Baptism by Fire

Annie Dillard wrote the seventy-six page book Holy the Firm while she was living in Puget Sound, Washington. It reflects her observations of the beautiful, mountainous, ocean-filled scenery, as well as her questions about theology, doubt, beauty, innocence, friendship, and love–specifically God’s love. The spiritual and emotional journey that Dillard takes through this book is shockingly articulate, full of compelling vignettes–particularly one of a moth being consumed by a flame. Her finely crafted sentences and subtle observations of the life–and death–that is revolving all around her, allow the reader to luxuriate in the English language; but more importantly, allow questions about the nature of violence to be asked in a more intimate way with the Creator-God whom Dillard captures so gracefully.

The book is broken into three sections: “Newborn and Salted,” “God’s Tooth,” and “Holy the Firm,” from which the book takes it’s title. The first section details space and time; creation is the forefront of the conversation. The second section is about the community Dillard lives in; specifically about a little girl, named Julie, and how a traumatic accident forever changes this young girl’s life. The third section is a compelling exposé on how God can allow terrible things, like Julie’s face being burned off, to further the purpose of His kingdom. Many questions are asked; many accusations made against this arbitrary malevolence. Dillard ties it all brilliantly together with a parable about the fiery consumption of a moth.

Violence plays a main character in Holy the Firm. It is the means through which humanity must learn, must come to terms with sin, must be reflected upon as something significant in the suffering and salvation of Christ. Violence is the action that drives the plot of this life. “Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flame-faced children, to remind us what God can– and will–do?” (Dillard 61) Only through violence does Dillard question God, question His goodness and grace. In the first section of the book, Dillard chronicles an evening she spent camping in the woods and the untimely demise of one particular moth which happened to fly into her reading candle:

A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second…her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly…all that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax–a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool. (16-17)

Even the vocabulary of this occurrence is violent. “Frazzled,” “jammed,” “blackened” etc, all suggest that destruction plays a central part in this life. But the plot turns most gracefully. Dillard transcends the moth’s fire-born death and instead focuses on the renewed purpose of the creature.

The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame…that candle had two wicks, two identical flames of identical height, side by side…She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning, only glowing within. (17)

The only place to find hope, in a life so full of destruction, is in Christ, who is our renewal. He is the wick that stands beside us, with us, in us, burning strong so that we also may burn. His ultimate sacrifice on the cross is the epitome of human suffering, so that our suffering may be comforted in the knowledge that He has gone before us. Apostle Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). The moth’s flame-consumed death was only a flash, a momentary act of destruction, so that her shell could be used for the glory of the flame itself, which, “burned for two hours, until I blew her out” (Dillard 17).

God’s eternal flame of glory burns through us. Humanity is evil, selfish, deceptive, lawless; God is light, perfection, eternity. In order for life to make any sense, factual knowledge must be tempered with child-like faith, faith that allows us to see past the pain and destruction and into a glimpse of Heaven. “I came here to study hard things–rock mountain and salt sea–and to temper my spirit on their edges. ‘Teach me thy ways, O Lord’ is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend” (19).

Dillard asks the difficult questions. “Has God a hand in this? Then it is a good hand. But has he a hand at all? Or is he a holy fire burning self-contained for power’s sake alone?” (48). She even blames God for the defilement of young Julie’s face:

Of faith I have nothing, only of truth: that this one God is a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen: one Julie, one sorrow, one sensation bewildering the heart, and enraging the mind. (46)

How can humanity justify atrocity on its own? How can life garner meaning in a world full of senseless violence and despair? “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is only through the grace of Christ that we have hope.

The last section of Dillard’s monumental work is titled, “Holy the Firm” and in it, she attempts to break down this idea of hope in Christ, meaning through oblivion.

And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God’s blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (61-62)

Only in this time of intense questioning, can we seek the truth that is God’s to illumine if he so chooses. Finding meaning comes at a cost, usually a heavy one. Only in the utter violence of the destruction of our souls will we find any comfort in truth. And in order to achieve this “death,” we must be baptized into a “new life.”

Dillard uses the image of consumption by fire as an allusion to baptism; utter dependence on a renewed life. “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 an abomination” (72). Only Christ can give the direction and hope needed to reconcile this life. “His face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm” (72). He is holy and he is firm. Christ is the tangible element to having an intimate relationship with the omnipotent Creator-God.

It is through this relationship with Christ that the gap between the veiled darkness of this life and the enthralling light of God are truly united. We are “Held. Held fast by love in the world like the moth in wax, your life a wick, your head on fire with prayer, held utterly, outside and in” (76).

Dillard knew that she–and we–must die to self, must fully realize destruction and violence, in order to turn our hearts in full repentance toward God. “So that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:21) This is the truth that compels. This is the fire that quenches our hearts.

“I am moth; I am light. I am prayer and I can hardly see” (Dillard 65).


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Thinline Ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway
Publishers, 2011. Print.

Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977. Paperback.

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