Scott Cairns: ‘The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain’

End of SufferingScott 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)

Scott Cairns: ‘Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous’

breathe

You could almost think the word synonymous
with mind, given our so far narrow
history, and the excessive esteem

in which we have been led to hold what is,
in this case, our rightly designated
nervous systems. Little wonder then

that some presume the mind itself both part
and parcel of the person, the very seat
of soul and, lately, crucible for a host

of chemical incentives—combinations
of which can pretty much answer for most
of our habits and for our affections.

When even the handy lexicon cannot
quite place the nous as anything beyond
one rustic ancestor of reason, you might

be satisfied to trouble the odd term
no further—and so would fail to find
your way to it, most fruitful faculty

untried. Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. So,

let’s try something, even now. Even as
you tend these lines, attend for a moment
to your breath as you draw it in: regard

the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth
to throat to the furnace of the heart.
Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath

and blood, and do your thinking there.

– Scott Cairns, Philokalia: new and selected poems (Lincoln: Zoo Press, 2002), 26–7.

Scott Cairns, ‘Into Hell and Out Again’

Scott Cairns once quipped, ‘I’m seeking to articulate a faith that isn’t eclipsed by a meager expression of that faith’. This, I’m sure, is precisely one the reasons his poems summon us; that this one who is so adept at playing games with poetry itself, is able also to put away his toys and allow speech – unveiling – to happen … to poet and reader, to all who have ears to hear. Here’s his poem ‘Into Hell and Out Again’:

In this Byzantine-inflected icon
of the Resurrection, the murdered Christ
is still in Hell, the chief issue being

that this Resurrection is of our agéd
parents and all their poor relations. We
find Him as we might expect, radiant

in spotless white, standing straight, but leaning
back against the weight of lifting them. Long
tradition has Him standing upon two

crossed boards—the very gates of Hell—and He,
by standing thus, has undone Death by Death,
we say, and saying nearly apprehend.

This all—the lifting of the dead, the death
of Death, His stretching here between two realms—
looks like real work, necessary, not pleasant

but almost matter-of-factly undertaken.
We witness here a little sheepishness
which death has taught both Mom and Dad; they reach

Christ’s proffered hands and everything about
their affect speaks centuries of drowning
in that abysmal crypt. Are they quite awake?

Odd—motionless as they must be in our
tableau outside of Time, we almost see
their hurry. And isn’t that their shame

which falls away? They have yet to enter bliss,
but they rise up, eager and a little shocked
to find their bodies capable of this.

– Scott Cairns, ‘Into Hell and Out Again’, Philokalia: new and selected poems, p. 163.

Scott Cairns: ‘The Entrance of Sin’

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgoing the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.

For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.

In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wandered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.

One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: Every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.

– Scott Cairns, Philokalia: new and selected poems, p. 52.

Scott Cairns: ‘To Himself’

Lately, I’ve really been enjoying the work of North American poet Scott Cairns whose journey from Baptist to Presbyterian to Orthodox finds voice in poetic word. I’ve been reading his Philokalia: new and selected poems and thought I’d post just a few poems from this fantastic work which really is well worth buying. Here’s his poem entitled ‘To Himself’.

When in scripture we first meet God,
apparently He is talking to Himself,
or to that portion in His midst
which He has only lately quit
to avail our occasion.

In prayer, therefore, we become
most like Him, speaking what no one
else, if not He, will attend.
A book I borrowed once taught me
how in the midst of attendant

 prayer comes a pause when The Addressed
requires nothing else to be said. Yes,
I witnessed once an emptying
like that; though what I saw was not
quite seen, of course. I suspected

 nonetheless a silent Other
silently regarding me as if He
still might speak, but speak as to Himself.
That was yesterday, or many
years ago, and if it profit

 anyone to imitate the terms
of that exchange, let the prior
gesture be extreme hollowing
of the throat, an inclination
to articulate the trouble

 of a word, a world thereafter.