My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

My Bright AbyssThis 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.

This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion, Short Stories/Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

  1. BarbCarol says:

    Thank you for such an insightful review. Definitely on my to do list.

  2. I have shared on my FB page. Certainly a raw book for raw people, hurt and bleeding or in need of comfort but too deep in suffering to receive with patience with usual words and exhortations of meekness and superficial balm. I al living through all this and it does not work. Rebellion agaist God, I understand, and some peace coming when completely unexpeted from a well deep, deep in me, and nourished by God then.
    A book I would love to find and keep by me.
    Thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      It is so, so helpful to hear someone say that it’s OK to be angry and to suffer and to see no sense in the pain that happens in the word. I know that my own pain is a phase and that it will (and has) ease up in time, but I find that I’m having to let myself yell at God or give him the silent treatment in order to heal properly. I hope you’re able to find a copy of this and get as much benefit from it as I did.

      • Yell, shout, insult,get angry, or stop talking to God. This is what I do regularly. This is what I am doing today and this evening. It helps.
        Yet, at the same time, I had to go to church (mass as we are RC) this morning for the Girls who would not have understood. And now is prayer time before going to sleep. It is no hypocrisy but I have to take charge of them and they are not angry with God. It is His peace they feel.
        Perhaps, I shall find the same peace again.
        But I understand you.

      • Teresa says:

        It’s weird, but even in the midst of my shouting and silence, I do keep going to church, offering prayers and serving as a Eucharistic minister once or twice a month and going to Bible study as well. There have been Sundays when I can only get myself to go because I’ve agreed to serve in some way that day. But it doesn’t feel like hypocrisy to me to do that. I’m in a dark place, but I believe it’s temporary, and the only way for me to find that light again is to keep showing up. And I’ve gotten glimmers from time to time that make it worth it.

  3. Jenny says:

    The really interesting thing is that I didn’t know either of us would need this book in this way when I put it on your list this year.

    So very glad you responded to this book in much the same way I did. I was never able to review it last year; I was too moved by it, I had too much to say and too little time. But yes.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m so glad you pointed me to this! I think I would have loved and appreciated this book last year, but it was such a balm this year. I had to read it very slowly, just one chapter at a time, because it was too much to take in all at once.

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