The Christmas season is marked by an opportunity for the so-called secular world to investigate questions of meaning and spirituality and faith. We often see numerous coverages of religion in the media at this time of year. This week, I came across this review by Kathleen Norris of a recent book by the poet Christian Wiman. The review intrigued me, and the book is now on my Kindle. The book is a fascinating expression of how modern intellectuals are indeed hungering for a deeper life. All of this reminds me that we in the Lutheran expression of the Christian faith have an important contribution to make in our world. We are after-all the Jesuits of the protestant movement, the intellectual savings bank of the reformation. JH
‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman
By KATHLEEN NORRIS
This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes. As a poet, Wiman is more likely to quote a poet than a saint, and the many citations here — from sources as diverse as A. R. Ammons, Robert Browning, Paul Celan, George Herbert, Eugenio Montale, Osip Mandelstam, Rainer Maria Rilke, Richard Wilbur and William Wordsworth — offer a rich encounter with literature.
But this book is much more than that, and Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on.
Drawing on his position as someone facing a diminished life span, Wiman mounts a welcome, insightful and bracing assault on both the complacent pieties of many Christians and the thoughtless bigotry of intellectuals who regard Christian faith as suitable only for idiots or fools. Wiman has endured dull sermons from liberal pastors who seem embarrassed to mention Jesus, and he has heard from secular fundamentalists who attempt to dismiss his faith with facile reference to psychology. He comments: “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”
Wiman is adept at making connections between the religious impulse and the need to create art. Like many artists, after shedding his early religious faith, he transferred “that entire searching intensity” into his work. But eventually Wiman sensed that all those hours of reading, thinking and writing were leading him back into faith. He began to feel that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”
Wiman finds that the integrity of a poem, which is “its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity,” is similar to that of a God who lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.” Both require the use of metaphor, “which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths.” Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”
And there is the rub, the necessity of a personal commitment to a particular faith, with its own specific language, rituals and traditions. “You can’t really know a religion from the outside,” Wiman writes, and no matter how much you learn about it, it remains “mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk.” With so much at risk for him, he takes the plunge. And in accepting that the words and symbols of Christianity say something true about reality but are also necessarily limited in their scope, he sees an analogue with poetry. “You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”
Christianity scandalized the ancient world because it was for common people, open to anyone, rich or poor, slave or free. It offered no secret, specialized knowledge that could be acquired by a select few. Some contemporary readers may be scandalized by Wiman’s opting to be a common Christian, relinquishing the elite status of the artist in Western culture. The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”
This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging. He describes his childhood home as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, . . . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void” that he admits, with typical acuity, “I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me.” He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision, writing, for example, that “the sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self.”
This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.