Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
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:

 

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