“When I woke, the ground was moist about me, and my track to the grave was growing a quicksand.” — George MacDonald, Lilith
Why does the poet suffer? Watch, look, see her longwinded thoughts transform into laconic, saturated fragments of earth and sky. The elements of wonder can so easily transform themselves into the elements of pain. Is that opal hanging majestically in the night sky a friend, a portent of the daylight? Or is that crescent dagger a Cheshire Cat smile, appearing and disappearing into a deeper—the deepest—night? Either way the poet must shape the silences one gives and the other takes away. The silence of light and the silence of night; these are the elements that make up the kaleidoscope of Christian Wiman’s newest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.
Like Augustine’s Confessions, Abyss isn’t really “about” anything so much as it is “to” everything: God, family, self, humanity, all of creation. It belongs to those kinds of books that are movements of life, tideways of prayer. “A confession,” Wittgenstein wrote, “must be part of your new life.” And like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Wiman begins within the book of his memory, writing of his conversion in youth: “Maybe it happened—and goes on happening—at the cellular level and means not nothing but everything to me. Maybe, like an atavistic impulse, I don’t remember it, but it remembers me.”
If there is a form to Wiman’s fragments, it is the dance of call and response as they spiral and twist and torque into the crevices of “every riven thing” that blossoms in existence. He begins with a tenebrous call of dereliction:
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:
Significantly, in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s “repetition” within a different disposition, the book ends with the same stanza. The only difference is that the last line ends with a period rather than a colon:
and believing nothing believe in this.
Wiman begins like Job, the dark terrors of silence and absence are responded to in the open lostness, the waiting, that the colon evokes. He begins in a Dantean dark wood, the selva oscura, knowing only one thing: the journey to and through the land of God-forsakenness has become a necessity.
But the colon mark takes part in a metamorphosis, it becomes a period. This period, however, is not a triumphal faith, a “full stop” of certainty. It is, rather, a movement from the thorn of silence into its rose. It is the eventide absence of God transformed into the whirlwind morning of God, both equally mysterious yet so infinitely different as to separate light from darkness. Wiman dwells neither in pure darkness nor in pure light; he sees through a glass darkly. Yet he does see, somewhere within the abyssal interval between Christ’s call “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and the empty sepulcher of paschal beauty.
I even wonder if, in this subtle movement of punctuation, Wiman has not created a cryptic punctuation of Christ. A recurring line throughout the book is “Christ is contingency.” Christ roams the earth as a man of sorrows; he who is the pure joy of existence itself becomes existence groaning, as St. Paul described it. Christ is open, like the colon mark, to the fleeting winds of time as they give, without rhyme or reason, the tragedies and joys of this life. Wiman writes, “No. Life is not an error, even when it is.” There is a prodigality of life that inheres in the colon that is mirrored in Christ. One could even say that Christ embodies the word “colon” in a double sense, as the punctuation of contingency and as the scatological “shit” or “scum” of the world. St. Paul wrote that “we have become, and still are, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” Yet what follows the colon of Christ’s being forsaken is the cry, the “period,” of Christ’s “it is finished” from the cross. This is the period as portent; the period that is already-but-not-yet; it bespeaks of the whirlwind in Job becoming the grammar of resurrection, the grammar of Christ.
Within the abyss, the interval, between broken images and resurrection, rests, in restlessness, the movement of faith. Faith burgeons within “sorrow’s flower,” “Experience lives in the transitions” and “We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God—or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant).” What is faith? What is love? They come and go, ebb and flow, upon eventides of days gone by. What is this love that sustains us? That knits these frangible petals of our existence together like some cosmic warp and woof?
Wiman gives one of the most beautiful responses to the question of faith I’ve ever heard:
“What does faith mean, finally, at this last date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life—in the ongoingness of it, the indestructibility, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with eyes to see it, love.”
Faith is faith in life. St. Augustine called it the vita vitae in the Confessions, the Life of life. And what moves our lives within this infinite, life giving Life, is love. For Wiman, like the Bishop of Hippo, his love is his weight; it is the love that is moved by the Love that moves. This is the heart, the cosmic axis, of Christian faith: you shall love; which for the Christian also means: you shall exist.
But a nasty little virus has crept into the synapses of our modern psyches. We have turned faith and its reflection, love, into a soporific and ideal fideism cut off from the strong wine of doubt. Doubt, contrary to popular culture, is not the antithesis of faith (the antithesis is arrogant egoism), rather, doubt is faith’s lover in a quarrel, a wrestling with an angel. This is what the Scottish mystic, George MacDonald, meant by saying that “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest.” Similarly Wiman writes that “no matter how severe its [faith’s] draught, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.” Faith and doubt are the sun and moon, the latter a portent of the former: “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” Doubts may look as if they burn us in a fiery furnace. Yet there is one that looks as if he were the son of God in the Babylonian furnace, too. The Christian God is, after all, both a consuming fire and a fountain.
Life is a fugue, and faith its intervals, its transitions. There is always some counterpoint of dissonance straining our existence toward the future, giving us the nacre of the present from the past. The theme of life is a primordial wonder that anything, rather than simply nothing, should exist at all. It consists of elated fragments of awe, that we are here, now. And how rapturously strange that being has made some secret, subtle ligature and covenant with the abyss within the doors of our perception, our consciousness. Yet dissonance arises within the awareness of our fleeting contingency—memento mori—here today, gone tomorrow. As children of dust we return to our mother, the soil, the seed. The movement of these elations, wonders and sorrows, temper and define our experience of time. Time is defined by the sound of our lives, the crescendo of which is our love. This sound is our memory, the mother of our muses.
Sometime before the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a heavy influence on Wiman), was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, he admonished his people to remember Jacob’s fearful awe when reunited face to face with his brother, Esau, years after the fateful birthright deception took place, Jacob says: “for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God.” To see our brother and sister—the one we’ve all deceived—is akin to seeing the face of God. Every human is an icon of the face of God. “Unto the least of these, you did it unto me,” a first century Jew is known to have said.
This theme, God’s face in our neighbor—the world seen, one could say, through the prism of Andrei Rublev’s Angels at Mamre icon—is the heart of Wiman’s book; it is what makes writing the book possible.
Somewhere along the corridors of life, Wiman fell in love with a girl. And joy’s face was mirrored back into his own. He prays with her, prays to the Face in every face. There is no other way to begin to pray but to pray to a human face; this is what it means to believe in Christ, to look into the eyes of a love that never changes in every contingent leaf of existence. Without this necessary dimension of Christian faith Wiman writes that “one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of self.” A potent sense of this truth is found, he relates, in Bonhoeffer’s insight that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own.
One of my favorite chapters of the book (no doubt because I’m fated with the nerves of William Cowper) is “Hive of Nerves.” The epigraph, from Paul Celan, goes like this: “It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming, / That unrest formed a heart.” If Augustine’s heart was restless in the fourth century, how much so ours? Ours is the age of distracted anxiety, the worst kind of anxiety I can imagine. Wiman writes, “And thus a whole country can be organized toward some collective insanity because there is no space for individuals to think.” How to slow down? No, slow…down. Slow. Down. To weep by the waters of Babylon, or Leman (nod to Eliot); to rejoice in the flow of the Jordan; to see with the eyes that are the lamp of the body; to stop long enough to find one’s self under the Rose of Dante’s Paradiso, or in the ichor of Angelus Silesius’s rose, the rose that “is without why, it blooms because it blooms, it pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.” There is a happy forgetfulness in attending to the world, an attention to the other that gives the self back to itself in truth, in love. We give the world presence, and thereby receive the gift of being present ourselves. Amidst the flickering screens that makeup our wastelands, we are called, Wiman seems to say, to form a heart.
If one has ever watched Robert Bresson’s magisterial film, Diary of a Country Priest—or read the classic novel it portrays by Georges Bernanos—the end of Wiman’s book will seem strangely familiar. They both culminate, in a somewhat melancholy adagio of expectation, in the kairos and fecundity of all Christian thought: Grace. All is Grace, that mysterious orchid of God’s mind that gives birth to the world. In the midst of being hellishly flayed by stomach cancer, the young country priest of Abricourt offers his last words: “It doesn’t matter. Grace is everywhere.” It doesn’t matter that Christian Wiman believes in nothing, so long as he believes in this: Grace is everywhere.