My Bright Abyss:
Meditation of a Modern Believer
PERHAPS IT’S BEST to open with categories, with what this new book of Christian Wiman’s isn’t.
My Bright Abyss isn’t a memoir, although elements of Wiman’s personal life emerge. Stories of his faith, marriage, family, grandmother, battle with blood cancer, and career as a poet weave themselves throughout. Neither can this book easily be classified as autobiography or literary journalism or lyric essay in any sense I’ve encountered them before.
My Bright Abyss doesn’t fit neatly into a contemporary religious category either. It is neither apologetics nor a manual on how to sustain faith in the midst of great suffering.
Wiman subtitles the book Meditation of a Modern Believer, and perhaps “meditation” provides the most helpful term—a thinking over, a conversational discourse, a perambulation along the varied paths of a single thought.
The single thought here is belief. What does it mean to believe? What does it mean to believe now?
So these are meditations on belief. They take the form of a series of connected essays, varied in length, mostly short, some as short as a single paragraph. My Bright Abyss is not a lengthy book. But lest its brevity fool you, this is no quick read. Each dense, lovely piece requires a contemplative’s nuanced perception to grasp, as well as a contemplative’s implicit understanding that no matter how quickly you try to fill up your mind with ideas, no matter how quickly you try to attain nirvana, the heart will travel only at the slow pace for which it was made.
Wiman explains in the preface that the motivation to compile his prose into a book came from several places. His first prompting arose from the overwhelming response garnered by his essay “Love Bade Me Welcome,” published first in The American Scholar and later included as the final chapter of his first essay collection, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Wiman writes that he found himself much more aware, after receiving such passionate feedback, that there were hosts of other “modern believers” out there, people who were just as “confused and certain about the source of life and consciousness” as he was.
A personal narrative intermingled with theological contemplations, the book most reminds me of Augustine’s Confessions, but also Pascal’s Pensées, Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. Wiman himself mentions several writers who inspire him, and one can trace their imprint upon him: Meister Eckhart, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
So the book is perhaps most like the works of mystics, theologians, and philosophers, be they medieval or more recent. That said, Wiman’s eponymous use of “Modern” remains apt. All similarities to previous works notwithstanding, My Bright Abyss feels utterly fresh.
It’s written in prose, but prose that requires a poet’s prosody to fathom.
Wiman claims that to be a poet is to need form to make sense of life, and I believe that’s one of the reasons My Bright Abyss is so hard to categorize. He is rendering a modern prose meditation in the style of poetry that grapples with the ultimate ancient questions—what does it mean to have faith? What is the purpose of suffering? What role does poetry play when life is falling apart? What does heaven really mean? What will it mean for my wife and daughters when I am gone?
He opens and closes the book with the same unfinished stanza:
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
The only distinction between the two stanzas is their end punctuation. In the beginning, Wiman closes the stanza with a colon, stressing the open-ended nature of the statement. You get the feeling perhaps that what follows will explain his beliefs. If that is the case, this helps make sense of the conclusion of the book, where the same four lines end with a period.
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this.
I don’t interpret this final punctuation as any indication that Wiman’s beliefs have, through the act of writing the book, become more absolute. Rather, the period appears to indicate an unwillingness to formulate his beliefs in the way the initial colon would lead us to expect—in the language of propositional doctrines.
However, if you expect Wiman simply to say, “God is mystery,” and leave it at that, you will be disappointed. At multiple points he laments the lack of specificity in modern belief. In a chapter entitled “Varieties of Quiet” (previously published in Image Issue 73), he writes:
The whole modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief that leads so many people to dismiss all doctrine out of hand, or to say that they are spiritual but not religious, or to emphasize some form of individual “transcendence” over other aspects of spiritual experience—all this is fine until life, or death, comes crashing into you with its all-too-specific terrors and sufferings…. I say [this] as someone who has had his own gauzy ontology overwhelmed with real blood, my mystical sense of God-in-nature obliterated by nature wreaking havoc with my body.
Besides the unwelcome concretion of his illness, another element mitigates against abstraction, either poetic or theological, for Wiman: the earthen, narrative presence of his grandmother.
He sets her up throughout the book as a kind of parallel and foil to himself, and to modern, intellectual ways of inhabiting the world. He writes, “There are other, fuller ways of being in the world, which Eastern religions, as well as Christian mysticism, strive to articulate…. But again, the best evidence comes not from books, but from people, some of whom would never think to pick up a book. And suddenly I am seeing my grandmother again, recalling that habit of mind too attentive to be called passive, too intuitive to be called thought. And I am thinking (thinking!) of a presence so in love with life, so in tune with time, that death seemed only to drive her further in:
She who in her last days loved too well to lose
A single weed to namelessness, in creosote,
Blue gramma, goatsbeard that is not thriving, is,
Amid the cattails’ brittle whisper whispers
O Law’, Honey, ain’t this a praiseful thing.
Perhaps because of her presence in the narrative, perhaps because of her real influence on the life of her grandson, Wiman himself seems too much a man of the earth, and of west Texas, ever to lapse into pure abstraction.
In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Wiman suggests that we make too much of poetry’s capacity to say the “unsayable” or to take us “beyond” the limits of what can be said. By contrast, he says that what he loves about poetry is its concreteness, its specificity. Within that specificity lies a key to understanding his own experience.
The theological analogue to that poetic specificity for Wiman is the very concrete presence of Christ. He does not argue for or against a historical Christ, and appears largely uninterested in those discussions. True to form, while he resists delving into verifications of the Christian story, he resists dismissing it as a mere instructional fiction with equal force.
Wiman focuses instead on the suffering of Christ, what he views as the most compelling aspect of the story. In the chapter “Mortify Our Wolves,” he writes:
I’m 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 suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering. 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.
Concretion and abstraction appear to occupy opposing places in My Bright Abyss, with abstraction playing the role of necessary evil. There are things we can only fathom in the abstract, Wiman argues, and death is the ultimate abstraction. Meanwhile, a sense of urgency for concretion seems to arise not only from Wiman the poet, but from Wiman the patient.
He says that whereas he once venerated Wallace Stevens’s famed dictum “Death is the mother of beauty,” he now dismisses that way of thinking as Romantic. Wiman writes, “Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live—until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.”
Having been close to death so often in the last few years, Wiman reports that instead of sharpening or heightening his ability to live, excruciating pain and impending extinction often dulled his senses, giving rise to numbness and a sense of heartbreaking detachment from those he most loves.
In response to that concretion of death, Wiman does not choose to take ready comfort in orthodox or traditional views of heaven. Characteristically, he neither rejects nor affirms them wholesale; instead he maintains that any concept of heaven we might posit, particularly heavens that bear too strong a resemblance to our most earnest earthly desires, the heavens that represent what he terms “a metallic kind of happiness,” are necessarily provisional and contingent.
“Provisional” and “contingent” are, in fact, two of Wiman’s favorite words.
“Christ is contingency,” he tells a friend walking through the dusty streets of west Texas. I take this to mean that Christ, through his suffering and incarnation, joins with us in our suffering, willingly takes on the limitations of contingency. Wiman similarly emphasizes the provisional nature of what we can definitively know, not just about God, but about theology.
The two concepts are related, occasionally even synonymous, but for the most part Wiman uses them differently. His use of “contingent” tends to stress the dependent nature of a thing, whereas “provisional” implies instead a thing’s conditional, incomplete nature. Language about faith is as finite as the human minds that posit it, and while we need silences to embody that finitude, Wiman points out, “the soul in extremity craves language; and even more than that, craves within language some fixed point of perception, some articulation of soul and circumstance that neither wavers nor decays, some—how the modern mind pretzels itself trying not to speak this one word—truth.”
It is this pretzeling that a reader more comfortable with traditional language about faith, or even with more orthodox and absolute propositions about God, may find occasionally exasperating in My Bright Abyss. As someone who mostly inhabits the land of tradition and orthodoxy, there were times when I found myself wanting Wiman to be more direct, more absolute, more conclusive. It’s my own struggle as a writer of faith to come to terms with what is often a necessary ambiguity.
Even as I appreciated that ambiguity in Wiman’s prose, I found myself picturing my own farm-grown Presbyterian grandmother saying, “Well, of course it matters if there really is a heaven. Of course it matters if miracles really did happen. Of course it matters if Christ was physically raised from the dead.”
That line between “of course” and “maybe it’s more mysterious than that” is one that every writer of faith must straddle, and though Wiman’s particular blend of haziness and moral clarity may sometimes perplex, it’s hard to fault him for it because he’s so terribly honest about the conflict and so keenly aware of it.
At some points in the book, Wiman examines the limitations and possibilities of poetic language and faith language as used in worship. After critiquing the limitations of both conservative and liberal services, he writes, “Those of us who call ourselves Christians…need a revolution in the way we worship. This could mean many different things—poetry as liturgy, focused and extended silences, learning from other religious traditions and rituals (this seems crucial), incorporating apophatic language. But one thing it means for sure: we must be conscious of language as language, must call into question every word we use until we refine or remake a language that is fit for our particular religious doubts and despairs—and of course (and most of all!) our joys.”
Again, as a reader more comfortable than Wiman appears to be with traditional faith language, I found myself pausing over this. To my mind, the old language about God is still powerful and adaptable. Our modern doubt, though forged in a unique context, is not necessarily more intense than the doubt of any previous generation. Why would the words that sufficed for those doubters and despairers cease to suffice for us?
It’s not that I dispute the need for precision and rigor and clarity in religious language. It’s just that I’m not sure it needs to be reinvented. I must confess I say this as someone who has found in recent years that the further back I go in church history, the more I find words that give adequate weight to the wonder I feel. Again, though, maybe Wiman doesn’t mean “reinvent” when he says “remake” or “refine.”
Perhaps that word “apophatic” proves most helpful in comprehending My Bright Abyss. Wiman writes, “Apophatic language, language that seems to negate or undermine the very assertions that it is making, may be at this point not simply the ‘proper’ means of addressing or invoking God, but the only efficacious one as well.” In that sense, My Bright Abyss is apophatic—it employs a vigorous precision of language while acknowledging at every turn the limitations of both the words we use and our ability to live and understand them.
Apophasis may or may not be your preferred method of speech when it comes to God, but if wisdom is knowledge applied, then this is a profound and companionable book of wisdom from a man living on frontiers most of us have yet to reach.
—Reviewed by Kelly Foster