Where Poetry Ends and Prayer Begins, Christian Wiman’s _My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer_

Before last week I had never heard of Christian Wiman.  This week I feel grateful for hearing his name mentioned, the briefest of mentions, and later a profound gratitud for the digital catalogue and the public library.  My Bright Abyss, was waiting for me and I reached out and grabbed it then headed for the check-out. I read and re-read it.

Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013. 182 pages.
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Christian Wiman is a poet, but not only does he write poetry, he was the editor of Poetry, a magazine/journal for ten years (2003-2013), so he has been steeped in all kinds of poetry. My Bright Abyss, though, is not a book of poetry in the traditional sense, although, it is certainly poetic, and what we think of as poetry is within its pages. It is also not a book about poetry, although, he shares with us the poets that have moved him.  Christian Wiman offers his own poetry, but again, this is not a traditional book of poems. It is neither literary criticism nor memoir nor autobiography, but he does tell a story here. I say story because, after all, it is the story of how Wiman returned to religion, although, and I would agree with Wiman’s dislike for the term “return;” he thinks of his religion as something “latent”  within him, which implies it was suddenly made manifest, but nevertheless always there and, perhaps, developing. In short, My Bright Abyss is structured loosely as short prose entries, which include Wiman’s poetry and the poetry of other poets, and his life experiences nested together as expressions of his thoughts on religion.

What is interesting to me is that his leap of faith was not exactly from poetry to religion, but was, it seems to me, an extension of poetry. It was not at all calculated or forced; this is to say, he was not looking for it in any typical way. He states he read poetry, he sacrificed his life to poetry, and then one day he meets his wife and while poetry is what brought them together in the first place, and no doubt created the affinity between them, poetry had a limit as poetry and could not adequately express or contain their shared life. I imagine that the idea here that Christian Wiman presents will sound a little like heresy to those who feel they can approach spirituality through poetry. And, perhaps, that is just it, they can approach spirituality through poetry… and then what happens after the approach, that is, the leading up to?  That there is a difference between poetry and prayer is sometimes overlooked. So I pause here to reflect:  I wonder if, unlike prayer, we do not usually write poems together. Spontaneous prayer in a group setting is just that, prayer — even if it sounds like poetry.  According to Wiman, he and his wife desired to express gratitude for the love they had found, and their need to praise led them to prayer. So they began to pray together. They stumbled through it, he writes. Most stumble through prayer when attempting it, and what is absolutely wonderful about it is that you say it and let it go as a little offering. Moreover, when you say it aloud and share it together it has a gentle binding effect. It is, in the end, the end of the solitary figure.

Christian Wiman fell in love, which he relates as intense joy and then a year after his marriage he found out he had a rare and incurable cancer. But, this is not a book about how a guy who fell in love and then got cancer came to God out of fear of losing all he had gained. My Bright Abyss is a deep reflection on religion by a poet who has these twin experiences of two intensities, joy and sorrow, that are somehow linked to God. Wiman writes with great care in his questioning and even greater care in his tentative realizations.  God for Christian Wiman cannot be defined by the common words typically used: omnipresent, omnipotent, eternal, etc…, God is primarily indefinable, although, not out of reach.

“God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains possible 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.” (p.8)

“God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life.”  The first movement of this sentence seems almost traditional. God is calling us now. Right now. It almost makes one feel as if the God who is calling is maybe up in heavenly constellations somewhere, but then we have a simple turn that brings it all down to earth, “God is life, this life.” It makes me think of John the Baptist yelling “repent.” It was not until I was much older when I learned that John was telling people they still had a chance to change their ways — “right up until our last breath.” Then the next sentence comes with even greater weight, “not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.”  Yes! “not to live in time” and in time. This phrase echos in my brain. I am sometimes like an adolescent, wanting something more from the time in which I inhabit, completely unaware of how I am reckless with my use of time. As I get older my sense of time is more acute; yet, I can still allow myself to be driven by some superficial layer of my unconscious that feeds off distraction and illusion.

And, while impermanence is in many ways sorrowful — and not being attentive to what is around me, even more so — Wiman points to a reality that is the very definition of hope: “Radical change remains possible within us right up until our last breath.” This hope of waking does not put me back to sleep as much as permits me to hold in my heart possibility that only dies when I do.

If anyone is going to talk about God, they are inevitably drawn to talking about love. Not that God is love, but like St. Paul, Christian Wiman recognizes that love is not an abstraction. Love does something to the world. Love matters and has weight. Love gives; not only does it give, but as Wiman writes, it gives in “excess.” Love is abundance.

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“In any true love — a mother’s love for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend — there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. … This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love (and I don’t mean merely when we fall in love; in fact, I’m talking more of other, more durable relationships): it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God. Love, which awakens our souls and which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us.” (p. 23-24)

And so faith for Christian Wiman is not just a set of beliefs; rather it is active. It is the thing that wraps our stories in meaning and carries us across the altar where we find our humanity and God waiting for us.

And, why do we need God? I’ve read other authors, Alain de Botton, for instance whose project is to learn from religion, especially how art is used, how beauty is cultivated, and so on, but then leave out God. While I do like Alain, I wonder if he is not, in the end, making man into God? Or conversely, I wonder if he is not reducing things too much? I wonder finally if ransacking religion to use only its good parts will deepen our relationship with ourselves and with our fellow human beings or will not leave us confused and isolated in our own little worlds we have created?  I’m not sure. Certainly, modern culture has, and to some extent the Buddhists themselves, have done this with Buddhism’s mindfulness. Yet, being attentive of your actions does not necessarily create a person who will try to make those actions right actions.

There is a narrative imperative that comes with God for Christian Wiman, and it has to do with not getting overwhelmed or overly reliant on the wound. He writes:

“What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair? Faith? The cry of faith, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job. The cry of faithlessness is the cry of the damned, like Dante’s souls locked in trees that must bleed to speak, their release from pain only further pain.” (p. 53)

I do not think Wiman could be more clear in faith as transformative, and by transformative meaning, giving meaning. It is not that one is saved from pain, Hallelujah!; but that one can gather the pieces and use them somehow.  One, therefore, is saved from the resulting despair of a life understood as a mere series of events absent meaning. In the end, Wiman is saying, if you think God is absent, as in, there is no God, then you also jeopardize or destabilize meaning.

Again, Christian Wiman is not interested much in a God that is way out there. He writes about his cancer and the unimaginable pain he experienced as making him thirst for concreteness.  Christ, then, becomes the figure of concreteness. Christ also complicates the idea of God in a sense that it brings us to Christianity, and thus seems like a departure from other religions. But he makes it clear that he is not holding up Christianity as the only way. In fact, in my opinion, this is a very Buddhist way of thinking, given that the Buddha was a flesh and blood human being. So it is quite possible that Christ is the figure in Christianity that saves religion from being something outside of lived experience.

“Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying, I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.” p. 121

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In answer to the common critique of the absence of God, as in: Where is your God now?– the question asked even to Christ, — Christian Wiman responds with Christ.

“I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me? (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion — to the point of death, even — possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.” p. 155

There is a limit to human love, Wiman is suggesting, which, in the end needs something more if it is going to lift us out of despair and grief.

“Somehow, even deep within extreme grief, the worst pain is knowing that your pain will pass, all the sharp particulars of life that one person’s presence made possible will fade into mere memory, and then not even that. Consequently, many people fight hard to keep their wound fresh, for in the wound, at least, is the loss, and in the loss the life you shared.” p.156

But, if human love opens to or expresses God’s love, then we find God within our human relationships:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love. This is why I am, such as I am, a Christian, because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” p. 163-164

And then Christian Wiman gives us a new kind of Creed. A Creed that is flowing and moves toward a faith which is active and filled with possibility:

“I believe in grace and chance, at the same time. 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.” p. 164

I suppose we all read what appeals to our minds. I feel a great affinity to Christian Wiman’s thoughts on Christianity and God. We simply cannot and do not live on our own.

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