Book Review: Staring Down Faith
“I believe there is a kind of existence in which meditation and communication, epiphanies and busyness, death and life, God and not—all these apparent antimonies are merged and made into one awareness,” writes Christian Wiman in his most recent book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman immediately follows this proclamation with the admission that he is “a long way from realizing such perception.” While that point is arguable, Wiman’s humility is a big part of the book’s appeal. As a thinker Wiman is athletic, but there is no vainglorious mental muscle-flexing in Abyss. Rather, the essay collection is composed of thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections that are as accessible as they are revelatory.
A native of West Texas, Wiman grew up in what he describes as “a flat little sandblasted town.” For the past decade, he has been the editor of Poetry magazine, but plans to step down from that position in order to join the faculty of the Yale Divinity School later this year. Such a move can hardly seem paradoxical to anyone familiar with Wiman’s oeuvre, much of which grapples with faith and doubt, pain and joy, mortality and the urgency of life.
In My Bright Abyss, Wimans writes of a faith vivified by the experience of falling in love with the woman who would become his wife, and soon thereafter being diagnosed with a rare cancer. Though it’s clear that Wiman has read a lot of theology, Abyss is no creaking treatise, nor is it a sentimental devotional book. In an age when faith and intellect are often considered at odds, Wiman is exploring an existence in which soul and brain are equally activated, and mutually supportive.
Part memoir and part spiritual discourse, the book contains eleven essays composed of discrete “prose fragments” on subjects as far flung as his illness, his West Texas upbringing, his daily commute, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, Christian mystic Simone Weil, and the small suburban church where Wiman began to reconcile himself to faith.
There is no empty jargon in Abyss, no Christian-speak or airy mysticism. Wiman’s prose is elegant and surprising at every turn. Wiman is the author of three volumes of poetry, a translated volume of Mandelstam’s poems, and a nonfiction book about becoming a poet, so it seems natural to also find the pages of Abyss interwoven with Wiman’s own poetry and the poetry of others. There is a long history of art as a means toward divine experience, and Wiman makes a strong case for the link between poetry and religious thought. Wiman is as gifted with prose as he is with poetry, but when it comes to the numinous, it seems that some ideas can be approached only through verse.
Though he is candid about his faith (Christian), he is just as candid about his uncertainties, and eager to qualify his beliefs. “I tell myself I have no problem believing in God,” he writes, “if ‘belief’ can be defined as some utter interior assent to a life that is both beyond and within this one, and if ‘assent’ can be understood as at once active and unconscious, and if ‘God’ is in some mysterious way both this action and its object, and if after all these qualifications this sentences still makes any effing sense.” He isn’t trying to convince anyone of anything, nor does one get the sense that he is fully convinced of anything himself. There is a refreshing restlessness in Wiman’s reflections; even when he seems to have figured something out, he is never smug, and remains quick to acknowledge how suddenly life-changing epiphanies can whither and lose their meaning. At the same time, the book is filled with insights that open as quietly as blossoms. Though far from cheery, Abyss is, finally, hopeful. “I should never pray to be at peace in my belief,” Wiman writes. “I should pray only that my anxiety be given peaceful outlets, that I might be the means to a peace that I myself do not feel.”
My Bright Abyss is one such peaceful outlet.