On Modern Faith: “Out of the Eater Came Forth Meat”

A Response to Christian Wiman

by Tim J. Myers |

One frequent criticism of religion strikes me as particularly misinformed: the charge that belief is mere comfort or complacence. Of course some “faith” is really no more than amulet or security blanket. But decades of struggle and pain led me to the Divine — and this, it turns out, is a quite traditional path. It’s also the path Christian Wiman is walking.

Wiman’s faith, embodied in writing of measured and luminous metaphysical ferocity, reflects the dynamic and seemingly bleaker modern world. But this makes it precious beyond words —precisely because faith must live, must answer to present reality, or else it doesn’t really exist.

This isn’t of course the only form faith takes. Many grow in belief from childhood and carry it forward without serious doubt. But not everyone is given that gift. And those who walk the longer path sometimes discover new dimensions of the sacred, or reinvigorate older ones.

It’s not only sharing the longer path, however, that makes me appreciate Wiman. Central to his faith is the yearning, fearful, loving, haunted wilderness of the artist’s heart. It’s as if life itself dangles certain human beings over the abyss just to see what they’ll say. Wiman asserts that poetry “[is] a particular way of thinking that I find exists nowhere else in the world,”1 a unique and mysterious epistemological enterprise, engendering insight through the labor, anguish, and sometimes utter surprise the shaping of a poem can entail. Poetry was even more potent in this regard than his incurable cancer and the suffering it brought him and his wife; that is, poetry—not to mention the love he found in marriage —had already led to the revelation he’d half-blindly sought. It’s no accident that he regularly quotes George Herbert’s “Bitter-sweet,” itself an act of spiritual balance through the crucible of art: “I will lament and love.”2

In my own artist’s life, belief and doubt whirl together in an endless dance. But I learned over time that the troubling of my faith is one of the most fruitful ways of growing it.
“Birth-Ascension” by Tim J. Myers. Cover image from Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body (BlazeVoX Press, 2013).

In my own artist’s life, belief and doubt whirl together in an endless dance. But I learned over time that the troubling of my faith is one of the most fruitful ways of growing it. Out of my joyous gratitude for that has also come, though, a distrust of easy expressions of faith. You’ll find no such disturbing ease in Wiman. And there’s good reason. As he said in his talk, “there’s an enormous number of people ... who find ... the language of religion in general inadequate ... And that’s ... a terrible bind to be in. To find yourself desperate to experience God but not trusting ... any of the language you have.”3 I listen to Wiman so raptly because he speaks with a sufferer’s experience. I listen even more when he says of spirituality, “You might not want to call it anything at all.”4 This is the Tao that cannot be spoken and is, to me, the first step on a genuine journey toward the Ultimate.5

One climax of all this is Wiman’s achingly beautiful poem “My Stop Is Grand,”6 where, again, all the brutal and casual wrong of the world is evoked with heart-stopping power. But the poem ends with an “and yet ...” I think of Issa, the Japanese haijin, master of a form that often asserts, through traditional metaphors like dew or falling blossoms, the utter transience of all things. After the death of his young son Sentaro, he wrote:

This dewdrop world
is but a dewdrop world
and yet ...7

Issa’s “and yet,” torn from an essential human grief, to me constitutes a small aperture opening onto transcendence. “My Stop Is Grand” takes a similar hint but expands it. Out of a “screechingly peacocked/grace of sparks” from the Chicago El, Wiman senses a sacred culmination, one “that was most intimately me/and not mine.”8 In a modern/ post-modern world seemingly stripped of religious perception, a poet of the sacred must strive for spiritually subtle discernment. We are, I think, in the midst of a centuries-long epistemological crisis, and art as a way of deeper seeing is part of the answer to that crisis.

“[T]he same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness,”9 Wiman writes. Consider the full implication of this beautiful idea. I often use a simple metaphor for the faith-struggle, that of someone climbing a tree and deciding whether to step onto a particular branch. If the branch is rotten, you’ll plummet— so before you commit your existence to it, you make damn sure the branch is sound. A mindlessly accepted faith that ignores darker realities simply won’t bear the weight of our actual lives. “[A] notion of God that is static ... simply sterile... assert[ing] singular knowledge of God and seek[ing] to limit His being to that knowledge”10 is such a branch, Wiman reminds us. A sound branch, by contrast, is green, growing, flexible. Wiman again: “[S]ometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”11

Senior Lecturer Tim Myers asks a question of Christian Wiman at Wiman’s Fall 2013 Bannan institute Lecture. Grace Ogihara

If there ever really was a time when faith was simple, we’re not living in it now. But that hardly amounts to, as many claim, the end of faith. Wiman came to God partly through the observable reality of Incarnation in its broadest, most “secular” sense. He points to A.R. Ammons’ incandescent “The City Limits” as overflowing evidence of the radiance of the world, since Ammons, a poet with “no religious belief,” couldn’t help but bear witness to such sanctity.12 In other words, poetry, through its white-hot engagement with the world as it is, can lead us to richer understandings of God.

This can also lead, I think, to a new emphasis on one of the most traditional religious ideas: that God is infinite. If we take this notion seriously, we’re forced to shift “religion” from rigid certainty to a great and humble openness. In the essay “O Thou Mastering Light,” Wiman asks those who see the world as empty, “Really? You have never felt overpowered by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you?”13 Religion, he continues, “is the means of making these moments part of your life, rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence .... Religion is ... preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends ... whatever specific religion you practice.14

I’m not terribly fond of Judges 14, where a testoronic Sampson tricks the Philistines with an unanswerable riddle then slaughters a number of them. But even as a child I was enthralled by the riddle. After killing a lion, Sampson later finds that bees have built a hive in the carcass. This inspires him: “Out of the eater came forth meat; out of the strong came sweetness.”15 That numinous duality is at the heart of many spiritual traditions, and it became a template for my own life, with Death as the ultimate “eater” and the honey of faith emerging from my struggle with it. So I love the irony whereby a superb poet and deeply honest person like Wiman will, through his refusal to ignore the realities of modern life, end up discovering in its depths an ancient and life-giving tradition of divine paradox.

And this half-dark, half-bright miracle of the poet’s work flows ever outward, since here I am, and others with me, drawing light into our lives out of Christian Wiman’s words, in a continuance of revelation passed, as it were, from hand to hand. 

Tim J. Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and senior lecturer in the English Department at Santa Clara University. He’s been nominated for two Pushcarts, won a poetry contest judged by John Updike, has published two books of adult poetry, and has 11 children’s books out and four in press. His Basho and the Fox was a New York Times Children’s Bestseller and was read aloud on NPR. Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood was featured on the Parents Magazine site and won the Ben Franklin Digital Award. Tim can actually whistle and hum at the same time.
www.TimMyersStorySong.com.

Endnotes


  1. Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture, Bannan Institute “What Good Is God?” series, October 17, 2013, Santa Clara University. Based on Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). The full lecture is available online at: http://scu.edu/ic/publications/videos.cfm
  2. George Herbert, “Bitter-sweet,” from The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (Cambridge: Printed by Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel, 1656).

    Ah my deare angrie Lord,
    Since thou dost love, yet strike;
    Cast down, yet help afford;
    Sure I will do the like.

    I will complain, yet praise;
    I will bewail, approve:
    And all my sowre-sweet dayes
    I will lament, and love.

  3. Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Tao Te Ching, first sentence, Chapter 1. See http://www. taoism.net/ttc/chapters/chap01.htm
  6. Christian Wiman, “My Stop Is Grand,” unpublished poem. “My Stop Is Grand” is due to be published in an upcoming issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
  7. In Kobayashi Issa, Hachiban nikki (Eighth Diary), 1821, written in 1817.
  8. Wiman, “My Stop Is Grand,” unpublished poem.
  9. Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. A. R. Ammons, “The City Limits,” in The Selected Poems (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 89.
  13. Wiman, “O Thou Mastering Light,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 37, no. 2 & 3 (Spring/Summer 2009). See: http://www.hds. harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/ o-thou-mastering-light 
  14. Ibid.
  15. Judges 14, The King James Bible. See: http://biblehub.com/kjv/ judges/14.htm
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