My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 192 pages)
It is hard to know exactly what to say about or how to categorize Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss. These ruminations on faith are in part a chronicling of Wiman’s arrival at or reception of religious faith and its development, in part a memoir of his struggle to makes sense of this faith when diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. However, this book is not a conversion story – Wiman says that though he rejected the religion of his childhood, faith has always been “latent” within him – nor is it simply a narrative of suffering. More than either of these, it is a work which demonstrates how poetry illuminates religious faith and how coming to know something of divinity is much like the kind of knowing that comes by way of wrestling with a poem.
Wiman struggles with the impulse to be able to state his beliefs – in God, grace, the meaning in life’s suffering – in a clear and decisive way, while also convinced that any true form of faith is by necessity contingent and riddled with doubts. That is to say, faith, and for Wiman it is the Christian faith that has occasioned these reflections, presents us with a glimpse into the mystery of divinity that both eludes our human expression and cries out for articulation. He seeks to articulate the necessity of both mystical experience and the apprehension of faith’s mystery in everyday experiences. The book begins and ends with this poem:
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.
This conviction that God is somehow both knowable and unknowable, that creaturely experience is both full of meaning and utterly inscrutable, that religious doctrines are both necessary and strictly provisional, place Wiman within the tradition of Christian thought known as apophatic theology or negative theology. This stream of thought emphasizes the inability of language and human concepts to convey meaning about the divine. For Wiman, it is in Christ that we find our clearest knowledge of God – God who became a man and identified with his creatures in their suffering. And yet, even here God’s mystery is evident in Christ’s cry of forsakenness on the cross.
Wiman marshals the experiences of life, both poignant and painful, to give expression to the divine character of our existence. Yes, his prose is frustrating at times, complicating seemingly simple issues and failing to offer answers for the questions that are raised. However, I suppose that this is unavoidable considering the subject matter. He does an excellent job of making the case that faith and poetry have an inherent connection, and anyone with a penchant for poetry that meditates on big questions will appreciate Wiman’s own poetry and the verses of other poets that he includes in these pages.