhead bites are the most common bites in the US, and most occur when you step on, over or next to the snake. Though most occur to males between the ages of 16 and 25 after poking said snake with a stick!