BELIEF: When Devastation Comes by Christian Wiman

Meditation of a Modern Believer

When Devastation Comes by Christian Wiman

From My Bright Abyss

After I was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, my wife and I found ourselves – and that’s just what it felt like, that suggestion of passivity and chance – walking through the doors of the little church at the end of our block.  I’d passed right by the church every day for three years on my way to the train and work downtown, but I couldn’t even have told you what denomination it was.  I wasn’t tuned in to churches.  Or to Christianity.

I was, however, tuned in to something.  When I look back at some of the things I wrote in my twenties and thirties, I am struck by a strong sense of negative energy.  Not negative as in sorrowful or depressive (though there’s some of that), but negative in the contemporary scientific sense of something missing or indefinable, some strong charge whose source is unknown.  “A loss of something ever felt I,” writes Emily Dickinson, the votary and victim of this energy par excellence:

The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was—of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out—

Elder, Today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is—
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces—

There are several things that began to transform this energy, to give it form in my life rather than simply on the page.  (No doubt it had “form” in my life previously, but its form was in effect the absence of form, a studied hovering just this side of any belief or commitment coherent enough to be at risk.)  I stopped writing for a long time – several years – and without poetry to release the pressure of that mysterious, animate absence, it began to devour me.  I don’t want to overdramatize things.  I know what “suicide ideation” is, and know how impotent that phrase is in the face of the actual terror it tries to name.  That’s not what was happening.  It was more that the world went gray for me, and I couldn’t accomplish even the simplest actions without great difficulty, the very air viscous and inhibiting.  I thought often, and intimately, of the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s devastating poem, “Aubade”:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

And that is the issue, isn’t it?  Death?  That crashing cataract that comes to us, from this distance, as the white noise of life, that ur-despair that underlies all the little prickly irritations and anxieties that alcohol is engineered to erase.

Then I fell in love.  It was that sudden, the rift in my life and mind that stark.  Perhaps I’d never met the right person, as they say, and at thirty-seven years old finally got lucky.  Perhaps the interior clarity and candor that one needs for real love had, in my case, always been clouded by the need to create, life deflected by art, and the enforced silence freed me to feel in more immediate ways.  Whatever the case, when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves, and thus more truly themselves.  We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made.  I thought for years that any love had to be limited, that it was a zero-sum game: what you gave with one part of yourself had to be taken from another.  In fact, the great paradox of love, and not just romantic love, is that a closer focus may go hand-in-hand with a broadened scope.  “To turn from everything to one face,” writes Elizabeth Bowen, “is to find oneself face-to-face with everything.”

And that’s exactly what happened.  Turning inward turned me outward, too, to a world made radiant by my ability to believe in it.  I have already mentioned the prayers that, long before the diagnosis, we began saying before our evening meals.  How awkward and self-conscious we were at first, searching for some form in which to put, mostly, our praise, some sense of a being – or Being itself – to receive it.  I think often of these early, furtive, innocent efforts at prayer.  The beacon and bulwark they were when the devastation came.

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