Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 1)

My next 7 posts (this one and 6 more) will relate to a book I finished reading in late 2015 – My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer  by Christian Wiman.  These subsequent posts will consist solely of quotes from each of the 11 chapters in the book.  There will be no commentary or other thoughts from me, just the quotes themselves.  

My only exposure to Wiman’s work prior to reading My Bright Abyss was a short essay entitled “Love Bade Me Welcome”, (originally published in 2007 under a different title).

I don’t recall exactly how I came across the essay.  I imagine a link was posted or a comment made on one of the several blogs that I follow, but cannot be sure.  I know that I read it on the tiny screen of my iPhone 5S (the amount of reading that I do on my phone is sure to destroy my eyesight!) and I know that after reading the essay, I didn’t close the web browser window, thinking that what I'd jsut read was somehow important and deserved to be reread.  I read it several times and left that browser window open for months and months, afraid that if I were to close it I'd forget about it.

I do know that I first read the essay in mid-2014 just after my own crisis of faith began.  Actually, "crisis of faith" makes it sound too cerebral, too "garden-variety".  I simply don't have the ability to say much more about it even now, so I won't try.  I lack the words.  That lack, in part at least, explains why this essay drew me in.

Wiman is a gifted writer, a poet and teacher by profession.  The honesty of his story stuck with me, as did his ability to pack so much of himself into a single sentence.  (I want to be able to communicate this honestly.)  I need language like this to be able to perceive things differently.  Here, taken from the Preface of My Bright Abyss, are Wiman’s own words about the essay:

“It was about despair: losing the ability to write, falling in love, receiving a diagnosis of an incurable cancer, having my heart ripped apart by what, slowly and in spite of all my modern secular instincts, I learned to call God.  It was my entire existence crammed into eight pages.”

Wiman's essay is a memoir of gratitude and hope in what he "learned to call God" in the midst of suffering and loss, uncertainty and anxiety.  I wouldn't dare suggest that my own experience is comparable to his (Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer at the age of 39, 1 year after being married).  His own experience of rediscovering faith in God didn't make my own faith crisis melt away.  It doesn't work that way.  There is no spell for that, no moment of clarity that makes all else fall away.  It was his unique blend of shadow and light (hmmm) that, I think, stuck with me (along with my perception, if I may be honest, that he wasn't a pop-religious "insider" writing cliche drivel.  That he didn't seem bound up by the particular forms of conservative Christianity that formed the foundation of my own religious background was a strength.)

It is this essay that led me to "My Bright Abyss".  

My Bright Abyss is a book that meanders.  It's very personal, at times bright and at others dark.  It critiques itself, argues with itself, circles around a concept before really exploring it.  It's not a hard read, but neither is it an easy read.  I needed a dictionary at times, but not excessively (and that's okay because I like learning new words).  I have to confess that I didn't get 95% of the poetry.  Reading poetry is actually work.  I think it's supposed to be.  Who knew?

The book is a really a series of individual meditations, not wholly connected to one another, but also not wholly disconnected.  It's the type of book that you could open to any page, slowly digesting a few paragraphs.  There is something being said that, while it fits into the overall meditation, can also stand on it's own as something to be heard and slowly digested.

Wiman himself describes My Bright Abyss as “very much a mosaic, not a continuous argument or narrative.”  

Ultimately I wouldn't know how to write about this book other than to quote it.  What he says, he says better than I could ever hope to say it, in a mere fraction of the words that I'd need to use if I could say it.  I've long loved the image of a mosaic - tiny rocks or fragments of glass (or photos in the case of a photomosaic) combined to form something larger.  You have to step back to be able to see the larger picture, how the smaller pieces have been arranged and how they connect.  In that sense, it seems to reflect life pretty well.

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