Meditation of a Modern Believer

By Christian Wiman

Farrar Straus Giroux. 182 pp. $24

The Gospel of Mark tells how a man whose son was afflicted by seizures pleaded with Jesus to heal the boy, if healing was possible. “Everything is possible for one who believes,” Jesus replied, whereupon the father cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

"My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer" by Christian Wiman (FSG)

That cry might serve as a one-line summary of this anguished, eloquent meditation on faith by Christian Wiman. The struggle between the urge to believe and the downward tug of doubt runs through the history of Christianity, from the disciple named Thomas — who was not convinced of the resurrection until he touched Jesus’s wounds — right on through Augustine, Pascal and Kierkegaard, and to such modern seekers as Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton.

Wiman, an unpretentious narrator, would not rank himself among such figures, yet his dilemma is the same as theirs: how to orient one’s life and how to face death by way of beliefs that can never be proved, that seem to flout the very notion of proof. Reared among Baptists in a “flat little sandblasted town” in far West Texas, which he calls “the country of my own heart,” by his 20s he had turned away from his childhood religion and invested his seeker’s passion in literature. So far that passion has led him to publish three books of poetry (most recently “Every Riven Thing”), a volume of translations and a collection of essays and also to serve for the past decade as editor of Poetry magazine.

He weaves poetry through the pages of “My Bright Abyss,” quoting from the work of other writers as well as from his own, demonstrating in the process “why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life.” It is spiritual rather than literary power that concerns him here. His “turn toward God” began when he was 37 , precipitated by his falling in love with the woman he would marry; the turn became more urgent two years later when he received a diagnosis of an aggressive and usually lethal form of cancer.

This book emerged in “little prose fragments” during the seven years after that diagnosis, a period of repeated hospitalizations, painful treatments and nearly constant dread. By contrast with many cancer narratives, this one does not dwell on the dramas of therapy, the ups and downs of hope; rather, it uses grave illness to focus on the question that lurks beneath much, if not all, religion: “What do you do, what do you say, what in the world are you going to believe in when you are dying?”

What Wiman chooses to believe is that “we have souls and that they survive our deaths, in some sense that we are entirely incapable of imagining.” He knows how easy it is to dismiss such faith as wishful thinking. In fact, throughout the book he questions his every statement or speculation about ultimate things, especially those that comfort him in the extremity of pain and fear brought on by cancer. He anticipates the objections of skeptical readers, for he has had to wrestle with those objections himself: “Live long enough in secular culture, long enough to forget that it is secular culture, and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you. Atavistic. Laughable.”

Still participating in that secular culture, as writer and editor and man of the world, Wiman recognizes how suspect the language of faith can seem to readers accustomed to the rigors of science. Like religion, science maintains that invisible forces and unifying patterns shape the cosmos; but unlike religion, it denies that those forces and patterns bear any regard for us, respond to our prayers or promise everlasting life. The scientific story of the universe offers wonder and beauty galore, but we must look elsewhere for consolation.

And it is clear from “My Bright Abyss” that what Wiman longs for is consolation. Who doesn’t, even in the salad days of youth, even in the prime of health? Even if we can ignore our mortality for a time, we cannot escape suffering or the spectacle of other persons and other creatures suffering. Here we come to the second core belief arising from Wiman’s turn toward God, the one that prompts him to define himself as a Christian, for he reads the story of Jesus, especially his passion on the cross, as evidence “that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering” and “that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.”

Again, he anticipates objections from readers by voicing his own reservations about contemporary Christianity, especially the claims of exclusive access to truth, the swaggering assertions about God, and the mawkish visions of rapture and resurrection arising from certain evangelical circles. He disavows any wish to proselytize, caught as he is between his own belief and unbelief.

We learn late in the book that his marriage brought twin daughters, among other gifts, and that a bone marrow transplant brought remission from cancer. Any such remission is temporary, of course, if not from cancer then from death by other means, and temporary not only for this dauntless writer but for all of us.

Sanders is the author, most recently, of “Earth Works: New & Selected Essays” and “A Conservationist Manifesto.”