01 October 2009
On The End of Suffering
"How I will cherish you then, you grief-torn nights!
Had I only received you, inconsolable sisters,
on more abject knees, only buried myself with more abandon
in your loosened hair. How we waste our afflictions!
We study them, stare out beyond them into bleak continuance,
hoping to glimpse some end. Whereas they’re really
our wintering foliage, our dark greens of meaning, one
of the seasons of the clandestine year—; not only
season —: they’re site, settlement, shelter, soil, abode."
This is a passage from a new translation of Rilke’s poetry, which Mike Potemra posted this morning at The Corner at NRO. It reminded me of the last line of Scott Cairns’ meditation The End of Suffering: “May our afflictions be few, but may we learn not to squander them.”
Scott graciously sent me The End of Suffering when he read a post in which I’d quoted one of his poems. I’ve been taking my time reading through it and savoring both the style (a poet writing reflective prose: only the poetry itself can be better) and the thought. For the most part, it didn’t hold a great many new-to-me thoughts about suffering – I’ve filled the margins with names of other writers and thinkers his words bring to mind – but his unique approach and stories challenged me to think deeply again, to revisit the subject thoughtfully, to re-see it and be encouraged to press on in my own trials. The Eastern Orthodox vocabulary and perspective deepened my thinking, and the final chapter offers a discussion of wholeness that fascinates me – that was new.
The title is of course a play on words. Someday our sufferings will end – “every tear shall be dried” – but until then we need to understand the end – the purpose – of suffering. Suffering is inevitable, and Cairns reminds us that one of its immediate purposes is to “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 [. . .] .” This in turn leads (or can lead) to the stripping away of self so that we can have fellowship with God – our purpose as created beings.
Cairns writes of the need to rid ourselves of pride, of that modern curse of “self-esteem,” and how suffering, if we respond wisely to it, helps us to do this by bringing us face-to-face with our own weakness and sin: writing of people he has known for whom this was true when they were diagnosed with a terminal disease, he says, ‘It was as if their imminent deaths freed them from petty, distracted lives and freed them into greater, genuine living [. . .] .”
Suffering, Cairns says, “may also provide to us a glimpse of what actual virtue might require.” He writes of how we are united to the body of Christ, and the sacrifices and blessings of understanding what that unity means as we learn to love one another as He loves us. Drawing on his pilgrimages to Mount Athos, he describes how the monks who live there love each other and God, how they take on each other’s sufferings and pray sacrificially for all of us who are struggling together to play our part in this spiritual body – and this is what we are called to in our various places in life.
He writes of how each of us, by virtue of our own sinful nature and actions, is complicit in all the suffering of the world, including the suffering of the innocents. Because no man is an island, as Donne puts it, each individual’s connection to the rest is “absolute.” If an innocent child suffers, it is because “[e]very choice in our lives that separates us from communion with God, and every decision that clouds our awareness of His presence or erodes our relationships with one another has a profound and expanding effect – as the proverbial ripples in a pool.” The striving for autonomy is great evil, and leads to great evil not only for ourselves but for others. Realizing this – taking responsibility for the evil that happens throughout the world – should humble us into a desire to live righteously, to leave sin behind.
But to begin “fixing” this state, it is not enough to merely decide not to sin. “It is not our finally turning away from sin that frees us from sin’s recurrence,” Cairns writes; “rather it is our turning toward Christ – and the mystery of our continuing to turn into Him – that puts sin behind us.” I kept being reminded of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, the message of which is essentially that every choice we makes sets us on either the road to heaven or the road to hell – and enough choices in one direction will eventually make the end of that road our inevitable end. “We acquire our salvation through partaking of that body [of Christ]” – we must be a part of the body, the church, making choices to live as a member of the body. I especially love the story Cairns tells of the monk who answered the question “Is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” with a smile and no hesitation: “No, I like to share him.”
Cairns quotes a Russian priest: “’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.” The life of the body of Christ is essential for us to learn to live well, to understand suffering, to share the suffering of others, to know God’s love in fellowship with Him, to reach out to a suffering world. It is only here that we can understand suffering as purposeful – that it is “remedial”; it is “grace.”
And so in one sense we are being saved continually. Cairns writes, “I want to be saved from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not always feel quite like the self that is framed in the image of God and is thus united with those around me and is, allegedly, growing with them into His likeness.” Amen to that.
The book’s final chapter is one I need to mull over a great deal. It is about becoming whole, the reuniting of nous and kardia – what most of our translations render as mind and heart, but Cairns explains is so much more. I’m not going to pretend to “get” this yet; the phrase he quotes from another writer – “the intellective aptitude of the heart” – intrigues me, but I shall leave it for now simply saying that we must watch and pray, we must suffer in the garden with our suffering Lord, in the journey to wholeness. Perhaps I’ll be able to revisit the concept of wholeness as Cairns develops it here after I’ve had time to begin integrating it into my own thinking.
For my literary friends -- Cairns discusses art earlier in the book and its potentially redemptive purpose for its maker and its receiver, a discussion you will find encouraging and profitable.
Scott sent me this book because I had revealed some of the suffering I happened to be seeing and living. The book has certainly been a strong encouragement to keep going, to remain vulnerable, to embrace the purpose of suffering, for which I am grateful. The act of giving, accompanied with his prayers offered up for this complete stranger, has in itself been a reminder of the purpose of the body to be united in loving each other. He wrote on the title page, “for my sister along the way.” May we all remember that we are brothers and sisters along the way and exercise grace and love, lifting each other up in prayer and practical helps as we seek to learn the lessons of suffering.