Vanishing in Order to See
I get a lot of books in the mail, but there are few that I can recall anticipating as keenly as the one that came in a little brown box today. Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss has been on my radar for a while now, whether due to the almost unanimously affirming reviews it has received, or simply to the nature of the story behind the book: poet/writer/scholar gets cancer in his thirties and begins (begins again? continues?) to chart the rocky terrain from secularism to religious belief. The story and the subject matter both compel me, but it is the writing that is blowing me away. This man is, truly, at home with words. I am reading, and rereading, and reading more slowly than I have in quite some time. Occasionally, very rarely, I come across a writer whose words leave me thinking, “Yes, I have found a friend.” One chapter into My Bright Abyss, and I am convinced that Christian Wiman is one of them.
On the impossibility of returning to the faith of your childhood, and the longing for God that (properly) haunts each step of our journeys…
Faith is not some half-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 that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, 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 faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual 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 dangers of being defined by a heroically secular existential angst…
Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have the 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 shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.
On the Christ who meets us at every stage and state of the journey…
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 once more in order to make them see.
On the flowering of latent belief and the overcoming of the self…
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: poem after poem about unnamed and unnameable 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 conquering army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a person, 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.
Thanks for the lead on this interesting Christian Wiman book, Ryan. I had never heard of him before.
“I also wanted to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being that drives you both deeper into, and utterly out of, yourself? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge the insistent, persistent call of God?” Christian Wiman (Josh Jeter interview in Christianity Today 12/7/2012
“Answering the burn of being…” Fantastic phrase.