Did this world make itself? Maybe – but hardly. Did I go through this illness alone? Perhaps – but in the midst of the depression of it, something outside myself sustained me, nevertheless. Has my hard life been without joy? Not completely – and sometimes, in the midst of the worst of it, I have known peace and strength greater than my own making. Have I never known the presence of God? No, in fact I have sometimes known it with consuming awareness.
Joan Chittister, Essential Writings, 101.
What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church 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.
– Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 29.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.
It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.
My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)
It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:
We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)
He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.
For Wiman, faith is something fragile:
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. (60)
At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.
More: Interview with Wiman here.
[Preface. One of the temptations of blogging is to post things before they’re ready. I operate at two extremes of writing – writing blogs which are published immediately and reacted to immediately; and novels, which incubate for years and perhaps never see the light of day. I took down my last post on testimonies because I wasn’t happy with it – and yet I had a lot of comments about it; I suspect it’s an important topic. So here’s my second attempt.]
The testimony is an interesting evangelical genre – a dance between revelation and disclosure. They’re almost always good news stories, and although the gospel is, by definition, good news, telling the story of our lives as if it is good news in itself is surely a temptation to displace the gospel.
Testimonies are meant to confess to some kind of sin, and the overcoming of that sin by renewed piety or a fresh experience of God. The sin itself should be hinted at, but in general terms. (Unless it’s an acceptable sin. Workaholism is an acceptable sin; most forms of pride also are. Sex and drugs less so.) So while I might tend to think badly of a testimony that avoids being honest or specific about sin, perhaps that’s the only safe approach – because people who are too specific about their sins gain a certain infamy.
The other thing about testimonies is that they capture a certain moment in someone’s life, a point at which their life story can be narrated as one of triumph, the victory of faith over sin and doubt. One tells this story and is cheered on by the congregation – because that’s what they want to hear.
But what about the low point of a person’s life, the point at which sin and doubt are dominant? That doesn’t tend to get narrated; the person at that point doesn’t tend to get asked to give a testimony. Our churches are too keen to hear people’s good news stories, reinforcing a culture of success – when the reality of most people’s lives is one of struggle.
Testimonies, like Facebook, should encourage others and build them up. I fear that sometimes, like Facebook, they can paint an idealized version of people, and provoke envy or inadequacy.
Version one of my post received this interesting comment from Kerri:
I grew up in a Pentecostal church and came to be repulsed by people’s testimonies as there seemed to be a sort of contest about whose past was the most lurid and of course the repetition of stories gave some church members the chance to self aggrandise in a most perverse way. However as an adult I did worship in a Uniting Church for seven years where testimonies were not given at all and found myself wondering about how people had come to be there and what experiences they had had that had lead them to decide to become a Christian. There must be some place for a person’s story to be heard.
I’m with her; she said it well!
I always hear a sad aching in the songs of Sarah Blasko. Even at her happiest, her voice is tinged with melancholy. I understand she was a Christian in her youth, and her music has the sound of faith and certainty lost, the plunge into a dreamy world of beautiful sadness.
“I awake”, the first track released from her forthcoming album has the lines:
No one knows just why we’re here
Embrace the doubt and face the fear
It’s all about the inner search
There’s profundity mixed with cliche here, and I feel she delivers these lines in a tone that sounds too flippant. Yet I’m sure they come out of deep struggle, and her flippancy could be irony.
‘No-one knows just why we’re here’ is a haunting line. It’s haunting because I feel our plight is haunting. I can say, even as a committed Christian, that existence is mysterious, and that no-one knows for sure why we’re here. Faith is living with a particular answer as to why we’re here.
What does it mean to ’embrace the doubt and face the fear’? A state of doubt as the best response to uncertainty? I choose to embrace faith rather than doubt, but I understand why she would go the other way. One thing I respect in Blasko’s lyrics is a determination to face the fear, to express the mystery of existence, when too few singers ask big questions.
But to sing ‘it’s all about the inner search’ is to reduce the search for meaning to a private affair. Later in the song she adds:
I’ve tried to make this life my own
To find myself, I’ve searched alone
I came to a conviction a long time ago that the meaning of life is not found on our own – that it is found in community and in covenant. It’s an insight that needs to be freshly recovered, as our milieu’s individualism (which this song is so full of) is infectious, isolating.
I half await, half dread her new album. I’ll listen to it too many times and her beautiful sadness will get into my head.