Scott Cairns’ most recent publication – The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009) – invites a play on the word end. Cairns recalls that while we can believe that a day will come when suffering will be no more, we live now in ‘our puzzling meantime’, aware both that suffering is no end in itself but also that we sense something of ‘suffering’s purpose’, that ‘our own descents into suffering may turn out to be the occasions in which we – imitating [Christ’s] unique and appalling descent – come to know Him all the more intimately’ (p. 99). Here’s a further snippert:
Saint Isaac counsels, “Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” Affliction appears to be our only reliable access to this kind of knowledge, this necessary confrontation with our own weaknesses, and this advantageous mitigation of our pride. And it seems to be the only way we come against self-esteem to glimpse and thereafter to know our condition, to appreciate our vulnerability, and to live according to this new and chastening light. (pp. 18–19)
Throughout this book, Cairns draws not only upon Saint Isaac, but also upon work by George Steiner, W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoevsky (mainly his The Brothers Karamazov), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Theophan the Recluse, Kallistos Ware, Alexander Schmemann, Simone Weil, and others. This essay serves as not only an accessible reflection on suffering (it would be a good book to work through in small groups), but also as a nuanced entrée into the Christian tradition (particularly into its Orthodox branch), and into a way of doing theology that invites us to embrace – or, rather, to be embraced by – a new vision of life via the ‘puzzlement’ of our afflictions. Those already familiar with Cairns’ poetry (and if you’re not, shame on you!) will want to go back and re-read it. Those unfamiliar with Cairns the poet, will (hopefully) get enough of a taste of it in this essay that they will want to ‘take up and read’ [it].
The book concludes – appropriately – by recalling Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on Lent:
For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent – something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit, which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the what is lacking purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.
Cairns recalls how that for Schmemann, ‘a “quiet sadness” permeates the Lenten services themselves; “vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement.” He observes that despite the alternating readings and chants, “nothing seems to happen.” And so, he acknowledges, we stand for a very long time in this quiet, this sadness, this monotony. “But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable ‘action’ of the service in us. Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed ‘bright,’ that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us.” Moving through the sadness’, Cairns writes, ‘we glimpse the joy. We feel its effects on us and feel how it changes us. We are thereby led to a place where noises, distractions, and false importance of the street – of our dissipated lives – finally “have no access – a place where they have no power.” Similarly, then, in those seasons of our afflictions – those trials in our lives that we do not choose but press through – a stillness, a calm, and a hope become available to us; they are a stillness, a calm, and a hope that must be acquired slowly, because – as Father Schmemann says of our joy in Lent – “our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.”’ We are obliged, Cairns insists, to ‘recover this wisdom slowly, bit by bit’. (pp. 112–14)