The November 8th issue of the TLS has a review of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a memoir written by Christian Wiman, a poet and former editor of Poetry. (Last May Kathleen Norris gave the book a very appreciate review in the New York Times.)
The TLS reviewer, Graeme Richardson, notes that the “rules” for modern poetry don’t really allow for overtly religious poetry, and Wiman has received criticism as his poetry has come to include explicitly religious themes and topics. The memoir describes events in his life that help explain this development. The result is what Richardson says “could function as a field guide to making atheists angry.” One of the steps struck me:
“Step three: question whether being non-religious is really possible anyway. (“Really? You have never felt overwhelmed 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?”)
Wiman’s question reminded me of a couple of pages of Karl Rahner that explored the possibility of an experience of grace.
Rahner’s whole theological project was an effort to bridge the abyss that often separates doctrinal and theological language from everyday experience, an abyss so wide that many people have simply never asked what the language has to do with the experience. In a brief essay “Reflections on the Experience of Grace,” Rahner asked a set of questions that were designed to get people to identify and name experiences of transcendence:
Have we ever kept quiet, even though we wanted to defend ourselves when we were being unfairly treated? Have we ever forgiven someone, even though we got no thanks for it and our silent forgiveness was taken for granted? Have we ever obeyed, not because we had to, and because otherwise things would have become unpleasant for us; but simply on account of that mysterious, silent, incomprehensible Being we call "God" and God's will? Have we ever sacrificed something without receiving any thanks or recognition for it, and even without a feeling of inner satisfaction? Have we ever been absolutely lonely? Have we ever decided on some course of action purely by the innermost judgement of our conscience, deep down where one can no longer tell or explain it to anyone; where one is quite alone and knows that one is taking a decision that no one else can take in one's place and for which one will have to answer for all eternity? Have we ever tried to love God when we are no longer being borne on the crest of the wave of enthusiastic feeling; when it is no longer possible to mistake ourself and our vital urges for God? Have we ever tried to love God when we thought we were dying of this love and it seemed like death and almost negation? Have we ever tried to love God when we seem to be calling out into emptiness; when our cries seemed to fall on deaf ears and it looked as if we were taking a terrifying jump into the bottomless abyss? Everything seemed incomprehensible and absolutely senseless. Have we ever fulfilled a duty when it seemed it could be done only by a consuming sense of really betraying and obliterating one's self? When it could apparently be done only by doing something terribly stupid for which no one would thank us? Have we ever tried to be good to someone, who did not show the slightest sign of gratitude or comprehension, and when we were not rewarded by having that feeling of having been absolutely selfless or decent? Let us search for ourselves in such experiences in our life. Let us look for our experiences in which things like this have happened to us. If we have had such experiences, then we have experienced the spirit in the way I mean here. ("Reflections on the Experience of Grace," Theological Investigations, III, 87)
Such questions are more briefly evoked in another essay by Rahner, “God is no Scientific Formula,” in which he sought to convey a notion of God as something more than a word or a definition:
Nevertheless, God is there, not here or elsewhere, but everywhere in secret: where the ground of all silently confronts us, where we encounter the inescapable situation of responsibility, where we faithfully do our duty without reward, where we realize the blissful meaning of love, where death is accepted in the midst of life, where joy no longer has a name. In all such modes of his existence man is involved in something other than the strictly definable. Hence he must become more conscious of transcending what is individually determined; he must accept this transcendence–perhaps against much resistance–and finally courageously defend it. This speaking of God may ultimately only point to the question which is man himself and thus hint at God’s mystery in silence, the result may be less adequate than any statement on another subject, the answer, aimed at God’s ‘bright heaven,’ may ever again fall back into the dark sphere of man or may consist in inexorabley upholding the question that transcends any definition, formula or phenomenon. At least in such efforts, whether successful or not, man continues to question, he does not despair, and he will receive an answer because just this question is blessed with the experience of the incomprehensibility which we call God. ("God is no Scientific Formula," in Grace in Freedom, p. 193)
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.