BELIEF: O Thou Mastering Light by Christian Wiman

Meditation of a Modern Believer

O Thou Mastering Light by Christian Wiman

From My Bright Abyss

What were all those hours and years of reading and thinking?  What had they done for him?  He no more knew all the books he’d taken in than the water knows its flotsam, yet like that water he was thick and sluggish with it.  He longed to be free of all that he once longed for, and began to imagine that there might come such a scouring (from where? with what?) that he might be, not wiped clean of what he’d so imperfectly learned, but emergent and changed on the other side of it.  Not a purge, a passage.  Then all these disparate pieces might cohere in him, cohere as him.  The great irony, of course, the truth that came as all truths came to him now – too near to escape, too faint to savor – is that it was art that instilled in him this ideal of unity and clarity in the first place.

Intellectuals and artists concerned with faith tend to underestimate the radical, inviolable innocence it requires.  We read and read, write long, elaborate essays and letters, engage in endlessly inflected philosophical debates.  We talk of poetry as prayer, artistic discipline as a species of religious devotion, doubt as the purest form of faith.  These ideas are not inherently false.  Indeed, there may be a deep truth in them.  But the truth is, you might say, on the other side of innocence – permanently.  That is, you don’t once pass through religious innocence into the truths of philosophy or theology or literature, any more than you pass through the wonder of childhood into the wisdom of age.  Innocence for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.

To be innocent is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature, and the wherewithal to say again and forever your wordless but lucid, your untriumphant but absolute, yes.  You much protect this space so that it can protect you.  You must carry it with you through whatever milieu in which you find yourself growing too comfortable: the seductive assurance and instant contempt of secularism, the hivelike certainties of churches, the mental mazes of theology, the professional vale of soul making that a life in literature can become.  Something in you must remain in you, voiceless even as you voice your deepest faith, doubt, fear, dreams….

Spiritual innocence is not naïveté.  Quite the opposite.  Spiritual innocence is a state of mind – or, if you prefer, a state of heart – in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting.  Consider these lines from Patrick Kavanagh, who has returned, in imagination or in fact, to the land of his childhood:

I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
(from “Innocence”)

The poignancy of these lines inheres precisely in the fact that in the world outside of the poem, the poet is acutely aware of his age, has experience of women and cities, and knows that he will most definitely die – all because he did one day walk outside the “whitethorn hedges” of childhood.  But the poem is not some facile, nostalgic assertion in defiance of this knowledge.  It implies the annihilating powers of age, death, romantic failure, industrial destruction, and admits, within the context of linear time, its inadequacy as a bulwark against these things.  At the same moment, though, it asserts the powers of youth, life, love, memory – powers that, paradoxically, exist only if they have been lost.  To experience these lines fully is to feel at once a deep lament from outside of the poem and an utter exultation from within it, and no necessary contradiction between these two truths.  Any man who would save his life must lose it, as Christ said.

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