Writing about God to know God

When I introduce Christian Wiman’s work to others, I often say he’s 75 percent of the reason I still call myself a Christian.

Wiman’s work entered my life at a time when I desperately needed it, and it would be difficult to overstate the affect that his prose volume My Bright Abyss had on me. It made faith not only seem possible, but also sane and holy and even necessary, for the first time in ages.

It’s unsurprising, then, that I jumped at the chance to learn from Wiman in a poetry workshop hosted by the Center for Faith and Work in January.

One of the themes that arose during the workshop was an emphasis on highly specific language. In prose, you may get away with blabbing on and on. But poetry is by nature a sparser medium, and even epic poetry tends to have meticulously-chosen syntax. With shorter poems like Wiman’s, selecting each word with painstaking intentionality becomes paramount.

This practice has theological implications. In My Bright Abyss, Wiman quotes George Lindbeck saying “you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general.” If it’s true that we can’t conceive of something we don’t have adequate language for, then finding better words for God isn’t merely an intellectual exercise. It’s a matter of getting closer to describing the reality of who and what God really is, and thus being able to experience that reality more fully.

This is the experience I’ve had with Wiman’s writing. His unwillingness to rely on familiar clichés has made it possible for me to experience God afresh by clearing new language pathways through which God might be accessed.

Another theme stressed by Wiman in our time together was that of “contemplative attention.” He had workshoppers write in extensive sensory detail about a moment from earlier in the day, practicing a strategy Wiman uses as a jumping-off point in his own writing. By being fully present in the moment in front of him — whether watching sparks fly off train tracks or noticing the thump of a bee against a windowpane — the poet invites his readers to experience the mundane in a way that becomes transcendent.

This too has theological implications. It is harder to hear what God is saying now if we are too wrapped up in memories of the past or dreams of the future. Paying scrupulous attention to the world around us in a given moment becomes a means of opening ourselves to what God is up to and giving ourselves a chance to respond to it.

I cannot pretend Wiman has blasted the ceiling so thoroughly off my day-to-day that I now experience God’s light pouring in with the blinding constancy I dream of. But Wiman’s words, and the tools he’s offered in specific language and contemplative attention, have helped create cracks that let a bit more sun in. For someone accustomed to living in shadow, that’s worth a lot.

Whitney Bauck is an assistant editor at fashionista.com who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Christianity Today and more.

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