Poets are by turns lyrical, expressive, rhythmic, and profound, but perhaps most of all, they are intense. Their intensity manifests in the sharp eye they cast on the world and every detail in it, the careful, sustained scrutiny they give to every object, person or situation in front of them, and to every resultant thought in their mind and gut that is yearning for expression.
It is this intensity that perhaps most shines forth from poet Christian Wiman’s recent memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.
If poetry has a way of concentrating the mind, then a wretched and ostensibly terminal disease befalling the poet no doubt does that concentration one better. Wiman has been suffering/benefiting from this fate for nearly eight years now, holding at bay a rare blood cancer that struck him at age 39 and which his initial prognosis suggested would kill him long ago. That it hasn’t (yet; it is mysteriously but ever-tentatively in remission) may be a testament to modern medicine, Wiman’s indomitable will, blind luck or divine grace.
Whatever the source of his holding fast to precious life, the one certainty is that we are fortunate to have this inimitable memoir of a modern poet wrestling with his faith, his God, and all the Big Questions that were doubled-down for him when he became ill. Adding pathos to the story, the illness followed shortly after the equal-but-opposite world-shattering experience of Wiman finding the love of his life, an event he describes with a poet’s typical immersion:
We usually think of falling in love as being possessed by another person, and like anyone else I was completely consumed and did some daffy things. But it also felt, for the first time in my life, like I was being fully possessed by being itself. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” (Simone) Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
Wiman recently left his longtime post as editor of Poetry magazine to accept an appointment teaching religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. He structures this slim volume (178 pages) as a series of, indeed, “meditations,” some of them logical elaborations, others streams of consciousness or wisps of poetry from his own pen and from others he admires. He circles rather than angles in on the central paradox informing his expressive quest: how a thoroughly modern, formerly disaffected and skeptical poet can lay the burden of his consciousness down at the foot of a religious tradition he had, along with most members of the literary and academic communities, come to dismiss as irrelevant to modern sensibilities.
Not that he was unfamiliar with the tradition. He had been raised an evangelical, unquestioning Christian in what he describes as a “sand-blasted town in West Texas, pumpjacks and pickup trucks….I never met an actual unbeliever until my first day of college in Virginia.” The foray to college changed everything, though.
That familiar two-arms-above-head swaying to music about how Jesus will heal every hurt, after which the preacher evangelizes about God’s abundance and how you deserve your slice of it? Not quite Wiman’s understanding of the gospel message—either before or after his adult embrace of faith.
I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love. To come to this realization is not to be suddenly “at ease in the world.” I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable.
So it is an uneasy truce Wiman has come to between his prior agnostic self and his embrace of Christianity. Years later, he still appears to be a bit shell-shocked about the development and none too cocky about his Christian identity or ability to carry on with it. Doubt is his tormenter—and his friend.
I keep forgetting, or perhaps simply will not let myself see, what true faith is, its active and outward nature. I should never pray to be at peace in my belief. I should pray only that my anxiety be given peaceful outlets, that I might be the means to a peace that I myself do not feel.
Notably, he references “Christ” more frequently than he does “Jesus,” the flesh-and-blood life morphing into the more encompassing cosmic symbol of redemption and love. How this Christ symbol interfaces with Wiman’s rather elliptical packaging of the notion of “God” is a journey unto itself in this volume that, like a poem, works mightily to pack the utmost punch into every letter and word on the page.
Wiman’s God appears to be both fiercely incarnate, in the specific mortal person of Jesus and the eternal Christ/God who continues to suffer along with his creation, and to be ultimately beyond all definition or containment. On the incarnational end of the spectrum is this:
For many people, God is simply a gauze applied to the wound of not knowing, when in fact the wound has bled into every part of the world…I hear someone say on TV that one need only think of the million innocent children killed in the Holocaust to annihilate any notion of a benevolent God. True enough, I think, but that’s a straw god, and not the real one who felt every one of those deaths as his own…If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half-measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some kind of shiny, sinless superhero.”
On the other end, God is not quite definable within the constructs and vocabularies familiar to our everyday discourse:
Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can approach you only as an object, which you are not.
…any notion of God that is static is—since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge—blasphemous.
Where to go from those conceptual knots? Over subsequent pages, Wiman engages in a series of parries and thrusts that attempt to describe and understand the indescribable and ineffable:
The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of the physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility. I tell myself that I have no problem believing in God if “belief” can be defined as some interior assent to a life that is both beyond and within this one, and if “assent” can be understood as at once active and unconscious, and if “God” is in some mysterious way both this action and its object, and if after all these qualifications this sentence still makes any effing sense. Clearly, I do have something of a “problem.”
Clearly, he does, but it is not an unusual one for intellectual, doubt-embracing believers. They must of necessity resort to twisting themselves into all manner of “effing” shapes to rationally explain faith in a “God” who remains inexplicable in any language that deigns to resolve the tensions between subject and object, heart and head.
Go all with heart and you are forced to swallow contradictions that make any thinking person gag, but to seek God along the purely intellectual path is to suffer the kind of dust that accumulates on academic philosophy textbooks in a university library basement. Most of the time, Wiman attempts to resolve this dilemma by tacking back to his incarnational self, his fierce flesh-and-blood immersion in the world from which he draws his poetry:
This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself. Perhaps we are the weak ones, and God comes to us inwardly only because we have failed to perceive him in the crying child, the nail driven cleanly into the wood, in the early dawn sun that merely to see clearly is sufficient prayer and praise.
This passage suggests that perhaps “belief” in the conventional sense of “I believe in God” is necessary only for those who need it to accessorize the godness available every minute of every mundane day, in all the concrete specificity of this suffering, beautiful world. As a poet, Wiman well knows that gaudy intellectual frameworks for either poetry or God pale next to the fullness of an actual thing observed and nailed cleanly with precise language. (He also knows how difficult this quest can be, which is why poets are few and great poets even fewer.)
In an article praising works of “accidental theology” for the Wall Street Journal, Wiman cites none other than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, framing his choice this way:
The truth is, every honest effort at defining reality gets us closer to God, while every honest effort at defining God culminates in destroying him. In other words, God is revealed by reality but not exhausted by it. Darwin was one of the best things that ever happened to theology because he wiped away an idol—a God who 6,000 years ago fashioned man out of matter and then rigorously separated him from it; a God whose goodness can be transparently read in the book of nature; a God who can be confined to any one religion, or even within religion itself.
No, Wiman’s God is bigger, more inscrutable, more complex, contradictory and irreducible than any idol, while also suggesting to him “real presence” and extending an invitation for engagement, relationship, and involvement in his creation.
It is an invitation that Wiman has accepted with eyes wide open, on a rugged pilgrimage rather than serene arrival, about which he says, “What I do know is that turning toward God has not lessened my anxieties.”
I am indebted again to the sterling photographers whose work helps enliven these pages. Nature photos in text above courtesy of McKinney, Texas-based photographer Mark Powers, all rights reserved. His work can be viewed and he can be contacted at: Flickr: m_powers’ Photostream.
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Bill Moyers is his usual thoughtful and penetrating self as he engages Christian Wiman in deep conversation lasting just under a half hour on his public television show in 2012. Wiman also reads some of his poetry during the segment. Simply click the link below.