Fans of the Harry Potter series might recall the magical tents from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In the film version, when the Weasleys take Harry and others to the Quidditch World Cup, the audience sees rows and rows of small tents, seemingly designed to sleep only one or two people. Harry is confused as he witnesses the others walk into a single tent, which can hold much more than its external size betrays. Once Harry follows suit, he stands in awe at a spacious interior containing several bunkrooms, a dining room, and a large living room.

This scene gives a helpful image for the ideas and realities Scott Cairns takes up in his new collection of poems, Lacunae. Cairns is an Eastern Orthodox poet whose work, besides ten poetry collections, includes essays, a spiritual memoir, and the text of two oratorios. Many of the poems in Lacunae concern the mystery of divine things, infinite in scope, somehow fitting within finite spaces and times. Just as Harry Potter was surprised to find all that was contained within an ostensibly small tent, one is shocked to find the fullness of God contained in Mary, and even more so, contained within every Christian by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Joey Jekel, a writer and classical educator in Texas, spoke with Cairns about Lacunae, as well as the nature of poetry and the theology that informs his own.

To borrow language from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, could you give a brief account of your “sacred history?”

I was raised as a Baptist, albeit a Baptist of what we might call a particularly brittle sort. I suppose the saving grace of those years was that my parents wore our community’s fundamentalism relatively lightly. My father liked saying that a Christian should seek to “be winsome, in order to win some.” In any case, I never felt as besieged as some others seemed to feel; in fact, the profound love of God that I learned in that community kept me feeling deliciously free, unafraid, and welcoming.

In college, thanks to the example of my older brother, Steve, I first began reading what we call “the fathers of the early church,” and it was in their witness that I recognized that so many of the resistances I had felt toward what I heard in our Baptist church were based on historically sound intuitions. In those years, I had thought that I was the heretic, but it turned out I was mistaken. It would take me many years of reading in that early tradition to eventually find my way to Orthodoxy in 1998. When I did, I felt that I was coming home.

Article continues below

You use the words nous and noetic frequently in your poetry and nonfiction writing. Can you explain how and why you use these words?

Early on in my slow journey to the fullness of the faith that one finds in Orthodoxy, I noted a range of unsatisfactory dichotomies I had nearly inherited as a result, in large part, of the church’s split between East and West. Certain of those dichotomies result from unfortunate translation, and the choice, in most translations, of rendering nous as “mind” is perhaps one of the most unfortunate.

While the word has evolved somewhat over the millennia, most of our early church tradition understands it as being more than mind, or reason, or thought; it is better apprehended, as the late Bishop Kallistos Ware has characterized it, as the “intellective aptitude of the heart.” In other words, it’s the meeting place of intellect and felt knowledge, the meeting place of mind and heart.

Orthodoxy has taught me that the human person is best figured as a complex animal, one with a soul—a spirit—and bearing noetic relationship to the one God. And since our God is characterized in the interpersonal terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also bear noetic relationship to other human persons. In fact, you could say that our very personhood depends on these relationships.

We are not—contrary to what I had gathered in the church of my childhood—bodiless intellects. We are not aspiring to transcend our bodies. We are not angels, nor are we fixing to become angels. We are, however, fixing to become like God; made in his image, we are called to grow into his likeness—never eclipsing his endless and inexhaustible holiness, but by our adoption and identification with Jesus, becoming like the God who called us into being.

Can you explain “Isaak the Least,” a name to whom you attribute many epigraphs and poems throughout your collections?

My journey to the Eastern church involved some three decades of reading in the writings of the early church. I had come to embrace much of what I read in those texts, but when I came upon The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaak the Syrian, my heart finally came home. Those homilies led me down the final stretch of road to a place where I recognized in writing many of the countless intuitions I had glimpsed along the way. When I was formally brought into the Greek Orthodox Church, I was brought in as Isaak, with Saint Isaak of Syria being—as we say—my “namesaint.” The character of Isaak the Least became a fictive speaker in much of my work since then.

Article continues below

Iconography features heavily in your work, none more than Our Lady of the Sign in Lacunae. Could you talk a bit about the role of iconography in the Orthodox faith and in this current collection?

The icon is itself something of a theological assertion. Icons of Christ, in particular, are understood to be a confession that Christ was both God and a fully human person who could be depicted in the icon. I’ve often bristled a bit at the commonplace description of icons as “windows into heaven.” That notion seems to emphasize a distance and otherworldliness of God and his saints. The profound activity of an icon is, rather, an insistence of Christ’s presence here with us, as well as the insistence that the saints—so great a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1)—are also here with us. The illusions of time and distance are mitigated by our being in the midst of those historical moments and those historical persons we cherish.

As for the lovely icon on the cover of Lacunae, it is a familiar one that graces the dome over the altar spaces in most of our churches. In Greek, it is identified as Πλατυτέρα των Ουρανών, or the “more spacious than the heavens” icon, and it speaks to the fact that the uncontainable God was nonetheless held within Mary’s human womb. This gesture speaks to the heart of what I mean when I speak of the poetic operation of language; I’ve often characterized that operation as the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended within a discreet space. My sense of that essential quality of poetry is what led me to fix upon this notion of lacunae—openings or spaces that suggest more than they appear to contain.

I’m recalling that odd passage in Colossians, where Paul avers that he rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of the church, saying that in his flesh he is filling up “what is still lacking” in the suffering of Christ (1:24). That is an unfortunate translation, given that we are loathe to imagine that anything is lacking in anything Christ performs. My own translation would not be what is lacking, but what is yet to be done—which is, I dare say, the offering of our willing participation in this suffering.

Article continues below

Your poetry covers the topic of distraction and getting away from it. How is a Christian supposed to deal with the distractions of life?

I guess the best answer is to pray without ceasing. One must develop a constant sense of God’s nearness, an awareness of his being always with us, which assists our moving through all manner of distractions, whether they arise from cruel or ignorant people, natural or unnatural tragedies, our sufferings, or our own sin. So far as I know, the best path for developing that sense is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” For over two millennia, many believers have depended on that practice to help maintain this clarifying sense of God with us.

The Orthodox liturgy is also profoundly helpful in this regard. The practice of living through the full church year, assisted by a sequence of services, also makes our faith not just a grip of propositions, but a developing sense of who we are and whose we are.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, makes a connection between the art of poetry and the art of living. Do you see a connection between these two endeavors?

I think that our primary art must be the shaping of ourselves. I also think that any endeavor that we can rightly call a vocation is best understood as a means to better apprehending who we are and what we are called to become. So, yes, for those called to the art of poetry, that calling is utterly connected to the art of living, of living well and in a way that enhances our own spiritual journeys, even as it enhances the journeys of others.

Success in the art of poetry and in the art of living depends on a deeper development of the art of prayer. Early on, I tended to resist the associations of poetry with prayer, but, in my dotage, I have given up that resistance. So long as we understand that prayer is less about petition than it is about communion, and so long as we understand that poetry is less about expression than it is about pressing language for illumination, then we can glimpse how each can serve the other.

Could you explain the concept of apophatic theology, or a humility before mystery in Scripture? What is the value and beauty in this theological approach?

Theology comes in two flavors—the cataphatic and the apophatic. Both approaches are witnessed throughout the church, both now and historically. The cataphatic approach—which, broadly speaking, is more comfortable making definite statements about God and his nature—is perhaps the more familiar in the West. And the apophatic—fair to say—holds primacy in the East.

Article continues below

The greatest dangers of a cataphatic approach can be seen whenever a pastor or theologian presumes to explain away the mysteries manifested in the Scriptures, whenever a glib paraphrase threatens to eclipse an inexhaustible text. The Eastern church privileges a more Hebraic, more rabbinical approach to theological commentary, offering a provisional sense of what a passage might offer. This modest gesture in the face of mystery strikes me as a far preferable disposition compared to the arrogance of a pastor’s offering his own interpretation and saying of it, This is what God says.

What do you mean by saying that “there is One True Church, variously apprehended”?

I’m reminded of a trick question that I heard a while back. The question was “How many churches do you have in this town?” The only correct answer was “One.”

If the church is understood to be the body of Christ, then it must be self-evident that all of its members—despite their differences—are members of that one body.

So, yes, regardless of the familiar divisions—and the profoundly regrettable term denominations—the body of Christ is unalterably one. I also think that most historical divisions can be read as sequential diminishments of the faith.

I’m also reminded of what my first priest, Father George Paulson, said to me when I met him to say that I wanted to “convert” to Orthodoxy. He said, “Convert? What are you now? Muslim? Hindu?” He encouraged me to understand my becoming Orthodox as my “embracing the fullness of the faith” and not as a “conversion.”

So, yes, we are all—like it or not—members of one body, one church; we are simply perceiving that body variously, to varying degrees of fullness.

Is there anything else you would like to mention, either about this collection of poetry or your work in general?

Only that I don’t see any of my successive poetry collections as new departures or as manifesting novel approaches. I think of each as a developmental step in the direction I’ve hoped to be moving from the first. The poems are my way of examining my heart and mind, my way of coming to terms, if only provisional terms, with what I glimpse in the midst of that examination.

I continue to be concerned with becoming, with our collective becoming, knowing that none of us will ever cease becoming. The God into whose likeness we are moving is an inexhaustible God, and our journey into partaking of God’s holiness is an endless journey.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

Lacunae: New Poems
Lacunae: New Poems
Iron Pen
112 pp., 18.93
Buy Lacunae: New Poems from Amazon