Christian Wiman: Hammer is the Faith

Last night, the poet Christian Wiman gave the 10th annual Commonweal Lecture at Fairfield University. The talk was entitled “Hammer Is the Faith: Radical Doubt, Realistic Faith.”

Among other things, Wiman exhorted his listeners to memorize poetry (“it can be a bulwark against all the cant that surrounds us,” he said); quoted from A . R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats ... the list goes on; and talked about the apparent--but ultimately illusory--pull between life and art: the sense, that is, that one can live happily and well OR create art but not both.

Most memorably, for me at least, he spoke of those Wordsworthian “spots of time” where we seem not just touched but called from something that exceeds us. We can feel these in our experience with nature (seeing a sublime waterfall) or in our experience with art (feeling wonder at the beauty of a line of poetry) or in our experience with people (being scoured and born anew in our love for another).

Religious faith, Wiman declared, is ultimately faith to these moments--a cherishing and honoring of the experiences when we felt, deep within our bones, an unexplained surplus of being.

If this all sounds intriguing, then you should buy Wiman's latest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Here is a link.

And here is a link to Wiman reading from his poem “From a Window,” which describes the wonder the speaker felt after a flock of birds flew up from a tree and ends like this:

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man's mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

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Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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