My Bright Abyss

BELIEF: Interior Chaos by Christian Wiman

November 21, 2018

From My Bright Abyss The greatness of Ulysses is partly in the way it reveals the interior chaos of a single mind during a single day, and partly in the way it makes the idiosyncratic clamor universal.  However different the textures of our own lives may be, Bloom’s mind is our mind; the welter of impressions he suffers and savors is a storm we all know.  And that is the book’s horror, too: some form of this same fury of trivia is going on in the mind of every sentient person on the planet.  How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us: the din is too great to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name.  Thus an offhand remark, which leaves us as easily [...]

BELIEF: Hive Of Nerves by Christian Wiman

November 14, 2018

From My Bright Abyss It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming, That unrest formed a heart. (Paul Celan) At a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to “give ourselves a break” before we implode.  Everyone has some means of relief – tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday – but the very way in which those activities are framed as apart from regular life suggest the extent to which that relief is temporary (if even that: a couple of us admit that our “recreational” [...]

BELIEF: Dear Oblivion by Christian Wiman

November 7, 2018

From My Bright Abyss I have never felt comfortable praying.  I almost feel I should put the word in quotes, as I’m never quite sure that what I do deserves the name.  I have a little litany of stations through which I move – thank you, help me, be with, forgive – but mostly I simply (simply!) try to subject myself to the possibility of God.  I address God as if. “We must believe in the real God in every way,” says Simone Weil, “expect that he does not exist, for we have not reached the point where he might exist.”  I don’t take this to mean that if we achieve some state worthy of God, he will pop into being like a genie.  Rather, I think Weil is suggesting that devotion to God, for modern believers, involves learning [...]

BELIEF: Unity by Christian Wiman

October 31, 2018

From My Bright Abyss And now I doubt the premise with which I began: that art is the source of my instinct toward unity rather than – like the theology I read, like scripture, like these all-too-inadequate fragments – a means of preserving and honoring that instinct.  I distrust those skeptics who admit no spiritual element into their most transfiguring experiences because I am so easily and so often one of them, stepping outside of my own miraculous moments to inspect, analyze, explain. Having confessed, he feels That he should go down on his knees and pray For forgiveness for his pride, for having Dared to view his soul from the outside. (From “Having Confessed”) Kavanagh again.  And that is the real issue, that the link not be [...]

BELIEF: Life by Christian Wiman

October 24, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Yes, but… the waking and the sleeping, the sludge of emails and appointments, the low-temperature life that is, for the most part, life: even if there are moments of intensity that seem to release us from this, surely any spiritual maturity demands an acknowledgment that there is not going to be some miraculous, transfiguring intrusion into reality.  The sky will not darken and the dead will not speak; no voice from Heaven is going to boom you back to a pre-reflective faith, nor will you feel, unless in death, a purifying fire that scalds all of consciousness like fog from the raw face of God.  Is faith, then – assuming it isn’t merely a form of resignation or denial – some sort of reconciliation with the [...]

BELIEF: God Dormant by Christian Wiman

October 17, 2018

From My Bright Abyss The gospels vary quite a bit in their accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and the ensuing encounters he had with people, but they are quite consistent about one thing: many of his followers doubted him, sometimes even when he was staring them in the face.  This ought to be heartening for those of us who seek belief.  If the disciples of Christ could doubt not only firsthand accounts of his resurrection but the very fact of his face in front of them, then clearly, doubt has little to do with distance from events.  It is in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him, (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?), who is at once our God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, [...]

BELIEF: Durable Faith by Christian Wiman

October 10, 2018

From My Bright Abyss I am struck by this: “But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor / neither confirms nor envies.”  What about these “laughing neighbors”?  Surely we have all had the experience of having an intensely inward perception deflated within us by some non-reaction of the world, by pure indifference.  (Disputatious rage or a kind of clock-minded logic – e.g., the “New Atheists” – is easier to take.  Equally useless in terms of understanding and preserving your experience, but easier to ignore and move away from.)  But the other, the laughing neighbor, this wounds us, and it does so because every genuine impulse of inwardness contains a little propulsion back toward the world and other people.  [...]

BELIEF: Transformation by Christian Wiman

October 3, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Truly being here is glorious. Even you knew it, you girls who seems to be lost, to go under –, in the filthiest streets of the city, festering there, or wide open for garbage. For each of you had an hour, or perhaps not even an hour, a barely measureable time between two moments –, when you were granted a sense of being. Everything. Your veins flowed with being. But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor neither confirms nor envies. We want to display it, to make it visible, though even the most visible happiness can’t reveal itself to us until we transform it, within. (Rainer Maria Rilke, The Seventh Duino Elegy) All right: but what does it mean to transform these moments of intense inward [...]

BELIEF: Teasing Toward Faith by Christian Wiman

September 26, 2018

From My Bright Abyss I have read so much theology in the past few years, yet in conversations with other Christians I am consistently made conscious of being in some way balked when trying to describe my notions of the nature of God, the meaning of the cross, Christianity’s place with regard to other religions, etc.  It isn’t that these conversations aren’t productive, but inevitably their benefit, for me at least, inheres wholly in the contact with another person of faith rather than in any new foundation of knowledge.  I am less frustrated with this state of affairs than I once was, so maybe I have learned something from all those years of forcing myself to formulate my positions on poetry, from convincing myself that I knew my [...]

BELIEF: Radical Openness by Christian Wiman

September 19, 2018

From My Bright Abyss The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane.  Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder.  Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced. The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play.  If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that God’s love creates and sustains human [...]

BELIEF: Some Wordless Mystery by Christian Wiman

September 12, 2018

From My Bright Abyss When I was young, there was a notion among the believers I knew – and I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a believer – that to feel the presence of God required that one seek God constantly, that one’s spiritual instincts demanded the same sort of regular exercise as the muscles of one’s body.  The great fear was not that God would withdraw, but that one’s capacity to perceive him would atrophy.  I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God.  I always want to respond: Really?  You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way [...]

BELIEF: A Simple Human Act by Christian Wiman

September 5, 2018

From My Bright Abyss And this: that church at the end of our block turned out to be part of the United Church of Christ.  The sanctuary was small, starkly beautiful, less than half filled with a mix of old German immigrants, a smattering of hipsters and upscale parents, and a couple of people who seemed homeless or headed there.  The preacher had real presence.  Tall, striking, clearly literary, he was definitely not the sort of person you expect to be leading a struggling little urban church.  The service, too, was a surprise.  After welcoming gays and lesbians, the preacher spoke inspiringly of the church as a place where our individual and communal needs and instincts were reconciled.  His sermon was as witty and entertaining as [...]

BELIEF: When Devastation Comes by Christian Wiman

August 29, 2018

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 [...]

BELIEF: O Thou Mastering Light by Christian Wiman

August 22, 2018

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 [...]

BELIEF: Where The Joy Came In by Christian Wiman

August 15, 2018

From My Bright Abyss From a Window Incurable and unbelieving in any truth but the truth of grieving, I saw a tree inside a tree rise kaleidoscopically as if the leaves had livelier ghosts. I pressed my face as close to the pane as I could get to watch that fitful, fluent spirit that seemed a single being undefined or countless beings of one mind haul its strange cohesion beyond the limits of my vision over the house heavenwards. Of course I knew those leaves were birds. Of course that old tree stood exactly as it had and would (but why should it seem fuller now?) and though a man’s mind might endow even a tree with some excess of life to which a man seems witness, that life is not the life of men. And that is where the joy came in. I [...]

BELIEF: The Cry Of Faith by Christian Wiman

August 8, 2018

From My Bright Abyss But the fight is quiet sometimes too.  Even for those in hell.  Bonhoeffer: “It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.” What is the difference between the cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair?  Faith?  The cry of faith, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job.  The cry of faithlessness is the cry of the damned, like Dante’s souls locked in trees that must bleed to speak, their release from pain only further pain.  How much of [...]

BELIEF: A Species Of Love by Christian Wiman

August 1, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.  This is as true in life as it is in art.  Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted.  What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?  This is what it means to love.  This is what it should mean to write one more poem.  The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it.  All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love. Art needs some ultimate concern, to use Paul [...]

BELIEF: A Question Of Intensity by Christian Wiman

July 25, 2018

From My Bright Abyss The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a radiant moral presence amid the murderous twentieth century, was safe in the United States when Hitler’s intentions began to be made clear.  He could have stayed here, could have assumed a prestigious post at Union Theological Seminary and spent his life as a comfortable and influential public intellectual.  But the decision was not all that difficult for him: he went back to a disintegrating and dangerous Germany because, as he said, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, he could not credibly participate in its restoration.  He went back because, as he had written earlier, “Only the obedient believe.  If we are to believe, we must obey a [...]

BELIEF: A Noble Ambition by Christian Wiman

July 18, 2018

From My Bright Abyss I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself.  But now?  If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world.  No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self – except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself.  That is [...]

BELIEF: God’s Truth Is Life by Christian Wiman

July 11, 2018

From My Bright Abyss When I was twenty years old I spent an afternoon with Howard Nemerov.  He was the first “famous” poet I had ever met, though I would later learn that he was deeply embittered by what he perceived to be a lack of respect from critics and other poets.  (I once heard Thom Gunn call him a “zombie.”)  My chief memories are of his great eagerness to nail down the time and place for his midday martini, his reciting “Animula” when I told him I loved Eliot, and his asking me at one point – with what I now realize was great patience and kindness – what I was going to do when I graduated from college later that year.  I had no plans, no ambitions clear enough to recognize as such, no interest in any of the [...]

BELIEF: Tender Interior by Christian Wiman

July 5, 2018

From My Bright Abyss In my early twenties I found myself reduced to living in a twenty-five foot trailer in a tiny, dying town in far West Texas.  There was a certain unresonant symmetry to the experience, as I had lived in the trailer as an infant, along with my older brother and our almost-infant parents.  By the time of this second residence, the trailer was in my grandmother’s backyard, where my great-grandmother had lived for thirty years until her death, in 1990.  My grandmother’s sister – Aunt Sissy, to me – a gentle, whiskery woman with failing health and an obvious but undiagnosed lifelong mental deficiency, also lived in the “big house,” which was a small house with six shadowy rooms, a million immaculate nooks, [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower—In Transition by Christian Wiman

June 27, 2018

From My Bright Abyss At once more truly and more strange.  I used the phrase before I remembered the source.  And an ironic source it is.  Here is Wallace Steven’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”: Not less because in purple I descended The western day through what you called The loneliest air, not less was I myself. What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard? What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears? What was the sea whose tide swept through me there? Out of my mind the golden ointment rained, And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard. I was myself the compass of that sea: I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw Or heard or felt came not but from myself; And there I found myself more truly and more strange. [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower—A Quick Shudder Of The Heart by Christian Wiman

June 20, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color.  This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow.  They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is.  But they still burn. And why this sorrow?  Why its persistence, its involvement with all that is my soul?  Childhood was difficult, and most of it remains inaccessible to me, but I was deeply loved.  And I am capable of deep love now for the people in my life, for my work.  I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower— Contingency by Christian Wiman

June 13, 2018

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 [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—Hunger by Christian Wiman

June 6, 2018

From My Bright Abyss When I assented to the faith that was latent within me – and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.  When I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—A Mild Abeyance Of Belief by Christian Wiman

May 30, 2018

From My Bright Abyss If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations – motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious.  As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself.  It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind. In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—Conversion by Christian Wiman

May 23, 2018

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 [...]