Mortify Our Wolves

The struggle back to life and faith in the face of pain and the certainty of death

Amiens Cathedral
Amiens Cathedral


There comes a moan to the cancer clinic. There comes a sound so low and unvarying it seems hardly human, more a note the wind might strike off jags of rock and ice in some wasted place too remote for anyone to hear.

We hear, and look up as one at the two attendants hurriedly wheeling something so shrunken it seems merely another rumple in the blanket, tubes traveling in and out of its impalpability, its only life this lifeless cry.

The doors open soundlessly, and the pall of sorrow goes flowing off into the annihilating brightness beyond. Then the doors close, and we as one look down, not meeting each other’s eyes, and wait.

The terrible thing—it could perhaps be a glorious thing; always the ill are meant to see it as such, are reproached if they don’t (carpe fucking diem)—the terrible thing about feeling the inevitability of your own early death is the way it colors every single scene: at some friends’ house I am moved by the beauty and antics of their two-year-old daughter—moved, and then saddened to think of the daughter D. and I might have, for whom my death will be some deep, lightless hole, which for the rest of her life she will walk around, grief the very ground of her being. What is this world that we are so at odds with, this beauty by which we are so wounded, and into which God has so utterly gone?

Into which, rather than from which: in a grain of grammar, a world of hope.

That conversions often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them. The sufferer isn’t in his right mind. The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God. Never mind that the God who comes at such moments may not be simple at all, but arises out of and includes the very abyss the man would flee. Never mind that in traumatic experience many people lose their faith—or what looked like faith?—rather than find it. It is the flinch from life—which, the healthy are always quick to remind us, includes death—and the flight to God that cannot be trusted.

But how could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.

Years between that last entry and this one. Years of working on these little fragments here and there, finding God here and there among the ongoing delights and demolitions of daily life. Years of treatments, abatements, hope, hell. I have a cancer that is as rare as it is unpredictable, “smoldering ” in some people for decades, turning others to quick tinder. I also now have two children, two lovely, livewire, and preternaturally alert little girls who were born within eight minutes of each other, at a time when it seemed like the cancer had been driven away by drugs so futuristic I couldn’t get past my amazement to feel much fear, and with so few side effects that it seemed I would be able to take them forever. That hasn’t proved to be the case.

Though people never say it, you can see it in their eyes sometimes, the question: How could you do it? How could you bring children into a situation so precarious? How could you seed them with this grief? And of course we ask ourselves these questions, my wife and I, when things are bad with me or difficult at home. But then we see them offering each other flowers they’ve picked from the back yard, or stopping mid-madcap-play to kiss each other, or, when we walk into their nursery in the morning, throwing back their heads and laughing like little palpable fruitions of the love that first led us out of ourselves and to each other—we see these things and we ask: How could we not have had them? How could they not be? How could such life, such love, ever have remained latent and dormant within us?

Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence. This is why being saved (I dislike the language, too, not because it’s inaccurate but because it’s corrupted by contemporary usage, a hands-in-the-air, holy-seizure sort of rapture, a definitive sense of rift) involves embracing rather than renouncing one’s past. It is true that Christ makes a man anew, that there is some ultimate change in him. But part of that change is the ability to see life as a whole, to feel the form and unity of it, to become a creature made for and assimilated to existence, rather than a desperate, fragmented thing striving against existence or caught forever just outside it.

Though I have in my life experienced gout, bladder stones, a botched bone marrow biopsy, and various other screamable insults, until recently I had no idea what pain was. It islands you. You sit there in your little skeletal constriction of self—of disappearing self—watching everyone you love, however steadfastly they may remain by your side, drift farther and farther away. There is too much cancer packed into my bone marrow, which is inflamed and expanding, creating pressure outward on the bones. “Bones don’t like to stretch,” a doctor tells me. Indeed. It is in my legs mostly, but also up in one shoulder and in my face. It is a dull devouring pain, as if the earth were already—but slowly—eating me. And then, with a wrong move or simply a shift in breath, it is a lightning strike of absolute feeling and absolute oblivion fused in one flash. Mornings I make my way out of bed very early and, after taking all of the pain medicine I can take without dying, sit on the couch and try to make myself small by bending over and holding my ankles. And I pray. Not to God, who also seems to have abandoned this island, but to the pain. That it ease up ever so little, that it let me breathe. That it not—though I know it will—get worse.

Poetry has its uses for despair. It can carve a shape in which a pain can seem to be; it can give one’s loss a form and dimension so that it might be loss and not simply a hopeless haunting. It can do these things for one person, or it can do them for an entire culture. But poetry is for psychological, spiritual, or emotional pain. For physical pain it is, like everything but drugs, useless.

On Thursdays the painlady leans toward me, gleaning pain. She is precise, sharp-shouldered, soft-spoken—as a painlady should be. I am emaciated, palsied, hostile, hopeful in the shamefaced way of hopeless people. We have by now tried many things, but she seems always to have some new patch or pill up her sleeve. She is a famous painlady, I gather, and has been in Libya for a conference, or in Brazil for a conference, here and there—where is there not pain? Excretion, sexual function, depression’s oily entropy: she runs down the side effects without embarrassment, smiles from the far shore of mercy, and floats up the hall like an angel in hell.

I keep thinking there is some path between resignation and resistance, a state of being that is available not simply to the person who is dying but to any man who feels death impeding and diminishing his ability to fully live. We say that death is an abstraction, that to take one’s own death into one’s mind is impossible, but perhaps the task is really to make death concrete, or to make concrete experience more fully alive with the hole of lifelessness that is part of one’s perception of it.

One of the most powerful experiences of art that I have ever had was at a retrospective of the American artist Lee Bontecou. I went with my wife, who was not then my wife but a woman I was falling in love with in ways I had never imagined, ways that were palpably and frighteningly changing my imagination, and when we both began spontaneously crying in the last room of the exhibit, our reaction seemed to seal that love at its deepest junctures. I’m not a sentimental person. I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a work of art before. Nor is Bontecou a sentimental artist. Indeed, part of what is so moving about her work is the sense of enclosed and solitary suffering that is slowly transfigured through the decades (you feel it underneath the social suffering, feel a single existential being struggling for meaning in the midst of immense, meaningless, inchoate, and seemingly all-controlling social and historical pressures). Powerful early work of brute, mechanistic, militaristic obduracy gives way to a period of (strikingly less successful) investigative whimsy. It is as if she’s wandering in the desert for a number of years, and then, still very much in the desert (the fact of emptiness, of absence, undergirds the assertions of the late work), a revelation comes: we walked into a room filled with large, delicate, astonishingly complex mobiles that hung from the ceiling like sea creatures, or dream creatures; we knew, at any rate, that we were suddenly in another element. And could breathe.

Death, for a young artist, is a common fixation, because it seems to offer a source of intensity and power to which the artist otherwise would have no access. Death usually has a thematic feel to it in these instances, as in early Wallace Stevens (“Death is the mother of beauty”). It is an idea, not a sensation. There are three ways for this fixation to play out. If the artist is unlucky but strong and gets a conscious taste of death well before his time, then death may enter the work as sensation, may insinuate itself into the textures and materials of the art (Keats). If, however, he is lucky as a person but weak-minded as an artist, then he will either dissipate his energies into frivolity or continue to hammer at death like a gong until his work is nothing but hollow reverberations (Swinburne). A third option, and the most mature vision, occurs when death and life are so woven together that they are indistinguishable: you cannot see one without the other.

Lee Bontecou is in this third category, finally, though in her early work, death is pure theme. The very bulkiness of her first sculptures betrays this fixity, this misplaced devotion; the later work shreds everything to air and light and wire and glass, as if the souls of the former pieces had been lifted out of the corrupted bodies. And yet something essential remains. In every single sculpture from Bontecou’s early work there is a hole, a space of utter blackness. The holes aren’t included within the sculptures so much as inflicted upon them. They are expressions—the word seems wrong, for they are pre-expressive—of meaninglessness, little abysses that contain every last bit of the nothing that is space.

The holes are in the late mobiles too. You have to look a bit to see them, because the entire pieces are in a sense full of holes. But they are there, in every one, just as in the earliest pieces: that inexplicable, irreducible, and necessary hole that no art, this art clearly says, can ever completely fill. I remember thinking that day of William Empson:

Imagine, then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a despair.

And I remember, too, thinking that I was seeing a model for how to live, for how to be conscious in the world at that time. It took a few years—in fact, it took until the writing of this very paragraph—for me to realize that the art was also giving me a model for how to die.

But still, this is art, not life. This is a little epiphany in a sunlit museum with someone I had fallen in love with, not the wintry, warrened world of the cancer floor of Northwestern University Hospital where, it sometimes seems, I now live. Art can model the more difficult dynamic of transfiguring one’s life, but at some point the dynamic reverses itself: life models, or forces, the existential crisis by which art—great art—is fully experienced. There is a fluidity between art and life, then, in the same way that there is, in the best lives, a fluidity between mind and matter, self and soul, life and death. Experience seems to stream clearly through some lives, rather than getting slowed and clogged up in the drift-waste of ego, or stagnating in little inlets of despair, envy, rage. It has to do with seizing and releasing as a single gesture. It has to do with standing in relation to life and death like those late Bontecou mobiles, owning an emptiness that, because you have claimed it, has become a source of light, wearing your wound that, like a ramshackle house on some high exposed hill, sings with the hard wind that is steadily destroying it.

When my grandmother—whose reading was limited to the Bible and Guideposts, and whose life was circumscribed by the tiny yard around her tiny house in tiny Colorado City, Texas—died 20 years ago, I was pierced, not simply by grief and the loss of her presence, but by a sense that some very particular and hard-won kind of consciousness had gone out of the world. Hers was the kind of consciousness that is not consciousness as intellectuals define it, but is passive rather than active. It allows the world to stream through you rather than you always reaching out to take hold of it. It is the consciousness of the work of art and not necessarily of the artist who made it. People, occasionally, can be such works, creation streaming through them like the inspiration that, in truth, all of creation is.

I felt a million living tendrils
rooting through the thing I was,
as if I’d turned to earth before my death
or in my death could somehow feel.

Lee Bontecou, my wife, my grandmother—if this consciousness I’m describing is gendered (and I think it is), it is clearly feminine. The single most damaging and distorting thing that religion has done to faith involves overlooking, undervaluing, and even outright suppressing this interior, ulterior kind of consciousness. So much Western theology has been constructed on a fundamental disfigurement of the mind and reality. In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful—perhaps the most powerful—side of God.

If Thou be more than hate or atmosphere,
Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves,
Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.
—Gwendolyn Brooks

Too late? Think of the confident, amnesiac authority of modern science. (Haven’t we been here before?) Think of all the cultural emphasis on the self. Think even of theologians (Karl Barth, for example) who preach fervently against human “sovereignty,” who argue for the absolute otherness of God: all too often they do so with an assurance that amounts to an implicit claim of just such sovereignty.

The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.

Robert Frost. From his great poem “Home Burial.” The speaker is the mother of a dead child; she is speaking to the child’s father, who has not grieved in any way that she can perceive or understand. There is something hysterical in her accusations of him, and also (this is what makes the poem so great) something true—and not simply true to her own situation (I think the father has felt great grief, but he has walled it in; she is justified in banging on the walls) but more generally true as well. Everyone is in his life to the uttermost. That clamor in your head, that endless quick-fire free- association whose engine is ego, that blood-compulsion in the brain beating onward, onward, onward: this is going on in the minds of seven billion people on the planet, and in seven billion completely singular and, it can often seem, completely sealed-in ways. It is one thing to recognize this intellectually, quite another to have it brought home to you at the edge of death—your own or someone else’s.

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.

Such a realization should ease loneliness—even for the griever who is left alone; it should also, in time, help to propel one back into life. Nothing is served by following someone into a grave. Somehow, even deep within extreme grief, the worst pain is knowing that your pain will pass, that all the bright particulars of life that one person’s presence made possible will fade into mere memory, and then not even that. Consequently, many people fight hard to keep their wound fresh, for in the wound, at least, is the loss, and in the loss the life you shared. Or so it seems. In truth the life you shared, because it was shared, was marked by joy, by light. Cradled in loneliness, it becomes pure grief, pure shadow, which is a problem not simply for the present and the future, but for the past as well. Excessive grief, the kind that paralyzes a person, the kind that eventually becomes an entire personality—in the end this does not honor the love that is its origin. Is, not was: our dead have presence. You don’t need to believe in some literal heaven to feel the ways in which the dead inhabit us—for good, if we will let them do that, which means, paradoxically, letting them go.

“But the world’s evil,” cries out the woman in “Home Burial.” “I won’t have grief so / If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t.” She’s right: the world is evil, and grief is too little acknowledged and honored in our culture. But I have a feeling that I’m speaking here to people who, like this woman, are conscious of this fact and determined to resist it. I don’t know if the woman in “Home Burial” is pathological; I don’t think so. What I do know, or sense, is that within the love that once opened up the world to you—from the birth of a child to meeting your mate—is a key that can let you back into the world when that love is gone.

Despite all that I have gone through, and despite all that I now face, I am still struck by the singular nature of the pain in the weeks after my diagnosis. It was not simply the fact itself searing through all the circumstances of my life, nor was it, as many people might suspect, the full impact of meaninglessness, the arbitrary nature of our existence, the utter illusion of God. No, it was an excess of meaning for which I had no context. It was the world burning to be itself beyond my ruined eyes. It was God straining through matter to make me see, and to grant me the grace of simple praise.

Whenever I find myself answering someone’s questions about my illness, explaining what is going on in my body or the bizarre treatments I am about to undergo, it is as if I am wholly detached from what I am describing, as if my body were some third thing to which both of us were impassively directing our attention. This is one reason why any expression of pity can be so jarring and unwelcome. The sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self. All those people weeping in the mirror of your misery? Their tears are real, but they are not for you.

At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “in whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

Always that little caveat, that little appeal to relevance: And the time of death is every moment. Let me tell you, it is qualitatively different when death leans over to sniff you, when massive unmetaphorical pain goes crawling through your bones, when fear—goddamn fear, you can’t get rid of it—ices your spine. St. Teresa of Ávila, describing the entry into one of the innermost rooms of the “interior castle,” into the domain of mystical experience, says, “It’s necessary that he who gives everything else give the courage also.” She means God. And God has given me courage in the past—I have felt palpably lifted beyond my own ability to respond or react. But this most recent time in the hospital, when the cancer had become so much more aggressive and it seemed for a time as if I’d reached the end of my options, I felt only death. In retrospect it seems like a large and ominous failure.

Or maybe I have simply been given another chance (“I lose / courage but courage is not lost”—Geoffrey Hill). Here is a poem by Eugenio Montale that I found myself returning to in the hospital:

The red lily, if one day
it took root in your twenty-year-old heart
(the weir was sparkling
under the sand-diggers’ sieves,
sleek moles dove and burrowed in the rushes,
towers, flags withstood the rain,
and the happy graft in the new sun knit without your knowing);
the red lily, long since sacrificed
on far-off crags to mistletoe
that scintillates your scarf and hands
with an incorruptible chill—
ditchflower that will unfurl for you
on those solemn banks where the hum of time
no longer wearies us … : to strike
the harp of heaven, make death a friend.
—translated by Jonathan Galassi

Knit without your knowing. Or knit, we might say, without the kind of knowing that we usually call knowing; knit in the kind of conscious unconsciousness that infuses Lee Bontecou’s work, that made my grandmother an avatar of existential philosophy, though she never offered any of it out loud. She didn’t need to, any more than Montale’s wild lily does. This is a poem about the way in which a single experience, a single sensation, can, if we are faithful to it, return to us through the years, can serve as ballast against the hard weathers that will surely come. It is a poem about loving the earth so intensely that leaving it provokes no fear, partly because to love the earth with such devotion is to assent to its terms, and partly because such love awakens the soul that— in some way, with form or without—survives. The soul. It is a poem about that too, for Montale had a religious sensibility, though little patience for religious structures. The poem posits a place “where the hum of time / no longer wearies us,” and slowly we realize that those banks are the banks of Lethe, and the only chill that is “incorruptible” is the chill of death, which the poem welcomes, in its way, with open arms. I take comfort from it, even if it was written by a poet for whom death was still mostly a theme.

The girls come clambering into bed at 6 A.M. laughing, electrically recognizing with little shocks all the solid objects that have survived the night: pillow, nose, ear, boom-boom (car), arf-arf (a very patient poodle). The girls go running at dusk back into the master bedroom trying to avoid going to bed, and when I swoop them up from behind they laugh with all the pure hilarity of the souls that are still transparent in them, shining out of their skin like light you see nowhere except sometimes in the sacred radiance of someone who is dying well. It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body. William Wordsworth knew this, and intuited an afterlife from the intensity of children’s sensibilities, who live not as if divinity were immanent in everything around them, but in full possession of, in full consciousness of—consciousness in the sense I have been describing, what we are prone to call unconsciousness—miraculous matter:

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest,
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings,
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts, before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence …
—from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality
from Recollections of Early Childhood”

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you. Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the 16th-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was 39 and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God. My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own. I will be with you. I will comfort you in your despair, and I will share in your joy. They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives. If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us. Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us. It may be the love of someone you have lost. It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at times you think you hate. However it comes though, in all these, of all these and yet more than they, so much more, there burns the abiding love of God. But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it. No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls. My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter—to reach you, to help you, to heal you.

How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself!
—Wordsworth, from The Prelude

The temptation is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is. Even here, in some of the entries above, I see that I have fallen prey to it. Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. There is something I am meant to see, something for which my own situation and suffering are the lens, but the cost of such seeing—I am just beginning to realize—may very well be any final clarity or perspective on my own life, my own faith. That would not be a bad fate, to burn up like the booster engine that falls away from the throttling rocket, lighting a little dark as I go.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Christian Wiman teaches at Yale Divinity School. He is the author most recently of Survival Is a Style.


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