Essays - Winter 2009

My Bright Abyss

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I never felt the pain of unbelief until I believed. But belief itself is hardly painless.

By Christian Wiman

December 1, 2008


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 three 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 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 the forms of life that are beyond them. I have always believed in that “beyond,” even during the long years when I would not acknowledge God. I have expected something similar here. I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.

IN TRUTH, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a kind of reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time. Grace is no different. (Artistic inspiration is sometimes an act of grace, though by no means always.) To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace, yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.

IF YOU RETURN to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientation is 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 just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some remote, remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means, of course, that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.

To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to religion does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical reactions of romantic attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.

ON THE RADIO I hear a famous novelist praising his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever “seeking relief in religion.” It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride, and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? That we carry our despair stoically into death, that even the utmost anguish of our lives not change us? How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering—or extreme joy—come. But the tension here is not simply between belief and disbelief. A Christian who has lived with a steady but essentially shallow form of faith may find himself called to suffer the full human truth of God—which is the absence of God—may find himself finally confronted with the absolute emptiness of the cross. God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.

I DON’T MEAN TO SUGGEST that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not at times a worthy one. I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the novelist’s father, but what was going on in the mind of the novelist himself is quite clear: it’s the old fear of religion as crutch, Freudian wish fulfillment, a final refusal of life—which in order to be life must include a full awareness of death—rather than a final flowering of it. Christians love to point to anecdotes like that of Nietzsche, idolater of pure power, going insane at the end of his life because he saw a horse being unmercifully beaten; or Wallace Stevens, the great modern poet of unbelief, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. But there are plenty of anecdotes to contrast with these: Freud’s courage when suffering his final illness, Camus’ staunch, independent humanism in the face of the utter chaos and depravity he both witnessed and imagined (“What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”). There is not a trace of resignation or defeat in Camus. Indeed, there is something in the stalwart, stubbornly humane nature of his metaphysical nihilism that constitutes a metaphysical belief. If it is true—and I think it is—that there is something lacking in this belief, that it seems more like one man’s moral courage than a prescription for living, more a personal code than a universal creed, it is also true that all subsequent Christianity must pass through the crucible of unbelief that thinkers like Camus underwent.

IF GOD IS A SALVE applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all of my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

BE CAREFUL. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.

IT IS THIS LAST COMPLACENCY to which artists of our time are especially susceptible, precisely because it comes disguised as a lonely, heroic strength. Sometimes it truly is a strength: Giacometti, Beckett, Camus, Kafka. Yet it is a deep truth of being human—and, I would argue, an earnest of the immortal Spirit who is forever tugging us toward him—that even our most imaginative discoveries are doomed to become mere stances and attitudes. In this sense, art does advance over time, though usually this advance involves a recovery of elements and ideas we thought we had left behind for good. This is true not only for those who follow in the wake of great accomplishments, but also for those who themselves made those accomplishments. What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than 20th-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. These artists knew that, and made of that fatal knowledge a fierce, new, and necessary faith: the austere, “absurd” persistence of spirit in both Camus and Beckett, the terrible disfiguring contingency that, in Giacometti’s sculptures, takes on the look of fate. There is genuine heroism here, but there is also—faintly at first, but then more persistently, more damagingly—an awareness of heroism. (Only Kafka seems to fully feel his defeat: he is perhaps the most “spiritual” artist in this group, though he treasures his misery too much ever to be released from it.) This flaw—the artist’s adamantine pride—is what made the achievement possible, but it is also the crack that slowly widens over time, not lessening the achievement but humanizing it, relativizing it, causing what had once seemed an immutable, universal insight to begin to look a little more like a temporal, individual vision—a vision from which, inevitably, there comes a time to move forward.

CHRISTIANITY ITSELF IS THIS, to some extent. To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for 18th-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, an exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which is to say, his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go—Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish to make them see.

WHEN I THINK OF THE YEARS when I had no faith, what I am struck by, first of all, is how little this lack disrupted my conscious life. I lived not with God, nor with his absence, but in a mild abeyance of belief, drifting through the days on a tide of tiny vanities—a publication, a flirtation, a strong case made for some weak nihilism—nights all adagios and alcohol as my mind tore luxuriously into itself. I can see now how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.

WHEN I ASSENTED to the faith that was latent within me—and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for no white light appeared, no ministering or avenging angel 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 knew, 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: poem after poem about unnamed and unnamable absences, relationships so transparently perishable they practically came with expiration dates on them, city after city sacked of impressions and peremptorily abandoned as if I were some army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a man but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God) the overweening self.

THEY DO NOT HAPPEN NOW, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred, and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you—and even something in you—seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they’d been flung. Worse than snow, worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are—alive, alive—and sought return. They do not happen now, whether because of what we’ve learned or because the earth itself has changed. Yet I can close my eyes and see all the trees tugging at their roots as if to unfasten themselves from the earth. I can hear the long-gone howl, more awful for its being mute.

LORD, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”


Christian Wiman is the author most recently of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and a volume of poems, Once in the West. He is a senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale University's Institute of Sacred Music.

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