Faith Healing

Kathleen Norris in The New York Times:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

…In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.” This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging. He describes his childhood home as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, . . . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void” that he admits, with typical acuity, “I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me.” He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision, writing, for example, that “the sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self.” This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.

More here.