Varieties of Quiet: Christian Wiman’s Pensées

So profound are Christian Wiman’s pensées in the current issue of Image  that I feel impertinent even engaging them. But they are so deeply engaging that I can’t refrain.

Pensées is my term to describe these reflections, not Wiman’s. He calls the essay “Varieties of Quiet.” When I first read the title, I thought it would be about meditation.

But no, it’s about what language can’t say, especially the language of faith—and even the language of poetry. I say “even” because Wiman is a poet, and editor of Poetry magazine.

Wiman comes down hard on the language of Christianity—because it doesn’t speak to his soul’s experience. He writes that church, with its language of communal worship, “is the last place in the world where [people] are going to find God.”

I nod assent, remembering a Catholic friend’s counsel, when I was moving toward baptism years ago, that joining the institution should be the last step in a conversion process. As it was for me, thank God.

Wiman does go to church (though he gets so bored there “that I often recite poems to myself in my head”). It’s the language of dogma, which has become too glib, too easy, that he can’t relate to.

“I don’t know what it means to say that Christ ‘died for my sins’ (who wants that? who invented that perverse calculus?).”

My relief at reading this statement of Wiman’s is appropriately beyond words. I’ve never understood this formulation either.

Rationally, it makes no sense. I spend all of Lent every year, and particularly Holy Week, trying to get my mind around this core belief of my Christian faith.

And yet, like Wiman:

I do understand—or intuit, rather—the notion of God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless. How to speak of these things? Language, even as it reaches for a life beyond this one, must bear the mark of being lost.

Yet how does language bear this mark? And what, then, about the language of poetry?

Writing poetry is Wiman’s salvation—in a sense.

Yet (another yet; the movement of his pensées is a twisting string of and yet turnarounds) for poetry to save, we must be already healthy enough to reach for salvation.

Wiman is not healthy. He lives with a dreadful disease that could take his life at any moment. And so:

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

What then?

Then…he weeps.

What I do is whine.

I have lived what Wiman is saying here. When I feel healthy and perky (like today, with lovely energy to write this post), I can pray and read poetry and feel enwrapped in God’s love. But, oh, on those hard, exhausted days that seem hopeless, not even my husband’s caring love can convince me of God’s.

We used to sing compline together before turning out the lights at bedtime. But when I started suffering from an insomnia that no drugs or alternative treatments could relieve, I couldn’t keep singing all the compline lines about sleeping in God’s peace, like Psalm 4’s “I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, / For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

My husband would try to encourage me: “It’s a prayer for sleep, it’s not a promise of sleep.”

I just whined: “But the promise won’t be kept for me, so to pray it only upsets me more.”

Yet, yet… though there is, Wiman says, a “disconnect between language and life,” writing poetry makes possible for him a “creative abandon.”

“Or,” he amends, “perhaps I should say that I simply cannot live with the same creative abandon with which I can (sometimes) write, because life is a hell of a lot more difficult—and important—than art.”

Whew. I have sat a long time in silence since keyboarding that sentence.

He ends the essay with art: With a poem. A poem that is mostly silence. A couple words… then space. A few more words… then more space.

It’s as if the words are there in order to create the silence that surrounds them.

This is a difficult post to end, because I know I haven’t made a dent in the depths of Wiman’s pensées. Reader, do read them.

Click here to read an excerpt from “Varieties of Quiet.”

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  • “Or,” he amends, “perhaps I should say that I simply cannot live with the same creative abandon with which I can (sometimes) write, because life is a hell of a lot more difficult—and important—than art.”

    Boy, isn’t that the truth? Thanks for this, Peggy.

    • Yup, it’s the truth–but a hard one for those of us who treasure the arts and even feel that we can’t fully live without them.

  • After seeing the moving Bill Moyers interview with Wiman, I went in search of his work. I just finished reading Wiman’s essay collection “Ambition and Survival” and am reading again his incredible poetry collection “Every Riven Thing”. (The latter, btw, includes a poem “I Sing Insomnia”.) I admire how he’s managed to find a place where silence can give comfort.

    • Thanks for this reading list, Maureen. And I’d missed Wiman on Bill Moyers… I’ll find the video online.

    • Terry

      I just watched the Moyers interview. It was full of insight, and very moving.

  • I think God has told us all he means to tell, given us all he means to give, and the rest is ours to carry. Sometimes that weight is heavy. More often, so far, I hear a voice saying in my ear, “How many more blessings are you going to ask for before you are satisfied?”

    • Oooh, Peter, what a beautiful reflection, spinning off of Wiman’s. I need to listen more attentively for exactly the voice you hear.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Well I’m not to sure about all this . It seems to me when reading Mr Wiman’s complaints , comments and criticisms , what his real problem may be is that he’s wanting a god created in his own image , rather than him being created in God’s Image . To say no one will ‘ find ‘ God in Church …. well thats a bit of hyperbole as well as an upfront expression of Mr Wiman’s inability or unwillingness to accept that God’s Word ( which hopefully is being expressed in the Church one walks into ) IS in fact the only path to the True and Living God that created all there is and is the Alpha and Omega of the universe . To sum up my viewpoint on Mr Wiman’s I’d say he’s simply another in a Historically very long line of Self Indulgent Mystics attempting to define God by their own standards rather than accept the fact that their standards are to say the least substantially less than infinite and in fact it is God who sets the standards and those of us that follow Him accept that simple reality .

    e.g. Just because you’ve been given the gift / ability to spread a few words around a page and have it make some sense as well as appeal to others does not make you god …. nor does it give you license to attempt to create your own version of God . Gnosticism in its purest form says it best when it comes to the likes of Mr Wiman and his kind . Interesting and on occasion somewhat fascinating ….. but in no way original , true or profound : nor should anyone be following his example . The centuries are full of his kind

  • Wiman’s essay gave me words to more clearly express, and so name that experience for myself too, the danger of preaching God’s Word weekly (which I do as a preacher): that in speaking of the Holy you can reduce the mystery or make it too ethereal. How can I incorporate varieties-of-quiet when a congregation is expecting you to speak?

    • Samuel, your final question is powerful and important. I know you don’t expect me to answer it! But I think you begin to answer it yourself when you speak of the “mystery.” Acknowledging the mystery, acknowledging that all our language for God is metaphor, is a start.
      Bless you in your ministry of preaching; it’s an immensely challenging one.

  • Terry

    Thank you for bringing this article to my attention, Peggy. Wiman is honest about his discomfort with the language of corporate religious experience. He is also, in my opinion, humble in acknowledging the importance of being in a faith community (where we lose control over the how people talk about faith).

    • Terry, yes, I think you articulate beautifully the two contradictory views that Wiman is able to hold.