My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Reviewed by R. Michael Medley, English, Eastern Mennonite University
When one risks sharing a story of intense personal suffering, one invites others to a sacred moment of communion. Though the assertions of the sufferer may make us uncomfortable, we cannot be judgmental nor shut our ears to his or her story. To read Christian Wiman’s collection of essays My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer is to enter into another’s suffering with that kind of reverence. At age thirty-nine, one year after his marriage, he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable, and painful form of cancer. Out of these experiences of intense suffering, this collection of essays was born, though the essays provide only small glimpses of Wiman’s years-long struggle with the disease.
Wiman has published two collections of his own poetry, a translation of Osip Mandalstam’s poems, an anthology of poetry, and one other collection of essays. After spending a decade as editor of Poetry magazine, he is now senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School.
His stature in the world of contemporary poetry makes the collection of essays in My Bright Abyss especially noteworthy. Hints in the essays indicate that he has addressed himself, in part, to “would-be believers, haunted unbelievers” (125), like many of his intellectual colleagues in the poetry world. Because Wiman resists the language of Christianity (118) and writes with those who are “entirely secular” (7) peering over his shoulder, his book is challenging reading for people who have grown up in the Church and speak a more orthodox Christian language.
Wiman quotes liberally from modern and contemporary poets. Poetry and the arts appear as important subjects throughout the book, and he devotes one essay to meditations on the relationship between poetry and faith (“God’s Truth is Life”). Many times, when he seems at a loss for explanation, he introduces a poem or excerpts from poems. He believes that art needs an ultimate concern, which it has lost with post-modernism, averring that we need to find a way to “imagine ourselves into and out of death” (50). In his view, poetry’s role is to provide “some galvanizing combination of hope and lament” (52) in the face of impending devastation in the world. It can help us see “reality as it truly is,” if only for a brief moment (52).
While some Christians may find Wiman’s language and ideas difficult to access, another aspect of the essays that make them challenging is their nonlinearity. The book is neither a theological treatise, nor even a sustained narrative or argument; rather it is a lyrical reflection on life and death; God’s presence and God’s absence; faith, art, and suffering. Wiman calls his work a “mosaic” (x); “all-too-inadequate fragments” (78); a groping for words to express adequately those “fugitive instants” (118); “glimmerings” (93) of what it means to inhabit his earthly life fully. The work is structured in short sections and sometimes cryptic prose-poem-like paragraphs, with very loose transitions from one thought to the next – juxtapositions of ideas with few transitions – and the sudden appearance of poems. In this way, the book is not one you read straight through. You stop, you re-read, you pause to reflect on a poem that he has introduced into a section and what its possible relationship is to the topic he is discussing. Or you just let the book fall open and begin reading at any point.
One example of nonlinearity is the penultimate paragraph of the title essay in which he develops the image of sandstorms he recalls from his youth but no longer experiences; this vignette is followed by a paragraph that is a prayer – yearning to experience God, realizing that God is not an object of our consciousness, that God is seen in the world and in death (of which he gives three haunting images) but only in a “seeming” kind of way. Another example of fragmentation is the essay entitled “God’s Truth is Life” – a palpable struggle to put into words something about God and truth and life. By contrast, “Hive of Nerves,” about the need to “integrate our anxieties into our spiritual lives” (95), is one of the more accessible essays, including this short poetic paragraph: “Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions” (93). Nuggets like this one make some of the essays worth reading and re-reading. This passage also reveals the kind of spirituality Wiman values, one that is at the same time mystical and integrated with the contingencies of our existence.
Against this kind of spirituality Wiman sets theology: theologians are too prolix. Stereotyping their work as “twelve-volume Teutonic tomes” (118), he claims that theology tries to say more about God than is warranted. In confessing his own faith, he gropes for words, often resorting to paradox, as for example this one: “[P]erhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (72). Although an appreciation of paradoxes can enrich belief – as in Parker Palmer’s The Promise of Paradox – Wiman’s paradoxes tend to bewilder readers, perhaps because they arise from his own lostness in a wilderness of intense suffering. In the paradox above, one wonders about the analogy in the first place: Why would we want to conceive of belief as “the making of original art” in the first place? If we see theology as a support for belief (which he sometimes admits is a benefit, 111,138), why should we utterly forget the lessons that theology has taught us?
When he makes the paradoxical assertion “Death is the only lens for true transcendence, but paradoxically, transcendence is possible only when we cease being conscious of our own deaths” (100f), readers may be left wondering what he means by transcendence, how death is a lens for transcendence, why we must cease being conscious of our deaths, and whether death has the last word. Wiman points to novelist Marilynne Robinson’s creation of a spiritually suggestive language that cherishes this world yet is still able to speak of an afterlife in a way that does not supplant the goodness of the world (124-126). His praise of Robinson – who has supplied a blurb for the dust cover – is somewhat ironic, however, when one recalls that Robinson is theologically very astute (see her essays in The Death of Adam); and, in her novels Gilead and Home she speaks the language of a generous orthodoxy, which Wiman himself finds so difficult to speak and which rings true for many Christians, as well as resonates for persons of no faith.
Despite his criticisms of theology, Wiman cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jurgen Moltmann, indicating his leanings toward a “theology of the cross” to help him make sense of suffering. He respects Bonhoeffer as a theologian whose words come alive because of the life that gives them credibility. He finds in “Moltmann’s great book The Crucified God” (133) “the ground on which we can begin to … re-build” our lives (135). Wiman is a Christian “not because of the resurrection” but because Jesus “felt human destitution to its absolute degree … God is with us, not beyond us in our suffering” (155).
He also frequently refers to Simone Weil, finding her writings helpful in expressing what it means to believe in God (vide “Dear Oblivion” 81-83). In a similar vein he mentions his affinity for the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton, and writes warmly of Christian poets George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who honestly grappled with doubt. St. Augustine also gets significant mention when Wiman draws analogy between that saint’s wresting himself free from sexual addictions and the modern generation’s wrestling match with intellectual pride (130-132).
My Bright Abyss is not for the theologically squeamish. Caught between his own doubts and friends and colleagues who are hostile to Christian faith, Wiman forces us to think about God from the perspective of the cancer sufferer, the spiritually pained young person battling death, tormented by a sense of the absence of God. Though he declares the doctrine “Christ died for my sins” a “perverse calculus” (134), he affirms that Christ is God with us in our suffering:
To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence [with all its anxieties]…. It is a strange thing how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God. (94, 98)
Although Old Testament saints complain bitterly about God and to God, they speak honestly, and ultimately, this leads to a sense of surety about the ground of their being that makes them feel truly alive and hopeful. The plaintive reflections of Christian Wiman are clearly in tune with the Psalms, the prophets, and the book of Job. One fault of Job’s friends was that, as listeners to Job’s laments, they did not realize they were treading on sacred ground. Let that not be true of contemporary Christians who read My Bright Abyss.