Life, Death and Faith through a Poetic Lens


Few of us have faced down death as many times as the poet Christian Wiman. For nearly 20 years, he has been in treatment for a rare and recurring form of lymphoma. Thankfully, life-saving treatments have continued to be developed during those decades. But Wiman has still had to endure them.

It’s the kind of suffering that could just as easily lead one into deep clarity or into total despair. For Wiman, it has been the former, as Casey Cep explores in “How the Poet Christian Wiman Keeps His Faith.”

Wiman came to faith in his late 30s, unexpectedly, not through the front door of a church, but through the side door of his own creative work.

Cep describes Wiman’s poem “Every Riven Thing” as “a kind of ‘Pied Beauty’ for the post-modern soul,” marked by “the arresting syntax, surprising repetitions and strange rhymes of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” It’s a poem of praise, but, Cep notes, “its speaker praises a creation he recognizes as not just dappled but damaged.” Wiman explains that he wrote it before he fully understood it, only knowing that it felt like it was directed to a non-human reader.

Wiman, who sometimes attends a Catholic church in New Haven, seems to take an Ignatian approach to finding God; one of the courses he teaches regularly is called “Accidental Theologies,” based on texts from non-theologians in letters, diaries, essays and novels.

Wiman’s new book, “Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair,” is part poetry collection, part theological exposition, and part memoir of the highs and lows of his own life. All three are, Ignatius would assure us, fruitful entry points to communion with God.

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Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer and retreat leader, whose work has been featured in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Red Letter Christians and Catholic Women Preach.