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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.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.

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Anthony, thank you for reporting on this. Will the full text be available? Will a video be available?

Anthony --

How is Mr. Wiman feeling?

Paul, I was only there as a listener and so don't know if the text or video will be made available. Here's a link to another address he gave, at Santa Clara in 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiDUxY6I_9Y

Ann, he made it clear that he wanted the discussion to be about poetry and faith last night and not about his health. But he appears to be doing well--he's teaching at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, writing reviews, etc.

Thanks, Anthony.  Glad to hear it. 

I love "an unexplained surplus of being". Wonderful.   

. . . and by all means read his latest poetry collection, Every Rven Thing.  It is as brilliant as it is beautful.  I find that his ways with language, imagery, insight, spiritual depth are truly remarkable.

The experience of an" excess of life" that i' feel in the presence of a tree or any outdoor encounter with nature, is not experienced usually  for me as a sheer joy but more as a sense of longing ; an evokiing, a pointing to, a portense? of ,even more life. It's a glimpse ,a taste of the peace and joy of God but it's not quite that,it stirs me but does not fill me.Though once i did experience the sheer pure joy of nature when out on a farm i unexpectedly came across a hothouse and not expecting anything as i'd never been in one, i entered and was overwhelmed with the beauty,the green lushness, the colorful brightnes of all these plants and flowers ,this  sheer teeming of life all around me. i felt at home ,I felt pure joy and understood why paradise is depicted as a garden. Nature also sirred me to my core when once when in my 20's i was on a bus going to India. The bus was traveling trough Turkey or Iran,I don't remember where we were exactly and I was looking out the window and suddenly the empty landscape before me; all brown mountains, not a speck of green,not a speck of life anywhere,just brown mountains,barren of life yet  strangely  peaceful; in their emptyness and the light and shadow hitting them,suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks .It was not sad or earlie this barren place but quiet, without distraction and  the brown barren mountain ranges evoking  emptyness and vastness suddenly  just filled with a longing a deep longing  for God.that was more then a longing,I wanted to yell to stop the bus so i could get out and prostrate myself on the ground-I felt overwhelmed with a  longing that was also a beckoning.This landscape  brought me out of myself and the world and made me aware of God as Spirit.I did not say anything to anyone  and did not return to the church till much later but that experience of nature evoking ,speaking of the immenseness of God  of Spirit remained. Now even when looking at buildings ,i'm reminded of that . 

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