This keynote address was delivered at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the summer of 2006. The event theme was “Love and Affliction: Art and the Paradox of Suffering.” Some of the material here will appear in a different form in Short Trip to the Edge, to be published in the spring of 2007 by HarperSanFrancisco. The book describes a series of pilgrimages Cairns took to Mount Athos in Greece, Orthodoxy’s holy mountain, in search of true prayer.
I LIVE IN COLUMBIA, Missouri, which—because of the famous journalism school at the University of Missouri—is a town pretty much overrun with journalists, and with underclassmen who want to become journalists, and with a surprising number of upperclassmen who are slowly realizing that they probably don’t want to become journalists after all.
Many of this last group end up transferring to the English department and into our creative writing program, where, shortly before they graduate, a good number of them realize they aren’t likely to be poets or fiction writers either.
In any case, sometime early in the spring semester of 2002, I was asked by a student-reporter on the street in Columbia how the tragedy of 9/11 had changed America. The young woman, who was not quite ready for prime time, held a microphone to my mouth (actually she held it at about eye level) and waited for my response. Her hand was shaking, and she seemed fairly unsteady in what looked to be her new heels. Her partner, a guy in a stocking cap and sporting several piercings in the one ear I could see, hid behind an oversized shoulder-cam, which also appeared to tremble some. As I’ve said, it was early in the semester, and this may well have been their first attempt at cold-calling a street-corner interview.
Even so, the two had cornered me with a question that—it suddenly occurred to me—no one had asked me directly until that minute; and then it occurred to me to say something that I don’t think I had fully realized until I said it.
I told them that I didn’t think the tragedy of 9/11 had changed our situation at all; what it did was reveal how far wrong our previous illusions had been; the events of that day revealed to us an ongoing reality that we—for many, many years—had been pleased to ignore, a reality that many others in the world lived with on a daily basis, sometimes, even, at the hands of our friends and allies, sometimes as a direct result of our own behaviors.
“Hey, that’s good,” the guy behind the camera said, sounding genuinely surprised.
In general, this is what our afflictions do. They get our attention. They wake us up. They help us to see more clearly than we saw before their occasion.
Under most circumstances, our afflictions are capable of revealing the truth that our habitual illusions most often obscure. They drag us, more or less kicking, into an awareness that our days are riddled with suffering, that our lives, frankly, are riddled with death. The ache of that waking can, if we lean into it, begin what the Greeks call kenosis, an emptying, a hollowing and a hallowing, in which we experience an abysmal emptiness, which then avails an apprehension of the big picture, the abysmal fullness in which we live and move and have our being.
There are many ways to speak of this, of course. One such way is offered by Saint Isaac of Syria when he writes, “Love of God proceeds from our conversing with him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.”
I have learned some of this the hard way; but I suppose my point is simply that: the hard way is pretty much the only way we seem to learn anything.
As Saint Isaac avers, “Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes the foundation, the root, and the beginning of all goodness.” Affliction appears to be, for most of us, our only reliable access to this knowledge of weakness, the only way we ever come to glimpse, and then, if we’re lucky, to know our condition, to appreciate our susceptibilities, and to live according to that new light, that expedient tip of the head.
As such, affliction might be understood as the foundation of the foundation, the root of the root, the beginning of the beginning—of, as Saint Isaac says, all goodness.
That is, of course, assuming we respond well to our suffering—which is to say, when we respond humbly, alertly, seriously to it. I think most of us, most of the time, do respond well. At least to our own suffering—which, I’m beginning to see, is not enough.
In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden writes:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
I have called my little talk “The End of Suffering,” by which I mean to focus on its purpose, and to imply what each of us no doubt suspects—that suffering is no end in itself, that affliction is, of itself, no virtue.
I like very much that Greg Wolfe and his crew have infused our week with the provocative juxtaposition of Love and Affliction, and that they have identified as a paradox our common impulse to create art even in the face of suffering, as if, contrary to popular opinion, our making something well—anything well—is in some sense a consolation for those things around us that appear to be so poorly fashioned: our economic and industrial structures, and recent erosions of our political and legal institutions, our own faltering lives.
I think that good art is a consolation; I have come to understand it, moreover, as having corrective agency.
Good art certainly serves as a consolation for those who make it—laboring over the wheel, the canvas, the page, the musical score. Beyond this, it is more generally, more broadly, a consolation for those who receive it well. The quiet calm that accompanies our hours in the museum, the gallery, the studio is, at the very least, consoling.
And to the extent that a well-made thing well received quietly insists that we expect that things be made well—to the extent that it teaches us to honor care taken, and teaches us not to be content with the shabby, the hasty, the thoughtless, the narrow, and the glib—the well-made thing bears undeniable power to affect us, inducing our responsive, corrective labors, educing from us actions to accompany and to effect our latent desire for wholeness and reconciliation.
But back to suffering.
I mention this somewhat opaque poem by W.H. Auden because I witness in its ambivalences and edgy ironies a clue to the heart of our trouble—namely, that much of what keeps us separate, severed, and self absorbed is a habitual disinclination to take seriously the suffering of others. Like the people eating and opening windows, like the dog absorbed by doggy life, the executioner’s behind-scratching horse, we fail to partake in the suffering of our various members, and therefore fail to realize the mystery—the fullness—of life as one body.
Over the past year and a half, thanks to a research leave from my university and to the beneficence of the Guggenheim Foundation, I have enjoyed a number of visits—pilgrimages, really—to Mount Athos, a unique region of northern Greece that we are pleased to call Agion Oros, “the Holy Mountain.”
I went, initially, in search of prayer, hoping that I might better learn to pray. And while it is fair to say that I have learned something about prayer during my time with the monks and the mountain, I learned something else as well. I learned, from firsthand encounter with contemporary ascetics, some little bit about affliction and its benefits.
And I experienced, at long last, that “the body of Christ” is far more than a figure of speech; it is an appalling mystery, uniting us beyond our knowing with an even greater mystery, the perichoresis, the circling dance of the Holy Trinity.
Of course, I don’t expect to comprehend, much less to explain, that particular mystery—one holy essence whose mystery is expressed in relational, interpersonal terms—but I hope to share with you something of what I glimpsed among the monks, something of what I have gleaned from their written tradition, and something of what I acquired as my own along the way. Ideally, I hope also to suggest how a greater awareness of the mystical body of Christ might assist in our apprehension of suffering’s purpose, and its end.
Saint Simeon the New Theologian, writing in the tenth century, offers one face of our neglected mystery when he writes:
We awaken in Christ’s body, even as Christ
awakens our languishing bodies. And look!
My poor hand is Christ, the very hand of Christ.
And look! He enters my foot, and becomes
without conclusion, me. I reach out my hand and, full
of wonder, my hand becomes Christ, becomes
all of him—for he remains indivisibly whole,
without separation from his eternal holiness.
I take one step, my foot advancing, and look!
He is revealed as a flash of lightning, there
proceeding with my lowly foot.
Do you think I blaspheme? Then open
your heart to him, and receive the one who is ever
opening to you, and opening ever so deeply.
If we love him as we say, we wake up
in his body, even here, where our own bodies, entire,
every lash and atom, the honored and the dishonored,
are realized as his, are realized as him. And look!
He makes us—at long last—utterly real, and everything
that is hurt, all that has appeared to us as dark, as broken,
diseased, shameful, ugly, irreparably torn
is in him transfigured, and is revealed as whole,
lovely, illumined with and by and in his light.
And look, we rise from our long sleep, bearing the beloved
with our every step.
Astonishing as the assertion is that through the mystery of God’s grace we absolutely, as Saint Paul writes, “put on Christ”—that is, we adopt his holy person even as he adopts our bodily humanity—it is something we generally affirm, despite the fact that most of us seldom think of it, and despite the fact that, oblivious as cattle, we mostly squander this appalling gift.
There is, however, one other aspect to our being the body of Christ that tends to get even less attention. I’m referring to our being one body. As my friend the poet Li-Young Lee has said it, “There is just the one body—nothing is unrelated to the whole.”
That we are, each of us, mystically participant in the Holy Trinity through our partaking of Christ is but one face of the mystery. We are also thereby mystically united to each other, a reality that garners even less of our attention. I’m not sure that I mean this the same way as my Taoist friend means it, but I do want us all to mean it more than we appear to.
The monks on Mount Athos are intentional in living into this mystery; with wholehearted struggle, they bear one another’s afflictions, both physical and spiritual; with wholehearted struggle, they lift one another in prayer; with wholehearted struggle, they ask forgiveness for their personal sins, for those of their brothers, and—puzzling as this may seem—for ours. In other words, they accept that, as members of the body of Christ, they are utterly responsible for every other member, and, as human persons, they are responsible for all the sin and suffering that come into the world.
About this, Saint Isaac of Syria has written:
What is a compassionate heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for all of humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for the demons, and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears, owing to the vehemence of the compassion that grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy, his heart aches and he cannot bear to look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.
This is why he constantly offers up prayers full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.
He prays even for the lowest as a result of the great compassion which—after the likeness of God—is poured out beyond measure within his heart.
One of the great commonplaces among agnostics or atheists old and new is the perennial question: How does one believe in a loving God who allows the innocent to suffer? This is a very good question, if only because it reveals a premise I no longer share, the premise of individual autonomy. It reveals an ignorance about how intimately we are connected to one another, now and ever. If the innocent suffer, they do so because one of us, now or in the past, has set their pain in motion.
If the innocent continue to suffer, they do so because we have yet to take responsibility for their pain, and we have yet to take responsibility for their relief.
Our failure to appreciate this degree of responsibility encourages—and therefore enables—our disinterest in those who suffer, allows us a continuing, dim-witted, vague condemnation of those in pain or poverty. In our hearts we know that something has caused their pain; our failure to see our own hands and hearts in the process keeps us shaking our heads as we stand by or, more often, as we turn away, feeling both helpless and—if we’re lucky—culpable.
I’ve said—and you must already know—that our lives are riddled with death. The good news, which, presumably you also already know, is that even this death is potentially infused with life. The kenotic emptying wrought by affliction avails an apprehension of the deep stillness in which we, at long last, may finally meet the Christ who bides there, waiting.
Over the years since my leaving home for college, salvation itself has come to mean something larger to me, fuller, more substantial and more immediate than, say, the commonplace, cartoonish version of a personal, late-hour reprieve from execution, or my dodging a stint in Gehenna. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and it becomes, day by day, of increasing importance to me. For the monks on Mount Athos, salvation, or better, “being saved,” indicates a process rather than a moment. It is a process of being redeemed from separation from God, both now and later. It has very little to do with the popular notion of dying and going to heaven, and much more to do with finally living, and entering the kingdom of God.
The monks in particular and the Orthodox in general have insisted, from their earliest canons on the matter, that salvation belongs to all humankind, not just to members of the church. Of course, they are quick to insist that the most trustworthy road to participation in the saving life of God is revealed in the traditional teaching of that church.
For me, in any case, salvation has come to mean deliverance, and now, from the death-in-life routine that we often settle for—the sleepwalking life that I have often settled for. Somehow related to this is another, developing sense that while salvation happens to persons, it is not a simply personal matter.
I like very much the response that a wonderful monk at Simonopetra gave to a man who asked him if Jesus Christ was his personal savior: “Nope,” he said. “I like to share him.”
Thanks to that priest and the tradition he manifests, I have a developing sense that salvation must have to do with all of us, collectively, and that it must have to do with all else as well—all of creation, in fact.
It turns out that I am not alone in my thinking so.
My reading in the fathers and the mothers of the church—as well as my late return to what I would call midrashic Bible-reading—has me thinking that all creation is implicated in this phenomenon we call salvation, or redemption, or reconciliation. Like the late theologian John Romanides, I’ve come to suspect that our saving relationship with God is “as the body of Christ,” not a discrete, individualized, private bargain, but a membership in a body that is at once both alive and life-giving.
I have increasingly many beloved friends, people who, if you were to visit with them, you would recognize immediately as genuinely loving and good, but who have yet to find a body to which to belong. They are without question beautiful, kind, deeply spiritual believers of one stripe or another; they also share, as it happens, a deep hunger for community, which they try to satisfy with a surprising array of worthwhile activities—community choirs, potluck dinners, block parties, even arts conferences and writing workshops. They also, oddly enough, share an abiding sense of alienation from the body of Christ, at least as that body is expressed in the media and, quite often, even in their local churches. Each has also, I have come to understand, survived one or more clumsy, insensitive, and, in some cases, idiotic ordeals in one or more of those communities.
Be that as it may, somehow or other and regardless, they must find a way home. They must find a way to reconnect their faith to their communities and their communities to their faith. They must find a way to reconnect, as it were, the spirit to the body.
I’ve been relatively late in coming to this myself, but I see now how we are called to work this business out together, and I see that faith is not something that can be both solitary and healthy. The health and fruitfulness of the severed limb depends utterly upon its being grafted onto the living tree. This is what I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer is reintroducing to his community in his book Life Together. There he wrestles to reclaim some of the treasure jettisoned by the Reformation, most specifically the sacrament of confession, and in it he states matter-of-factly that “the Christ in one’s own heart is weaker than the Christ in the heart of one’s brother.”
Without batting an eye, he insists that the presence of the brother, or, rather, the presence of Christ as borne by that brother, shores up one’s own faith. I’m guessing this is why, among the ruling monasteries of Mount Athos, the idiorrhythmic rule has been set aside in favor of the more deeply traditional coenobitic rule; their lives in Christ are necessarily lives together.
Dwelling somewhere at the heart of this business lies the all-but-neglected Christian understanding of the human person, an understanding that commences with the conviction that we—every one of us, of whatever religion or non-religion—are made in the image of God, and that we continue to bear his image, however poorly. As the Orthodox like to say, we are written as the icon of God.
And since our trope of the Trinity figures God as a relational being, it follows that the Image-bearing human person is also necessarily a relational being, so much so that for the Orthodox—as for all Christians, back in the day—an individual is not the same thing as a person; genuine personhood stipulates the communion of one with another.
Simply put, an isolated individual does not a person make.
Similarly, I have a developing sense that salvation is not to be understood merely as a future condition, but as a moment-by-moment, present mode of being; I have begun to think that this is what Jesus was teaching when he said “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” I also happen to think that this is what he was getting at when he announced, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” Jesus did not misspeak; there were, without question, among his exponentially expanding band of followers, some who would not die before they had witnessed the kingdom, tasted its power, and savored its abundant life, even as they hobbled through the valley of the shadow of death.
According to the fathers, this is a kingdom, a power, a glory, and a life that is no less apprehensible now.
Abba Benjamin of Scetis, one of the more obscure and most ascetic of the desert fathers, as he lay dying, is said to have left his spiritual children with this tasty paraphrase of Saint Paul’s message to the Thessalonians: “If you observe the following, you can be saved: ‘Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things.’” Here again, I catch a glimpse of one who is speaking from within the kingdom already. The one who apprehends the reality of God’s unfailing presence, the one who sustains ongoing conversation with that holy presence, is able to apprehend all things and all experiences—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, our loves and our afflictions—as purposeful. That blessed pilgrim is able, even through his or her tears, to taste and to see that the Lord is good, that even our pain is remedial, that even our suffering is grace.
And so I want very much, in other words, to be saved—from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not always feel quite like the self framed in the image of God, united thus with those around me, and, allegedly, growing with them into his likeness.
I’d like to replace this perennially hamstrung, afflicted self with the more promising image, the person in communion with other persons. I’d like to undergo some lasting repair—a literal re-pairing—of heart and mind, body and soul.
As I’ve said, I finally see that it’s not something one does alone.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.