Waking to Mystery

by Guest Blogger March 14, 2014

by Hanna VanderHart

"'We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . Seem like we’re just set down here,' a woman said to me recently, 'and don’t nobody know why.'"

I remember being first swept away by those words in the opening paragraphs of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery…” The lines are beautiful: straightforwardly mystical, while at the same time open to vulnerability, mystery, and the existential state of unknowing. But something rumples me deep down about these lines.

I think now it has something to do with point of reference. What is the orientation of the self that speaks these lines? Do we each really not know why we are? And if we think we don’t know why, is it enough to live our lives with a Dickinsonian awareness of possibility?

I’ve been reading the writings of the 17th/18th century American Puritans this spring, and in terms of the community of faith, the Puritan family embodied Scriptural knowledge in how they lived their lives together—even if, as a larger community, they didn’t necessarily agree on all the steps involved in conversion or who should be allowed to the Lord’s table.  

So I turn to the Puritan poet Edward Taylor to think about the “knowing why” of our lives with each other, and what the alternative is to waking to mystery—if it is necessarily an alternative.
In his poem “Huswifery,” Taylor acknowledges the human materiality that the divine weaver seeks to cover with “Holy robes”—the human tailor’s dummy, if you will, composed of “Understanding, Will / Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory / … Words and Actions.” This strikes me as a fairly comprehensive list of the skills and gifts that enable our movement in the world, however marked by mystery it and ourselves might be. Taylor indicates that we have a rough understanding of our spiritual, intellectual, and emotional composition in these lines—but what is to be done with our understanding, will, affections, judgment, conscience and memory?

The vital element of the poem is Taylor’s point of reference and departure: divine substance (I resist the word “materiality”). “The yarn is fine,” confesses Taylor. Importantly, Taylor is not the yarn, but parts of Taylor (his soul, affections, and conversation) are parts of the spinning wheel itself—the “swift flyers,” spool, reel and then, separately, the loom by which the Lord weaves. The Holy Word (the distaff), the Holy Spirit, and the Lord’s “Ordinances” join Taylor as parts of the spinning wheel, the loom and weaving, and the “fulling” or cleansing of the woven cloth. The weaver is none other than the Lord. I’m not claiming that Edward Taylor knows why he is “set down here,” but it is fascinating how he reaches for the metaphor of a common and essential household object of the spinning wheel—he begins with what he knows. Further, Taylor knows what needs help in his life: the understanding, will, affections, judgment, conscience, memory—the composers of our words and actions.

The beauty of Annie Dillard, for me, is in her reaching outwards towards the phenomenal world and the subsequent understanding and sensitivity she turns to life around her.
Taylor, on the other hand, turns his attention inward, seeking a category of the self that will explain his entanglement with the Lord’s actions, the Lord’s holiness and glory. What is his function in the holy relationship of divine purpose? How does one go about participation in the Lord’s will and action? Part of why I love the poem “Huswifery” is the divine incorporation of the human in producing the matter of art. And if it seems at all reductionist to hear Taylor desire that the Lord consider, nay, make him a material object, one does well to consider how essential elements of Taylor’s Lord, namely The Holy Word and Holy Spirit, are also incorporated into the image of the spinning wheel and the fine yarn.

What is the substance of the yarn? “The yarn is fine” as an affirmative statement rhymes with the preceding couplet’s “this twine,” and this small rhyme seems to me to contain the true mystery of the poem: that the twine (Taylor?) and the yarn (The Lord’s Holy Spirit?) become fine together. I don’t believe a theological dispute regarding imputed or imparted Glory is needed in the context of Taylor’s understanding of himself and God as mutually-involved, creatively producing artisans. There is both certainty and wonder in Taylor’s understanding of the fine yarn: the poet wakes to the reality of the self, but even greater is his awakening to the reality of the Lord.


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