Even in the midst of these, our over-busy, bustling, and distracted lives, even in our seasons of affliction and suffering, our deepest consolation lies in consciously experiencing our mystical membership in the body of Christ. Our hope lies in repairing our chronic separation from that body, and in becoming an increasingly conscious member of that body, partaking of and savoring Christ’s ever-presence (87).
Scott Cairns’ The End of Suffering is excellent, as, indeed, is everything he writes. And not just excellent in an aesthetic sense, but excellent in that it overflows with pastoral goodness and love, such as comes only through deep familiarity with God, who is Trinity.
Very quickly, I want to list the four things that really struck me and stuck with me. Then I will go through a more in-depth summary, covering these three things more in-depth along the way. No summary, however, can do this book justice. Please read it for yourself.
- Suffering causes hollowing but also hallowing.
- Our radical oneness in Christ and through intercession.
- Sin is the absence of existence.
- Nous, kardiá, népsis, and théosis.
Cairns being his inquiry into suffering with a story—the loss of his two beloved yellow labs. While not equivocating this loss with that of “every other occasion of human suffering,” he nonetheless “will not discount how hard, how sharp, even this loss remains—and how puzzling” (xi). Puzzling indeed.
Cairns moves on from this initial story with a chapter titled “Waking Up.” And to what are we awoken at some point in our lives? The “human condition”—the inherent suffering we all participate in. The knowledge of our lack of control, according to Cairns, results in kenosis, that is, in an emptying. We are hollowed out. Moments of affliction, in addition to causing “some serious decentering,” can also “become illuminating moments in which we see our lives in the content of a terrifying abysmal emptiness . . . If we are lucky, an emptying like this can avail a glimpse of the somewhat broader view—the abysmal fullness in which ‘we live and move and have our being'” (8). This latter, “lucky realization” is the “hallowing,” to which I refer in my list above.
Chapter 2 is about letting go of self. In his opening anecdote, Cairns mentions a bumper sticker he saw in the days following 9/11; it read “Faith. Hope. Pride.” The eagle-eyed reader will note, as Cairns notes, that this is a perversion of St. Paul’s writing in the First Letter to the Corinthians, which claims faith, hope, and love as the three virtues virtues that outlive all others. “But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). The bumper sticker replaced the greatest virtue with one, which not all that long ago, would have been readily recognized as chief among sins, if not their primary cause” (16). Pride, as Cairns notes, does not liberate, as we might suppose, but it enslaves us to our own passions—chiefly, to our passion for self. If pride is not the answer, then what is? For Cairns, the answer lies hidden deep in affliction, deep in suffering. The title of his book points to the answer—The End of Suffering. End in the sense of telos. More than a conclusion to suffering, Cairns hopes “to invoke in this our puzzling meantime a sense of suffering’s purpose, to imply what each of us suspects: that suffering is no end in itself, and that affliction is, of itself, no great virtue. He continues:
That said, then, we must come to recognize our suffering as a means, a circumstance of our common journey that can offer us a clearer view of the task at hand. . . . [O]ur afflictions and our suffering may also provide to us a glimpse of what actual virtue might require (24).
Next comes Cairns’ excellent chapters on our radical oneness in Christ. Looking at the Jesus Prayer, Cairns discusses how he has experienced the oneness of the Body of Christ, the body that shares in suffering. He says quite beautifully that “through the prayer of the heart,” that is, the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me—”we come to apprehend that our loving God is never not utterly near” (43). The nearness of God as revealed by the prayer is coupled, then, with the nearness of those around us, specifically with the church around us. Cairns says, in a reflection about his once-held tendency to change the “me” to “us” in the Jesus Prayer:
I have had occasion to rethink the matter. I have come to the conclusion that my innovative modification of the ancient prayer was actually a subtle refusal or maybe just an acute ignorance of the facts I’m hoping now to recover. It was an inadvertent denial of my mystical relationship to other members of the body of Christ—by which I now mean all of them.
. . . As for the specific tradition of the Jesus Prayer, I am now thinking that even if one were to initially begin one’s practice of the prayer by repeating “have mercy on us,” the purpose at the very heart of our matter is to realize how utterly we are connected to those we love, to those for whom we pray. Their well-being and our own should be so inextricably connected that we apprehend how they are all—every one of them—included in our saying “have mercy on me.” Thereafter (though one surely cannot rush this sort of thing) we may begin to suspect next how all of Christ’s body, all of humanity, and—ultimately—all of creation are invoked in our petition as well (44, 46).
That is perhaps the most beautiful meditation on prayer I have ever encountered.
The goal, then, is universal reconciliation—much more, to realize our already reconciled nature, to borrow the theologizing of Br. Will Campbell.
Next, Cairns move on to his chapter rather ominously titled “Complicity.” Here he tackles the question of why good things happen to bad people, of why innocent people are made to suffer. To oversimplify his answer: they suffer because we sin and allow cycles of oppression and affliction to continue. “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” (59). Of course, this disarms the “Why do good things happen to bad people?” question, turning the locus of oppression away from God and onto human shoulders, where, if we’re honest with ourselves, the culpability has always lied.
Cairns then rehashes orthodox thought that says sin is the absence of existence. That is, if God is existence, which we can affirm, then sin—the act of sinning—is the absence of God because in sin, we choose to separate ourselves from God. May we choose existence, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of those innocents who suffer.
Along these lines, chapter 6 explores the choice of life and death. Here, Cairns’ reflection on the Nicene Creed is important; in Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead, Cairns hears that Jesus “will discern and will announce which of those states we have already chosen. He does not condemn us to death, but He informs us if we are dead already” (72). This is important and flows so naturally from his argument in the previous chapter that when we choose sin, we choose nonexistence, death. It also makes one think of God’s wish for the Israelites near the end of Deuteronomy, when God calls his people to follow his paths by choosing life. This choice of life leads us into unity and communion.
The next chapter dives into the notions of nous, kardiá, népsis, and théosis. Nous rightly construed is more than simply the “mind,” as it is often translated. The nous is what is transformed in Romans 12, no longer conforming to the old age. Kardiá is the center of one’s being; the heart, yes, but also the place from which prayer begins. The temple of the Holy Spirit. Népsis is watchfulness, guarding against sin and oppression. And théosis is the idea of divination, becoming like God through renewing the mind, praying from the heart, and keeping watch constantly.
The final chapter, “What Is Lacking,” discusses God’s place in our suffering.
Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.
The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.
In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.
. . . Which was why He did not save Himself, but rather gave Himself (108–109).
We are invited to go and do likewise for Jesus reigns victoriously over all manner of human rebellion as we journey towards him.
“Now and ever, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (115, but passim).