canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Holy Writ
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 pee” scale.

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 The official positions seem intolerant and outdated.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 prepackaged.

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 expected.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation, has appeared in many journals including Poetry International, Grand Street and Slant.







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