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Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition—might look like. Joyful, sorrowful, and beautifully written, My Bright Abyss is destined to become a spiritual classic, useful not only to believers but to anyone whose experience of life and art seems at times to overbrim its boundaries. How do we answer this “burn of being”? Wiman asks. What might it mean for our lives—and for our deaths—if we acknowledge the “insistent, persistent ghost” that some of us call God?


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Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but Seven years ago, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, wrote a now-famous essay about having faith in the face of death. My Bright Abyss, composed in the difficult years since and completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, is a moving meditation on what a viable contemporary faith—responsive not only to modern thought and science but also to religious tradition—might look like. Joyful, sorrowful, and beautifully written, My Bright Abyss is destined to become a spiritual classic, useful not only to believers but to anyone whose experience of life and art seems at times to overbrim its boundaries. How do we answer this “burn of being”? Wiman asks. What might it mean for our lives—and for our deaths—if we acknowledge the “insistent, persistent ghost” that some of us call God?

30 review for My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

  1. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    I found this collection of meditations and essays an emotionally and cognitively challenging work - even more so than Wiman's earlier Ambition and Survival. This book is suffused with the author's physical, mental, and spiritual pain in the shadow of his terminal cancer diagnosis, and it is haunted by a search for meaning. Wiman finds meaning in Christian faith (cf. other poet-writers Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris ...), and as a nonbeliever I struggled in the early pages with his asser I found this collection of meditations and essays an emotionally and cognitively challenging work - even more so than Wiman's earlier Ambition and Survival. This book is suffused with the author's physical, mental, and spiritual pain in the shadow of his terminal cancer diagnosis, and it is haunted by a search for meaning. Wiman finds meaning in Christian faith (cf. other poet-writers Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris ...), and as a nonbeliever I struggled in the early pages with his assertions and claims ("God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life.). I am more responsive to this fragment from George Oppen (that Wiman quotes):I think that there is no light in the world but the world And I think there is lightSo Wiman's faith-claims got my back up a little; I felt as if I were being told what to believe. But, that's an adolescent way of reading. I had to remind myself to read the meditations as poetry - and poets are allowed to declare things ("The world is charged with the grandeur of God"). Later in the book when discussing his own reaction to Bonhoeffer Wiman puts into words the very solution: It hardly matters whether or not one "agrees" with any of this. The words have an authenticity and authority beyond mere intellectual assertion: they burn with the brave and uncompromising life -- and death -- that lie behind them.By the end, after I more generously gave myself over to the writing, I couldn't help but be appreciative and moved by Wiman's words. I have typed this long quote for my own keeping, as it must be one of the best descriptions of religion I have ever read:... when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God. I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can't even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life, these rare times in which you are utterly innocent. It is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Highly recommended for all "atheist Christians," like myself. This is the most poetic, reasoned, thought-provoking, deeply-personal-yet-instructive "journey" toward God that I have read. Just a few of the many, many paragraphs that left my brain swirling: "There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion th Highly recommended for all "atheist Christians," like myself. This is the most poetic, reasoned, thought-provoking, deeply-personal-yet-instructive "journey" toward God that I have read. Just a few of the many, many paragraphs that left my brain swirling: "There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world." "Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it. It is never neutral. Either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length. (The subject matter and tone of art have less to do with this than many people think: nothing palls the soul like a forced epiphany, and one can be elated and energized by a freshly articulate despair.)" "Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us. It follows that any notion of God that is static is— since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge— blasphemous." "Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms." "To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility." "I always have this sense that something is going to resolve my spiritual anxieties once and for all, that one day I’ll just relax and be a believer. I read book after book. I seek out intense experiences in art, in nature, or in conversations with people I respect and who seem to rest more securely in their faith than I do. Sometimes it seems that gains are made, for these things can and do provide relief and instruction. But always the anxiety comes back, is the norm from which faith deviates, if faith is even what you could call these intense but somehow vague and fleeting experiences of God. I keep forgetting, or perhaps simply will not let myself see, what true faith is, its active and outward nature. 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 that I myself do not feel." I look forward to reading other books by Wiman.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Abby

    This was one of those perfect books that met me at the precisely perfect moment in time. After hearing Wiman speak at our church, I bought this book and began reading immediately. There's relief that floods over you when you find a book like this, when you are reminded that in this deepest part of yourself, you are not alone in your feelings. You are not the only one struggling to reconcile faith and everyday life. You are not the only one who doubts God, who doubts if any of this even matters a This was one of those perfect books that met me at the precisely perfect moment in time. After hearing Wiman speak at our church, I bought this book and began reading immediately. There's relief that floods over you when you find a book like this, when you are reminded that in this deepest part of yourself, you are not alone in your feelings. You are not the only one struggling to reconcile faith and everyday life. You are not the only one who doubts God, who doubts if any of this even matters at all. Wiman, a gifted poet and teacher, speaks with particular power from his vantage point of having cancer for the past seven years. His relationship to death is so much closer than mine is; thus, his relationship with God is brought into sharper focus. Wiman is honest and sincere in this wandering memoir and meditation. This was such a comforting book to me. It may be to you as well.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    My Bright Abyss is a collection of essays by poet Christian Wiman. As the subtitle states, the essays are meditations on what it means to be a person of faith in today's world, what faith even is (or is not). Wiman spends a great deal of space on how faith consists often of doubt and struggle. Wiman's writing is informed by his own diagnosis at a young age of an incurable brain tumor. He speaks as much for the failures of faith in his life as their successes. Despite his cancer, he has married an My Bright Abyss is a collection of essays by poet Christian Wiman. As the subtitle states, the essays are meditations on what it means to be a person of faith in today's world, what faith even is (or is not). Wiman spends a great deal of space on how faith consists often of doubt and struggle. Wiman's writing is informed by his own diagnosis at a young age of an incurable brain tumor. He speaks as much for the failures of faith in his life as their successes. Despite his cancer, he has married and has children and lives, when possible, joyfully. The essays are powerful. I read them slowly, underlining almost every other sentence. It's the kind of book I'd like to memorize (cover blurbs include some of my favorite writers such as Marilynne Robinson and Kathleen Norris). Wiman is a poet and both his craft and his art shine here. His use of the work of other poets, from Seamus Heaney to Auden to T.S. Eliot enhances his thoughts on why and how we believe in God. The volume is brilliant and moving and just generally wonderful. Although it's not long it was not a quick read for me but it was more than worth the time it took. I can't wait to re-read this one (as well as turn to Wiman's poetry).

  5. 5 out of 5

    David Guy

    My wife loved this book, and I expected and wanted to like it, but I didn't. I'm not sure why. I definitely feel for the author, who is suffering from a rare and unpredictable form of cancer. He writes very well; I like his own poetry that he included in the book. But somehow, his struggles with faith all seemed terribly abstract and intellectual to me. He speaks early in the book of not feeling at home in the world, and I'm very familiar with that feeling, but have found the cure for it is simp My wife loved this book, and I expected and wanted to like it, but I didn't. I'm not sure why. I definitely feel for the author, who is suffering from a rare and unpredictable form of cancer. He writes very well; I like his own poetry that he included in the book. But somehow, his struggles with faith all seemed terribly abstract and intellectual to me. He speaks early in the book of not feeling at home in the world, and I'm very familiar with that feeling, but have found the cure for it is simple sitting meditation, wordlessly inhabiting the world, rather than thinking about it or talking about it. I felt that every time Wiman got close to a true feeling, he would quote a poet, which would somehow distance him--and me--from the experience. I felt that Wiman was struggling in a way that I once struggled, and that I found a release from those struggles through meditation, and giving up the effort to figure everything out. It was an enormous relief. So many other reviews are glowing that I feel as if I missed something here. Maybe there's something about me that isn't able to see the true worth of this book. But if that's so there's nothing I can do about it. This book just didn't work for me. I felt that in a weird way Brad Warner's book (which I reviewed just previous to this one) is on exactly the same subject, but it spoke to me much more. It's uneven and not nearly as elegantly written, but it's much more emotional and honest and personal. Also, in an odd way, more humble.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Seven years into a cancer journey, Wiman, a poet, gives an intimate picture of faith and doubt as he has lived with them in the shadow of death. Nearly every page has a passage that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human and in interaction with other people and the divine.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Garber

    Wiman, a poet and self-confessed Christian (although certainly not of the orthodox type), provides his journal-like musings on theology, poetry, the use of language, and the connections in between. Wiman opens his book with the observation, ““There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravi Wiman, a poet and self-confessed Christian (although certainly not of the orthodox type), provides his journal-like musings on theology, poetry, the use of language, and the connections in between. Wiman opens his book with the observation, ““There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God. I wanted to try to speak to these people more directly.” And he does so with great intelligence, sensitivity, and poetic force. Wiman speaks of his childhood faith in west Texas and his return to it after a period of rejecting it entirely. He is not oblivious to the potential psychological ramifications of that return, or of faith in general – but with a poet’s eye, he uses his own experience to offset the stale critiques of ‘religion’ that are so often offered with facile repetitiveness in our current culture. (For example, Wiman states, “If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.” Me neither, brother.) He explores the relationship of sorrow and the absolute necessity of incarnation, truth as imagination rather than belief, the religion in EVERYBODY’s life (including atheists!), and the necessity of intellectual humility. My favorite quote, with which I led the syllabus of the constructive theology course I am teaching this quarter: “There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.” Theologians, scientists, politicians, and family members would all live in a more ethical and honest world if we all took such calls more seriously. Rarely am I compelled to call a book both beautiful and true. Wiman’s penetrating honesty and winsome confession immediately brought to mind both.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ben McFarland

    The book My Bright Abyss is subtitled Meditation of a Modern Believer, but the believer of the subtitle (Christian Wiman) is a poet who deconstructs and inverts the very word belief. It's not for nothing that someone else called Wiman the "atheist Christian." He's fond of apophatic language (describing God, not by what God is like, but by what God is not like), paradox, and the search for meaning in silence despite a loud, modern world set against anything quiet. But this is not Chesteron's some The book My Bright Abyss is subtitled Meditation of a Modern Believer, but the believer of the subtitle (Christian Wiman) is a poet who deconstructs and inverts the very word belief. It's not for nothing that someone else called Wiman the "atheist Christian." He's fond of apophatic language (describing God, not by what God is like, but by what God is not like), paradox, and the search for meaning in silence despite a loud, modern world set against anything quiet. But this is not Chesteron's sometimes-too-triumphant paradox, it is a true puzzle that no one knows. What shapes Wiman's whole perspective is a seven-year struggle with a rare cancer and the intense intimacy with pain and struggle that comes with that. Wiman also believes that Christ is God and that God was crucified (he also quotes Jurgen Moltmann on this) -- that God was somehow calling out to Godself when he cried "Why have you forsaken me?" Overall, this book is billed as modern, and Wiman is thoroughly modern, but his perspective on suffering and the cross feels old, like a medieval saint's reflections, with shades of Kierkegaard. This book is hard going at times, just like life is, but it is dense and rewarding. There are a few head-scratching moments, like when Wiman mistakes Isaiah for Elijah, and I would like to know more about what Wiman thinks about scripture's poetry, the stories we share as Christians, although there are frequent enough allusions to it. I'd like to know more. Hopefully there will be a next book, the Gilead to this book's Housekeeping (to continue the Robinson references). I think sometimes Wiman tilts too far toward the question when there is a partial, through-a-glass-darkly answer to ponder. I occasionally found this book frustrating and slow but in a good way, like a hard poem. Wiman's voice is a unique creation and well worth hearing in the harmony of the believers.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Guest

    Third time I've read this in two years. No book has found me in so many different places, and reached a hand down like this book has. I will read it again soon I imagine because it is marvelous. It will probably offer me something new then, some new limb to grab onto in this journey while waves slip below. January 2019: fourth time now. Running out of highlighter colors. Feels even more profound, speaks even deeper to me, to my writing, to my faith— whatever that is these days. A book filled with Third time I've read this in two years. No book has found me in so many different places, and reached a hand down like this book has. I will read it again soon I imagine because it is marvelous. It will probably offer me something new then, some new limb to grab onto in this journey while waves slip below. January 2019: fourth time now. Running out of highlighter colors. Feels even more profound, speaks even deeper to me, to my writing, to my faith— whatever that is these days. A book filled with crucial, soul-opening “spots of time” (pg 163) that I didn’t even realize could be spoken too, that I had thought were holed up in my own “lightless caverns” (resurrection, separating faith and belief, art)

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dougw

    An astonishing, searing book about faith, God, death, meaning--and meaninglessness. I will return to this book; there is much to take in, ruminate upon, argue with. Wiman offers no comfortable truths and indeed, there are moments when language fails--a sign, surely, of an honest grappling with faith. HIghly recommended. Discomfiting and thought-provoking.

  11. 4 out of 5

    AJ Nolan

    This book is a gorgeous meditation on poetry, faith, and suffering. Written by Christian Wiman, a man who grew up Christian, drifted away from faith, and then came back, it is a gorgeous look at all the way complex ways we interact with our faith. This is not grade school Christianity. The book is also driven by the urgency of Wiman's diagnosis with a rare cancer that is unpredictable, that could kill him in a few months, or that he could fight off for years. I underlined lines on nearly every p This book is a gorgeous meditation on poetry, faith, and suffering. Written by Christian Wiman, a man who grew up Christian, drifted away from faith, and then came back, it is a gorgeous look at all the way complex ways we interact with our faith. This is not grade school Christianity. The book is also driven by the urgency of Wiman's diagnosis with a rare cancer that is unpredictable, that could kill him in a few months, or that he could fight off for years. I underlined lines on nearly every page as he articulated ideas about poetry or God in ways that I either hadn't thought of, or that I hadn't figured out how to express. Like: "Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable." (49) "Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God's means of manifesting himself to us." (61) "Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms." (61) "Innocence, for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom. . . . To be innocent is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature, and the wherewithal to say again and forever your worldless but lucid, your triumphant but absolute, yes." ----- This one really resonated with me, as for years, I tried to will myself into belief, or faith, forgetting all about the need for wonder, the need for love. "the very practical effects of music, myth, and image, which tease us not out of reality, but deeper and more completely into it." (90) "We live in and by our senses, which are conditioned in and by our deaths . . . . And this is why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God." (119) "We do not need definite beliefs (i.e. details of specific religions) because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. . . . Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery - those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we "know" absolutely nothging - accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives. And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots." (113) As such: "To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality." (141) And then here I'm going to quote an entire page, because he articulates exactly how and why I am a Christian: "I'm a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious) . . . I am 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?' (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren't the point. The point is he felt human destitution to its absolute degree: the point is that God is WITH US, not beyond us, in suffering). 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 absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion . . . Christ's suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ's compassion - to the point of death, even - possible. Human love CAN reach right into death, then, but not if it is MERELY human love." (155). I could go on quoting, because the book keeps on growing from here, but this gives a pretty good taste of the book, I think, and these are the quotes to which I want to make sure I have the quickest access. I recommend this book to any Christian, or anyone interested in religion, or in the transcendent power of poetry, or in how someone copes with the suffering of terminal cancer.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Seth

    Discovering allusions yields no small pleasure. Begin here: "Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepp Discovering allusions yields no small pleasure. Begin here: "Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms. I have spent the past four weeks in solitude, working on these little prose fragments that seem to be the only thing I can sustain, trying day and night to 'figure out' just what it is I believe, a mission made more urgent by the fact that I have recently been diagnosed with an incurable but unpredictable cancer…" - Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. (Specifically Sorrow’s Flower). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 2013. p. 16. Then trace the river of language back: While the Constabulary covered the mob Firing into the Falls, I was suffering Only the bullying sun of Madrid. Each afternoon, in the casserole heat Of the flat, as I sweated my way through The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket Rose like a reek off a flax-dam. At night on the balcony, gules of wine, A sense of children in their dark corners, Old women in black shawls near open windows, The air a canyon rivering in Spanish. We talked our way home over the starlit plains Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters. ‘Go back’ one said, ‘try to touch the people’… - from “4. Summer 1969” - Heaney, Seamus. Poems: 1965-1975. (Specifically from North). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 1987. p. 224-225. If a person has read Wiman’s “Ambition & Survival: On Becoming a Poet” and doesn’t immediately go read Seamus Heaney, then she didn’t pay attention to Wiman’s (almost) imperatives. On another note, the allusion bears some digging. The “her” in Wiman’s essay (Sorrow’s Flower) is a woman Wiman had known in his youth. As the essay progresses we realize that he has taken some sort of retreat in middle-age as he has both come to faith in Christ, and as the essay says, been diagnosed with cancer. The woman on the other hand has recently gone through a divorce that essentially wrecked her faith. He and she have run into each other. Brief recollections of their conversation carry the narrative of the essay. Wiman quite self-consciously realizes how abstruse (ridiculous, he says) his statement “Christ is contingency” sounds in the midst of her suffering - especially against the backdrop of his monthlong sabbatical he has taken to “figure out” what he believes. Who among us can take a month off of work to scribble a few paragraphs about something as cloudy as belief? And while people suffer. Hmph. Wiman gets that sentiment though. And I think the allusion is intended here, not just as a flourish for description, but to embellish the irony of his errand. Like Wiman, Heaney’s narrator is on a retreat, but instead of spiritual matters, this voice has held up in a Spanish flat to study Joyce (who but a poet can afford such luxuries) while a revolution oppresses the natives from whom he’s renting. Someone tells him to go back and touch the people, but instead he retreats to the Prado and ends with a meditation on Goya, the Spanish painter. Wiman knows this; he hopes the reader does too. I read a review (*1) of Wiman’s book wherein the reviewer criticizes Wiman for writing a memoir “full of God but quite empty of people.” Besides taking the genre to task, the criticism is misguided (*2) and for these purposes the Heaney allusion is informative: Go back and touch the people, the critic said; but the poet instead searches the flesh-rending brutality of history (*3) then moves to the nightmares of Time and Chaos (*4). What does a poet do when confronted with such horrors? What does a carpenter do? Or a farmer? They fall back into the rhythms of their trade and craft examining what meaning their labors have provided in the past. So Wiman fills the book with fine meditations on poetry, writing “with fists and elbows, flourishing”, in Heaney’s words, “the stained cape of his heart as history charges.” That’s pretty damn touching, and so are Wiman's meditations. *1 - http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/boo.... *2 - The criticism is misguided because Wiman writes: “It is not meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.” - from Wiman’s essay “A Million Little Oblivions” p. 164. *3 - Goya's "Shootings on the 3rd of May" *4 - Goya's "Saturn Devours His Children"

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ali M.

    Would it be strange to describe a spiritual memoir as "chilling"? Because... that's what this is. It made my skin crawl as often as it made me sit back and drink in Wiman's amazing clarity of thought. There is no sugar-coating here, no hiding behind pretty metaphors in order to safely approach tough questions. Christian Wiman has a rare form of terminal cancer. This book was written over the course of several years, showing first-hand the impact his illness has had on his mind and beliefs along Would it be strange to describe a spiritual memoir as "chilling"? Because... that's what this is. It made my skin crawl as often as it made me sit back and drink in Wiman's amazing clarity of thought. There is no sugar-coating here, no hiding behind pretty metaphors in order to safely approach tough questions. Christian Wiman has a rare form of terminal cancer. This book was written over the course of several years, showing first-hand the impact his illness has had on his mind and beliefs along with his body. The fact that My Bright Abyss was not written during a single stage in Wiman's life makes it somehow more authentic, since it reveals how much his perspective on life, death, and God is in constant flux. As a reader, I was allowed to run the gamut of the years with him – from heart-stopping passages where he vividly describes the sense of imminent death that haunts him, to searing epiphanies of freedom and joy that happen again and again, recurring just as often as they are second-guessed. As a poet himself, Wiman takes other artists to task for engaging with death from a distance – using it as a theme in a poem, or something lovely and dark to lace their art with. He also questions the way religious people insist death is "nothing to fear." When a person is actually face-to-face with the end of their life, he argues, no amount of faith is enough to stave off the sheer existential dread of it: Always that little caveat, that little appeal to relevance: And the time of death is every moment. Let me tell you, it is qualitatively different when death leans over to sniff you, when massive unmetaphorical pain goes crawling through your bones, when fear – goddamn fear, you can't get rid of it – ices your spine. But this is not all doom and gloom; Wiman also shares many absolutely transcendent meditations on consciousness, love, innocence, language, belief, God, Christ, and everything inbetween. It would be impossible for me to summarize every place this book goes, so here are two of my favorite passages (out of dozens): A poem, if it's a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity. A god, if it's a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive... thus the very practical effects of music, myth, and image, which tease us not out of reality, but deeper and more completely into it. There are lives that experience seems to stream clearly through, rather than getting slowed and clogged up in the drift waste of ego or stagnating in little inlets of despair, envy, rage. It has to do with seizing and releasing as a single gesture. It has to do with standing in relation to life and death as those late Bontecou mobiles do, owning an emptiness that, because you have claimed it, has become a source of light, wearing your wound that, like a ramshackle house on some high, exposed hill, sings with the hard wind that is steadily destroying it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Peter Kerry Powers

    I wish I could say this book did it for me, but alas it didn't. This is a hard thing to say since it is almost incumbent upon a reader to validate the experiences and expressions of the near dead and dying. The premise of the book is compelling; Wiman's diagnosis with an aggressive and rare form of cancer is the occasions for an extended series of meditations on what it means to be a believer and a writer, or a writer and a believer, in the face of death and, as the title suggests, in the face o I wish I could say this book did it for me, but alas it didn't. This is a hard thing to say since it is almost incumbent upon a reader to validate the experiences and expressions of the near dead and dying. The premise of the book is compelling; Wiman's diagnosis with an aggressive and rare form of cancer is the occasions for an extended series of meditations on what it means to be a believer and a writer, or a writer and a believer, in the face of death and, as the title suggests, in the face of modernity. Is it possible to believe in the face of both death and modernity, when all our apparent mysteries and mythologies are being stripped away save, perhaps, for our mythologies of death? Is it possible to be a writer and to believe in an age that suggests that the writers stands apart from commitments, stripping bare the world in devotion to an art that is all demanding. I was looking forward to it, and I can't say that I thought it was a poor read, but I didn't think it deserved the accolade of an instant spiritual classic that some readers have been giving it. Of course, it may indeed be an instant spiritual classic, but I have my doubts that it will take its place along enduring spiritual classics. I realized as I was going through the text that I was more often citing the things that Wiman was quoting, than I was citing anything that Wiman was himself saying. I take this to be a bad sign, as if what has been read has not been fully digested and become a part of the writer's original voice and expression. Though we live in an age of citation, I can't say that many of us feel compelled by the book that feels like it is too much a series of hyper links. There is some risk in reading the literature of the sick that the reader really wants to indulge in the pornography of suffering, a chilly thrill at grotesque renditions of the bodies at the process of decay. That said, I think Wiman's book abstracted his spirituality too much. He talked a great deal about the importance of the body and of spirituality being embodied, but mostly the book does not embody spirituality. But when it does it is very good indeed. I think the most valuable and enduring parts of the book are when Wiman gives us his memoirs rather than his meditations. While the meditations are too abstract, there is some meat on the bones of the autobiographical moments in the book. The crushing moment just before he tells his wife about his diagnosis. The effort to live and love his daughters in the midst of impending loss. This is what might otherwise be called testimony. I just kept wishing there was more of it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Emi

    Incurable and unbelieving in any truth but the truth of grieving, I saw a tree inside a tree rise kaleidoscopically as if the leaves had livelier ghosts. I pressed my face as close to the pane as I could get to watch that fitful, fluent spirit that seemed a single being undefined or countless beings of one mind haul its strange cohesion beyond the limits of my vision over the house heavenwards. Of course I knew those leaves were birds. Of course that old tree stood exactly as it had and would (but why should it Incurable and unbelieving in any truth but the truth of grieving, I saw a tree inside a tree rise kaleidoscopically as if the leaves had livelier ghosts. I pressed my face as close to the pane as I could get to watch that fitful, fluent spirit that seemed a single being undefined or countless beings of one mind haul its strange cohesion beyond the limits of my vision over the house heavenwards. Of course I knew those leaves were birds. Of course that old tree stood exactly as it had and would (but why should it seem fuller now?) and though a man's mind might endow even a tree with some excess of life to which a man seems witness, that life is not the life of men. And that is where the joy came in. ~ From a Window, by Christian Wiman I keep coming back to this poem, especially as I see "... the bare abundance Of a tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow...." he speaks of elsewhere also from *my* window. It summarizes his book well -- in which he, cancer stricken, weaves through pain, poetry, and faith, as a poet (and former chief editor at Poetry). Yesterday, halfway through the book, I had to put it down and head outside, in need of giving form to what I felt. Gathering a million little white oblivions, I fashioned a snowman -- an anguished man of snow, arrested in the becoming, the erupting from timeless vapor. So there is my book review, my impressions, expressed with ephemeral bits of glittering flakes, shown in my profile picture today (but not tomorrow) as I sit in the 50F sun watching it seep into earth.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kee Wei

    My Bright Abyss is a mesmerizing piece of work. In this book of poetry and prose, Wiman gives us a glimpse of the storm brewing in his mind as he wrestles with hard questions of faith in the midst of a contemporary religious landscape that is, for the most part, plagued with easy binaries and false dichotomies. By gifting us with a precise and pristine language of paradox in a culture that is often careless and callous with words, Wiman’s work allows people, whether faith-full or faith-less, to My Bright Abyss is a mesmerizing piece of work. In this book of poetry and prose, Wiman gives us a glimpse of the storm brewing in his mind as he wrestles with hard questions of faith in the midst of a contemporary religious landscape that is, for the most part, plagued with easy binaries and false dichotomies. By gifting us with a precise and pristine language of paradox in a culture that is often careless and callous with words, Wiman’s work allows people, whether faith-full or faith-less, to imagine “new” ways to think about our faith. And this might be the genius of it all: that the seemingly new ways of apprehending our faith are actually not as novel as one might think them to be. Wiman draws from a deep well of literary treasures ranging from writer-theologians like Simone Weil and Jurgen Moltmann (“The Crucified God”) to poets like Paul Celan (“Psalm”) and Geoffrey Hill (“Two Chorale-Preludes”). I found this book cognitively challenging and intellectually honest, and I cannot recommend this enough. In “Mortify Our Wolves”, Wiman writes a hauntingly human and poignant piece to his then-young twin daughters that made me tear up. I cannot wait to re-read and review this book again.

  17. 4 out of 5

    tonia peckover

    Wiman is a relentless questioner. So much so that his book becomes uncomfortable at times. Every time he seems to come to terms with his faith and you relax a little, he comes right back around with another but, another question. It was a good uncomfortable though, and a familiar one. In the end, he seems to be as stuck as the rest of us, flipping between doubt and faith, two sides of the same coin.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Enright

    This book is made of books. One way to read Wiman is to imagine him in a hospital bed, pulling the books from his bedside onto his lap, using them him as artistic life rafts while he undergoes bone marrow transplants. He’s a (sort of) theologian, a poet, and a secularist fumbling toward God — and you must read him as all those things. My feelings: Wiman is a mature writer. This book will likely generate silence in your high school small group, or, maybe more exciting — accusations of heresy. So, This book is made of books. One way to read Wiman is to imagine him in a hospital bed, pulling the books from his bedside onto his lap, using them him as artistic life rafts while he undergoes bone marrow transplants. He’s a (sort of) theologian, a poet, and a secularist fumbling toward God — and you must read him as all those things. My feelings: Wiman is a mature writer. This book will likely generate silence in your high school small group, or, maybe more exciting — accusations of heresy. So, this book is for the seasoned, critically minded Christian reader. It can be devotional at times, but mostly it is written for Wiman, not the reader. Fine by me. My thoughts: The form of the book mirrors it’s content. There is nothing unifying or cohesive about cancer, so Wiman writes in fractured, frenzied vignettes that require slow, careful engagement. It’s a bit of a slog at times, and he borders on the type of abstraction that becomes so nebulous you get lost in his words, let alone what he means by those words. Brennan said that this book is worth reading even if you only love one paragraph, because that paragraph will be so good that it lodges itself inside you. I agree.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Akash Ahuja

    This book was such a journey, and I almost wanted to start back at page 1 and do it all over again. Christian Wiman is a gift, and I will definitely be reading more of him in the future. Following my roommate’s direction, I read this book one or two pages at a time, which is why it took me about 4 months to do it all. I *highly* recommend this book to people who are asking serious questions about their faith in Christ or are becoming serious about naming their doubts. Wiman gives a lot to chew o This book was such a journey, and I almost wanted to start back at page 1 and do it all over again. Christian Wiman is a gift, and I will definitely be reading more of him in the future. Following my roommate’s direction, I read this book one or two pages at a time, which is why it took me about 4 months to do it all. I *highly* recommend this book to people who are asking serious questions about their faith in Christ or are becoming serious about naming their doubts. Wiman gives a lot to chew on and ponder, and I am so thankful for the insight and perspective that he shares.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Banner

    There is much eloquence to this book, written by a poet in proses, searching the limits of language to talk about his faith. Raised by a conservative Christian family (maybe in the Pentecostal tradition). Upon going to college, he embraced agnosticism and a love for poetry. Then he has cancer and is faced with his own mortality to such a degree that all pretense is lost. Faith once again begins to grow. He came to believe that facing death is not the time to hold stubbornly to unexamined beliefs. There is much eloquence to this book, written by a poet in proses, searching the limits of language to talk about his faith. Raised by a conservative Christian family (maybe in the Pentecostal tradition). Upon going to college, he embraced agnosticism and a love for poetry. Then he has cancer and is faced with his own mortality to such a degree that all pretense is lost. Faith once again begins to grow. He came to believe that facing death is not the time to hold stubbornly to unexamined beliefs. However, his impending death did not push him to God out of fear of self preservation. But the experience gave him a clarity and focus that he otherwise lacked. His faith was lying dormant after years of self neglect. The near death experience served as a catalyst to continue on the journey. His journey did not lead him back to the faith of his childhood, but to a faith that was evolving, as all real faith must innately do. The thoughts seemed a bit random at times in the telling of his story, almost as if you were witnessing the actual thought processes. I freely confess that I did not always "get it". He was carrying me too deep into his thoughts and I didn't feel I had the grasp of the depth of his inner knowledge to totally comprehend. There were times I likened the readings to struggling thru a heavily thickened forest, with the sun so hidden you could not navigate. But then you would burst out into a clearing and witness an amazing sunset or rainbow and my heart would plunge toward God. His theology seemed a bit fuzzy to me but I got the idea it was still a little fuzzy to him, so I didn't get too concerned. He doesn't seem to feel comfortable tying his faith to the idea of historical Christianity. However he does see value in the historic approach. He struggled most with resurrection of Jesus and found solace in the thought of it. His ideas of atonement seemed a bit skewed. I don't want to say too much about this because I don't think he was really trying to preach any particular view, just express some of his struggles and opinions. Jesus is clearly the focus of his faith toward God. It is a refreshing insight to a postmodern man's journey of faith. I thank him for sharing, by it I was enriched.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Wholly wow, Wiman! Write on! Penultimately, Christian's My Bright Abyss weds art with belief, doubt with faith, literature with theology, and, of course, poetry with prose. With unflinching grace and honesty, this book plumbs and probes the human depths of language and its limit/ations in that mysterious searchlight for meaning and significance in the face of death, meaninglessness, pain as well as pleasure, and Wiman's personal suffering of terminal cancer. This "burn of being" alights as a pho Wholly wow, Wiman! Write on! Penultimately, Christian's My Bright Abyss weds art with belief, doubt with faith, literature with theology, and, of course, poetry with prose. With unflinching grace and honesty, this book plumbs and probes the human depths of language and its limit/ations in that mysterious searchlight for meaning and significance in the face of death, meaninglessness, pain as well as pleasure, and Wiman's personal suffering of terminal cancer. This "burn of being" alights as a phoenix, arrives in the ashen, burning, fragmented, hybridized, and irradiated form of meditation and memoir and mysticism. A must re-read for those of us that dis/trust both our atheistic streaks as well as our religious structures and tendencies. Standing at the doorway. Now, sitting at a desk, in a certain slant of light.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Klingensmith

    This book spoke to me in many ways. I first downloaded it and read it on my Kindle, but then ordered a hard copy. I can tell it is a book I will return to again and again, that I will highlight favorite passages and over time they will weave their way into my consciousness and become a means by which I express some of the more difficult to articulate aspects of my own faith. I don't agree with everything Christian Wiman says, but I almost always like the process by which he arrives at what he ha This book spoke to me in many ways. I first downloaded it and read it on my Kindle, but then ordered a hard copy. I can tell it is a book I will return to again and again, that I will highlight favorite passages and over time they will weave their way into my consciousness and become a means by which I express some of the more difficult to articulate aspects of my own faith. I don't agree with everything Christian Wiman says, but I almost always like the process by which he arrives at what he has to say.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    My Bright Abyss is not a book that you read, but one you must savor. It is slow-going, contradictory and painful; however, few books pull you deeper into the mysterious abyss of life like this one. It will be a book I read again. It is a book that will challenge your faith and grow it, nudging you toward Jesus and confusing your connection to divinity. I loved the process of reading it; however, there's little I can recall after finishing. It's a book that gives very few answers but is a helpful My Bright Abyss is not a book that you read, but one you must savor. It is slow-going, contradictory and painful; however, few books pull you deeper into the mysterious abyss of life like this one. It will be a book I read again. It is a book that will challenge your faith and grow it, nudging you toward Jesus and confusing your connection to divinity. I loved the process of reading it; however, there's little I can recall after finishing. It's a book that gives very few answers but is a helpful companion for the journey. Recommended.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Caleb Simmons

    Loved this book. Never have I read and enjoyed (relished?) a book so slowly. There is a lot to learn about suffering and "faith" and doubt in here, and Wiman's poetry and poetic prose can break your heart many times over. As an added bonus, I learned so much about poetry from reading this. Probably I will need to read this again in 5 years, just to see how interpretation changes.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Adele

    You can read my review of this deep and brilliant book here ---- http://adelegallogly.wordpress.com/20... You can read my review of this deep and brilliant book here ---- http://adelegallogly.wordpress.com/20...

  26. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    this book is written by a poet with cancer about his experiences of faith and belief. as his first name implies, he is christian. I picked it up due to the amount of poetry I saw on the pages as I glanced through it. he and I are very different and at times I felt a lot of resistance towards this book. in the beginning, in particular, I felt it was a very masculine, very authoritative way of writing. "Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is *sol this book is written by a poet with cancer about his experiences of faith and belief. as his first name implies, he is christian. I picked it up due to the amount of poetry I saw on the pages as I glanced through it. he and I are very different and at times I felt a lot of resistance towards this book. in the beginning, in particular, I felt it was a very masculine, very authoritative way of writing. "Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is *solely* solitary inevitably leads to despair." there are a lot of PRONOUNCEMENTS like this. really? how do you know? can you be sure hermits don't have spiritual experiences of joy, all alone? that rubbed me the wrong way. he's not even all that old, to be making such pronouncements. on the other hand, the book is full of uncertainty. he's christian, he believes in the necessity of dogma, but he doesn't believe in this or that, can't be sure he even believes in the resurrection. I couldn't really tell you exactly what he believes, having just finished the book, it's slippery and hard to hold onto. "christ is contingency" he says, and that sort of encapsulates it. his faith is not bedrock, it's like a video game where you have to constantly keep moving as the ground you just stepped on melts away behind you. his religion and his spirituality, and his personality, are all very very different from mine. I'm not a christian and will almost certainly never identify as a christian. having grown up christian, he sort of just broadens out his beliefs and rejects this or that but stays within that format. some of the places where he's broadened out, we don't think that differently about things, but I'm really not one for this whole hungering for god over all else type of person. I'm just not. I know a human birth is rare and don't dilly dally, get enlightened, kill your ego and merge with the godhead, but I like dilly dallying. I like being immersed in life, I'm not in a hurry to turn my back on it all as illusion and go running after god. maybe in another reincarnation. that's why I'm not totally enthralled with rumi; I just am not into this whole god, my beloved, romantic chase. also, at points wiman is just too philosophical. I am also not really that into philosophy. I find it pointless. I'm fine with a pretty large amount of unknown and mystery. I have no desire to spend ages frowning my brain thinking about what consciousness is. wiman says a lot of things that I'm sure manage to hold some meaning for him, but for me, they just seem glib and empty. "christ is not alive now because he rose from the dead two thousand years ago. he rose from the dead two thousand years ago because he is alive right now." uh, ok. "faith is the word 'faith' decaying into pure meaning". what? another thing that I found vastly unappealing were his descriptions of his life with his wife and his children. I am in a decidedly unromantic phase. I am single and completely unconvinced that love is all it's cracked up to be, or worth the compromise and work. so when he's all, oh, when my wife and I first fell in love, we spontaneously started praying together, or, we spontaneously started crying in the same room of an art exhibit (they do a lot of spontaneous emotional shit together), I felt mostly, ew. his descriptions of his twin daughters (he also addresses people who are like, damn, um, you knew you had cancer and there was a good chance you would die and leave them fatherless, why did you even have kids? and he was like, oh, look at them so joyful and holy, how could we not have them? which to me is kind of like, ok, but that's not really an answer, is it? because you already had them to see them all joyful and holy. I suppose it's part of his leap into faith or whatever. I mean, go ahead, dude, have kids, lord knows people have children in all kinds of circumstances, but you really did evade that question.) are all about their joyful laughter and souls shining through their skins. that's all well and good, but that's a shiny ideal polished apple picture of kids and parenthood and if you were all sick, I guess their mom was taking care of them AND you. I think maybe I just wanted this book, the concept of this book, to be by a woman. I thought it was by a woman when I first picked it up. I don't think I ever really came to terms with the masculinity of it all. well, I sound pretty critical. and yet, there were many things about this book I really liked. the poetry he quoted (and some he wrote himself), the concept of death being a sort of seeping into life - not out of the body, but deeper in to life itself, where god also is mired. the writing, when it's not too authoritative or philosophical for my taste, is often beautiful. as I read it, I could see myself coming back and rereading it. it definitely engaged me. there were things that made me think, wow, too bad he isn't a quaker. (I bought the book in a quaker bookshop). "silence is the language of faith. action - be it church or charity, politics or poetry - is the translation." that seems to mesh with so much of the discussion I had with quakers this summer at annual session. the book itself is written in little bits. little paragraphs and pages. there isn't a narrative, things aren't connected in a long essay. there are things wiman has read that I would have never read, that he presents to me here, that I am grateful for. he talks about jurgen moltmann's book "the crucified god", witten in the aftermath of world war II, engaging with the question of how theology exists after the holocaust - "he argued in 'the crucified god' that all modern theology had to be developed 'in earshot of the dying christ'". even though I am not a christian, that's a powerful image and call, and not something I would have come across in my own reading, which does not include a great deal of christian theology. a lot of wiman's own poetry seems to rhyme, and I have a lot of ambivalence towards rhyming poetry. I have written a small amount of it myself, there is something very pleasing about it, but at the same time I am horrified by the conditions it places on free expression. I mean, that's kind of the difference between wiman and I in a nutshell. he cleaves to an older form of expression, a more traditional form of religion, I like to be much more unconstrained.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Trevor Arrowood

    This book... this book... this book.... does not start with a whimper, but with a bang. This book has resonated peace throughout the entire fabric of my essence, it has provided a murky clarity in areas that I have experienced clear dissonance. In a time of disconnect it has created a hazy, tv static-like connection with Christ. Perhaps my jadedness, my unsurity, my confusion, isn’t for not... but to create new forms of belief. **The technical review: this book changed me: Wiman creates with lang This book... this book... this book.... does not start with a whimper, but with a bang. This book has resonated peace throughout the entire fabric of my essence, it has provided a murky clarity in areas that I have experienced clear dissonance. In a time of disconnect it has created a hazy, tv static-like connection with Christ. Perhaps my jadedness, my unsurity, my confusion, isn’t for not... but to create new forms of belief. **The technical review: this book changed me: Wiman creates with language like a poet (which he is, no surprise there). Once you move past the fact that, set up as a narrative, this is not a narrative, its words begin to weave their way into your soul. I cannot explicate the degree to which this book has cemented itself within myself. Only the highest of praises.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lee F.

    What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to be come apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be aso attenuated and obscured by doubts and daliness that you may one day come to suspect the trust of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in the echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to be come apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be aso attenuated and obscured by doubts and daliness that you may one day come to suspect the trust of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in the echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities, the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself , in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it." My Bright Abyss Christian Wiman p 29

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jake Watts

    Absolutely brilliant. A book that will be reread, pondered and revisited time and time again. My life and my faith (my faith life) needed this book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Virginia

    Wiman is able to transform extreme pain into exquisite prose expressing interesting thoughts of both himself and those whose works he's read. I can't think of much else to say about this that wouldn't seem ridiculous. I recommend this to anyone with an interest in poetry, religion, or - simply - good prose.

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