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  • My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
  • Douglas E. Christie (bio)
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. By Christian Wiman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 192pp. $24.00

My Bright Abyss is a rare and beautiful book, a sustained meditation on faith so honest and searching that it will, I suspect, leave many readers with a new appreciation for the possibilities of faith in their own lives—also, perhaps, with a new sense of the potential meaning of faith, in particular Christian faith, in this immensely complex and challenging historical moment. The very force and honesty with which Wiman engages the central questions of faith makes it difficult to know how to respond to his book, or how to approach the task of reviewing it. Wiman is an accomplished and celebrated poet and long-time editor of the journal Poetry, who recently resigned that position to take up a new role at Yale Divinity School. Certainly My Bright Abyss deserves our critical attention and response. But it also calls, I think, for something else: a respectful accompaniment, a deep listening—to the words on the page as well as to the silent ground from which these words arise (he speaks at one point of God coming to us as "an annihilating silence, a silence we must endure as well as enjoy"). Reading this book, I found myself reflecting on why it is we so often find it difficult to speak of faith at all, and how often it happens that our very efforts to express its meaning and value can leave us confounded and bewildered rather than enlightened or consoled. Our words fall so far short of what we feel the experience of the divine to be as it courses through our being; this, we feel in such moments, is not faith, not my faith; it is something else. Wiman, in laying bare his own sense of what faith (and Christian faith in particular) means for him, reveals a great sensitivity to these questions. He bravely probes the possibility of the presence of a real and vibrant faith in the life of human beings living today. But he also attends, of necessity, to the silences, the gaps, the sense of emptiness and unknowing that seems to be woven so deeply into the contemporary experience of faith.

The book's subtitle, Meditation of a Modern Believer, suggests the kind of intellectual and spiritual work that occupies the heart of the book. But it is also [End Page 298] a little misleading. The author does indeed engage in the work of ruminatio or meditation, chewing carefully over the meaning of faith, in his own life and in the contemporary world more broadly. Still for Wiman, meditation becomes almost indistinguishable from confession. Readers will almost surely hear echoes in places of Augustine's great autobiographical work—not only in the author's interest in tracing the mysterious source and patterns of his emerging faith, but also (in the same sense Augustine understood the term confession) in his evident desire to give meaningful expression to that faith, amidst the many, varied and complex currents that have shaped his life. Early in the book Wiman describes an intense experience he had as young man: a conversion experience that, in the Baptist context of his youth, was an unquestioned mark of divine favor upon him. That its power over him eventually faded and that he was drawn, little by little, into his own form of bookish secular humanism, haunts him. As does his gradual reawakening to faith after many years of living with only the memory of it. He recognizes and acknowledges the skepticism with which the rebirth of faith is greeted among at least some of his contemporaries: "If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or deprecate the action as having psychological motivations—motivations, it goes without saying, of which you yourself are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself." But, he also notes the limits of such suspicion and how giving into it can undermine the spiritual...


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pp. 298-301
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