I have tried to learn the language of Christianity but often feel that I have made no progress at all. I don’t mean that Christianity doesn’t seem to “work” for me, as if its veracity were measured by its speciﬁc utility in my own life. I understand that my understanding must be forged and re-formed within the life of God, and dogma is a means of making this happen: the ropes, clips, and toe spikes whereby one descends into the abyss. But I am also a poet, and I feel the falseness—or no, not even that, a certain inaccuracy and slippage, as if the equipment were worn and inadequate—at every step. And that’s in the best moments. In the worst, I’m simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there’s something worth buying.
* * *
What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deﬂates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect? The latter, you might say, occurs in quotes. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to an inept or unprepared preacher (or poet!) defer to the “mystery” of existence and God when more mystery is the last thing in the world his words need or can bear—nothing, that is, except perhaps plowing through some twelve-volume Teutonic tome explicating every last letter of the laws of God. I begin to think that anything that abstracts us from the physical world is “of the devil,” as we said in the baked—and sometimes half-baked—plains of West Texas where I was raised, though there we were more inclined to blame Satan for tempting us too close to the sweet stinks of the earth. What I crave—and what I have known, in fugitive instants—is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it, some ultimate insight that is still sight. Heaven is precision.
* * *
Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big—
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don’t be dropping crumbs. Don’t tilt your chair.
Don’t reach. Don’t point. Don’t make noise when you stir.
It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. “What’s this? What’s this?”
And they sit down in the shining room together.
—Seamus Heaney, from “Clearances”
* * *
Eternity, the idea of it, is a powerful magnet for the mind, but the heart remains unmoved. It is a truism to say that we are never more alive than when we are closest to our deaths. (It is also at times, if said of one whose suffering has swamped his humanity, an obscenity.) Yet under the easy gesture toward this fatal intensity (easy so long as it is safely intellectual, remote from us) there is a sharp edge: it might take an illness for you to feel that edge, either in your body or in the body of one you love, or it might simply be a kind of cut in consciousness so sharp that there is a pause between you and all that is not you, and like a quick-handed cook whose deft slicing suddenly opens his own thumb, you are stuck in the shock of watching.
We live in and by our senses, which are conditioned in and by our deaths. When some singular aspect of reality—an object, a person, even a duration of time—seems to acquire a life in excess of itself, what we feel is more complicated than joy. This is because that excess is at once some inexplicable ongoingness of the thing and the loss of the thing as it is, at once eternity and oblivion. And this is why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any uniﬁed spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God.
* * *
At the alder-darkened brink
Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
And see, before I can drink,
A startled inchling trout
Of spotted near-transparency,
Trawling a shadow solider than he.
He swerves now, darting out
To where, in a ﬂicked slew
Of sparks and glittering silt, he weaves
Trough stream-bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves,
And butts then out of view
Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brace
Of burnished dragon-ﬂies across its face,
In which deep cloudlets pass
And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch-trees plunges down
Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.
How shall I drink all this?
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
—Richard Wilbur, “Hamlen Brook”
* * *
“God is distant, difficult,” writes Geoffrey Hill, a contemporary religious poet whose work—distant, difficult—might be said to have grown out of the seed of that assumption. But in fact distance from God—the assumption of it—is often not the terror and scourge we make it out to be, but the very opposite: it is false comfort, for it asks nothing immediate of us, or what it asks is interior, intellectual, self-enclosed. The result is a moment of meditative communion, perhaps, or a work of art, or even—O my easy, hazy God—one more little riff on the Ineffable.
To believe in—to serve—Christ, on the other hand, is quite difﬁcult, and precisely because of how near he is to us at all times. In Seattle once, when I was twenty-one and working at some crap temp job downtown, I used to spend my lunch hours near the docks. One particular day when everything was crisp, blue, new—and even the molten men emerging from the metal with which they were working, and the bickering gulls buoyed up in gusts, and my own release from numbing office efficiency seemed to verge on some mysterious, tremendous articulation of light and time—suddenly a tattered, gangrenous man staggered toward me with his arms out like a soul in hell.
Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is diﬃcult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.
I thrust my lunch into that man’s hands, one of which was furred green as if a mold were growing on it, and ﬂed.
* * *
It is easy enough to write and talk about God while remaining comfortable within the contemporary intellectual climate. Even people who would call themselves unbelievers often use the word gesturally, as a ready-made synonym for mystery. But if nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self. Geoffrey Hill:
What is there in my heart that you should sue
so ﬁercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
—from “Lachrimae Amantis”
Religiously secure. A brilliant phrase, and not simply because it suggests the radical lack of security, the disruption of ordinary life that a turn toward Christ entails, but also this: for some people, and probably for all people for some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary ediﬁce that has grown out of primary spiritual experience—all this is the last place in the world where they are going to ﬁnd God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is:
Centaury with your staunch bloom
you there alder beech you fern
midsummer closeness my far home,
fresh traces of lost origin.
Silvery the black cherries hang,
the plum-tree oozes through each cleft
and horse-ﬂies siphon the green dung,
glued to the sweetness of their graft:
immortal transience, a “kind
of otherness,” self-understood,
BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind
as lichen glimmers on the wood.
—Geoffrey Hill, from “Two Choral-preludes”
* * *
And yet the merely individual connection with the divine, that moment of supernatural communion that occurs at the end of “Two Choral-Preludes” above, the whole modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief that leads so many people to dismiss all doctrine out of hand, or to say that they are spiritual but not religious, or to emphasize some form of individual “transcendence” over other aspects of spiritual experience—all this is ﬁne until life, or death, comes crashing into you with its all-too-speciﬁc terrors and sufferings. We do not need deﬁnite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. And not simply glimpsed—because certainly revelation is available outside of dogma; indeed all dogma, if it’s alive at all, is the result of revelation at one time or another—but gathered in. Deﬁnite beliefs are what make the radical mystery—those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we “know” absolutely nothing—accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives. And more crucially: deﬁnite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.
* * *
Of course I say all this as someone who gets so bored in church that I often recite poems to myself in my head, someone an interviewer once called (approvingly, I think) an “atheist Christian,” someone who all too often forgets that it is much more important to assert and lay claim to the God that you believe in rather than forever drawing the line at the doctrine you don’t. But I say it, too, as someone who has had his own gauzy ontology overwhelmed with real blood, my mystical sense of God-in-nature obliterated by nature wreaking havoc with my body. If wisdom is, as Kant said, “organized life,” I’m afraid I have little to offer. I am still right down in the ﬁlthy tumult. If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it’s only because I have a hornet’s nest of voluble and conﬂicting parishioners inside of me.
* * *
Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to deﬁne and explore belief, or do we ﬁnd the ﬁre of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn? We need a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need. I sometimes think that this transformation is already happening outside of religious institutions, that faith is remaking itself in the work of contemporary artists and thinkers (yes, I mean to deflect the agency like that: the moment an artist becomes conscious of remaking or re-imagining faith, he becomes a barrier to it). For twenty-ﬁve years I have held this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping in my mind:
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose ﬁnally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What ﬂowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
This seemed (and seems) to me, besides being prose of consummate clarity and beauty, to so perfectly articulate not only the sense of absence that for years I felt permeating every spiritual aspect of my life, but also, and more important, to bestow upon it an energy and agency, a prayerful but indeﬁnable promise: “the world will be made whole.” The language is clearly biblical, but it occurs in a secular context; it is spiritually suggestive (and useful) but rooted in—even contingent upon—the actual natural world; it is absolutely given over to the transitory instant that, by means of its intense attentiveness, it transcends.
People ﬂocked to the book, especially—if my conversations over the years are any indication—secular readers, most of whom seem not to have even noticed the Christian dimensions of the language and the story. I’m not sure the book offered much of a way forward—its ending has always seemed to me the least convincing part of the novel—but it cleared the metaphysical air, so to speak; it gave us—would-be believers, haunted unbelievers, determined secularists whose very passion for the book undermined their iron exteriors—something to build on.
And then: twenty-four years of silence. There were radiant articles here and there, and a book of essays, but no more ﬁction. I wondered if Robinson had simply lost her faith in the form, and like many people I was surprised and pleased when, in 2004, she published Gilead, a novel told from the perspective of a mid-twentieth century midwestern Protestant preacher who is old and dying. The book reads like a ﬂowering of the emptiness and absence, the whole bone-cold weather of elegy, that both animated and limited Housekeeping. (“Limited” in terms of what the book could do for a person; in the end, I feel that Housekeeping is Robinson’s best book.) There are even passages in both books that echo and answer each other, such as the one above and this:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
The speciﬁcally Christian element is more explicit here (she alludes to First Corinthians: “We shall not all be taken, but we shall all be changed”), but it’s a kind of Christianity that would be unfamiliar to many people, including many Christians. If piety forbids one to imagine any afterlife that makes this life seem altogether inferior, then piety essentially forbids one from imagining any afterlife at all. (Unless you simply imagine this life somehow continuing in perpetuity, which would, even for the happiest person out there, eventually be a kind of hell.) One can still have faith in an afterlife, but it is a faith both kindled and conﬁned by the earth. What, according to Housekeeping, does our most intense longing for otherness, our soul’s notion of some ultimate elsewhere, ﬁnally bring us? The wild strawberries that are right in front of our eyes.
* * *
It is enough in literature—it is essential—to keep one’s little patch of language pure, to reconcile oneself to nothing that has not passed through the crucible of one’s own most intense experiences and thoughts. But that won’t do for life, or faith, which are deﬁned by, and contained within, relationships. And to be in a relationship often means forgoing the self and its crucible of “truth,” learning to live with—and love—the very things that compromise our notions of what we need, what we think, what we are. I feel a strong need—an imperative, really—to believe something in common; indeed, I feel that any belief I have that is not in some way shared is probably just the workings of my own ego, a common form of modern idolatry.
* * *
The soul at peace—the mystic, the poet working well—is not simply inclined to silence but inclined to valorize it. Poets say that the better part of poetry is what is not said; mystics and other meditative savants say that the ﬁnal fruition of prayer is silence. And they are correct. And yet the soul in extremity craves language; and even more than that, craves within language some ﬁxed point of perception, some articulation of soul and circumstance that neither wavers nor decays, some—how the modern mind pretzels itself trying not to speak this one word—truth. But here’s a “truth”: every word, even “the,” begins to leak meaning the minute you turn your attention to it. When I was young, until I got sick in fact, what I most wanted from art was to tease those implications and connotations out, to lose myself in, fuse myself with, the larger meaning that this constant loss of meaning makes possible. But now what I crave is writing that strives to erase implications, art that aspires to get right down to the nub of Now. I want the “pure, clear word,” as James Wright once called it: thought and object, mind and matter soldered seamlessly together by pain, faith, grief, grace. That I don’t believe in such a word only intensiﬁes my desire for it.
* * *
When life is thriving in us, we crave to get beyond it: experience that takes us out of ourselves, poetry that articulates a shape and space for the inexpressible, prayer that obliterates self-consciousness for the sake of God. When it is death that is thriving in us, though, when the inexpressible has begun to seep into us like some last, ineluctable dusk, and the tick of each instant is the click of a door closing us out—we look back. Hospitalized again, breathless because of my useless blood, tethered twenty-four hours a day to multiple chemotherapies, angered into someone I hardly recognize and do not like, I reach over randomly to the pile of despised books on the bedstand and read
Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living—a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense—with a start, a bounce, a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
—Ted Hughes, “Thrushes”
and weep for the world this tiny, terrifying, and blessedly untranscendental clarity gives back to me again.
* * *
Too many elegies
to a kind
in the end
of the ache
of inwardness . . .
or even just believing
and the long room
where the child
on a bee
like an attack
[. . .]
* * *
About the Author
Christian Wiman is the author of six previous books, most recently Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010), winner of the Ambassador Book Award in poetry, and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux