From My Bright Abyss
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:
And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way – to will my way – into its ending. Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable. As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a single stanza. Still, that is the way I have usually known my own mind, feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them. And I have always believed in that “beyond,” even during the long years when I would not acknowledge God. I have expected something similar here. I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.
In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends – as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world – it can be very difficult to retain any faith in that original moment of inspiration at all. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time. Grace is no different. (Artistic inspiration is sometimes an act of grace, though by no means always.) To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.
When I was young, twelve years old or so, I had an “experience” one morning in church. I put the word in quotes because, though the culture in which I was raised possessed definite language to explain what happened to me (I was filled with the Holy Spirit, I was saved), I no longer find that language accurate or helpful when thinking about how God manifests himself – or herself, or Godself, or whatever hopeless reflexive pronoun you want to use – in reality and individual lives. Also, I don’t really remember the event. I remember that it happened, but it’s in the half-wakeful, sedated way a man remembers a minor surgery. I remember being the subject of much adult awe and approbation, but even then the child those adults described, weeping and shaking and curled up tight in the church basement, was a stranger to me.
I grew up in a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pumpjacks and pickup trucks, cotton like grounded clouds, a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me. To call the place predominantly Christian is like calling the Sahara predominantly sand: I never met an actual unbeliever until my first day of college in Virginia, when a dauntingly hip prep-schooled freshman announced his atheism as casually as a culinary preference. Though I would presently embrace my own brand of bookish atheism – with, alas, a convert’s fervor – just then I could not have been more shocked had that boy begun swiveling his head around and growling Aramaic.
The insularity that made my shock possible is, no doubt, precisely what made God possible – as a palpable reality, I mean, inclined to act on and in matter, to visit an unsuspecting soul like a blast of bad weather. That, according to my family, is what happened that day in the church when I rose during the call to be saved and, instead of heading toward the altar and the preacher’s extended arms, fled the service entirely and ended up in the basement. What intensity seized me so utterly that I could not stay still? What love or judgment so overmastered me that I could not speak? Eventually my father found me, muttering incoherently, weeping – ecstatic. No one was in doubt about what had happened to me, nor did it matter that I myself had no idea. I had been visited just as Jacob or Mary was visited. I had been called, claimed.
It is somehow fitting that the most intense spiritual experience of my life should slip out of my memory like a dream (and that it should so resemble suffering, and that it should drive me straight out of the church that ostensibly prepared me for it). The moment means nothing to me now, and I’m inclined to rationalize it away: I grew up in a culture that encouraged conversions – quiet conversions, but still – in early adolescence. These were timed to coincide with a person’s baptism, which for Baptists couldn’t happen until you were old enough to understand the implications of what you were committing to. I was primed by the culture to experience something, and my own stifled imagination and primordial boredom conspired to answer that expectation with an outright rapture. In short, I faked it.
There are problems with this explanation. It’s not really my nature, first of all: the theatricality, the willingness to be in an emotional spotlight, the unbottled expression of intense feelings – it all makes me feel a little creepy even thirty years on. It also seems unlikely that one would (or could) forget simulating an experience like this. The deliberation involved, the studied execution, all the excitement and concern of the other people – could all of that really just slip into oblivion?
There’s another option, of course: it was real. Too real. Not in the way that some traumas are too real and thus buried within us, but in another, cellular sense, some complete being that I can’t remember because I can’t stand apart from it, can’t find an “I” from which to see the self that, for a moment, I was. Or wasn’t. If eternity touched you, if all the trappings of time and self were stripped away and you were all soul, if God “happened” to you – then isn’t it possible that the experience could not be translated back into the land of pumpjacks and pickup trucks, the daily round wherein we use words like self and soul, revelation and conversion, as if we knew what those words meant? Maybe I didn’t in fact “forget” it. Maybe it happened – and goes on happening – at the cellular level and means not nothing but everything to me. Maybe, like an atavistic impulse, I don’t remember it, but it remembers me.