My Bright Abyss: Cancer, Poetry, and God
My Bright Abyss is narrative poetry by an award-winning poet with his back against the wall, diagnosed with an incurable cancer.* The book is not thematically organized; it reads more like a diary of a poet whose death will come too soon. Wiman writes about God, and thinks like a poet. I don’t, and there is a subtle grace to his thought that I am unable to convey. Not even the deep theologians I’ve written about have left me feeling more inadequate to the task of reviewing their work. The result is that I am going to treat his book as though it were a set of claims or theses about God, even as it reads more like a poem.
Wiman is an honest man, writing that his return to God has not lessened his terror of death. About his grandmother, a deeply religious woman all her life, Wiman describes “a pure spiritual terror in her eyes” as she tried to answer his question: “Are you scared?” But by then she could not speak. Years later he had a similar experience.
God has given me courage in the past — I have felt palpably lifted beyond my own ability to respond or react. But this most recent time in the hospital, when the cancer had become so much more aggressive and it seemed for a time as if I’d reached the end of my options, I felt only death. In retrospect it seems like a large and ominous failure. (loc 2141)
The last words of Christ
Wiman is skeptical about the resurrection, and skeptical about heaven. He believes in is a Christ who despaired. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) In his despair, God joins us in our suffering.
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (loc 2099)
It is on this experience of shared suffering that Wiman builds his Christianity. It is unfamiliar grounds for most Christians.
Is the resurrection selfish?
Most Christians base their belief on the resurrection, for it proves both the divinity of Christ and the promise of life everlasting for the rest of us. Or at least the rest of us who believe. But Wiman is onto something important when he says “the problem with so much thinking about Christ’s resurrection and the promise that lies therein is the self.” (loc 2288)
We cleave to the resurrection because it promises us, me!, everlasting life. That’s selfish. A religious life is not a journey with my salvation from death as the prize. A religious life is one that seeks to follow, in so far as it his humanly possible, the teachings of Christ. Above all to love God, and to love your neighbor not just as much as you love yourself, but more: as much as Christ loves you (John 13:34). An impossible task surely, for none of us has that much love to give—but we can try.
What if we just die?
Though he does not believe in a conventional view of heaven, Wiman believes in a world that transcends this world.
To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. (loc 167)
Certainly, there is a world beyond this world, worlds yet to be imagined or dreamed, worlds we inhabit in our fantasies and daydreams. The question is really whether a world in which death is an end to my individual existence is meaningless. I don’t see why it should be.
To die well . . . is to believe that there is some way of dying into life rather than simply away from it, some form of survival that makes love possible. I don’t mean by survival merely persisting in the memory of others. (loc 484)
I don’t think even poets should be allowed to get away with elusiveness like this, at least not when writing seriously about life and death. The issue must be confronted. Certainly, something of you and me will persist after our deaths, an eternity of stardust. But will anything that can be called you or me, any remnant of our conscious or unconscious existences, our personal beings, persist after its material basis is gone? The real test for the religious, the Christian religious at least, who set such store on immortality, is whether it is worth it to be a Christian in the absence of personal immortality.
I think that’s the test, the real test, and it is answered by believing and living in accord with the teachings of Jesus. Wiman calls this “Jeffersonian Christianity,” Christianity with all the myth and wonder taken out.** I’d call it living in accord with what the myths and wonders of Christianity have to teach us about living and dying in this world, today, now. I’d call it living without always having to ask “but is it really true?” Or worse, “will this really save me?”
Not long after he learned he was dying, Wiman began a series of Friday conversations with a pastor of a church around the corner from where he lived. They argued every week, and while they rarely agreed on anything, they became good friends. Those hours, he writes, “are among the happiest hours of my life.” But as the reader reads on he or she sees that it was really in the hours after his encounter with the priest that were the happiest.
Grief was not suspended or banished, but entered and answered. Answered not by theology, and not by my own attempts to imaginatively circumvent theology, but by the depth and integrity and essential innocence of the communion occurring between two people. (loc 376)
Here is the answer to Wiman’s fear that if death is indeed the end, then life is essentially meaningless (loc 167). The communion that occurs between two people intensely involved with each other is what gives meaning to life. Not the only thing; natural beauty is another. But the main thing. Life gives meaning to life, a life that includes for Wiman a wife and daughters, as well as characters like the pastor who occasionally walk into and out of our lives, leaving their mark behind.
One final point. Perhaps it is a danger to which poets are especially vulnerable, the belief that it is the intense bond between two people that gives meaning to life. For many people it is the slightly looser bonds of family and close friends that give meaning to life. But as Wiman’s life demonstrates, there is no need to choose among them. All provide the communion that gives meaning to life. And perhaps in the end it is this communion that the Eucharist celebrates. Not eternal life; just life shared with others along lines laid down by Christ.
* Wiman was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer thirteen years ago. After bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy, he remains in remission.
** Jefferson wrote a version of the Gospels with the miracles and supernatural excised.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014.