By the Light of the Cross: Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

By the Light of the Cross: Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss” August 25, 2016

What makes Jesus credible–at least for those of us who are Christians? The answers are as diverse as the wild array of weird Christian spiritualities. What stood out to me when I converted was the violence and public humiliation of the Crucifixion. The lurid, tabloid violence of Jesus’ death seemed to me to meet, in some way, the reality of a brutal world. If there could be reconciliation it would need to be a horrific reconciliation; and so that’s what we got.

I didn’t notice this at the time, but the humiliation of Jesus’ death–as a condemned prisoner–is linked to the other part of His life that helped me to see Him as God. This is the overturning of the social order: the last shall be first; the outcast, defeated, treasonous, exposed, impoverished, and humiliated will now be at the center of the community. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone chosen.

For others it will be Jesus’ tenderness toward sinners, or toward children; for some, I’m told, the Resurrection makes Him more plausibly God, although I’ve never quite gotten that. I mean anybody can say they rose from the dead.

Christian Wiman is closer to my camp, I think, in terms of what helps him see Jesus’ reality on a kind of instinctual gut-level. The only light that shines in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer is the light from the Cross; the only song of praise is the cry from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”, which Wiman quotes several times throughout the book.

Wiman was raised evangelical, and got “saved” in a way he’s still not sure how to talk about when he was a kid, but then was an atheist for a long time. He began returning to prayer when he met his wife, and came back to Christian faith in the wake of a diagnosis with terminal, incurable cancer. The cancer is still there–it has its tide and ebb, but it doesn’t disappear.

It took me a long time to warm to this thing he’s written. It’s not quite a book, more a scrapbook or journal, which is actually its strength: It may have many modern faults (more on this in a moment) but it has the great postmodern strength of self-questioning, calling attention to its own contradictions, returning to the previous question and reopening it with a new perspective. By the end I did feel like I’d gone on a journey with him, even though parts of that journey were unnecessarily frustrating.

The two stylistic elements you’ll notice in this book are that Wiman is a poet and a liberal Protestant. The poet part helps only intermittently: Wiman’s own poetry and the substance of his critical comments on others’ poetry are both excellent. When he’s just writing prose his prose has way too many tics of the contemporary poet: the alliteration or singsong rhythms, e.g. “a wall into which we finally, fatally slam,” ugh, everybody nowadays does that “finally, fatally” thing when they want to sound important! “[W]e will bang our very bones to roust our own souls.”

The Protestantism expresses itself stylistically, maybe, as hesitations and regroupings. Rarely can this guy let his sentences just barrel toward their end; they’ve all got to double back and qualify, asterisk, distance himself from any group you might want him to be loyal to. And even more so this specific stripe of Protestantism lets him be abstract and windy. Like, I’ve read JPII, I know Cat’licks too can gas and gab (OH GOD NOW I’M DOING IT), but if you have fewer definite, inescapable theological commitments you can sanitize almost every truth of the Faith into mere metaphor.

The modernity in this book expresses itself partly as a kind of intellectual fear: a fear of being childish or naive (who can possibly think Adam and Eve are names of real dead people?), and a fear of accepting any consoling truth. There’s a kind of allergy to the Biblical promises of splendor which adorn, for example, yesterday’s readings. It’s as if anything consoling must be false–as if its emotional effect on us is an argument against its plausibility. Logically there’s no reason the world should be as awful as possible, you know….

But the most modern element of the book (also the most postmodern, I guess) is the isolation of the believer. What’s so striking here is that Wiman repeatedly argues for church, in the abstract!, he argues against his own tendency to assent to only those truths which resonate with him personally. There’s a passage on page 142 that might stand with the other contemporary artistic defenses of cliche, like Violet’s speech in Damsels in Distress and the “It is better to live in a clean room than a dirty room” oratorio in Infinite Jest. And yet that whole bit in Wiman is about how he recognizes his need for a credo (and, I think, a church to give it to him; he knows he needs to receive it as given) but can’t live in it and can’t say it. I really like these self-critical passages in Abyss: They are all about their own insufficiency–the failure of a careful, self-chosen credo to be fully true.

Early on he has this line, “All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love,” and I just recoiled. Come on! When I was in high school my father got up early every morning and made me toast and cocoa, and there it was waiting for me when I stumbled downstairs for breakfast. Habit isn’t sameness; the daily rosary is different every time. It’s more true to say that all love is habit, that love without habit isn’t love at all but just impulse.

Arguably this is more true if you, like me, have an addictive personality and lack self-knowledge. Every spiritual reality, whether sin or love, is habit for me or else it’s nothing! And I only discover what and how I am called to love in the repeated doing of the acts of love. That whiskery AA cliche, “More will be revealed,” suggests that you don’t follow your spiritual path based on your own self-knowledge and relationship with God. You develop self-knowledge and (more importantly) relationship by following the path. Just do the things! Wiman writes, “If our inner lives are always in transition, then our goal should be to acquire and refine a consciousness that is capable of registering the most minute changes in sensation, feeling, faith, self.” Or you could make a sandwich for a hungry person, yo. That’s also a goal a Christian could have. But I should note that this weird self-absorbed quotation comes from very early in the book, and much of the later writing is intended to challenge this descent into the navel of the believer’s intellect.

Theologically what I related to most strongly in this book, aside from the fixation on the Cross which I’ve already mentioned, is the idea that our moments of apprehension of God are moments when the world seems to look back at us: to open its eyes and hold our rapt gaze. Our moments of contact with God are often moments when we notice that we are being perceived and comprehended by Someone outside ourselves. That resonates with my own experience, putting words to something I’ve never been able to describe before, and also has a sort of creepy harmony with the language of divine (or demonic) attention and regard in Tim Powers’s writing.

There are powerful moments throughout: “I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” “Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience.” “I should never pray to be at peace in my belief. I should pray only that my anxiety be given peaceful outlets, that I might be the means to a peace I do not myself feel.” There’s a striking reflection on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s last words. If there’s also annoying defensiveness (don’t criticize St Teresa of Avila if your “improvement” of her theology is longer, less intelligible, and much more twee) and the formless theology provoked by churchlessness… well, I don’t believe in modern love.

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