November 25, 2020

Christian Wiman: Religious Despair as Defense

BrightAbyssNote from CM: During my weekend at Gethsemani, some of the most insightful reading I did came from Christian Wiman’s luminous book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Here is one of the passages that gave me pause, for your meditation today.

* * *

Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory. There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him— to find him— does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.


  1. This is very insightful.

  2. Final Anonymous says

    I’m having a hard time relating to this. When my life or spiritual life is “boring,” it feels like a bit of a breather. I don’t feel an absence or distance from God as much as a contented quiet, even relief.

    “Despair” has hit at times that are far from the daily grind. Maybe I’m not reading it right.

  3. Moodiness might be an equivalent psychological affect. No compelling necessity, just embraced out of laziness and fairly easy to work out of if so desired. If not, then it’s just a ‘back off and don’t mess with my darkness’ mentality. There’s always the balancing game and each individual must judge themselves. I know I have experienced both true darkness and self imposed darkness. The latter is always embarrassing to realize in the end and just as Wiman says, it is fairly simple to work out of. It’s a simple choice and determination to embrace another reality. My wife annoyed the heck out of me this past weekend and I was in the right (a rare occurrence). She didn’t see that at the time so had I argued it would have been worse. Instead of calmly waiting things out though, I got real moody. When the thing passed she made a short apology, all that was needed, and then I knew it was up to me to accept and change my self wallowing attitude or to continue in its possession. The very simple path to freedom and change was to say something kind and make eye contact. A simple choice and determination to embrace another reality.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris. I had a similar one a couple weeks back. My family (daughter, wife and I) was driving from Portland to Seattle. Early on, like 10 minutes into the 2.5-hour drive, a minor quibble sprang up between my wife and my daughter. I (some might say unwisely) sided with my daughter. My wife went from being mad at my daughter to then being mad at both of us. Both my wife and daughter began sulking, my wife because of the incident and lack of support from me, my daughter because she wasn’t getting her way. I sat quiet, driving, trying to figure out how such a small incident could turn the mood so quickly. Almost the whole 2.5 hour drive was done in silent anger and sulking. The whole time, all I could think was, “All it would take is for someone to say something nice and get their minds off the fact that no one is happy.” I tried putting in some Stevie Wonder, but even his uplifting music was unable to change the mood.

      • I am chuckling Rick Ro….. I live in a house where the guys are in the minority and one thing I learned… wife and daughter quibbling, run for cover in case they ask for your opinion…. also, when it comes to taking sides… its better to plead the fifth or side with your wife then to side against her….it’s good you survived the drive….

        As for the wife annoying the heck out of us husbands… sometimes that’s just their mission ; )… to teach us patience eh?

        • Married for 25 years, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson, eh? Well, let’s just say there’s some minor dysfunction all the way around…

    • ” Instead of calmly waiting things out though, I got real moody. When the thing passed she made a short apology, all that was needed, and then I knew it was up to me to accept and change my self wallowing attitude or to continue in its possession. The very simple path to freedom and change was to say something kind and make eye contact. A simple choice and determination to embrace another reality.”

      ChrisS, how many times I’ve stood at just that crossroad, that juncture, that choice, and failed. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not in my experience. It seems to me to be a the heart of what the word “sacrifice” means, as undramatic as it is. But perhaps what we need to sacrifice much of the time is the drama, and our strong desire to play the leading role in the drama.

      Thanks for your insightful words.

  4. Thank you for this.

    This passage was a great comfort for this micro-souled Christian, who would never dare to embark on a great tragic adultery with Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, but who never misses a broadcast with that leggy weathergirl, who would never crush his enemies like Edmond Dantès, but who gloats at any minor inconvenience that hampers an irritating neighbor.

  5. Wow! Great reminder that following Christ means even in the simple things.

  6. Thanks for this. I’ve shared a few times here at iMonk that I suffered through a 5+ year “spiritual desert” several years ago, when didn’t feel ANY emotion toward God and felt a total absence of His presence. Curiously, as much as I told myself, “God is always here with me,” and people told me that, it didn’t change the fact that it still didn’t FEEL that way.

    What I discovered was: you can’t force feelings. Oh, I tried. I tried to re-engage with God and Jesus over and over and over. Eventually all the attempts fell flat and I was forced to just continue walking through that empty desert “alone.” Relief eventually came, first via Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God,” and then with a new way of studying the Bible (more slow and methodical, rather than ripping through a couple of chapters every day). Oh, and so did an almost continual prayer of “God, let me feel your presence again.” And wonder of wonders, one day I noticed I was no longer in the desert. Now, whenever I feel the lack of God’s presence, I just kinda shrug and laugh. Been there, done that. I know the feeling of absence won’t be forever.

  7. I am not sure whether I ever feel a lack of God’s presence. Rather I become too busy and too distracted, and those things that keep me connected fall to the wayside as I don’t give them priority. It’s similar to the proper focus on a marriage which can go stale or distant with that lack of attention and communication.

    Sometimes a retreat is a way to jump start the focus where it needs to be because in my life it is very hard to dig back out when the demands of work become entangled and want to hold on… OK… really I am making that a priority instead.

    I find it is not a good thing for me to bring a laptop to retreat (or any communication device for that matter) as it tends to cause me to focus elsewhere at times.

    I find the ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar helps me to refocus as well, again not so much as getting me out of a dry period as more of bringing me to refocus again. It is just too hard for me to be on and driving all of the time.

  8. “All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us” This morning I find myself wanting to do the “disciple thing”, namely calling down heavenly fire upon our next door neighbors after a a night of partying. I write this as a confession, O Lord, as I remember Jesus lived daily among people, and had a heart of love, compassion, and mercy. Who didn’t call holy fire on me, but died a sacrificial death on the cross for my sins. O resurrected Jesus, forgive my stony heart and renew me . . . others to “refocus”.

    • If it was a night of load out of control partying sometimes a well placed phone call could alieve some pain as well…

  9. Not buying this. It’s like, “so, if you don’t feel connected to God, it’s probably your fault anyways, so stop being selfish by feeling that way. If you were doing the right things, you would feel connected to God.” Enter prescriptive to-do list to amplify your spirituality. I think he is doing the very thing he condemns. Failure to find God in abc means that you have to try finding him in xyz. Oh, and your feelings are the validator of this. …and the absence of God from your feelings is just your imagination, but the finding of Him there is an indication that you’re doing it right?

    I understand his point about pulling us out of our inner spiritual narcissism, pointing us to our neighbors in need of our love more than our feelings in need of validation. But he crosses two lines that are unacceptable for me: First, the putting down of somebody for the way they feel. Emotions are not a volitional choice, even if how we respond to them is. Second, he describes encounter with God in terms of emotional experience. God is not found in your feelings, He is found in the means of grace. There is no way of validating that a good feeling is, in absolute fact, the creator of the universe communing with you. But with the bread and wine, we do have the Word of Christ telling us that he meets us there, and His Word alone is the only thing worth hanging on. It is the only thing that ultimately can pull us out of narcissistic despair – the Christ who comes to you from outside of you, not the Christ you search for within.

    • …. our inner spiritual narcissism… as opposed to actions for others all the time and a spiritual shallowness? I believe a Christian needs both as to not run to extremes. Inner spiritual attention and growth without falling into Quietism… outer focus on our neighbor without calling attention to ‘ look what I do for everyone’ syndrome. Absolutely agree that feelings shouldn’t be the validator, as that is a form of narcissism in itself eh?

      “There is no way of validating that a good feeling is, in absolute fact, the creator of the universe communing with you”… otherwise porn and smoking pot might be a divine thing instead of a wrong thing….

      Do we need to have God giving us signs that he is there all the time?

      • Whether we need it is irrelevant. We have it, and that is a very comforting thing, especially to the troubled conscience.

        • The thing about the sacraments that make them different than our feelings is that they exist outside us, in time and space, and are palpable and tangible. They continue to exist apart from us, and this is a great comfort and very different from our feelings. In this sense they are signs in a way feeling never could be, and qualitatively different.

    • petrushka1611 says

      ” There is no way of validating that a good feeling is, in absolute fact, the creator of the universe communing with you.”

      This, exactly.

      It could be a natural carelessness taking over in a disguise of spirituality, but I’ve quit worrying about whether or not I think I’m close to God, and I cannot describe the relief it’s brought. Abraham was called a friend of God, yet we only see God speaking to him a couple of times (I know the argument of silence is weak, but…), and we certainly don’t see Abraham asking God what career he should take up, who he should marry, or what model of camel to buy. Even less do we see Abraham working himself up into a Davidic lather about God’s presence or absence. He didn’t even have one red letter of the Bible to read and he was still the friend of God.

      If Abraham’s outfit was as big as the Bible describes, he probably spent his days shuffling paperwork, putting out small fires, and hauling the water when his employee slacked off.

      I have a dear friend from my old church who has been through hell over the last year and still isn’t back, and it breaks my heart to see her post stuff about, “What happened to those sweet devotional times when I communed with God and felt him near? Will I ever have those times again? Why is God so distant?” The irony is how we were taught that it’s “faith, not feelings,” and that extra-Biblical revelation was wrong, yet God was supposed to give us direction and tell us what to do, and we’d feel it when we were near God.

    • Miguel, If he was pointing the finger at others I might agree with you, but in context he is doing self-evaluation. This is one of the most perceptive “confessional” books I’ve read in a long time.

      • Well, I appreciate that he wrote it with a very non-accusing tone. However, the point of sharing this critical self-examination, which is always a good thing, is that the readers might relate if they find it applies to themselves as well. I just am completely done with beating myself up with the way I feel about things or about God. I just accept the feelings I have for what they are struggle to trust God in spite of them. I’m not going to say that the reason I feel this way is because I’m neglecting the good works in front of me. That may or may not be the case for me or for him.

        I’ll give him this: helping the neighbor and showing grace to those around you can legitimately help with this. Sometimes all that is needed to pull us out of our gloom is to take our eyes off ourselves. This is all good, right, and salutary in a theraputic sense, but when we start making it a pointed spirituality, a method for encountering God, we have to be careful to distinguish between the Christ of good feelings (inside us) and the Christ in our neighbor in need of our charity (extra nos). The former lands us right back where we started, the latter leads down the freedom road of embracing suffering.

        Aside from the fact that he is persuading to good works out of self interest, i.e., it makes ME feel better and more connected to God (even though this is often true), it neglects what is more important: true love for neighbor, from seeing Christ in them (Matthew 25:34-39).

        • Miguel,

          I think you’re spot on with regard to this whole discussion.

          I’ve read this book, last year sometime, and Wiman, articulate as he is and as fine a writer as he is, has the annoying habit of many contemporary poets of universalizing his experience as if it should in some way be the norm or is the norm. He writes as if his word is authoritative.

          Even is this passage quoted above, you can see his strong tendency to speak as if he has it all figured out, as if he knows what makes the rest of us tick, and as if he’s ahead of us on the road, leading the way with his insightful observations, if only we would heed and follow. Ever since Whitman, this has always been the temptation of the American poet, to speak as an oracle, and you’re completely right to question it, and your analysis of its deficiency is pointed and accurate.

          The fact is that Wiman is as much an amateur, and beginner, in these spiritual matters as he rest of us.

          • Robert, I think the fact that he is a beginner is what makes this book so remarkable. I didn’t fully introduce it in the post, but you know, having read it, that it is about the journey of a seeker, not the reflections of a spiritual teacher. I think that should be kept in mind in reading the book. Some of us, who may consider ourselves more “advanced,” might do well to hear the not always subtle findings of someone just learning things we may have forgotten long ago.

          • The problem, CM, is that Wiman has the attitude in this book of the neophyte student who, having aced his first test, speaks as if he is a master of the subject. If he had used a language of modesty in presenting his experience to us, that would have been made sense; but he speaks in the inflated tones of someone who thinks that his personal journey into the hinterland of the spirit is somehow a first, and that others haven’t been there before him, and that what he needs to know he has either already learned, or can learn, on his own. The lack of modesty bothers me, because it implies a lack of interest in learning from others. Once again I’ll repeat myself: this is the great temptation and trap that many contemporary poets fall into when they treat of spiritual matters.

          • Yes, the Confessions are sometimes too self-assured, smug, but Augustine consistently spoke from his own personal experience in them, using the first person perspective pervasively, and addressing God directly. The Confessions are after all an extended prayer to God.

            Wiman, on the other hand, though he quite deliberately attempts to imitate the tone and style of Augustine in My Bright Abyss, consistently says things like “when we are confronted by……then we have no choice but to….and this is our…. and when you realize that….then you have to…,” dragging the reader, as it were, into the middle of his confessions, and trying to attach his experience and conclusions to us as if they were our own.

            It’s not merely a matter of smugness, but of taking his own feeling and experience and conclusions for the general feeling, experience and conclusions of humankind, and insisting by his deft literary sleight of hand that the reader take them that way, too. In this way, he avoids really giving us autobiographical confessions in the true sense, and instead giving us spiritual speculations about the nature of faith.

            Ask yourself this, CM: does Wiman really share many of the details about his life, beyond some details about his repeated struggles with chronic life-threatening illness? He doesn’t. Rather, he uses a very few biographical details to launch into the stratosphere of his rather abstract personal reflections about the nature of faith. This is nothing like Augustine’s Confessions, which give us a wealth of details about his life, and thoughtfully connect every spiritual exploration to specifics of his biography. There is a vast difference between the two books having nothing to do with a degree of shared smugness.

            • Your points are fair Robert. Wiman certainly doesn’t have the theological depth of many of those I consider spiritual mentors and he does reflect our contemporary narcissistic ethos that insists my life alone can stand for the whole. But again, I’m not reading him so much as a mentor but as a seeker, a representative of this self-absorbed world for whom the light breaks through with vivid power on occasion. And oh, can he write.

              Lord knows, I have often been pretty insufferable at times in foisting the “great lessons” I was learning on people.

      • “Miguel, If he was pointing the finger at others I might agree with you, but in context he is doing self-evaluation. This is one of the most perceptive “confessional” books I’ve read in a long time.”

        I’ve read the book, CM, and one of the problems with it, aside from its constantly shifting and inconsistent theology, is that when Wiman writes confessionally, he is always trying to rope the rest of us into his confession. It’s as if he wants to make sure that we understand that his experience must be ours. Beautifully written as the book is, I found myself rankled by this bad habit of his, a habit not unusual among contemporary poets.

        • Don’t you think that we all make the mistake of assuming that our individual experiences are universal and common to all mankind?
          I know that i’ve fallen into that trap more times than i care to admit!

          • -> “Don’t you think that we all make the mistake of assuming that our individual experiences are universal and common to all mankind?”

            Your statement makes your point very well, numo…LOL!! (And I do think it’s true.)

          • numo,

            Yes, I’ve done this often. And people have pointed it out to me. I’ve done it in at least one place in the above comments. Still trying to avoid it. I promise not to write my spiritual autobiography until I’m better at avoiding it.

  10. OK, I’ll take this as a confirmation. I was at a bible study Thursday night and one of the attendants, an off-duty pastor, said that two of the most important books he’d read are Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Robert Farrar Capon’s Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

    Having read Capon’s Between Noon and Three (thanks to internetmonk) I took him seriously and wrote down the titles. I’ll order them soon.

    • Ted, the book by Capon is simply called The Supper of the Lamb. Capon was a gourmet cook/cooking writer. I was once at a conference where he taught a cooking class in lieu of giving some kind of theological talk.

      • Thanks for the correction, Numo.

        I think I did read that Capon was a cook. He also wrote affectionately about the Mafia in Between Noon and Three and I remember thinking, a while back, that that’s probably where Michael Spencer got the idea for his retirement, which never came about.

        From Michael’s bio on this site:

        His dream was to move to a little church near a pub with a minor league ballpark nearby, work with university students and cook Italian food for the mob.

        • Supper of the Lamb has the added benefit of being an actual cookbook with plenty of recipes. I’m hoping to discover a hobby from it, ’cause as juicy as his theology is, imagine how he describes the food he’s trying to get you to prepare.

          • Capon was big on using cream, butter and other ingreients that were being vilified during the era of nouvelle cuisine and similar movements. You may or may not wish to indulge.

            Btw, he was a food columnist for a while, and a true bon vivant.

  11. Christian wiman wrote a poetry collection called every riven thing which I can certainly recommend….

  12. I am reminded of the happy memories of times I spent at St. Andrews Priory in Valyermo, Calif. For those on the west coast, this is an excellent Benedictine retreat in the mountains above L.A.