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Scott Cairns: Words lead you to ideas

Baptist-born poet Scott Cairns says that Orthodox Christianity provides a meeting place for his two loves -- language and Christ. The practice of poetry prepared him for the practice of worship, in a blending of theology and art.

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre

October 22, 2013

Prayer, worship, language, creation and mystery are bound up together for Scott Cairns in his two vocations: as a poet and as a Christian.

Raised a Baptist, Cairns’ faith journey involved a deep study of Jewish texts and Christian theology as well as a period as a Presbyterian before he found the Eastern Orthodox Church, where the sensuous worship experience and “rabbinic” approach to language struck a deep chord.

“The life of worship itself, the life of prayer itself, the life of making poems -- these are endless,” he said. “The practice of poetry prepared me for the practice, I think, of Orthodox worship.”

Scott CairnsCairns teaches modern and contemporary American literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri. He also is the founding director of MU’s Writing Workshops in Greece. His work has appeared in magazines including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review,The New Republic, Image, Spiritus and Tiferet.

His poems have been anthologized in “Best Spiritual Writing” and “Best American Spiritual Writing,” and his poetry collections include “Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected” and “Philokalia.”

His new poetry collection, “Idiot Psalms,” will appear from Paraclete Press in 2014.

Cairns spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke University for the Summoned Toward Wholeness conference and a reading sponsored by the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.

To hear Cairns reading his poem “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous” click the play button on the audio player at the top right of this screen.

Download this free on iTunes U.

Q: Talk about your faith journey. How did you come to be Baptist, Presbyterian and then Orthodox?

Well, I came to be a Baptist because my parents were. My parents were raised without church. But they met with a group of people who then built a church in Tacoma, Wash.

I grew up in this community that my parents had very strongly invested in -- my father physically helped build the church and these people were their closest, dearest friends, and many of their families became like our family.

I was born into a fairly fundamentalist Baptist group, very conservative, and I guess was oblivious to the alternatives.

Then when I went away to college, I started reading a little more and meeting other people and my world grew a little, and I found that sort of cranky faith untenable and found a little more generous version of it among the Presbyterians.

In time, I became more interested in sacramental theology and a sense of the world as being worthy of our attention and of our care. This was concurrent with my having discovered rabbinic genres of text -- in particular, midrashim.

I was awakened to a different attitude toward words; the words themselves became stuff, and not just names for stuff.

Q: That would be appealing to someone who is a poet.

Right. And so there was a time period, a brief period, when I was actually visiting with my rabbi to study Judaism as if I might actually convert. It seemed to me that this understanding of words was true -- a much truer understanding of how words worked, what words are, than the sort of referential activity that I had just assumed that words were limited to doing.

But then about that time I came upon Syriac Christianity, which is also Semitic in its understanding of words. So here we have a Christian community, Orthodox community since the earliest centuries of the church who also shared this Semitic understanding of how words are things and do things.

Their own readerly habits of opening texts, scriptural texts in particular, was more nearly that of the rabbis, and so I found a kind of meeting place for my two loves -- language and Christ.

Q: In what ways do your vocation as a poet and your vocation as a Christian interact and overlap?

I don’t want to just complain about my upbringing, because I learned a lot -- I learned the love of God from those people -- but there was a suspicion about the physical body and stuff, the earth, a sense that the body is expendable and the earth is expendable and what matters is what you think about it or what you believe.

Which is just another way of saying that what you do and how you perform and how you engage others may be less important.

I think, as an artist, certainly as a poet, you learn that words are stuff -- are things -- and that it’s not like you have an idea and then you use words to express the idea.

It’s that you actually love words and you pore over words, and you put strings of words together and they lead you to ideas. It’s like the act of making leads you into what to make of it in terms of idea, and so a kind of primary attention to stuff -- the stuff of language.

I suppose if I were a painter, it would be stuff of pigment; if I were a sculptor, it would be stuff of wood or metal or clay. Artists fall in love with the stuff, and that becomes a way of knowing, rather than ways of saying what you know.

I find in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church it’s very bodily present -- one brings himself or herself fully to the space. The air is filled with incense; the iconography is everywhere; our bodies kneel, prostrate. We kiss things. We kiss each other.

There’s a very tactile, visual, scent-centered sensuous engagement with worship, and then it becomes worship, and not just talk of worship or ideas about worship.

You find yourself worshipping, and that teaches you who it is you’re worshipping in a way that talking about it never could. The practice of poetry prepared me for the practice, I think, of Orthodox worship.

The life of worship itself, the life of prayer itself, the life of making poems -- these are endless. You can kind of get a glimpse of that or a taste of that endlessness once you realize that it’s stuff that you can endlessly work over. It’s stuff that endlessly works over you. We become shaped by the liturgy.

This has so much more than we can take in in any one visit, so that over the 15 or so -- well, I guess I’ve been attended liturgies for 16, 17 years -- but in that time, it’s worked me over.

Q: When did you get interested in theology?

My father was an English teacher who encouraged reading. We always were reading, and when my brother and I were both sort of “Baptists without a country” in college, that’s when I started reading the church fathers, the patristic texts. Even before I knew there was an Orthodoxy, even before that was even on my radar, I fell in love with those texts and the ways these people talked.

And how beautiful they made this faith that at that point seemed very cranky and kind of mean. They made it seem very welcoming, very loving, because it actually is.

Q: And rich in tradition.

Those traditions are all about -- I mean, they talk about the letter of the law, but they also suspend the letter of the law for the love of it. You read that and you can’t miss that in the patristic texts. You can very easily miss that in the little Baptist church I went to when I was a kid.

I think I rediscovered through those texts the love that I had felt but I hadn’t heard much about lately. And my brother and I would often say, “Boy, if we could find a church like that, we’d go.”

Well, I did finally find a church like that, and I started going, and that’s how that worked out.

Q: Did your interest in modern Greece predate your interest in Orthodoxy, or was it the other way around?

I don’t know. My first trip to Greece was to go to Mount Athos and hang out with monks, which I did and which I still do.

Then I developed a Greek program, so I got to go twice every year, and I would go to Mount Athos both times and visit with my spiritual father there and with other monks, who are friends of mine, and recharge my own spiritual batteries.

The prayer services go from 2 or 3 a.m., depending, until like 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and then they have another service in the afternoon and another service in the evening. These long worship services -- I just became so much in love with that, I would hope to always have that as part of my life.

Then along the way I fell in love with the culture and with the people -- and the food isn’t bad, and the beaches are great -- and I learned to snorkel and go after octopi and shoot little fish with my spear gun and cook them up on the coals.

It’s just a really delightful way of spending a life. And I love Orthodox worship, and you can find it on any corner.

Q: Do you ever find the tradition of the Orthodox too narrow?

It can be. For instance, women can’t be priests. Women can’t go to Mount Athos.

But, you know, from the outside it looks so rigid and cranky and fussy and legalistic, but from the inside it feels so much different than that.

Women are a big part of the worship. We speak of the women apostles -- “Saint Thecla, equal to the apostles; Saint Mary Magdalene, equal to the apostles.” These are the epithets that we fix to their names. They are a core group of women. And “Mary the Mother of God -- Theotokos.”

So from the inside it feels a lot more welcoming and a lot more inclusive than it does look and appear, I presume, from the outside. I haven’t been on the outside for so long, it’s hard for me to remember how it looked. But I do remember being sort of puzzled about, Why do you kiss icons? Who is this Mary?

But the mystical theology of the Eastern Church is unsurpassable. It’s endlessly open. It’s rabbinic.

Q: It’s pretty elaborate and exotic for most Americans, I imagine.

I think we’re a little gnostic in America. We kind of hate our bodies and feel weird about them. This won’t let you forget your body. You’re using it all the time, and I think that’s part of the weirdness: Why are you kneeling, why are you kissing an icon, why are you kissing the priest, why are you kissing the people next to you in church?

My first Orthodox funeral I just accidentally happened on, because I was visiting at a church. At the conclusion of [Image magazine’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe], I went to church at Holy Trinity Church not too far from St. John’s College, where the workshops were.

I walked into the church and there was a coffin in the middle of the nave, and there was an elderly guy laid out in it. He had just recently passed. I thought, OK, well, they’re not going to deny death here.

There were children there who evidentially were beloved of this man. There was one little girl in particular during the service -- she had been standing right next to his coffin the whole time.

And when it came time for the Great Entrance, where they bring the elements out for the Eucharist, she just put her hand up on his hands and held them right there -- this little child.

I thought that was pretty profound -- this continued acceptance, this embrace of each other which death had no power over.