by K. D. Miller
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2000
Reviewed by G. Wesley Purdy
Writing about the Christian religion is hazardous at
best. K. D. Miller does not approach the subject as
cultural anthropology, comparative religion or
philosophy. Nor does she do a trendy hatchet-job.
She has sent out a questionnaire to fellow Canadian
authors, and has gathered together a number of essays,
more or less related to the subject, which she has
written over the years.
When her interrogatories return with references to
“inspiration” Ms. Miller chooses not to make the
connection to the original meaning of the word: to be
breathed into by a god. (In the Christian religion
this is the domain of the Holy Spirit [Sanctus Spiritus] the Holy Breath.) The subject of her essay
“Easter Egg” is a pigeon egg on the ledge outside her
window. We know no more about Easter eggs after
reading it than we did before.
When she does venture an etymology the result is
unfortunate. The “whit” of Whitsunday does
not, of course, “mean wit not in the Wildean sense,
but in the sense of imagination. Perception.” It
means “white” (whit, in Old English)
and marks the day when the priests donned their white
vestments. The reader is left to wonder how this
little tidbit survived a serious author and at least
two professional editors.
As for philosophy, it is mentioned once. She recalls
her disappointment with Philosophy 100 class. “I have
nothing against logic,” she informs us. “I just don’t
know what it has to do with tearing up while I watch a
sad movie, or being afraid of spiders, or having a
screaming orgasm, or laughing till I pee.” The point
is resoundingly neo-populist. The reader may be
forgiven for wondering if the value of logic (and a
great deal else, thank God) does not lie precisely in
the fact that it does not utilize the “laughing till I
The story Ms. Miller’s essays tell begins with
trepidation and enthusiasm and ends with trepidation.
The reasons are recognizable to anyone who has joined
an organized church. Somehow the practical side of the
faith seems to contradict the spiritual. The official
positions seem intolerant and outdated. Her reasons
for joining had been somewhat vague to begin with. Her
reasons for remaining (or leaving, for that matter)
are still more so.
It was the philosopher Hegel who put the imprimatur on
the modern western idea that religion should properly
keep itself to Sundays. It was an impediment during
the business days of the week. It was a damned
nuisance to have to listen to that jabber while trying
to get anything done not to mention acutely
embarrassing. It is hardly surprising that, some 75
years later, Freud found religion to be nothing more
than a “vague oceanic feeling”, or that, another 100
years after that, Ms. Miller finds it wanting.
But, strangely, amongst all of this, her book is about
a meaningful spiritual experience. In the first
essay, “Morning Prayer,” she informs us of something
all writers realize at some level as the secret of
their joy: Writing is the way I pray.
This is the “holy writ” of the title. It is the
profoundest prayer a writer knows. It is the theme
which winds throughout the book and makes it far more
successful (on balance) than books about contemporary
religion generally are.
Her journey through Episcopalianism is predictably Laodicean. She would not likely have chosen to
undertake the journey if it didn’t promise to
be Laodicean. The struggle of
composition, on the other hand, grips, challenges,
buffets her or at least threatens to do so. The
blows are not softened. The victories are not neatly
Perhaps she has chosen to include Melinda Burns’s
“More Than I Thought I Knew” in the book because she
agrees with Ms. Burns that:
writing is like exercise to my soul, like dance,
movement, muscle toning. I would be flabby of soul,
underused, neglected, without writing. I’m a much
better person to be around when I’m writing
funnier, more generous, happier, more interested in
what’s around me, more spontaneous.
Or perhaps she simply recognizes an unusually
felicitous description of “spirituality”. Regardless,
it is among the better of the satori sprinkled
liberally throughout Holy Writ.
Surely the best are found in the fierce and eccentric
poem (and life) of Emily Bronte described in the essay
“No Coward Soul”. Written (and lived) before the age
of cultural homogenization, both are filled to the
brim with character. We are left to ponder how Miss
Bronte - a minor figure briefly drawn -- contains
such electricity and grace.
But Ms. Miller does more than select from the words of
others. Her more muted style is reflective and has
moments of its own which will stay with the reader.
She has chosen a particularly difficult task, and has
succeeded, on the whole, beyond what could have been
Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and
translation, has appeared in many journals including
Poetry International, Grand Street and Slant.