The end of suffering...

NOTE: A few weeks ago Paraclete Press asked if I might post a blog review about Scott Cairns' new book, The End of Suffering: Finding Meaning in Suffering. I was pleased to explore this work both because I value the poetry and essays of Cairns, and, because I am deeply interested in finding ever clearer ways of speaking about God and human suffering. There are a handful of truly helpful books on this subject: Gerald Sittser's, A Grace Disguised; Nicholas Wolterstorff's, A Lament for a Son; Dorothee Soelle's, Suffering; Jurgen Moltmann's, The Crucified God; and John Hick's, Evil and the God of Love. I sense that Scott Cairns has written a slim volume the could very well stand alongside these treasures. Here is my review.

Scott Cairns, best known for his incarnational and mystical poetry, has recently written an extended spiritual reflection on human suffering. Drawing upon his own experience, the wisdom of the Orthodox Christian tradition as well as artists like Dostoevsky, Dickinson and Milton, The End of Suffering: Finding Meaning in Pain (Paraclete Press, 2009) is a humble expression of how faith lived in Christian community can bring us a measure of both solace and serenity.

Like much of Cairn’s poetry, this work is playful without a hint of cheap piety. It is tender and truthful, careful never to claim too much, while also insisting that the mysterious presence of God’s grace is always sufficient. The 1985 poem, “On Slow Learning,” captures something of the spirit of this book.

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle –
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

Three inter-related truths ebb and flow throughout The End of Suffering: First, most of the pain and agony in our lives hold the possibility of becoming a “wake up call” for us to grab our attention: “I’m thinking that this is what most, if not all, of our afflictions are inclined to do… They grab our attention. They shake us up and, by thus rattling the bars of our various cages, they serve to shake us – blinking all the while – awake.” Quoting Simone Weil, he goes further: “Affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible… our afflictions drag us – more or less kicking – into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances, that we are not quite whole, that our days are salted with affliction.” (Cairns, pp.6-7)

Most of us, Cairns argues, tend to avoid our wounds – those inflicted by our harsh encounters with real life as well as those that are self-inflicted – so that we are never fully awakened. And without this awakening we remain too full of ourselves – saturated in sensations but empty of insight. If, however, “we take care to acknowledge these truths (brought to us by suffering), and are canny enough to attend to them, faithful enough to lean into them, then the particular ache of that waking can initiate a response that the Greeks were wont to call kenosis – an emptying, an efficacious hollowing. Under ideal circumstances and duly appreciated, this hollowing can lead us into something of a hallowing as well.” (p. 8)

And that is the second truth: as we are emptied – as we die to ourselves – then Christ can take up residence within and among us. Much of The End of Suffering is devoted to exposing what this means for Cairns is certain that we live in an age of “childish privilege” overly concerned with our “own self-aggrandizement.” Like Robert Bly and Marion Woodman suggest in The Sibling Society, our obsession with self-esteem inhibits spiritual and social maturation. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Greek fathers and mothers, Cairns invites us to let pain empty our lives so that we might learn about and embrace our weakness. “Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness,” Saint Isaac counsels, “because awareness becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” (p. 18)

He is quick to note that “suffering is no end in itself, and that affliction is, of itself, no great virtue.” Nevertheless, suffering can be a “means, a circumstance of our common journey that can offer us a clearer view of the task at hand. Along that journey, our afflictions and our suffering may also provide to us a glimpse of what actual virtue might require.” (p. 24)

The third insight in this extended essay suggests that our flesh is intended by God to be evidence that we are all a part of Christ’s body. Suffering is never transcended; rather it connects and awakens us to “how Christ saves us – He joins Himself to us.” (p. 38) Cairns is most persuasive in making the case for a bold understanding of incarnation that trusts that whatever wounds one, simultaneously wounds us all.

Let’s attend to the business of how intimately we are connected one to another. The connection is absolute. I daresay that if the innocent suffer, they do so because one of us – you or me or some other thug – now or in the past has set their pain in motion. And if the innocent continue to suffer, they do so because we have yet to take responsibility for their pain; we have yet to take sufficient responsibility for their relief. Our failure to appreciate the degree of our own responsibility encourages – and, more often than not, continues to enable – our famous disinterest in those who suffer… (pp. 58-59)

Simply stated, Cairns finds the “end of suffering” to be an awakening into the living body of Christ where “whatsoever you do unto one of the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.” (Matthew 25) “My hope for healing,” he concludes, “lies in my becoming more of a person, and more intimately connected to others. For us to succeed as we are called to succeed… I want to be saved from what passes for myself.” (p. 63/84)

“Ignorance and sin are characteristic of isolated individuals,” writes the Russian priest Father Alexander Elchaninov. “Only in the unity of the Church do we find these defects overcome. Man finds his true self in the Church alone; not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation but in the strength of his communion with his brothers (and sisters) and his Savior.” Elsewhere this same wise priest offers a word of caution: quoting Saint Paul, he observes, “And when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” is said of the Church. If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church. (p. 80)

A contemporary hymn summarizes Cairn’s point:

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you, I will share your joys and sorrows till we’ve seen this journey through
(Servant Song, Richard Gillard, 1977)

This is a spirituality of radical community: the body of Christ alive in the world incarnating compassion and justice. It is faith communities consciously connected one to the other holding “the Christ light… in the shadow of our fears… holding our hands out, too, as we speak the peace we long to hear.” (Gillard, 1977) It is life awakened – and grace-filled.

The Reverend Dr. Warren Lee of San Francisco Theological Seminary used to tell his students that it was essential for those in the local church to “come to grips with the reality of God and evil. You need to wrestle with theodicy until you come up with something that lets you live with the gaps. You’ll never get it all figured out… but real lives are at stake here.”

Scott Cairns essay is another satisfying and helpful piece of the puzzle that closes another gap for me. It stands alongside Dorothee Soelle’s, Suffering, and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s, A Lament for a Son, as resources for strengthening the body of Christ in the 21st century.

images: photos of Scott Cairns; Robert Lentz' icon "Jesus of Maryknoll;" Theotokos icon @; Rublev's "Holy Trinity" icon


Scott Cairns said…
Thanks, brotherman!

Scott C.
RJ said…
Oh Scott... I am grateful you took the time to write. Blessings.

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