Christian Wiman’s “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Christian Wiman
Christian Wiman

 In 2006 at age 40 Christian Wiman conducted a retrospective examination of his life in his essay, Gazing Into the Abyss, American Scholar (Summer 2007).[1]

This post examines that essay and other writings by Wiman, now a 48-year-old writer and Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.[2]

 Gazing Into the Abyss

He grew up in a “very religious household” of his Southern Baptist parents in West Texas who held “the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”

In his late teens (while a student at Washington & Lee University) Wiman rebelled against his religious upbringing and stopped attending any church. This rebellion lasted for more than 20 years or until he was in his late 30’s.

After graduating from college, he began a career as a poet. Indeed, poetry became “the central purpose of his life” for almost 20 years, or until he was 36 years old. Looking back on that period, Wiman can see “how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination“ and “how deep and persistent my existential anxiety” was. Although he rejects the notion that poetry does or should replace religion, Wiman admits that “poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me.” Indeed, the one constant he now sees in his own poetry is God or “His absence.” (In a subsequent interview he said, “my refusal to admit [God’s] presence—underlies all of my earlier work.”)

Then three “shattering” events occurred in his life: one, of “necessity;” the second, of “glory;” and the third, of “tragedy.”

In 2002, at age 36 he encountered the event of necessity or despair. He stopped writing poetry. This was a conscious decision because he told himself at the time that he had “exhausted one way of writing.” Now he believes the “deeper truth” is that he was exhausted. The connection he had felt between word and world “went dead.”

Nearly simultaneously, however, his “career in poetry began to flourish” as he “moved into a good teaching job,” which he left in 2003[3] to become the Editor of the Poetry journal (which he held for the next 10 years); and found a publisher for his previous work. However, “there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.”

In about 2003, he encountered the event of “glory,” meeting a woman and falling in love with her. He recalls “color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly [erodingly?] alive.” He continues, “I was completely consumed” and “for the first time in my life, [I felt] like I was being fully possessed by being itself.” He now had “a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel, rootedness.”

This glorious state of love prompted a longing for divinity. Wiman and his lover started to pray –“jokingly” and “awkwardly” at first and then “with intensifying seriousness and deliberation”—by naming each thing they were thankful for and praising “the thing we could not name.” On Sundays they half-jokingly entertained the idea of going to church, and on “the morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue” (4th Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago?), but did not enter due to his resistance.

In any event, in 2004 when he was 38 years old, the two of them were married.

In 2005, on his 39th birthday, the third event—the one of “tragedy”—occurred. He was diagnosed with an “incurable cancer in my blood.” Christian and his wife “sat on the couch and cried, . . . mourning the death of the life we had imagined with each other.”

Over the next year, they found themselves going to church and discovering “where and who we were meant to be.” He also remembers the walks they took after church and the “moments of silent, and what felt like sacred, attentiveness . . . to: an iron sky and the lake [Lake Michigan] so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe [constant agitation] of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.” This was “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.” (These experiences also constituted a thorough rejection of his childhood religious belief that one had “to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”)

By “some miracle I do not find this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, . . . for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope.” This is a hope for “a ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.” [4]

“To find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss,” and according to Friedrich Nietzsche, “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

“I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love.” Our “intuitions” of grace, eternity and a love that does not end “come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing.” Faith, therefore, “is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”

Here Wiman draws upon a favorite metaphor of Simone Weil: two prisoners are in adjacent solitary confinement cells and communicate using taps and scratches on the wall between them. Weil says, and Wiman concurs, this is like the wall that separates us from God. Wiman concludes his essay, “the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is . . . this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone.” Now he constantly is “trying to get as close to this wall as possible . . . [and] listening with all I am.”

Subsequent Writing

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In the “Preface” to his latest book– My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013) [5]—Wiman referred to readers’ reaction to the “Abyss” essay.[6] He said this reaction made him realize there was “an enormous contingent of thoughtful people . . . who are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion . . . [but] feel the burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.”

This realization prompted him to write essays or meditations “to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question—the real difficulty– is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?”

Kathleen Norris, another contemporary author of religious/spirituality books, says that My Bright Abyss “reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.” She adds, “With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks ‘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.’”

My Bright Abyss is now on my iPad to be read.

Conclusion

Wiman’s essay reminds us all of the importance of periodically examining your own life. For him this task is assisted by the discipline of writing. I share this belief, and some of my blog posts attempt to do this although without the felicitous vocabulary and style of Wiman.

Like Wiman, I grew up in a religious home although not as fundamentalist as his. Like him, I abandoned religious belief and practice during my college years, and my time in the spiritual desert, like his, lasted for about 20 years. During this period, my “central purpose” was lawyering, which in some ways was similar to his focus on poetry. My reclamation of a religious and spiritual life, however, was not precipitated by “shattering” events like Wiman, but rather by an inner emptiness and a sense that the secular world did not have all the answers to life’s problems.

I share Wiman’s belief that the language and forms of much of contemporary American religion leave much to be desired, but I have found a church–Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church–that, in my opinion, speaks to the world as it is and has become my spiritual home as I have shared in posts to this blog.

Moreover, Westminster recently was host to a national conference of the “NEXT Church” movement that seeks “to foster relationships among God’s people:sparking imaginations;connecting congregations; offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.” To that end,“Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace, NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections, celebrating emerging leadership and innovation, and working with congregations and leaders to form and reform faith communities.”

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[1] I first learned about Wiman and the “Abyss” essay at the June 8, 2014, “Virtues and Values” adult education class at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[2] My review of Wiman’s essay also draws upon the following: Wikipedia, Christian Wiman; Yale Univ. Institute of Sacred Music, Christian Wiman; Bill Moyers, Poet Christian Wiman on Faith , Love, and Cancer (Feb. 23, 2012); Jeter, Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World’s Top Poetry Magazine, Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2013);  Yezzi, Cries and Whispers, W.S.J. (April 19, 2013), ; Krista Tippett, Christian Wiman—A Call to Doubt and Faith, and remembering God (May 23, 2013) (includes audio of Wiman reading some of his poems); Kathleen Norris, Faith Healing, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2013); PBS, Christian Wiman Interview (Oct. 25, 2013), ; Stimpson, Review of Christian Wiman’s ‘My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Huff. Post (Mar. 24, 2014); Domestico, Being Prepared for Joy: An Interview with Christian Wiman, Commonweal (April16, 2014).

[3] Wiman has been a Visiting Professor of English at Northwestern University, which I suspect is the teaching position he references in the essay; the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University; and Visiting Scholar at Lynchburg College, all before assuming his current position at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.

[4] Presumably this a reference to 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

[5] His other recent books are Hard Night (2005); Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007); and “Every Riven Thing” (2010). This Fall “Once in the West,” a poetry collection, will be published.

[6] The “Abyss” essay was retitled as “Love Bade Me Welcome” and published in his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Questioning President Lyndon Johnson

In March 1966, during my final semester of law school, I was one of 38 national finalists for 16 White House Fellowships. This fellowship program had been started in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson to provide one-year high-level positions in the White House and Executive Branch to future leaders so that afterwards the individuals could take that experience into their regular jobs and be better informed about important public policy issues and the workings of the federal government and, therefore, be better citizen leaders.[1]

 

East Room, White House

The other finalists and I were brought to a Virginia retreat center for interviews by members of the Fellows Commission, including John Gardner (then U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Department) and C. Douglas Dillon (former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Department). Afterwards on March 29th we all were bused to the White House and mid-afternoon were escorted to the East Room where the winners would be announced.

Before the announcement, however, President Johnson unexpectedly entered the Room. He first joined his daughter Luci Baines Johnson, who was substituting for her ill mother, to greet the finalists. The President then walked around, shaking hands and making individual comments. Johnson then called for everyone’s attention. He said that when he was a young man in Washington, he always wondered what it would be like to come to see the president and what the president would say while the young Johnson knew what he hoped the president would say. Johnson then remarked that perhaps the finalists would like to ask him questions rather than hearing him give a dry lecture.[2]

There was an awkward silence. The other finalists and I were hesitant to ask the first question, and Johnson told a few jokes to loosen up the people in the Room.

Finally one of the finalists asked what previous presidents would have been selected as Fellows if there had been such a program in their day. Johnson laughingly replied that Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy undoubtedly would have been selected, but he did not think that Truman and Johnson himself would have made it. Other finalists asked Johnson questions about the Viet Nam war, the current visit to Washington of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Fellowship program itself.[3]

Lyndon Johnson & Bill Moyers

Word of this impromptu presidential question and answer session got back to the White House Press Room, and journalists belatedly arrived and stood at the back of the Room taking notes. Johnson’s Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, was next to Johnson during the session and kept trying to end it, but Johnson was enjoying himself and continued to respond to questions.

During this session I was standing about 10 feet from President Johnson. There was concern at the time about inflation with the February 1966 Consumer Price Index up 0.5%, the highest increase in that month since 1951, and whether the President would ask Congress for a tax increase to fight inflation. So I asked the President if he would be seeking such a tax increase.

Tugging at his big right ear lobe, Johnson responded in a folksy manner in his Texan drawl. He first said that he was more worried about economists than he was about the economy and that he had not made up his mind on the tax increase idea. He added that he did not want to ask for an increase, especially in a midterm election year, but if he decided a tax increase was necessary to cool off the economy, he would ask Congress for a “modest” rise of 5 to 7 per cent in the taxes paid by individuals and corporations. Johnson also said he had ruled out reductions in federal government spending and wage and price controls as other ways to combat inflation.[4]

The President’s Daily Diary for that day says that this answer and his “mention of the Tax Rise to be proposed” was the headline in many newspapers the next day, as indeed it was.[5]

This news the next morning prompted a sharp decline in the stock market–the largest in two weeks. Reacting to this market decline, the President around noon on March 30th told journalists that he “absolutely” had not made up his mind about the need for a tax increase. The market responded with a momentary uptick, but it closed lower that day.[6] Thereafter I joked that I caused the stock market to fall.

At the conclusion of the meeting the prior day in the State Dining Room, the announcement of the 18 new Fellows was made.[7] I was not one of the lucky ones.


[1] White House, White House Fellows, http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/fellows.

[2] Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Daily Diary Collection (March 29, 1966), http://www.lbjlibrary.org/collections/daily-diary.html.

[3]  Id.

[4] Id.; Pomfret, Johnson Favors 5-to-7% Tax Rise If Any Is Needed, N. Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10B12FC3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3;  Rossant, Flexibility and Taxes; Johnson’s Hint of Relaxing Opposition To Rise Is Gain for ‘New Economists,’ N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10D11FE3E59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3; Wicker, The Inflation Debate, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F1071FFD3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3;  Editorial, The Economy’s Pulse, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10617F83F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3.

[5] Id.

[6]  Abele, Tax Uncertainty Upsets Markets, N.Y. Times, Mar. 31, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10D15F63959177B8EDDA80B94DB405B868AF1D3.

[7] Capital Fellows End a Year at Top, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10E1FFD3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3.