BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower— Contingency by Christian Wiman

Meditation of a Modern Believer

Sorrow’s Flower— Contingency by Christian Wiman

From My Bright Abyss

Adele, who at nearly sixty years old finds that her faith has fallen away, tells me that it was love that first led her to God.  Thirty-five years earlier, love for the man who would be her husband for most of her life seemed to crack open the world and her heart at the same time, seemed to fuse those latent, living energies into a single flame, the name of which, she knew, was God.  There were careers and children.  There were homes laid claim to and relinquished.  There was something perhaps too usual for a love that had torn her so wholly open, but time takes the edge off of any experience, life means mostly waiting for life, or remembering it – right?  She tells me all this – right up to the depressingly undramatic divorce – at a table outside in far West Texas, the country of my own heart.

How can a love that seemed so fated fail so utterly? she wonders.  How can a love that prompted me toward God become the very thing that kills my faith?  Once it seemed love lit the world from within and made it take on a sacred radiance, but somehow that fire burned through everything and now I walk lost in this land of ash.  If God by means of love became belief in my heart, became the faith by which I lived and loved in return, then what should I believe now that my love is dead?  Or no, not dead; that would be easier.  Actual death cuts life off at the quick of your soul, but there is yet the quick to tell you what life was, assure you that life was.  You grieve the reality of your loss, not the loss of your reality.  That former grief is awful, and may seem unendurable, but at least it is more productive, for it is grief that has lost but not renounced life, grief that still feels to the root the living reality of love because it feels so utterly that absence.  All I feel is that the life I felt, the love that once scalded me toward God, was a lie.

Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creed-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms.  I have spent the past four weeks in solitude, working on these little prose fragments that seem to be the only thing I can sustain, trying day and night to “figure out” just what it is I believe, a mission made more urgent by the fact that I have recently been diagnosed with an incurable but unpredictable cancer.  How strange it is to be back in this place, where visible distance is so much a part of things that things acquire a kind of space, as if even the single scrub cedar outside the window where I’m working held – in its precise little limbs, its assertive, seasonless green – the fact of its absence.

Contingency. Meaning subject to chance, not absolute. Meaning uncertain, as reality, right down to the molecular level, is uncertain. As all of human life is uncertain. I suppose that to think of God in these terms might seem for some people deeply troubling (not to mention heretical), but I find it a comfort. It is akin to the notion of God entering and understanding – or understanding that there could be no understanding (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) – human suffering. If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero. (The miracles, whatever one thinks of their veracity, didn’t set Jesus off from his contemporaries as much as they seem to now; there were many healers, prophets, and the like wandering around the Middle East in the first century. And anyway, the miracles have a pro forma or applied quality even in the telling; often Jesus himself seeks to mute their effects, wants the people around him to place their faith in more common occurrences. And indeed, what is most moving and durable about Jesus are the moments of pure – at times even helpless: My God, my God – humanity.) No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle. There’s no release from reality, no “outside” or “beyond” from which some transforming touch might come. But what relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.

Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and become actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change. I don’t mean simply that faith changes (though there is that). I mean that just as any sense of divinity that we have comes from the natural order of things – is in some ultimate sense within the natural order to things – so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product. Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best parts of themselves. Omnipotent, eternal, omniscient – what in the world do these rotten words really mean? Are we able to imagine such attributes, much less perceive them? I don’t think so. Christ is the only way toward knowledge of God, and Christ is contingency.

The only way? Into my words, as into the things around me, seeps the silence that defeats them: if contingency equals absolute uncertainty and chance, then of course it makes no sense to assert it as an absolute. Better to say that contingency is the only way toward knowledge of God, and contingency, for Christians, is the essence of incarnation. And incarnation, as well as the possibilities for salvation within it, precedes Christ’s presence in history, and exceeds all that is known by the term “Christianity”:

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.

And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.
(After Dante)

I wouldn’t want any of this to seem as if I’m blaming Adele for her suffering, or that I’m refusing to acknowledge the full impact of it. (Christ is contingency? What a ridiculous, riddling thing for me to have said to her at that moment. It was true, but the time and the context made it, in any ordinary human sense, false.) There is a sense in which love’s truth is proved by its end, by what it becomes in us, and what we, by virtue of love, become. But love, like faith, occurs in the innermost recesses of a person’s spirit, and we can see only inward in this regard, and not very clearly when it comes to that. And then, too, there can be great inner growth and strength in what seems, from the outside, like pure agony or destruction. In the tenderest spots of human experience, nothing is more offensive than intellectualized understanding. “Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom,” writes Randall Jarrell. “It is pain.”

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