October 25, 2020

Christian Wiman on religious despair


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 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.

• from My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, p. 106f


  1. This kind of exemplifies my own experience in a Pentecostal church. So much of the experience that was expected was “spiritual victory”, “victorious living”, with signs and wonders following. My emotions were jerked back and forth, up and down, and when I bottomed in spiritual despair it was expected that, somehow, I would “get the victory” over the devil, who was the author of my despair.

    But I was not, and AM not, built that way. My character is one that thrives on the “trudge” of everyday living, the mundane task of daily routine. Knowing the constancy of the walk of faith is what I crave. And, with this in mind, I can relate to the writer’s proposition that when in despair, the best course of action is to engage the possibilities all around us. Instead of bowing to the “pressure” I need to step out of myself and make it about others instead of myself.

    My despair is just my ego, my “self”, or “flesh”, mourning itself rather than the, so called, “absence” of God. He IS there, just waiting for me to lift my head and move on.

    • Well put, Oscar.

    • +1

    • The Pentecostal/charismatic church and it’s teaching is what stole the joy of my salvation, the joy of reading scriptures, and really any desire to live a Christian life in any way as defined by them. I vocally and willfully chose hell over heaven if they are in any right, and I still stand by that. Worse, darkest, blackest years of my life, only matched by the years following trying to rid myself of their teachings.

      Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

      Just not in the house that preaches Spirit first, ironically. If being spirit formed means you are miserable and full of despair all day long, then the Spirit is worthless.

      • Stuart, I know why you’re here why am I?

        • Apologies, W. Don’t let my cynicism and heartbreak effect how you do things. If you find peace and faith in these things, I’m happy for you, and a part of me wishes I could find it too.

      • If Jesus isn’t being preached as “Good News,” then he shouldn’t be preached.

      • one more month that’s all the longer I’m giving it. If I have to beat my back to discipline me not to come here anymore i’m going to do it. May 28th my late sister’s birthday I will decide whether there is profit here or not. I still speak in tongues and the Author has it wrong as it being this powerful excitement. I have seen things and it isn’t powerful in the way it is God doing it not me. Yes they say you prayed but that is something that is very minimal. Helping people isn’t so minimal. I do believe that Jesus said and greater things you will do. I think He would have settled down lived in a community and helped people and became a part of who they were and that would have been greater than and meant more to HIm. Something He showed me. I still lay my hands on the animals and pray. I have seen results and not seen results. It is all I have to offer some.

        When God has done something special for someone I have seen them erupt in singing and praise. I have seen them walk away. This time has been a maturing for me but I will move again in the Lord, for sure. I never go by a homeless person without some form of help. I never not pick up strangers hitching a ride. You never know when you might entertain angels.

  2. 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.

    I won’t say that this is a problem for some people. But it certainly isn’t a problem for *all* people. And it certainly wasn’t mine. Boredom wasn’t my problem – not realizing God is merciful was (is?). Mine was not the despair of the bored thrill-seeker, but the despair of Luther before the tower.

    • “this *isn’t* a problem for some people.” Caffeine… where is the caffeine…

    • Wiman has a habit of speaking as if his insights are more universally applicable than they are, and as if what he has to say is authoritative. It’s a trait he shares with many contemporary poets when they are writing something other than poetry, especially when they are writing about spiritual subjects.

      • Actually Robert, I think it’s just the opposite. Writers of the past universalized much more. After all, I am a LUTHERan. In fact, is that not the basis of most denominations and movements — that the founder’s experience and insights were “the way, truth, and life” and that everyone ought to accept their version of truth as gospel?

        The problem with the modern writer is exactly the opposite: he imagines he is his own world, he writes within that constricted space, and pretty much doesn’t give a damn about the rest of us. Wiman’s book is MY Bright Abyss.

        Whatever Wiman’s faults, let me just be clear about my intentions. When I quote someone at IM I do so because I have found the insights helpful for myself, and hope they might also be for others.

        • When I read My Bright Abyss, I found it irritating that Wiman positioned himself as an authority on the spiritual life, but, aside from giving a few details of his repeated brushes with a deadly disease, provided no grounds from his personal life on which to base his pontificating about spirituality. I kept asking myself: What exactly does this man think has happened in his own life to qualify him to tell the rest of us about the meaning of things, or of Christian spirituality? But he provides precious little biographical detail to anchor his speculations, and in fact seems to arrive at them without making any concrete connections to events of his own life. He speaks as if with the voice of a spiritual master, but I couldn’t help but think of him as an apprentice with a bad case of ego-inflation.

        • Actually, the title My Bright Abyss, which is also the title of one of Wiman’s poems, reflects a modesty I wish were present throughout the book. Neither the title, nor the poem itself, make any claim that Wiman’s abyss is the only abyss, or your abyss or my abyss; it’s simply his abyss in all its particularity, and he doesn’t assert in the title or poem that his experience is definitive for anyone else.

          This modesty is a peculiarly modern virtue, which in my opinion is an advance on former eras when the experiences and understandings of some (for example, Luther) were made, often by coercion, to be normative for others. Paradoxically, it also makes the writer’s perspective one which others may freely find speaking to and for their own experience and particularity. I may find myself in the openness and modesty of the claims of Wiman’s poem far more readily and freely than in the dogmatic pronouncements of Lutheran theology (or the dogmatic pronouncements of Wiman in his book) precisely because I have been given the imaginative space to see (or not see) my own experience in relationship to what the writer says from his.

          So I would have to disagree with you that the title of Wiman’s book reflects something written from a constricted view without concern for the views of others. As an intelligent and thoughtful modern poet, when he is writing poetry Wiman knows that his bright abyss is not necessarily that of others; if only the entire book possessed the same wisdom as the title and the poem.

    • Eeyore – i hear you.

  3. Yep thank God for captain obvious and here I thought my sadness in a brutal world was real. Guess not. I guess the calico cat like mine all tore up beside the road yesterday was not really a twinge in my heart just more of my prideful self. Yep just like the Pentecostal church that wants to teach a certain way the author wants to jerk it around on its head like some cheap trick.

    I would tend to agree with his lense as I would the Pentecostal one also as it fits those that need that. There is no difference. Only one says one thing and one says another.

    Religious despair. Let’s define it. Is it like when Jesus saw the people leaving and going home from the festival and called out to them. Is it the monotony of doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result. Is it the person who at church who really cares about you but when you say something deep you get the blank stare back like why would you even think about that. It is then you know unfortunately that mostly this is a road that must be traveled by yourself. Oh wait it isn’t about self. Oh no wait it is about self. Jesus died for me. Oh no wait for us. Yeah but I’m in us. Paul went away and then conferred with flesh and blood not. Although there were many people around him only he could live this life out.

    I remember the yanks and pulls of the teachers always trying to turn things around and taking the other position just to get us to think. I think that now that I am 55 I have a good idea of where I’m at and to me no church fits the bill. Yet they all do. Every morning I race to this comp and read this and many other things with scripture then spend time with God sometimes like lately in despair but it is the best thing I have many days along with feeding mountain cats. These are things I religiously do. Sorry it might look like despair and feel like despair but it is life as I know it with the emphasis on the word I. I will keep doing it and things will get better because there is a part of I which is God and I know it. It isn’t that I have stopped loving all though the days it is hard. The tank does FEEL empty at times but it really isn’t.

    I wonder about this statement I NEED to step out of myself and make it about others. So I can feel better about myself. Love doesn’t need to, it just does because. God loves us because. Can you give me a reason.

    People would think I’m nuts because of the ritual cat feeding I do. I don’t care they don’t know the mama cat who had all the kittens I have known and will not stop ever till she leaves here. You never know what a man might love and why but it is definitely just because.

  4. When I seek the extraordinary in my spiritual life, it’s often because I have become acutely aware of my inability to love and be present to the ordinary in my life, and I’m seeking empowerment to do so. It’s after seeking for that empowerment, and not receiving it, that religious despair takes hold in me.

  5. Christiane says

    ‘showing kindness’ to an irritating person . . .

    this seems to me that something supernaturally powerful is going on when this happens . . .

    . . . not ONLY to experience and absorb the vitriolic acting out of another’s pain without letting it arouse an annoyed response in ourselves;
    but THEN to be enabled to reflect back to them a spirit that comes through us from the Source where all loving-kindness originates

  6. Powerfully put, Christian-e. W, I wish you would show mercy to the cat and have her fixed; she does not want to have those litters. One is plenty, but the poor thing is at the mercy of the tomato in the neighborhood.

    • We have snaps here in Pa she was taken care of a couple of years ago. She was only a kitten when she had the first and didn’t get to her fast enough on the second. There will be no more and the other female kittens were taken care of. One of the big males her own is always with her and no one I’ve seen wants any part of him although some have tried. When I first met her she had no hair on her back. Her and her litter came out to see me on mountain walks before I ever started feeding them. One in particular, a female, just wanted to see me and never ate anything. She disappeared for two years and then last year I think I got to see her twice and she remembered me. Somethings just melt my heart.

  7. OldProphet says

    Aren’t we all at the mercy of a tomato of some type or another?

  8. Thought the title was a typo…guess it’s not, as Amazon confirms, lol.

    Also, that’s a good quote.

  9. I have read Wiman’s book and want to read it again because I don’t think I got to the bottom of it … the abyss and all. The idea intrigues me and I have read some things Thomas Merton had to say on the abyss. Strangely, as deep as an abyss is, I think it is also narrow … a very pressed place. It may be something we can all talk about and identify, but which we experience uniquely. For Wiman, it was in a terminal illness. For someone else, it may be in addiction or dysfunction and perpetual unease in the world. In any case, it seems like a personal place where you are alone with God to thrash things out.

    W, what you have said resonates. The dailyness of our activities are both reflect our despair and keep us going. I cling to my rituals especially when I am most deeply upset.

  10. I have not read Wiman’s book yet, but I love the title – My Bright Abyss. I almost don’t want to hear his explanation, because the three words alone say so much.

    As to this quote, I have a mixed reaction to it. I agree with him that suffering can be self-inflicted, and also that refocusing on the the practicalities of daily life – and cultivating a capacity for seeing the good in it – can help to heal a despair borne out of an obsession with metaphysics, and on a slavery to one’s internal thoughts and states of mind. At least, that has been my personal experience. I have had to limit my time with theology. I have learned to put it back on the shelf and step away before it forces me over the edge. I am not proud of this fact, but I confess that I even went through a career change – stepping aside from academe – in part because my area of research touches so closely on questions that are theological and personal to me. I found myself totally exhausted when I am engaged in it full-time. It was very hard for me to admit this fact to myself: that for some reason, I could not “cut it” and that working harder at cutting it might be bad for me.

    I do not like his use of term or concept of “boredom” to explain the source of despair. Yes, chasing intense, personal, subjective experiences like religious ecstasy or finding your authentic self can be the luxury of a person who has the privilege of time, energy, and money. It can also be a revolt of those who are oppressed by one force or another: claiming your right to spurious experience, esp. experience transcending a daily grind that is grinding on you, is a protest. It seems to me that this is the human demanding to have its humanness, its largeness, recognized. It can also be caused, not by boredom, but by the effect circumstances or ideas have on a person. If we can blame the person, surely we can also blame the ideas. Harriet Beecher Stowe once noted, speaking of the New England theology of her father’s generation, something like this: “Men build ideas, and other people have to pay the emotional price of those ideas.” That is a paraphrase; the original quote was better. She was most likely referencing both despair and grief that she and other family members had experienced in morning the death of loved ones who had not been converted according to a certain theological scheme.

    I’ll be brief and mysterious, and say that whatever the ultimate source of despair has been for me, I identify very strongly with Eeyore’s statement. I have been haunted by theological ideas, that seemed to me to chase grace and light out of the world. The day to day realities of life were not given the dignity of being valued in themselves. They often seemed to mattered in so far as they related to something larger, and they were all potential sacrifices. Were they to God or Moloch? I wonder.

    The only way back from the brink I know is to insist that grace is the first and last word – and suffuses the ordinary world. To claim back the dignity of the ordinary. To do so has not only been good medicine, as Wiman suggests; it has been a protest, a taking back, of the right to be human.