A Poem For Saturday

SONY DSC

“For D.” by Christian Wiman:

Groans going all the way up a young tree
half–cracked and caught in the crook of another

pause. All around the hill-ringed, heavened pond
leaves shush themselves like an audience.

A cellular stillness, as of some huge attention
bearing down. May I hold your hand?

A clutch of mayflies banqueting on oblivion
writhes above the water like visible light.

(From Every Riven Thing © 2011 by Christian Wiman. Reprinted with kind permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Photo by Flickr user heycountryboy)

“A Deeper Kind Of Truth”

In a profile of Christian Wiman, Tom Bartlett unpacks the poet’s complex faith:

Wiman believes that our souls survive our deaths but finds the usual descriptions of heaven absurd. He gets bored in church. He is uncomfortable on his knees. He is uninterested in the noisy, noxious dispute between full-throated fundamentalism and the “clock-minded logic” of the New Atheists. “It’s just not the God I’m wrestling with,” he tells me. “[The atheists] want to prove—what?—that Noah’s ark didn’t happen? That there wasn’t really a garden and a talking snake? Fine.”

For Christians, the resurrection is the climax of the Bible, the hinge that holds it all together. When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, a deeper kind of truth. Finally, he finds the words: “I try to live toward it.”

Read John Williams’ Q&A with Wiman here. Recent Dish coverage of Wiman here.

On Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

by Matthew Sitman

By now, Dish readers probably know something about Christian Wiman – we’ve featured his work, especially incisive passages from his sterling essays, many times over the last few months. This week his new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, was released, a book many of us anxiously have awaited for some time. The basics of his story are, by now, well-known: a brilliant young poet who, since 2003, has edited Poetry magazine, he was diagnosed with an extraordinarily rare, incurable form of cancer, and My Bright Abyss reflects on his Christian faith in the face of extreme suffering and death.

My copy arrived Tuesday afternoon and I finished reading it late Thursday night around 3am, carried through its final pages on the basis of pure exhilaration. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve waited my entire adult life to read a book like this. It is impossible to summarize or even categorize. Though personal, it is not really a memoir – there only is the barest narrative arc to it. (In this sense, the term “meditation” truly was apt.) The book is written aphoristically, filled with short, dense examinations of God, love, Christ, suffering, poetry, and more. In terms of organization and structure, it most reminds me of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, a book Wiman frequently references. It also is astonishingly learned – the range of Wiman’s reading, the abundance of literary and theological references, is remarkable. I will have to read it many more times to fully absorb its import.

As such, reviewers likely are to be baffled by it. Dwight Garner’s NYT piece particularly seems to miss the mark. My jaw dropped when I read this line from his review: “…there are many moments in ‘My Bright Abyss’ where he preaches as broadly — and, to my ears, as gratingly — as Joel Osteen.” I can say, without hesitation, that there is not a figure more different from Osteen in the firmament of American Christianity than Wiman. Again and again in the book, you can feel Wiman pushing up against the limits of language when trying to grapple with God; indeed, this constitutes one of his great themes. A paradoxical statement from Wiman, or an aphoristic declaration, surely has no real connection to one of Osteen’s gauzy, sentimental one-liners. It makes me think Garner just did not read the book carefully, or felt some strange need to concoct objections to Wiman’s efforts. Garner simply has no feel for what Wiman is trying to do.

Such a suspicion is borne out when Garner asserts the following:

[Wiman] writes things like the following, about himself and his wife: “Last night we wondered whether people who do not have the love of God in them — or who have it but do not acknowledge it, or reject it — whether such people could fully feel human love.”

This strikes me as smug and aggressive nonsense, of the sort that made Richard Dawkins declare, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

Of course, Wiman is not “smug and aggressive” in the least, and it is impossible to read Wiman’s book and believe he is not, desperately, trying to understand the world. Wiman is ruminating on a passage from Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great 20th century theologian, not making a bald assertion. And he immediately says, right after the lines Garner quotes, that “I have a complicated reaction to this.” Meaning, a complicated reaction to the very sentiment Garner reads so simplistically. Indeed, the entire section that Garner lifts this one sentence from is a puzzled, complex meditation on how human love relates to divine love. Wiman writes this about himself and the woman who would become his wife:

I don’t think the human love preceded the divine love, exactly; as I have already said, I never experienced a conversion so much as a faith that had long been latent within me. But it was human love that reawakened divine love.

This seems to me a significant addendum to what so bothers Garner, a hesitation about cause and effect, and – as the rest of the section makes clear – an acknowledgment he and his wife’s shared religious search added intensity and force to the love that exists between them.

If I were to suggest why, whether believer or not, you should read My Bright Abyss, it would be because Wiman asks the most difficult questions I can imagine about life and death with unflinching honesty. As he admits above, it is not a simplistic “conversion” account. You do not finish the book with a sense of closure, that you can put your anxieties and uncertainties aside for pat answers. Wiman makes the skeptic confront uncomfortable possibilities – he asks the doubter to doubt even his doubt. And he makes the believer realize how much of what passes for faith is idolatrous nonsense, evasions and wishful unthinking.

In short, Wiman’s book is the beginning of a conversation we very much need to have, and he clears away so much of the accumulated ridiculousness that has grown-up around discussions of religion in this country. He clarifies the questions we should be asking more than he offers “solutions.” Please read this book – for now, I only can urge that you approach this elegant, difficult testimony to what faith – always mingled with doubt, and always seeking to connect with lived experience – can mean in the modern world with honesty and an open heart. It truly is an essential book for our times.

For more, see Casey Cep’s very smart review in TNR here, and check out some brilliant selections from the book here.

Quote For The Day II

Bronzino-Christ-Nice
“I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection … and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions … 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?” … 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,” – Christian Wiman.

Quote For The Day

“In the Gospels Jesus is always talking to the crowds in parables, which he later ‘explains’ to his disciples. The dynamic is odd in a couple of ways: either the parables are obvious, and the explanations seem almost patronizing, or they are opaque, and the explanations only compound their opacity. (Or could it be—and I confess to relishing this possibility—that the explanations illustrate Christ’s wry sense of humor, which is nowhere else evident?) In any case, the notable point is just how little the explanations amount to, how completely the ultimate truths of the parables—just like dreams and poems—remain within their own occurrence.

Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. This can be a productive and necessary endeavor, whether it’s literary criticism or theology or even the dogmas and rituals of a religion (since all religion is, ultimately, an attempt to interpret God and numinous experience). Such effort deepens and complicates our initial response, even as it gives us an aperture through which to see our moments of mystery, crisis, and revelation more clearly—to give them ‘meanings,’ to integrate them into our lives. The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself. Just as we seem to have grasped every level of meaning in a poem, the private and silent power that compelled us in the first place seems to drain right out of it. Just as we plant the flag of faith on a mountain of doctrine and dogma it has taken every ounce of our intellect to climb, our vision becomes a ‘view,’ which is already clouding over, and is in any event cluttered with the trash of others who have fought their way to this same spot. Nowhere to go now but down,” – Christian Wiman, “Hive of Nerves”

Previous Dish coverage of Wiman’s writing here, here, here, and here.

Quote For The Day

“There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

“And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called ‘normal unhappiness,’ wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not ‘closure,’ and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.” – Christian Wiman, “The Limit,” from Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet

Quote For The Day

Chapel

"To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn't mean that the words and symbols are reality (that's fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that you can 'no more be religious in general than [you] can speak language in general' (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. Lindbeck would go so far as to say that your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it's your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended.

This is true of poetry, too: I don't think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent," – Christian Wiman, "Notes on Poetry and Religion," from Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Previous Dish coverage of Wiman's writing here and here.

(Photo by Flickr user Randy OHC)

Quote For The Day

"I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, and not in an aestheticizing Death-is-the-mother-of-beauty sort of way either, for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope. This is not simply hope for my own life, though I do have that. It is not a hope for heaven or any sort of explainable afterlife, unless by those things one means simply the ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called 'hope toward God,"- Christian Wiman, reflecting on his cancer diagnosis, among other subjects.

Suffering With God

Crucifix

In a moving essay on suffering and the specter of death, cancer patient Christian Wiman meditates on his attachment to Christianity:

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 and 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.

(Photo by Flickr user mRio)

A Poem For Saturday

Sept

"A Field in Scurry County" by Christian Wiman:

Late evening, cool, September, and the ground
giving its clays and contours to the sky.
The colors swirl and merge and fall back down
and for a moment, as the reds intensify,

I am a ghost of all I don’t remember,
a grown man standing where a child once stood.
It is late evening. It is cool. September.
Pain like a breeze goes through me as if it could.

(Reprinted from Hard Night © 2005 Christian Wiman. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Copper Canyon Press. Image by Flickr user St0rmz)