Believing in the abyss

by John E. Phelan Jr.

My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer

Christian Wiman

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2013

Hammarskjöld: A Life

Roger Lipsey

The University of Michigan Press, 2013

A first glance this may seem an odd coupling. Wiman is a contemporary American poet born in Texas and best known for his stunning poetry and his strong editorial leadership of Poetry magazine. Hammarskjöld is not only the 20th century’s most important Swede, but also an international diplomat of enormous courage and foresight who led the United Nations during its crucial formative years. He was killed in a plane crash attempting to resolve a crisis in the emerging nations of the Congo some five years before Wiman was born. Recent evidence, according to Lipsey’s volume, suggests the crash was not an accident. Wiman came from a hardscrabble background in dusty west Texas. Hammarskjöld came from a privileged background in the castle in Uppsala. And yet a number of things, I would suggest, hold these disparate men together.

Hammarskjöld would have been justly famous had his journal Markings never been published. But it was this volume (after which I in homage titled my column in The Covenant Companion) that secured his place in history not only as a superb diplomat, but also as a spiritual seeker. Markings revealed a man profoundly introspective and rigorously self critical—a practical intellectual who was drawn to the mystical writings of Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross. Upon the publication of Markings some secular Swedes were appalled and confused by his reflections. Lipsey quotes from editorials mocking Hammarskjöld’s spiritual musings and dismissing his convictions as embarrassing and unworthy of him. But these, in the end, were very much in the minority. Markings has continued to move, challenge and delight.

Lipsey’s biography is a comprehensive, readable and loving account of this remarkable man. Unlike some contemporary biographers, Lipsey does not pretend to a kind of sterile scholarly objectivity. He quite obviously admires Hammarskjöld and is as comfortable discussing Hammarskjöld’s diplomatic career as his spiritual quest. He gives a full account of Hammarskjöld’s formative years in Uppsala, his university education and early career and goes into great detail on his career as Secretary General of the United Nations. He provides fascinating accounts of Hammarskjöld’s involvement in half-forgotten crises that continue to resonate to this very day.

He notes that young Hammarskjöld grew up in Uppsala under the influence of two “contrary geniuses.” The first was the renowned bishop and ecumenical leader Nathan Söderblom, who was a neighbor and a family friend. Söderblom was an advocate of a Christianity that engaged the world for the sake of justice and peace and sought to bring the disparate denominations together in pursuit of this cause. It is not difficult see how his passions would have impacted the young Hammarskjöld. In the same city he attended the university classes of the other “contrary genius,” Axel Hägerström, a fierce intellect and opponent of “metaphysical religiosity.” Hammarskjöld rejected Hägerström’s atheism, but accepted his commitment to intellectual rigor. It was perhaps Hägerström as well that encouraged his habit of merciless self-criticism.

Lipsey shows a man who is both bureaucrat and mystic, “international civil servant” and spiritual seeker. Hammarskjöld was a solitary man who had many friends; a lonely man that was seldom alone; a man of immense patience and endurance who bore with insults and misunderstandings even from those who should have supported his efforts. He was excoriated by the Russians, pilloried by the Belgians and had his critics in both Sweden and the United States. As is so often the case, after his death his greatness became clear. A Swedish diplomat, called after Hammarskjöld’s death to the White House for a meeting with President John Kennedy, reported that Kennedy apologized for attacks on Hammarskjöld. “I realize now,” he told the Swede, “that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.”

I have little doubt that Hammarskjöld would have appreciated the poetry of Christian Wiman. Hammarskjöld loved poetry, especially that of Saint-John Perse, for whom he worked to secure the Nobel Prize for literature. Wiman’s most recent volume of poetry, Every Riven Thing, is filled with images of searing beauty and startling honesty. The title My Bright Abyss is drawn from one of those poems.

My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.

The essays that make up the book give an account of his brutal battle with cancer; his teetering on the edge of his death and arriving at the end of hope. It is a book of exquisite and painful insight. It recounts a movement from faithless doubt to doubtful faith. But there is nothing simplistic or triumphalistic about his journey. The reader trembles with him at the abyss, struggles with him in his despair, and rejoices with him in his love. In the end there is the celebration of life—his twin daughters who bring in their train joy, hope, and fear. Like Markings, Wiman’s book is partly biographical, partly aphoristic, and partly theological. It is “lightning out of a clear sky.” Unconventional, faithful, broken and whole, Wiman draws us into his abyss in order to face our own and to find there, perhaps remarkably, the God of Jesus Christ.

“Grace.” He writes, “It is—not at all coincidentally, I now think—the name of the street where my wife and I first lived together. It is the middle name of our firstborn child, who with her twin sister has taught us so much about how to accept God’s immanent presence. And it is, I am absolutely sure, the fearful and hopeful state in which my wife and I lay the first night I was home from the hospital after the transplant, feeling like a holy fever that bright defiance of, not death exactly, and not suffering, but meaningless death and suffering—which surely warrants, if anything does, the name of faith.”

Neither Hammarskjöld nor Wiman could be considered conventionally orthodox. The former was raised in the intellectually and spiritually rich atmosphere of Nathan Söderblom’s Uppsala. The latter was raised in the raw heat of west Texas fundamentalism. But both found God in the midst of profound struggle and uncertainty. Both were drawn to literature and the arts to experience and express transcendence. Both were incisive intellectuals and wry observers of the human condition—especially their own. In their unconventionality they remind us that the route to God is not often well marked and brightly lit and that our settled theological convictions are as likely to lead us astray as they are to lead us home. Both stared death in the face.

Perhaps the best thing that Lipsey’s wonderful biography can do is drive you back to Markings! His account of Hammarskjöld’s struggles and accomplishments provide a context to enrich one’s reading of that great book. Reading My Bright Abyss will take you to Wiman’s poetry, especially Every Riven Thing. Wiman, who lived for years in Chicago, has recently taken up a post at Yale Divinity School. I look forward to what will come next from this immensely talented and thoughtful man. I highly recommend both of these works to the readers of Pietisten. These are books of “earthy piety,” gritty, sophisticated and hopeful as the writers of Markings and My Bright Abyss themselves.