I was in the office of Paul Baumann, the former editor of Commonweal and my own editor on several occasions, when the subject of Christian Wiman came up. I had just finished reading My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer Wiman’s extraordinary memoir about cancer, death, belief, vocation, etc. when Baumann observed succinctly and pointedly that Wiman is “the real thing.”
Not quite sure what Baumann meant, although it was easy enough to surmise. Still, his laconic judgment rang true then and rings true now as I have just finished reading Wiman’s He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art.
Wiman is a demanding essayist, a demanding poet, and, I suspect, a demanding teacher. He teaches religion and literature at both the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale Divinity School. His insights are searing, often unconventional, and frequently unsettling in their power, a power that emanates not only from his skill as a writer but from the personal intensity of his voice as a probing believer.
There are many threads to unwind—though unwinding them may be injurious to your intellectual and spiritual comfort zone. He Held Radical Light is a gallimaufry, a potpourri of poetry, literary analysis, and autobiographical recollections. One passage, devoid of the complex argument and erudite wordplay typical of his style, I found particularly arresting:
I don’t believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not.
“To define is to defile.” Isn’t that often what we do, circumscribe the Transcendent, delimit Eternity, hold God subject to semantics, to atrophying modes of understanding?
In addition to revealing his apophatic sensibility, He Held Radical Light allows us entry into the author’s relationships with other poets that can be illuminating in their own right. While dining with the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Wiman notes:
. . .in the middle of dinner, and in the middle of a conversation that had nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith, he leaned over to me and said—very quietly, he seemed frail to me—that he felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up within Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.
In the end, for both poets, it is about sacred glimmerings.