Scott Cairns is an accomplished contemporary poet. Raised in the Baptist tradition, he made his way into Eastern Orthodoxy because, he says, “I found a kind of meeting place for my two loves — language and Christ.” His interview for Faith & Leadership hits upon a very important theme for me: overcoming gnosticism—an elevation of the spirit and denigration of matter—through sacramental theology.
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.