We’re very proud to announce that Image, the sponsor of this blog, played a central role in the publication of a wonderful new book, God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, which has just been released. Co-edited by Image editor Gregory Wolfe and Image board member Greg Pennoyer, God With Us features meditations for every day of Lent by some of the most highly-regarded spiritual writers of our time, including Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, Ronald Rolheiser, Luci Shaw, and Scott Cairns.
Today’s interview, the second in our series by Paraclete Press, features Scott Cairns.
Paraclete Press: How does the title God For Us apply to the weeks preceding Easter?
Scott Cairns: One discovers, throughout Lenten observance, in general, and in the midst of Lenten worship services of Presanctified Liturgy, Salutations, and Saturday memorials, in particular, a palpable sense of how extensively God has provided for the recovery of our lives in Him. As the “Philanthropos,” the lover of mankind, he has compassionately provided for us, even giving himself for us, as the sacrificial lamb. The Lenten season is our opportunity to descend with him into that kenosis, that self-emptying, that mindful stillness, and that sacrifice.
PP: Why is the observance of Lent spiritually necessary?
SC: It is the period that the Church has established for our intentionally stepping away from the distracting clutter and clatter of our days, encouraging us to deliberately descend into the stillness of our recovering souls. As I suggested above, it is an opportunity for us to partake first of his appalling kenosis as a preparation for our more fully realizing the power of his Resurrection, of which we also partake.
PP: How has Lenten observance changed in modern times? Why do you think it has changed?
SC: Well, it actually hasn’t changed very much at all for observant Orthodox Christians; the Lenten period and Holy Week observances are virtually identical to those established in the early Church. This is perhaps the most tragic result of the continuing splintering of the Western Church: the shocking degree to which most of the contemporary Church has forgotten—has been robbed of—its soul-sustaining traditions.
That is, perhaps, why such projects as God for Us—and the previous God with Us—are so utterly valuable, so necessary; duly received, such books can help a wandering people recover the efficacious cycle of the church calendar, and thereby recover the efficacious cycle of repentance, forgiveness, and watchfulness that are necessary for spiritual maturity and lives of prayer.
PP: Is Easter possible without Lent?
SC: Of course it is possible, but I suppose the more important question would be: To what extent might one appreciate the Resurrection without experiencing the road leading to the Crucifixion? How well do we recognize our healing if we fail to recognize our illness?
As I indicated above, Lent is a season of preparation, a time during which we are called to examine our lives, re-commit our lives, acquire spiritual strength. The first Lent of a disciple’s life is admittedly difficult, but the Church provides great assistance to a successful season. The Church offers confession, mid-week Presanctified Liturgies, end of the week services of salutations and paraklesis, as well as profoundly necessary Saturday vespers and Sunday liturgies. Each of these is accompanied by key readings from the scriptures that further assist in our preparation, our strengthening, our watchfulness.
PP: Is there a particular day of the year that is the most important to you in your own personal, spiritual life?
SC: Yes, that would be what we call Pascha, the Christian “Passover” from death into life, from bondage into liberty. It is “the Feast of Feasts,” “the Day of Salvation,” and in manifests, as we like to say, “the Death of Death.” It is the great Feast Day of Resurrection, of which every Sunday offers a taste, toward which every Sunday looks, of which every Sunday partakes.
I suppose I would say one more thing about the efficacy of Lenten observance. I’ll make this anecdotal, so as to include my own journey in the matter. I was raised in a community where we placed, I now believe, excessive emphasis on how we thought, and too little emphasis on how we performed our faith. The result was a nearly Gnostic disregard for the body and its capacity to be fully participant in the soul’s development.
Since embracing the fullness of the Christian faith, I have come to see that the whole person is to be redeemed, recovered, resurrected—and that this redemption, recovery, resurrection is not simply a matter of the afterlife, but each is necessarily to be embraced in this life. The body’s appetites, the mind’s wandering, the soul’s vicissitudes can all be—by practice—controlled, and thereby enhanced.
Seasons of fasting followed by seasons of feasting and accompanied by continuing communion by way of prayer—these are the tools for that full recovery, which allows us to become the loving, joyful, faithful persons we are called to be.
Scott Cairns is a professor of English at the University of Missouri and director of Writing Workshops in Greece. His poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Image, Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, etc., and both have been anthologized in multiple editions of Best Spiritual Writing. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006, and is completing work on a new poetry collection, Idiot Psalms, and a translation of selections from The Philokalia, which will be Descent to the Heart.