My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

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Overview

Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition—might look like.

Joyful, sorrowful, and beautifully written, My Bright Abyss is...

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Overview

Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition—might look like.

Joyful, sorrowful, and beautifully written, My Bright Abyss is destined to become a spiritual classic, useful not only to believers but to anyone whose experience of life and art seems at times to overbrim its boundaries. How do we answer this “burn of being”? Wiman asks. What might it mean for our lives—and for our deaths—if we acknowledge the “insistent, persistent ghost” that some of us call God?

One of Publishers Weekly's Best Religion Books of 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Christian Wiman is an acclaimed poet (Every Riven Thing) and the editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine, but he is also a frail human who for years struggled with a rare, aggressive cancer that threatened to kill him. In the throes of chemo and other painful treatments, he actually strengthened his previously sometimes faltering sense of faith. In My Bright Abyss, he writes about "all the difficult bliss of this life that I have been given" and the radical, inviolable innocence of truth. Essays that are both artfully poetic and nakedly poignant. Editor's recommendation.

The Washington Post - Scott Russell Sanders
…[an] anguished, eloquent meditation on faith…By contrast with many cancer narratives, this one does not dwell on the dramas of therapy, the ups and downs of hope; rather, it uses grave illness to focus on the question that lurks beneath much, if not all, religion: "What do you do, what do you say, what in the world are you going to believe in when you are dying?"
The New York Times Book Review - 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…[Wiman] 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…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…This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding.
Publishers Weekly
Wiman offers urgent thoughts on faith and doubt from the foxhole of mortality. Not that many years ago, the poet (Every Riven Thing) and editor of Poetry magazine was diagnosed with a rare cancer. This book of essays springboards from a much talked about 2007 essay that laid out his condition, his dark night of the soul, and his reawakening faith. Like Jacob, Wiman wrestles with that which he will not release until he is blessed—and in fact he was, his cancer apparently in remission. Readers are blessed with the fruit of Wiman’s pain, doubt, and poetic rumination. His exquisite essays have the intimate but choppy feel at times of journal entries, drawn from the deep and refined by a wordsmith, but nonetheless fragments shored against his ruin. A rare bird who flies between religious and secular literary worlds, Wiman may well be the successor to Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you love poetry, the poet will have you in his preface, at “that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves.” This would make a beautiful gift for someone who is serious and seriously ill. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
Praise for My Bright Abyss

“[Christian Wiman’s] poetry and his scholarship have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world. This puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say new things in timeless language, so that the reader’s surprise and assent are one and the same.” —Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gilead

“Every generation needs someone to write about faith as lucidly as Christian Wiman does in this ‘meditation of a modern believer.’” —The Wall Street Journal

“Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss creates in the reader the keen, poetic attention of a man with a cancer diagnosis trying to remain fully present in his life. His spiritual ancestors are C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. Like Lewis, he’s surprised by the joy of falling in love. Like Merton, he captures the smugness that can poison some atheists as it does some believers. This masterwork of doubt and faith, literature and theology, will affect nonbelievers and spiritual seekers alike.” —Mary Karr, author of Lit and The Liar’s Club

“In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text. What does it mean for a modern man to believe? In this extremely moving narrative, this question is asked with grace and fury, with astonishing eloquence and courage that only a few can equal in our time. It will be read for years and years to come.” —Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa

“Forged from pain, like most masterpieces, My Bright Abyss provides an advanced course in applied mysticism for the twenty-first century.” —Eliza Griswold, author of The Tenth Parallel

 

“Christian Wiman has written a moving, thoughtful meditation on faith and poetry that is really a treatise on meaning: where we find it, what it offers us, whether it can mitigate pain. There’s a luminous clarity in these pages, the kind that comes only when a writer is facing ultimate questions.” —Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye

My Bright Abyss . . . has unlocked the universe for me. My soul sang alongside every word. It’s an instant classic, will be revered a hundred years from now.” —Jamie Quatro, The Fine Delight

“Like the classic mystics, [Wiman] often resorts to a language of paradox to convey things that ordinary language can’t … Wiman speaks carefully but powerfully . . . The best that can come from contemplation of mortality, perhaps, is a kind of wisdom that can give others strength—not by answering questions, like those best-sellers which claim to tell you what happens after you see the white light, but by asking questions honestly . . . My Bright Abyss is a book that will give light and strength, even to those who find themselves unable to follow its difficult path.” —Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker

“This is a daring and urgent book . . . 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 . . . Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging . . . He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision . . . 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.” —Kathleen Norris, The New York Times Book Review

“Burnished and beautiful, My Bright Abyss is a sobering look at faith and poetry by a man who believes fiercely in both, but fears he might be looking at them for the last time. Wiman’s memoir is innovative in its willingness to interrogate not only religious belief, but one of its most common surrogates, literature . . . Wiman’s story is chiefly a love affair: of a poet with words, of a husband with his wife and two daughters, of a believer with the holy . . .  Here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel . . . Wiman calls his memoir the “Meditation of a Modern Believer,” and it is that, but more than meditation, it is an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” —Casey N. Cep, The New Republic

“In verse and poetry alike, Christian Wiman possesses and endearing and profound spiritual sensibility . . . My Bright Abyss is built of prose so lyrical and true you want to roll it around in your mouth and then speak it to strangers on the street . . . Wiman refuses easeful conclusions, he celebrates the verse and the two-faced joy at the hub of our lives—Nietzsche’s tragic joy—and in doing so he has written what will be for many a life-changing book.” —William Giraldi, Virginia Quarterly Review

My Bright Abyss gives us eleven essays that are at once personal and philosophical, critical and inclusive. If it is possible to prolifically and empathetically investigate each existential imperative—death, art, love, and God—Wiman has offered us the closest thing . .. The essays are not unlike a poem in a collection, adding bone to the body, yet strong enough to stand alone. Each is immersed in conversation with the others, anchored to a common ambition: to restore the sacred extrapolation of our imaginations, the unfurling of faith and love in the moment of creating . . . Wiman writes with forceful honesty. His hope lays on the inchoate edge of impossibility and because of that becomes nearly tangible . . . The maturity of Wiman’s voice, the quiet that suffuses his words and indicates his gravity of introspection, and the gorgeous cadence offered in damn near every sentence make this one book I’ll relentlessly recommend to those peering into the terrifying and beautiful abyss—which is to say, anyone and everyone. We are indebted to him, a poet who revels in the limitations of language in My Bright Abyss and therefore, consequently and in a blaze, transcends those limitations.” —Caitlin Mackenzie, HTMLGiant

“In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer . . . Christian Wiman—himself a fine poet and translator of the Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam—contemplates the meaning of poetic incarnation in specifically Christian terms, drawing on a wide range of authors. He blends poetry (his own and others’), criticism, theological speculation, and memoir in ways that defy easy categorization . . . Throughout My Bright Abyss, Wiman avoids formulaic responses. His prose is poetry in the truest sense: language adequate to one person’s experience . . . Wiman’s book is a moving argument for the use of poetry as a spiritual guide . . . [Wiman] shows us what happens to a man when his relation to the divine is reawakened, his mind becoming alert in ways previously unimaginable. That alertness carries over into his readings of poetry, which occur in a pressured context, as the language of the poems becomes part of his evolving mental landscape, part of his recovery, his spiritual (as well as physical) survival . . . In My Bright Abyss, Wiman offers a demonstration of what faith means to a critic: not a new way of life but, more mysteriously, the old life freshly understood, filtered through a range of texts. He reminds us that revelation comes not in a whirlwind or fire, but in that ‘still, small voice’ that came to Elijah in the desert. ‘The voice is always there, for everyone,’ writes Wiman. ‘For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.’ It is this urgency that separates the wheat from the chaff among critics.” —Jay Parini, The Chronicle Review

“Wiman isn’t the least bit sentimental or nostalgic about the deeply Christian faith that provides the bedrock for his meditation . . . I can think of only a handful of writers I’ve read who have diagnosed the contemporary spiritual condition as poignantly as Wiman. But he doesn’t stop at ‘reading the times.’ Wiman weaves an intensely personal account of the hard work of maintaining belief in the midst of a culture determined to identify itself as secular . . . The poet is always wide-eyed and available to the world, but Wiman has the kind of gaze that Flannery O’Connor says is peculiar to the Catholic writer: their seeing continues deep beneath the surface of what all of us can plainly see . . . [My Bright Abyss] is breathtakingly beautiful and astonishing in its wisdom. . . hands down, the best book I’ve read in more than a decade.” —Kurt Armstrong, Geez Magazine

“A set of sublimely original spiritual reflections . . . Beyond the autobiographical elements of the book, beyond the translucent prose that this gifted poet offers us, its more universal value is its presentation of a modern believer . . . This is a book to take in small bites, to savor and study. You cannot read it impatiently. It will challenge you, believer or not, to think again about the things that are most important. Above all, Wiman demonstrates how to be fully human and deeply religious in a way that is free of cant and fully open to sharing the pain of the world, perhaps in order to bring it to new life . . . Wiman speaks to today in ways that very few other spiritual writers have attained, causing his readers to become a little more alive, with all that might mean for a fuller insertion into the pain and the joy of the world.” —Paul Lakeland, National Catholic Reporter

“Wiman infuses his writing with lyricism and a playfulness with language . . . He augments his own mastery of language with the liberal use of quotations from other poets and writers, spanning an impressive range of literary backgrounds. Wiman’s depth of knowledge as a reader truly undergirds this work, as he invokes everyone from George Herbert to Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonheoffer to Seamus Heaney. As the author struggles to understand God, he also struggles to comprehend the institution of Christianity, seeing in it deep flaws, an inability to fully grasp the depth of the God it proclaims, and what he sees as a childish clinging to legend and myth . . . Poignant and focused . . . Wiman’s grasp of the written word carries this unconventional faith memoir.” —Kirkus 

Library Journal
An award-winning poet considers what faith and verse have meant to him—particularly as he faces cancer.
Kirkus Reviews
A poet approaches the Almighty with halting steps. In the shadow of a recently discovered cancer, Poetry editor Wiman (Every Riven Thing, 2010, etc.) rediscovered faith. Not the faith of his Baptist, Texas youth, but a faith first steeped in the unbelief of modernism. Here, the author attempts to understand and elucidate that faith, and he writes as if readers may not believe him. Thus, he acts as an apologist, but to himself as much as to others. Indeed, Wiman is careful not to allow himself belief in traditional Christianity, but only in a vague and open, yet Christ-centered idea. "Faith is nothing more…than a motion of the soul toward God," he writes. "It is not belief. Belief has objects--Christ was resurrected, God created the earth--faith does not." Structured in short sections, some practical, some wholly creative, Wiman infuses his writing with lyricism and a playfulness with language ("if nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness"). He augments his own mastery of language with the liberal use of quotations from other poets and writers, spanning an impressive range of literary backgrounds. Wiman's depth of knowledge as a reader truly undergirds this work, as he invokes everyone from George Herbert to Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonheoffer to Seamus Heaney. As the author struggles to understand God, he also struggles to comprehend the institution of Christianity, seeing in it deep flaws, an inability to fully grasp the depth of the God it proclaims, and what he sees as a childish clinging to legend and myth. "Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not," he writes. At times poignant and focused, at other times vague and meandering, Wiman's grasp of the written word carries this unconventional faith memoir.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374534370
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 73,159
  • Product dimensions: 6.21 (w) x 8.14 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Christian Wiman is the author of six previous books, most recently Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010), winner of the Ambassador Book Award in poetry, and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam.

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Read an Excerpt

My Bright Abyss

Meditation of a Modern Believer
By Christian Wiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Christian Wiman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374216788

MY BRIGHT ABYSS
 
 
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
*   *   *
And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way—to will my way—into its ending. Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable. As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a single stanza. Still, that is the way I have usually known my own mind, feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them. And I have always believed in that “beyond,” even during the long years when I would not acknowledge God. I have expected something similar here. I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.
*   *   *
In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends—as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world—it can be very difficult to retain any faith in that original moment of inspiration at all. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time. Grace is no different. (Artistic inspiration is sometimes an act of grace, though by no means always.) To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.
*   *   *
When I was young, twelve years old or so, I had an “experience” one morning in church. I put the word in quotes because, though the culture in which I was raised possessed definite language to explain what happened to me (I was filled with the Holy Spirit, I was saved), I no longer find that language accurate or helpful when thinking about how God manifests himself—or herself, or Godself, or whatever hopeless reflexive pronoun you want to use—in reality and individual lives. Also, I don’t really remember the event. I remember that it happened, but it’s in the half-wakeful, sedated way a man remembers a minor surgery. I remember being the subject of much adult awe and approbation, but even then the child those adults described, weeping and shaking and curled up tight in the church basement, was a stranger to me.
I grew up in a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pumpjacks and pickup trucks, cotton like grounded clouds, a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me. To call the place predominantly Christian is like calling the Sahara predominantly sand: I never met an actual unbeliever until my first day of college in Virginia, when a dauntingly hip prep-schooled freshman announced his atheism as casually as a culinary preference. Though I would presently embrace my own brand of bookish atheism—with, alas, a convert’s fervor—just then I could not have been more shocked had that boy begun swiveling his head around and growling Aramaic.
The insularity that made my shock possible is, no doubt, precisely what made God possible—as a palpable reality, I mean, inclined to act on and in matter, to visit an unsuspecting soul like a blast of bad weather. That, according to my family, is what happened that day in the church when I rose during the call to be saved and, instead of heading toward the altar and the preacher’s extended arms, fled the service entirely and ended up in the basement. What intensity seized me so utterly that I could not stay still? What love or judgment so overmastered me that I could not speak? Eventually my father found me, muttering incoherently, weeping—ecstatic. No one was in doubt about what had happened to me, nor did it matter that I myself had no idea. I had been visited just as Jacob or Mary was visited. I had been called, claimed.
It is somehow fitting that the most intense spiritual experience of my life should slip out of my memory like a dream (and that it should so resemble suffering, and that it should drive me straight out of the church that ostensibly prepared me for it). The moment means nothing to me now, and I’m inclined to rationalize it away: I grew up in a culture that encouraged conversions—quiet conversions, but still—in early adolescence. These were timed to coincide with a person’s baptism, which for Baptists couldn’t happen until you were old enough to understand the implications of what you were committing to. I was primed by the culture to experience something, and my own stifled imagination and primordial boredom conspired to answer that expectation with an outright rapture. In short, I faked it.
There are problems with this explanation. It’s not really my nature, first of all: the theatricality, the willingness to be in an emotional spotlight, the unbottled expression of intense feelings—it all makes me feel a little creepy even thirty years on. It also seems unlikely that one would (or could) forget simulating an experience like this. The deliberation involved, the studied execution, all the excitement and concern of the other people—could all of that really just slip into oblivion?
There’s another option, of course: it was real. Too real. Not in the way that some traumas are too real and thus buried within us, but in another, cellular sense, some complete being that I can’t remember because I can’t stand apart from it, can’t find an “I” from which to see the self that, for a moment, I was. Or wasn’t. If eternity touched you, if all the trappings of time and self were stripped away and you were all soul, if God “happened” to you—then isn’t it possible that the experience could not be translated back into the land of pumpjacks and pickup trucks, the daily round wherein we use words like self and soul, revelation and conversion, as if we knew what those words meant? Maybe I didn’t in fact “forget” it. Maybe it happened—and goes on happening—at the cellular level and means not nothing but everything to me. Maybe, like an atavistic impulse, I don’t remember it, but it remembers me.
*   *   *
If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations—motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.
In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.
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. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.
*   *   *
On the radio I hear a famous novelist praising his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever “seeking relief in religion.” It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride, and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? That we carry our despair stoically into death, that even the utmost anguish of our lives does not change us? How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering—or great joy—comes. But the tension here is not simply between faith and the lack of it. A Christian who has lived with a steady but essentially shallow form of faith may find himself called to suffer the full human truth of God, which is the absence of God, may find himself finally confronted with the absolute emptiness of the cross. God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.
*   *   *
I don’t mean to suggest that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not at times a worthy one. I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the novelist’s father (the despair would seem to argue against stoic acceptance), but what was going on in the mind of the novelist himself is clear: it’s the old fear of religion as crutch, Freudian wish fulfillment, a final refusal of life—which in order to be life must include a full awareness of death—rather than a final flowering of it. Some Christians love to point to (possibly apocryphal) anecdotes such as the one about Nietzsche, that idolater of pure power, going insane at the end of his life because he saw a horse being beaten; or Wallace Stevens, the great modern poet of unbelief, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. But there are plenty of anecdotes to set against these: Freud’s courage when suffering his final illness, Camus’s staunch, independent humanism in the face of the chaos and depravity he both witnessed and imagined (“… what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”—The Plague). There is not a trace of resignation or defeat in Camus. Indeed there is something in the stalwart, stubbornly humane nature of his metaphysical nihilism that constitutes a metaphysical belief. If it is true—and I think it is—that there is something lacking in this belief, that it seems more like one man’s moral courage than a prescription for living, more a personal code than a universal creed, it is also true that all subsequent Christianity must pass through the “crucible of doubt” (as Dostoevsky, even earlier, called it) that such thinkers as Camus underwent.
*   *   *
If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world, wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape into everydayness. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.
*   *   *
Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.
*   *   *
It is this last complacency to which artists of our time are especially susceptible, precisely because it comes disguised as a lonely, heroic strength. Sometimes it truly is a strength: Giacometti, Beckett, Camus, Kafka. Yet it is a deep truth of being human—and, I would argue, a hint at the immortal Spirit who is forever tugging us toward him—that even our most imaginative discoveries are doomed to become mere stances and attitudes. In this sense, art does advance over time, though usually this advance involves a recovery of elements and ideas we thought we had left behind for good. This is true not only for those who follow in the wake of great accomplishments but also for those who themselves did the accomplishing. What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than twentieth-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. The four artists above all knew that, and made of that fatal knowledge a fierce, new, and necessary faith: the austere, “absurd” persistence of spirit in both Camus and Beckett; the terrible, disfiguring contingency that, in Giacometti’s sculptures, takes on the look of fate. There is genuine heroism here, but there is also—faintly at first, but then more persistently, more damagingly—an awareness of heroism. (Only Kafka seems to fully feel his defeat: he is perhaps the most “spiritual” artist among this group, though he treasures his misery too much ever to be released from it.) This flaw—the artist’s pride—is what made the achievement possible, but it is also the crack that slowly widens over time, not lessening the achievement, but humanizing it, relativizing it. Insights that once seemed immutable and universal begin to look a little more like temporal, individual visions—visions from which, inevitably, there comes a time to move forward.
*   *   *
Christianity itself is this—temporal, relative—to some extent. To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for eighteenth-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, an exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see.
*   *   *
When I think of the years when I had no faith, what I am struck by, first of all, is how little this lack disrupted my conscious life. I lived not with God, nor with his absence, but in a mild abeyance of belief, drifting through the days on a tide of tiny vanities—a publication, a flirtation, a strong case made for some weak nihilism—nights all adagios and alcohol as my mind tore luxuriously into itself. I can see now how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.
*   *   *
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me—and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief. When I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: poem after poem about unnamed and unnameable absences, relationships so transparently perishable they practically came with expiration dates on them, city after city sacked of impressions and peremptorily abandoned, as if I were some conquering army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a person, but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God) the overweening self.
*   *   *
They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you—and even something in you—seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they’d been flung. Worse than snow, worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate, creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are—alive, alive—and sought return. They do not happen now, whether because of what we’ve learned or because the earth itself has changed. Yet I can close my eyes and see all the trees tugging at their roots as if to unfasten themselves from the earth. I can hear the long-gone howl, more awful for its being mute.
*   *   *
Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I want nothing more. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the embers’ innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”


 
Copyright © 2013 by Christian Wiman


Continues...

Excerpted from My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman Copyright © 2013 by Christian Wiman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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  • Posted May 24, 2013

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    Mr. Wiman has brought a refreshing look into a spirituality that came through the filter of real life circumstances. It is a book to be read slowly and repeatedly.

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