My Bright Abyss
It was June of 2014 when a friend of mine recommend a book to me that would change my life. My father had died of cancer some 10 months ago, and I myself has become a father some two months later. I often counsel others to pay attention to the ways grief and life transitions weigh upon them, but it was not until I read “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” by Christian Wiman, that I realized just how much these things were still weighing on me, and how I might let some of it go.
Wiman is not a theologian, at least in the formal sense of the word. He currently teaches literature and religion at the Yale Divinity School, but has been a working poet for many years, authoring six books. While poetry is woven throughout, My Bright Abyss is more of a memoir of faith.
He grew up in a small town in West Texas before heading to school out east, a journey he describes in spiritual terms as much as geographical. When he left the place and the people of home behind, he left with them his Southern Baptist upbringing, beginning a season of “unbelief,” as he describes it.
And yet the most defining moments of his spiritual journey would come years later. The first was when he fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, and their relationship sparked inside him a sudden yearning for faith that he had not felt in years. He found that by some great mystery, his season of unbelief had prepared him for a new and different faith than that of his childhood, precious as that had become to him.
The second moment came when in his late 30s he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer. Already a father, this diagnosis sent him into a tailspin of sorts, but one that ultimately led him not into the abyss of unbelief, but rather into the much greater, much deeper, and much brighter abyss of faith. Faced with the inescapable truth of his own mortality, to his great surprise, he found himself just as inescapably faced with the presence of Christ.
“I am a Christian,” he writes, “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.” “Faith,” he writes, “is that bright defiance of meaningless death and suffering.” In other words, faith is a kind of hope that after and beyond all we know and feel and fear, there is a love that waits for us. And it waits, too, for the people we love.
In June of 2014 I needed to hear this. And I’ve found that I’ve needed to be reminded of it many times since. And I intend to tell Mr. Wiman all of this when I have an opportunity to meet him next week at a conference in Texas hosted by my former church, Wilshire Baptist.
But what I want to tell you now is this: Faith is a long and winding path that we should not try and predict. It’s even possible, as Wiman puts it, that “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” But God has a way of providing for us in our time of need, most often through the people God puts in our life, and the wounds we all carry. Even those people, and those wounds, we first meet in the pages of a book.