O Thou Mastering Light
Spiritual innocence is a state of lament and exultation.
By Christian Wiman
Intellectuals and artists concerned with faith and belief tend to underestimate the radical, inviolable innocence required. We read and read, write long elaborate essays and letters, engage in endlessly inflected philosophical debates. We talk of poetry as prayer, artistic discipline as a species of religious devotion, doubt as the purest form of faith. These ideas are not inherently false. Indeed there may be a deep truth in them. But the truth is, you might say, on the other side of innocence—permanently. That is, you don’t once pass through religious innocence into the truths of philosophy or theology or literature, any more than you pass through the wonder of childhood into the wisdom of age. Innocence, for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.
To be innocent is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature, and the wherewithal to say again and forever your wordless but lucid, untriumphant but absolute yes. You must protect this space so that it can protect you. You must carry it with you like the most precious cup of trembling through whatever milieu in which you find yourself: the superficialities and skepticism of secularism, the numbing certainties of fundamentalism, the sterile sophistication of so much scholastic theology. Something in you must remain in you, voiceless even as you voice your deepest faith, doubt, fear, dreams . . .
Spiritual innocence is not naïveté. Quite the opposite. Spiritual innocence is a state of mind—or, if you prefer, a state of heart—in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting. Consider these lines from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who has returned, in imagination or in fact, back to the land of his childhood:
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
The poignancy of these lines inheres precisely in the fact that, in the world outside of the poem, the poet is acutely aware of his age, has experience of women and cities, and knows that he will most definitely die—all because he did one day walk outside the whitethorn hedges of childhood. But the poem is not some facile, nostalgic assertion in defiance of this knowledge. It implies the annihilating powers of age, death, romantic failure, industrial destruction, and admits, within the context of linear time, its inadequacy as a bulwark against these things. At the same moment, though, it asserts the powers of youth, life, love, memory—powers which, paradoxically, exist only if they have been lost. To experience these lines fully is to feel at once a deep lament from outside of the poem, and an utter exultation from within it, and no necessary contradiction between these two truths. Any man who would save his life must lose it, Christ said. He could have been talking about—perhaps he was talking about—spiritual innocence.
When I was young there was a notion among the believers I knew, all of whom were conservative Christians, that to feel the presence of God required that one seek God constantly, that one’s spiritual instincts demanded the same sort of regular exercise, were subject to the same degeneracy and atrophy, as the muscles of one’s body. The great fear was not exactly that God would withdraw, but that one’s capacity to perceive him would become impaired, inert. I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God, never felt that mastering presence that makes, they suspect, the banalities of life more manageable, the sloughs of despond less deep. To which I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overpowered by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life, rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of mastery in your life, these moments in which you are utterly innocent; it is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.
Where all have mouths of desire and none,
Is willing to be eaten: I am so glad
To come accidentally upon
My self at the end of a tortuous road
And have learned with surprise that God
Unworshipped withers to the Futile One.
—from Kavanagh, “Auditors In”
The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God or belief in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced.
The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that Christ’s love kindles the love of man, and that whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction there may emerge a peace that—though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be “convinced” of the other’s position—nevertheless enters and nourishes one’s notion of, and relationship with, God. Without this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth, and asserts not love but a lesson, not God but himself.
I have read so much theology in the past few years, yet in conversations with other Christians I am consistently made conscious of being in some way balked when trying to describe my notions of the nature of God, the meaning of the cross, Christianity’s place with regard to other religions. It isn’t that these conversations aren’t productive, but inevitably their benefit, for me at least, inheres wholly in the communion established with another believer rather than in any new foundation of knowledge. I am less frustrated with this state of affairs than I once was, so perhaps I have learned something from all those years of forcing myself to formulate my positions on poetry, from convincing myself that I knew my own mind—namely, that any statement about faith, any knowledge of God, that does not contain within itself an awareness of its ultimate insufficiency is doomed to decay. And perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the production of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it.
The great mystery of all spiritual knowledge in this life is that, even if it expresses an abstract truth about God or humanity, if it is not expressed with a concern for particular people, then it is a lie. This does not mean that some are not called to prophesy against the calcified self-regard of man, but if there is not specific and self-incriminating compassion in those cries, if there is even a tincture of vindication, separation, self-exaltation, then even the staunchest of God’s prophets are merely the mouthpieces of destruction.
To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about the nature of God, he is gone. We praise people for having “strong” faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.
An admission. I have no problem believing in God, if “belief ” can be defined as some utter interior assent to a life that is both beyond and within this one, and if “assent” can be understood as at once active and unconscious, and if “God” is in some mysterious way both this action and its object, and if after all of these qualifications this sentence still makes any effing sense. Clearly, I do have something of a “problem.” Poetry, fiction, meditative or mystical writers along the lines of Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, Simone Weil—these things tease me toward belief, make me feel the claim on my being that is much stronger than the “I” that needs to believe, the “I” for whom belief is doctrine rather than identity (“You are in me deeper than I am in me,” as Augustine puts it). Hardcore theology, on the other hand, tends to leave me cold, even when, perhaps especially when, it convinces me. I truly don’t know whether I am describing something essential about the way we know God, or merely my own weakness of mind.
There is no merely intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning, to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not merely in play, but actively at risk.
You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that, in modern times, absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all of these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful—more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms—but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.
The gospels vary quite a bit in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and the ensuing encounters he had with people, but they are quite consistent about one thing: many of his followers doubted him, sometimes even when he was staring them in the face. There are a couple of rather obvious morals for modern believers here. If the disciples of Christ could doubt not only firsthand accounts of his resurrection but the very fact of his face in front of them, then clearly doubt has little to do with distance from events. It is in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him (My god, my god, why has Thou forsaken me?) who is at once our God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, wondrously open in order to flower into living faith. But how does that happen? That’s the second “lesson” to be learned from these particular Gospel stories. Just as some of Jesus’ first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that Christ’s presence takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if Christ himself came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels tell us is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.
Yes, but . . . the waking and the sleeping, the sludge of email and appointments, the low-temperature life that is, for the most part, life: even if there are moments of intensity that seem to release us from this, surely any spiritual maturity demands an acknowledgment that there is not going to be some miraculous, transfiguring intrusion into reality. The sky will not darken and the dead will not speak; no voice from Heaven is going to boom you back to a prereflective faith, nor will you feel, unless in death, a purifying fire that scalds all of consciousness like fog from the raw face of God. Is faith, then—assuming it isn’t merely a form of resignation or denial—some sort of reconciliation with the implacable fact of matter, or is it a deep, ultimate resistance? Both. Neither. To have faith is to acknowledge the absolute materiality of existence while acknowledging at the same time the compulsion toward transfiguring order that seems not outside of things but within them, and within you, not an idea imposed upon the world but a vital, answering instinct. Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on this earth. Moments, only, and I am aware even within them, and thus am outside of them, yet something in the very act of such attention has troubled the tyranny of the ordinary, as if the world at which I gazed gazed at me, as if the lost face and the living crowd, the soundless bell and the mind in which it rings, all hankered toward—expressed some undeniable hope for—one end.
And now I doubt the premise with which I began: that art is the source of my instinct toward unity, rather than—like the theology I read, like Scripture, like these all-too-inadequate fragments—a means of preserving and honoring that instinct. I distrust those skeptics who admit no spiritual element into their most transfiguring experiences because I am so easily and so often one of them, stepping outside of my own miraculous moments to inspect, analyze, explain.
Having confessed, he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
—from “Having Confessed”
Kavanagh again. And that is the real issue, that the link not be broken, that every intellectual growth remain rooted in that early experience of ultimate insight, ultimate unknowingness, every word about God both responsive and responsible to the silence that is its source. For all but the holy fools among us, rational thought, or viewing the soul “from the outside,” is inevitable, whether through theology, philosophy, science, or simply the narratives by means of which we describe and understand our lives. But what sort of understanding could be emptier than one that diminishes or erases the moments that made understanding essential in the first place? What discipline more dubious than learning to see every logical flaw in the light that once mastered you?
Christian Wiman‘s most recent book is Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. He is the editor of Poetry magazine.