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Echoes Blog

Riven Things in All Creation

I'm going to stretch fair use rules and quote an entire poem, by way of recommending a book this summer, if you're a wrestling soul: Christian Wiman's, My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). I have a friend who thinks this is the Christian tract for our time, broken up and doubting and wondering and never quite sure of itself. He says it's the only way Christian faith can be described in our strange and changing time. I'm not so sure. But I'm not convinced he's wrong, either. Here's one of Wiman's better known poems, reflecting God's consistent intimacy with what is broken, or rift, or "riven."  

Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes.  Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging.  To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing.  He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.

When I was a college chaplain I struck up a dear friendship with an unusually bright, unusually restless, quintessentially melancholic young man. I'll call him Pete. Pete wanted to believe in God. He even wanted to trust God. Yet it wasn't always easy for him. His faith, and his heart, and his passion were riven.  Brilliant, forceful, and riven. Every idea he encountered he had to wrestle to the ground, before rising to tackle another. Every possibility for faith he'd have to try on and test for authenticity, before leaving part of it behind and wearing part of as protection for the next spiritual climb. Once, after a student's suicide on campus he found me and asked for the chapel keys. I gave them to him, with no questions asked, and he organized an impromptu candle light vigil inside the stained glass enclosed place while I was tending to other matters—and word spread, and hundreds came. He tried divinity school after he graduated, but saw through that in a moment.  

He was the atoms inside the stone, bouncing about inside a hardlike thing. God went belonging to him.

Pete showed up at my door one night, just before midnight, declaring that he was on his way to the airport the next morning. He was going to collect his credit card and charge a ticket to Calcutta. "I've got to see Mother Therese," he told me. "That's the only way I'm going to figure this out. She'll have the answer for me."

Good instincts, I thought, but foolish nevertheless. I talked him down, as a dutiful college chaplain would, even though I was a little jealous of his zeal and a little admiring of his recklessness.  

"When you get there," I said, "I think you'll need to be prepared for something you're not going there to get. I'm guessing that if you can find your way to her, and if you can lay before her all of your questions all that's coming forth from your glorious, riven, intellect, she won't give you what you want. She won't answer your questions—at least not directly. I'm guessing she'll look at you, smile a little smile, maybe kiss you on the forehead, and hand you a bucket and a mop. She'll tell you that there are some toilets in the back of the sleeping area that need cleaning. And she'll bless you on your way."

I realized, of course, that I wasn't talking just to Pete. . . .


See Christian Wiman, Every Riven Thing: Poems (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2011), or Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, eds., A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith (Tupelo Press, 2012), p. 254.