I started Christian Wiman’s memoir My Bright Abyss shortly before Ascension Day, with the hymns of Christ’s rising triumph a week or so away from being sung. The timing lessened some of the dread I felt over beginning a book I knew to be written under a “deepening shadow of death” – the author’s diagnosis of a rare incurable cancer. After reading Wiman’s poetry, essays, and several interviews, I knew I was beginning a heavy journey – one that would confront affliction and doubt, not just echo the songs of joyful praise.
Wiman describes his life as “broken open” by cancer, and calls Abyss an effort to “speak more clearly” of how he believes in God. “How do you answer that burn of being?” he asks in the preface. “[And] What might it mean for your life – and for your death – to acknowledge that persistent ghost?”
As with many powerful meditations on faith – the ones I enjoy most, anyway – Abyss is more spiritual exploration than religious prescription. From the very beginning it is clear that it is not a typical “conversion story.”
Wiman claims to have had a mythical sense of God before he expressly acknowledged him. He denies a “bolt-from-the-blue revelation” that could be called a conversion. Hence his language is that of beliefs being built upon over time – evolving and deepening in response to life’s course rather than suddenly sparking up from sheer absence.
“Faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life,” says Wiman, concluding then that, “even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change.” Such language might intimidate those who crave the easily chartable epiphanies – such as Oprah’s “aha moments” of self discovery or even breathless altar-call professions. To me, though, Wiman’s confidence in faith as change is refreshingly different from the tidy arcs of before and after stories.
His book is not a theological treatise, either, where Wiman champions particular doctrines or offers an apologetic treatment of the denomination in which he, as an adult, found his spiritual home (the United Church). His frustrations over the language of belief (“sodden with overuse and imprecision”) extend to mainline Christianity’s many forms. So, too, does his exasperation with the apparent either/or distinction so many Christians make between mystical experience and dogma, instead of embracing both as vital elements of living faith.
Although Wiman is dismayed by the shape of faith in society, he is hopeful about the “visionary art” which seeks to answer the “burn of being” with truth and grace. Until recently he was editor of the venerable American magazine of verse, Poetry. So he naturally he pulls insight and inspiration most often from poetry. Featured poets include Osip Mandelstam, Richard Wilbur, George Herbert and several others. He also draws on the wisdom of thinkers such as Thomas Merton and Augustine and praises fiction’s powerful capacity for “building a vocabulary of faith”. He speaks of novelist Marilynne Robinson as a kind of modern prophet, able to capture the natural and the brimming eternal in a single passage. His own sparely eloquent poems are excerpted as well.
When Wiman juxtaposes the work of these authors along with the unease and ecstasies stirring in his own soul, they reveal his view that spiritual yearning is itself evidence for divine love. He sees a beautiful logic in Herbert’s assertion, for example, that “the very permanence of our longing is proof of longing’s eventual fruition” and in a Robinson passage that speaks to the promise that “everything will be made whole.”
As Wiman’s diseased body betrays him – even as it radiates with agony – he does not let his suffering exile him into an abyss of utter meaninglessness. He is haunted by the very real, if complicated, presence of Christ, whose suffering “shatters the iron wall around individual suffering” and makes human love possible. For Wiman, no other belief system makes sense except that which has, at its source, a Christ that “won’t go away” – who suffers with us, and is able to carry both the intensities of our joy and our sorrow.
The spiritual acuity of My Bright Abyss comes from its honest, undaunted articulations of longing. “I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given,” he says. “But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury.”
At the close of his meditation, Wiman is still a modern believer with deep wonderings and wants – but he does not hunger without hope. Instead he prays and writes and ponders all that he longs for. This dreadfully beautiful book reminds the spiritually “hungry” that we are, even now, in ascension season. It is a work of visionary art that invites us to live in and through Christ’s wounds as we lift our difficult bliss up to God.
(Originally published in Christian Courier – June 24, 2013 edition)