This book by poet Christian Wiman is not easy to describe. It’s not exactly a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir, and it’s not exactly an essay collection, although each chapter dances around a particular theme or idea. His subtitle gives us perhaps the best word for what it is—a series of meditations. The first chapter opens like this:
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 several years since I first wrote that stance 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 single stanza.
The rest of the book contains Wiman’s musings on what he does believe, about God, art, life, and death. Much of the book is colored by Wiman’s cancer diagnosis, which brought death close. It seems trite to also say that it also brought him to God, because this is not a book about conversion in the face of death. He and his wife were already taking tentative steps toward prayer and faith when the diagnosis came, and after the diagnosis, they went to church.
The thing is, to describe the events as they happened ends up making this sounds like any other conversation story, any other cancer story, like sermons I’ve heard a million times. I’ve probably heard these stories a million times because they’re true, because conversions do happen that way. But so many of those stories flatten out the experience, make it all seem simple. Incipient death led to longing for God, so something good could come out of tragedy. This book does not tell that kind of story. I would have had zero patience for it if it had.
Wiman’s faith is just a thing that is. It doesn’t make things easier, at least it doesn’t consistently, and it doesn’t ease his mind about the end. It’s not a faith of easy answers to difficult questions. It’s a faith of leaning in to the difficult questions, knowing that in all those difficulties God is there, without knowing exactly what that even means. Early on in the book, Wiman writes:
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 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 into everydayness. 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, and terrors I thought I had risen beyond.
Earlier this year, I was touched by a particularly horrifying and shocking tragedy that has put me in a darker place spiritually than I’ve been in many years. And it’s hard. It’s especially hard when you’re told that Christians are supposed to be able to pull themselves up out of pain. So words like Wiman’s were like balm to my soul. It’s not just me.
Wiman’s style shows that the spiritual life isn’t always a linear path. Besides showing himself sinking into anxiety, as in the passage below, he also often comments on his writing as he goes, responding, sometimes years later, to the paragraph written above. This book is articulate and powerful, but it isn’t tidy.
I could fill this post with quote after quote about the nature of love, doing theology through art, and the role of Christ in the individual believer’s life. There’s so much in this book that chimed for me, but what I appreciated the most was that he articulated ideas that I feel but find hard to express. The only book I’ve encountered to address suffering nearly this well was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is about a different kind of suffering, but has a similarly raw honesty. This is a book I’ll keep close at hand, to dip into when I need it. I expect I’ll continue to need it for a while.