Teaching Dirt to Listen

In a narrative essay titled “Teaching a Stone to Talk” (found in the book by the same name), the author Annie DIllard describes an eccentric man trying to teach a stone how to talk. Several times a day, he removes his stone from the shelf, a dark gray, “palm-sized oval beach cobble”, and proceeds with his lesson. No details are given as to what or how he is teaching the stone.

My first thought after being mildly amused in her descriptions of the situation was to wonder about God. Is the situation analogous to the Holy Spirit trying to teach dirt to pray? After all, we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Dillard’s essay moves onto the apparent silence of nature, of the universe, and even of God. She wonders if maybe it was our fault for God not speaking to us—we asked Him not to.

The wilderness generation was at Sinai; it witnessed there the thick darkness where God was: “and all the people saw the thunderings, and the mountain smoking.” It scared them witless. Then they asked Moses to beg God, please, never speak to them directly again. “Let not God speak with us, lest we die.” Moses took the message. And God, pitying their self-consciousness, agreed. He did not speak to the people anymore.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Dillard goes on to lament. “We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.” Yes, we are desperate to speak with someone or something other than ourselves. Some researchers have attempted, in vain perhaps, to communicate with chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, etc. Others search space for signs of extraterrestrial life.

I suspect that some are trying to prove that we are not unique in the universe, to deconstruct or devalue humanity to nothing more than mere material processes. Others are just lonely, seeking communication with other forms of life, or inanimate objects like stones, to acknowledge our camaraderie or kinship.

What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue.

Dillard moves into the silence of the world.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is silence. Nature does utter a peep—just one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it.

The silence is all there is. “We are here to witness. There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need.” Witness, or should I say with-ness? Dillard goes on,

If we were not here, material events like the passage of seasons would lack even the meager meaning we are able to muster them. The show would play to an empty house, as do all those falling stars which fall in the daytime.

The remaining portion of her narrative moves on to make her point, that Dillard is called to be witness for nature.

Hmmm…we are to be witness, or with-ness, to nature, to the world, to the universe. With-ness, yes! But I wonder. What if nature or the world is the witness, the one called to with-ness for us?

Maybe God did not choose to stop speaking with us, but rather, we chose to stop listening? What if the stone has been trying to teach the man to listen?