In poetry and faith, life matters

05/19/2013 7:02 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

“My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 182 pages, $24)

Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and until recently the editor of Poetry magazine, has written what may become a spiritual classic.

He opens his book with a four-line stanza from one of his uncompleted poems:

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:

He closes the book with the same four lines, with one exception: the colon after “this” becomes a period.

Thus, as a good poet does, he captures the paradoxical journey of faith he is on, at “the edge of all I know,” looking forward. Then, at the end, “believing nothing believe in this,” a sure but tentative faith.

In a preface, Wiman says he “wanted to write a book that might help someone who is at once as confused and certain about the source of life and consciousness as I am.”

The book is filled with aphorisms that address this paradox of faith and doubt. These ring true but often demand rereading and reflection. Early on, he writes, “Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous.”

The writing throughout is, understandably, poetic, as in this description of his origins: “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.”

Wiman’s language about faith is refreshing because it does not employ the usual insider phrases. He often contrasts faith and belief, noting that “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.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more intellectual and superficial. “How astonishing it is,” he writes, “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.”

Another theme under the rubric of paradox is the comingling of God’s presence and absence. Wiman writes: “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.”

In 2005, Wiman learned that he had an incurable cancer of the blood, which he calls “as rare as it is unpredictable, ‘smoldering’ in some people for decades, turning others to quick tender.” Despite frequent hospitalizations and a bone marrow transplant, he wrote a book of essays, an excellent poetry collection (“Every Riven Thing”) and a translation of poetry by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, all while editing Poetry magazine.

He also wrote this book in sections over a period of years. Some parts are written during the early stages of cancer treatment, when he faced a more immediate chance of dying. He describes this with incisive feeling: “It is qualitatively different when death leans over to sniff you, when massive unmetaphorical pain goes crawling through your bones, when fear … ices your spine.”

Wiman weaves in excerpts from poems from a variety of sources, including some of his own. And one of his recurring themes is the affinity of poetry and faith. He points to the importance of imagination in experiencing God: “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”

He describes a real poem as having “singular music and lightning insight,” while a living God “is not outside of reality but in it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.”

This is why, he writes later, “poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God.” There’s that paradox again, something you’ll find in poetry and in the Christian mystics.

However, Wiman does not see poetry as a replacement for faith. He notes that “modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone,” but for him, “Christ … is a shard of glass in your gut.”

He says he is a Christian because of Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Christ’s suffering, he writes, “shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering,” and “Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion – to the point of death, even – possible.” And he is a Christian, he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.”

Wiman does more than record thoughts unconnected to his life. He writes of his experiences of this love through his wife and his twin daughters, who have helped carry him through seven years of cancer.

In the end, he concludes that at the heart of faith is “acceptance of all the gifts that God, even in the midst of death, grants us.”

“My Bright Abyss” is a book of depth and insight that, as stated earlier, demands careful reading and reflecting. I will certainly be rereading it more than once in the years ahead.

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