Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”Complete story available online at The American Scholar
A few pieces back, I praised Jamie Quatro’s story “Belief” for its straightforward approach to life as a Christian, and its honesty about the mix of joy and struggle. This piece, written in a very different style, takes a similar look at what it means to have faith.
The title comes from a comment made by Wiman’s two-year-old daughter when, during a bedtime ritual, he asked if she loved him. He interprets her cryptic reply – “I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always” – while recognizing that he is constructing meaning apart from her intent: “I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words….” That’s the essence of poetry, isn’t it, to use words to evoke meaning other than that contained in the words themselves.
There’s a section on the meaning of prayer, drawing out the aphorism “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things” into a more sophisticated setting, prayer as less of a laundry list of needs and wants and more of a meditation to connect with the divine will. He draws from a number of poets and writers of various times and places to express, much as Quatro did, the complicated nature of faith for him, its combination of “lament and love”. That phrase stood out to me, since I encountered it at length in last fall’s mooc on classical Greek literature. It seems lament and love songs are intertwined, exchanged, and mirrored in many of the epics and plays. This fits with the very common experience of us all: we cry at weddings or when receiving great news, and bond over laughter and comradeship at funerals and wakes. Yet Wiman is certain of the centrality of faith for humanity, whether as individuals we have “addressed it consciously or not.”
As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.
I connect very strongly with the ambivalence in the piece, with the acknowledgment that faith brings with it a certain discomfort. Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine and presently faculty at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote about his return to faith following a medical diagnosis in 2012.