Relish The Anxiety

That’s Christian Wiman’s advice:

There is a distinction to be made between the anxiety of daily existence, which we talk about endlessly, and the anxiety of existence, which we rarely mention at all. The former fritters us into dithering, distracted creatures. The latter attests to—and, if attended to, discloses—our souls.

And yet it is a distinction without a difference, perhaps, and as crucial to eventually overcome as it is to initially understand, for to be truly alive means to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence, to feel one’s trivial, frittering anxieties acquiring a lightness, a rightness, a meaning. So long as anxiety is merely something to be alleviated, it is not life, or we are not alive enough to experience it as such.

Faith and UnFaith

A lovely interview with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine:

CW: My childhood was just saturated in religion. We went to church three times a week—twice on Sunday, and Wednesday nights. We prayed before every meal. We used to have to memorize Bible verses and say them before the meals. It was the context in which we understood every aspect of our lives, and still is for my family.

P&W: You believed in God, Jesus, and so on?

CW: It never occurred to me to doubt it until I went to college. I never met a single person who wasn’t a true believer until I was eighteen years old, at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

P&W: Where the liberals got their claws into you…

CW: [Smiles.] It was a conservative school.

P&W: Maybe for west Texas it was liberal.

CW: Yeah. It fell away very quickly for me—the whole structure fell away like that [snaps fingers]. But the charge of it, and the absence of it, I felt, and never stopped feeling.

Pynchon and Grace

A reader writes:

Your recent post on Christian Wiman, and specifically the Clive James’ quote, reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Thomas Pynchon’s "Gravity’s Rainbow." It’s quite a bit less than "discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be," but I think it’s of a piece with the kind of accidental encounter with faith, and the questing (and questioning) spirit. Here’s a bastardized version – the actual text is nine pages long and, while I agree with a long-ago teacher’s description of it as "the most melancholy and beautiful tenor saxophone solo ever put down to paper," I won’t burden you with it all here. Background is two temporary lovers – one an anti-religious anarchist statistician and the other a society girl clearly out of his league – stumbling across a Church in the snow, in post-war Germany:

"They walked through the tracks of all the others in the snow, she gravely on his arm, wind blowing her hair to snarls, heels slipping once on ice. "To hear the music," he explained.

Tonight’s scratch choir was all male, epauletted shoulders visible under the wide necks of white robes, and many faces nearly as white with the exhaustion of soaked and muddy fields, midwatches, cables strummed by the nervous balloons sunfishing in the clouds, tents whose lights inside shone nuclear at twilight, soullike, through the cross-hatched walls, turning canvas to fine gauze, while the wind drummed there … The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth.

Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one – something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out … But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

O Jesu parvule

Nach dir is mir so weh

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age … give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threee and fourfold, filling the entire hollow of the church – no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward – praise be to God! – for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home…"

Gazing Into The Abyss

Christian Wiman has written a beautiful essay on skepticism and faith in the American Scholar. Money quote:

There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. "It is the same with us and God," she says. "Every separation is a link."

Hat tip: Ross. Clive James writes about Wiman here. This is a simple but lucid evocation of how it feels when grace happens:

Then one morning we found ourselves going to church. Found ourselves. That’s exactly what it felt like, in both senses of the phrase, as if some impulse in each of us had finally been catalyzed into action, so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be.