In a special preview of this weekend’s "Moyers & Company," poet Christian Wiman reads an excerpt from an essay he wrote for the Winter/Spring issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about living with cancer, finding faith, and being sustained by family.
At nearly sixty years old, m. finds that her faith has fallen away. She tells me that it was love that ﬁrst led her to God. Thirty-ﬁve years earlier, love for the man who would be her husband for most of her life seemed to crack open the world and her heart at the same time, seemed to fuse those latent, living energies into a single ﬂame, the name of which, she knew, was God. There were careers and children. There were homes laid claim to and relinquished. There was something perhaps too usual for a love that had torn her so wholly open, but time takes the edge o3 of any experience, life means mostly waiting for life, or remembering it—right? She tells me all this, right up to the depressingly undramatic divorce, at a table outside in far west Texas, the country of my own heart.
She asks me: How can a love that seemed so fated fail so utterly? How can a love that prompted me toward God become the very thing that kills my faith? Once, it seemed love lit the world from within and made it take on a sacred radiance, but somehow that ﬁre burned through everything and now I walk lost in this land of ash. If God by means of love became belief in my heart, became the faith by which I lived and loved in return, then what should I believe now that my love is dead? Or no, not dead; that would be easier. Actual death cuts life off at the quick of your soul, but there is yet the quick to tell you what life was, assure you that life was. You grieve the reality of your loss, not the loss of your reality. That former grief is awful, and may seem unendurable, but at least it is more productive, for it is grief that has lost but not renounced life, grief that still feels to the root the living reality of love because it feels so utterly that absence. All I feel is that the life I felt, the love that once scalded me toward God, was a lie.
“Christ is contingency,” i tell m. 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 creekbed 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. How strange it is to be back in this place, where visible distance is so much a part of things that things acquire a kind of space, an otherness, a nowhere-ness, as if even the single scrub cedar outside the window where I’m working holds—in its precise little limbs, its assertive seasonless green—the fact of its absence.
Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it into this are doomed to become brittle, shattered creatures. Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change. I don’t mean simply that faith changes (though there is that). I mean that, just as any sense of divinity that we have comes from the natural order of things, is in some ultimate sense within the natural order of things, so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any ﬁxed, mental product. Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best parts of themselves. Omnipotent, eternal, omniscient—what in the world do these rotten words really mean? Are we able to imagine such attributes, much less perceive them? I don’t think so. Christ is the only way toward knowledge of God, and Christ is contingency.
The only way? Into my words, as into the things around me, seeps the silence that defeats them. Better to say that contingency is the only way toward knowledge of God, and contingency, for Christians, is the essence of incarnation. And incarnation, as well as the possibilities for salvation within it, precedes Christ’s presence in history:
Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.
And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.
I wouldn’t want any of this to seem like I’m blaming m. for her suffering, or that I’m in any way refusing to acknowledge the full impact of it. (Christ is contingency? An absurd, even callous thing for me to have said to her at that moment. It was true, but the time and the context made it, in any ordinary human sense, false.) There is a sense in which love’s truth is proved by its end, by what it becomes in us, and what we, by virtue of love, become. But love, like faith, occurs in the innermost recesses of a person’s spirit, and we can see only inward in this regard, and not very clearly when it comes to that. And then, too, there can be great inner growth and strength in what seems, from the outside, like pure agony or destruction. In the tenderest spots of human experience, nothing is more offensive than intellectualized understanding. “Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom,” writes Randall Jarrell. “It is pain.”
Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn.
And why this sorrow? Why its persistence, its involvement with all that is my soul? Childhood was difficult, and most of it remains inaccessible to me, but I was deeply loved. And I am capable of deep love now for the people in my life, for my work. I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening shadow of death. And it is not the prospect of my own death that sustains sorrow, for it preceded my sickness by many years, by all the years of my consciousness, in fact. And that is surely the reason right there—consciousness, which is a setting apart from reality, when all of reality is the expression of God.
For many people God is simply a gauze applied to the wound of not knowing, when in fact that wound has bled into every part of the world, is bleeding now in a way that is life if we acknowledge it, death if we don’t. Christ is contingency. Christ’s life is right now.
Despite the value and absolute necessity of spiritual solitude, Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone even joy is, in a way, sorrow’s ﬂower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I’m not sure you can have Christian communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self.
What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who ﬁnds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you. These will occur in the most unlikely places, and with people for whom your ﬁrst instinct may be aversion. Dietrich Bonheoffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own, which is to say, ﬁrst, that we depend on others for our faith, and second, that the love of Christ is not something you can ever hoard. Human love catalyzes the love of Christ. And this explains why that love seems at once so forceful and so fugitive, and why, “while we speak of this, and yearn toward it,” as Augustine says, “we barely touch it in a quick shudder of the heart.”
For the entire essay please go to Harvard Divinity Bulletin