“Among a good many other advantages our predecessors in the early Church could claim was a more nearly adequate vocabulary,” read poet and spiritual writer Scott Cairns. “For instance, they were in possession of a number of words that indicated a number of amazing truths — nous, kardia, nepsis, theosis were among those words that helped to keep the young Body focused on the task at hand.”
Cairns read this passage from his book The End of Suffering. He went on to describe the ways in which recovering the complexity of these words could potentially help the Church with the task of healing the “rifts” between members and inside ourselves.
The human being, Cairns said, is triune — body, soul and mind. These parts cannot fully connect with God on their own but need to be in harmony with one another.
Drawing on the writings of the early Church and on his numerous visits to Mt. Athos in Greece (often called the Holy Mountain), an ancient yet thriving monastic community, Cairns has produced an impressive body of work consisting of spiritual essays and poems.
The Malone Writers Series, in conjunction with the new St. Jacob of Alaska Speaker Series of Holy Assumption Orthodox Church, brought Cairns to the Canton area from Feb. 9 – 11. The weekend consisted of a lecture on Feb. 9 in the Memorial Chapel, a poetry reading on Feb. 10 in the Barn and a book discussion on Feb. 11 at Holy Assumption.
When one speaks with Cairns, it is difficult to imagine him any other way than peaceful, smiling and witty. Cairns, however, said that his spiritual life was once very scattered. He was not always calm and collected.
“In the midst of my struggle to discover some continuity for my own sputtering prayer life, I would say God led me to a place where I could hear precisely what I needed to hear,” Cairns read.
He went on to detail his interactions with two monks on Mt. Athos who helped him bring more consistency to a life of inward prayer. This contemplative prayer, Cairns believes, is what Christ meant when he told us to pray in secret.
This life of inward prayer, particularly the Jesus Prayer, has been part of the spiritual life Orthodox monastics for hundreds of years and has made its way into the wider Church as well as gaining a following outside of Orthodoxy amongst Catholics and Protestants.
Cairns bears the mark of someone who has encountered God in what he described as “thin places,” borrowing language from Celtic Christianity.
These thin places are particularly sacred places where, as Cairns put it, the veil between the temporal and eternal seems to be more permeable. He talked of several miraculous experiences from his time on Mt. Athos as examples.
In one of these instances, one of the Fathers of the Holy Mountain shared a story of monk who died in great pain. His face was covered during the preparation of the body. When the face covering was removed the monk’s pained expression had turned to a smile. There is photographic evidence.
Later another one of the Fathers explained to Cairns that prayer is meant to be “a struggle.”
“He likened the matter to that of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord and he helped me to glimpse that even the pain of that struggle was to be recognized as a blessing,” Cairns said. “Like Jacob, you must say, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”
His poems don’t always deal as explicitly in spiritual language as his books and essays. Some deal with mundane topics like cleaning up a vacant lot.
The lot becomes a sort a metaphor for humans participation in God’s redemptive work. This stooping to give attention to this rejected space, to redeeming it, is a reflection of God’s stooping to redeem humankind.
Yet even those ideas are imbued with a sense that there is something more profound going on. The implications of Christ, God in human flesh, are present throughout Cairns work — incarnational, sacramental and redemptive language are employed throughout.
Cairns was not born Orthodox, but came into the Church later in life. Yet, his understanding of the Eastern spiritual tradition runs deep.
“I was chrismated in 1998 and I had been attending services since about 1996,” Cairns said. “It was mostly a matter of having a love for God and realizing a love for Christ as God. Until 1990, I didn’t really know what to do with it because I couldn’t really find a body with which I felt at home.”
[pullquote]It turns out sense can be made of it if we realize that Christ suffered and we’re called to imitate him,” Cairns said. “He didn’t avoid suffering. He moved through suffering.”[/pullquote]
In 1996, Cairns attended an Orthodox liturgy for the first time and said he “couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
“I wept through most of it,” he said. “I felt like I had finally found my way home.”
His most recent book, The End of Suffering, is a “long essay” in which, Cairns said, he tried to work out the purpose of loss and pain.
“It turns out sense can be made of it if we realize that Christ suffered and we’re called to imitate him,” Cairns said. “He didn’t avoid suffering. He moved through suffering.”
Cairns said that the easier and more common response to suffering is to ignore it.
“I think the more realize how intricately connected world economics are, world climates are, you realize that everything we do has an effect,” Cairns said. “The invisible effects of our own bad choices on others sometimes results in their suffering. We have to take responsibility for that. We have to work to mitigate it as much as possible.”
Scott reads from his upcoming book “Idiot Psalms”:
Nick Skiles is arts & entertainment editor for The Aviso AVW