Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World's Top Poetry Magazine
How much is spiritual experience—prayer, solitude, and the like—a part of your artistic process?
I think poetry is how religious feeling survived in me during all those years of unbelief, and it remains the most intense experience I have of another order of being entering my own. But poems are not contemplative or peaceful times for me; they're chaotic and can wreck my life for a while. They're also few and far between, and you can't (or I can't) build a spiritual life on that kind of intermittent intensity.
So I try to pray every day, usually in a little chapel near where I work, sometimes in a cathedral because I like the huge estrangement of it, the volatile silence. I feel no connection between prayer and poetry, except for the poems that I have written as prayers. Poetry is a much more powerful experience for me than prayer, but I feel this to be a weakness in me. I'm still just learning how to pray.
In your essays, you often appeal to the work of Christian mystics (like Meister Eckhart, Thomas Traherne, George Herbert, Marguerite Porete, Weil). What draws you to the mystics?
Partly I feel envy. I want to be taken over by God. I want to have the kind of disciplined inwardness that allows the ego to be annihilated. I want the kind of revelation that precedes all doctrine and dogma, is the reason for all doctrine and dogma. Christ's life is one long revelation; everything after that merely grows up from it.
But then, too, all of these writers have an artistic consciousness. I understand the language they speak, though I don't quite speak it myself, or maybe speak a different dialect. The energy of art may be prior to religion, but religion, paradoxically, is a way of sustaining and surviving the psychic storm of that original energy (just as ritual and doctrine are ways of stabilizing and preserving the awful power of mystical revelation). Art for its own sake, art that has no answering "other," will eventually eat you alive.
You have written that one measure of a genuine spiritual experience is the extent to which it "demands uncomfortable change." What kinds of "uncomfortable changes" have you experienced in your life?
That's what my wife always asks me!
I would like to think of this new book as a viable answer to your question, but solitary writing is quite natural to me, and we should be suspicious when God's call conforms so neatly to our own inclinations.
More relevant, maybe, are the many speaking engagements, including sermons, I have taken on at religious schools and organizations in the past few years. This is new to me and, while very gratifying, has at times been quite discomfiting. I have also become deliberate about being open and honest about my thoughts of God. Maybe not so honest in secular settings. That, too, has provoked some useful but uncomfortable exchanges.
Still, the question is a thorn in my brain. I feel that I spend too much time agonizing over what faith might mean, rather than simply acting in accordance with my instincts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that only the person who obeys believes. It is a hard road, but the right one. I will probably end up as a preacher after all.