My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believerby Christian Wiman
Eight 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/i>/i>… See more details below
Eight 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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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
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