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Transfigured by the World

I’ve been working my way through Christian Wiman’s memoir My Bright Abyss for roughly a month and a half. It was one of those rare random purchases, a book by an author I didn’t know but was willing to take a chance on with a Barnes & Noble gift card. Upon diving in, I realized this is the sort of book you savor slowly—a wandering collection of thoughts on faith, poetry, death, and beauty compiled over a number of years, “a mosaic” more than a narrative, according to the author.

My Bright Abyss chronicles Wiman’s meditations on faith after learning he has an incurable cancer. I wish I could give you a neat little review that tells you what this book is about, but I can’t. It’s about faith and fear, life and death, beauty and sickness, hope and regret. It’s about poetry and creativity in some sense, but so much more than that. It’s the kind of book that I have to pick up in a quiet moment of the day, slowly work through a chapter, then put down and think about for a few days before starting back in again.

It’s exactly the sort of poignant, urgent book a poet might write through years of staring death in the face.

In his stories and observations, Wiman challenges us to live, really live, fully connected with life in its brevity and wonder. Though maybe it’s not the main point of the whole book, there’s a particular idea from an early chapter that’s stuck with me:

“These days I am impatient with poetry that is not steeped in, marred and transfigured by, the world. By that I don’t necessarily mean poetry that has some obvious social concern or is meticulous with its descriptions, but a poetry in which you can feel that the imagination of the poet has been both charged and chastened by a full encounter with the world and other lives.”

Here, he recounts his days as a young, ambitious student and writer, “so consumed with poetry that I would damn near forget the world.” And isn’t this the temptation of almost every art and vocation? There’s this romantic notion of escaping into a cabin to write a novel, or working long late hours to achieve success, or isolating yourself from community to focus on a relationship, a family, or even God Himself. They seem like noble aspirations, the picture of hard work and dedication.

Meanwhile, the world turns on, with or without our participation and wonder.

“One must have devotion to be an artist. . . But still, just as in religious contexts, there is a kind of devotion that is, at its heart, escape.”

In the face of illness and death, Wiman calls himself out for the wasted years of constant moving and disconnection for the sake of his art. This challenges me, as a writer, a wife, a friend, a daughter, and a member of Christ’s body. Sometimes when the world as it is doesn’t line up with the world as it should be, it’s tempting to escape into a spiritual or artistic inner life, often with noble intentions of bringing back some beauty or truth. But if we are really participants in the new creation, called to live and work and play in community and have a hand in the healing of the world, then that involves participation, presence, and attention.

Our lives and art become marred and transfigured by the world. And what a glorious sight it is.

I’m still reading, so these are thoughts in progress. For a deeper look at this book, I highly recommend reading Kathleen Norris’s review for The New York Times.

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