Answers to prayer

To conclude this weekend’s return-from-holiday posting frenzy, a poem by Scott Cairns that knocked me sideways when I read it this morning:

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

More Scott Cairns poetry here. The collection cited as the source for these poems (Philokalia) is out of print and expensive to obtain, but most of them are also available in the in-print volume Compass of Affection. With thanks (genuine if also slightly ironic) to DJP, who inadvertently introduced me to Cairns’s poetry as a consequence of disliking it himself.

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8 Responses to Answers to prayer

  1. Pingback: Possible Answers to Prayer | An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy

  2. Thomas says:

    Yes, Cairns is a fine poet, though he’s sometimes a bit self-involved for my taste. (Self-involved? You mean it’s like looking in a mirror? Well, maybe….) My copy of Philokalia was stolen, along with some Greek vocab note cards, a couple of years ago. I carelessly left a backpack sitting out at the local public library while I wandered to look for, of all things, movies with plenty of explosions. I can only suppose the thief needed the book more than I did.

    I hadn’t heard of Compass of Affection, which I will immediately buy and read. Thanks for the post.

  3. Bror Erickson says:

    Something to be said for being smacked by the law every once in awhile. But it is refreshing for one to be able to look so starkly at the law, and to understand that you stand accused, maybe though only if you know you are forgiven.

  4. Thomas says:

    Of course, this poem is framed in terms quite other from Law/Gospel – in fact, I think Cairns would find that quite alien. To him, I dare say, this poem is wholly gospel – even the part about burning away all the dross. Then again, he’s Orthodox, not Lutheran, and so thinks of these things in a completely different way.

    Speaking of which, it’s troubled me lately that many Fathers regard separating Law from Gospel as a sign that one is at best a heretic, at worst a pure spawn of satan…

    Oh well, this is neither the time nor the place.

    Peace out.

  5. Thomas says:

    If I may, one final thought about Cairns – if he has a problem as a poet, it’s that he’s sometimes too, well, prosy. That is, his verse reads occasionally like wooden prose – it’s too didactic or something. Now, he does also write the occasional fine prose poem, which is a different animal altogether…

  6. John H says:

    Thomas:

    I hadn’t heard of Compass of Affection, which I will immediately buy and read. Thanks for the post.

    A pleasure. 🙂

    The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have gone back to check out Cairns had it not been for your posting that Rexroth poem the other day. I thought about buying Rexroth’s Collected Shorter Poems (which I may well still do at some point), and that then reminded me I’d been meaning to check out “that guy that Dan Phillips had been talking about”. So the wheel turns…

    it’s troubled me lately that many Fathers regard separating Law from Gospel as a sign that one is at best a heretic, at worst a pure spawn of satan

    IIRC, Jaroslav Pelikan makes this point in the first volume of his church history. To which my response can be summarised as: “distinction != separation”. Great problems occur when people separate justification from sanctification. But equally, great problems occur when people fail to distinguish them from one another. Same applies to law and gospel.

    if [Cairns] has a problem as a poet, it’s that he’s sometimes too, well, prosy. That is, his verse reads occasionally like wooden prose

    Fair point, from what I’ve seen. Some of Cairns’s poems are superficially similar to R.S. Thomas’ later poetry in that respect. Mind you, my own taste in poetry tends towards “ideas” rather than “language”, if you see what I mean, which is probably why I’ve bought Cairns before Rexroth.

    Do go and share that thought with Dan Phillips, though. The “prosyness” of Cairns’s poetry was the burden of his post, and I’m sure it’ll be a comfort for him to find out he’s not so great a philistine as everyone has been telling him. You know how insecure those TeamPyro boys are. 🙂

  7. Bror Erickson says:

    I hope my comment was not misconstrued as criticism, or a critique of the man’s theology. I found my self liking the poem in some sort of self deprecating, mentally masochistic way. I was struck by how true it all is. and Yet I was also struck by the weight it throws on the person reading, or the one who wrote the poem, with absolutely no life line. The poem talks about how much God loves the masses we despise, yet it doesn’t throw the writer or the reader in with the masses, it keeps him distinct from them. I hope only for the realization that the man who has been praying, has been praying with the assumption that God loves him.
    But I’m not much of a literary critic. I liked the poem. nor was I trying to jump on the man for failing to distinguish Law and Gospel, which is the job of the pastor, not the poet.

  8. Thomas says:

    Oh, of course BE, that was indeed clear. I was just noodling about.

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