‘Possible Answers to Prayer’ by Scott Cairns
In the first two posts of this series, I featured a few 19th-century poets whose verse addresses Lenten themes. For the third feature, I’ve chosen a current American poet, Scott Cairns, who continues to publish poetry. Cairns is an Orthodox Christian who incorporates the richness of Christian tradition, especially the church fathers, in his verse. Image Journal recently awarded Cairns the 2014 Denise Levertov Award, another Christian poet I’ll feature next week. A quick glance of the titles in Cairns’ bibliography–The Theology of Doubt, Sermons for the Wary, Idiot Psalms, to name a few–gives one the sense that a Lenten ethos has shaped this poet’s entire career.
Today’s Poem: 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.
Why this poem belongs in Lent
Just because we observe Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and repentance doesn’t mean that we observe them rightly. A season of fasting and repentance is not a time for self-congratulatory pride; it is a time for attention and steady self-examination. Cairns’ poem echoes a common biblical theme on fasting–the people of God can be tremendously wrong in the way they fast. Remember Isaiah’s words:
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58.3-5)
Most of our repentance is shallow and self-oriented. Which means it’s not true repentance. Christ must guide us to face our false repentance, masking itself as true repentance. This poem isn’t for the faint of heart. Nor is true repentance. Yet true repentance is a gate to freedom.
Meditating with Cairns’ poem
This poem imagines God’s response to several forms of prayer, the forms providing the structure of the poem: petition, anxiety, repentance, concern for the sick, righteous indignation. Each of these forms of prayer appear in the Psalms, but the content does not resemble the theology of the Psalms. These individualistic prayers aim to alleviate personal pain, to satisfy some inner metric of piety so one may appear faithful. Here is convenient repentance, not costly repentance. In the guise of worshipping God, one may appear to be observing noble spiritual disciplines, yet for utterly selfish purposes. These are the prayers of the one who obsesses about the Universe of Self, ignoring the Cosmos that God created.
Here is repentance that requires repentance itself. Our righteousness is but filthy rags to our holy God and this poem requires us to face our ‘burgeoning, yellow fog‘ of deeply rooted resentments. Conspicuously hidden from human eyes, this false repentance does not escape the Spirit of God who searches human hearts.
This repentance is not bathed in love, yet the God who hears these prayers responds with love, strange as it may seem. Listen closely to Cairns’ poem and you will notice the absence of condemnation. Prayers have been ‘duly recorded.’ Anxieties ‘bring your person to mind.’ Even repentance is deemed ‘sufficient’ (a tongue-in-cheek word choice; ‘sufficient‘ but not sincere).
There is not condemnation for these prayers, but there is judgment in the final stanza. Condemnation declares a sentence, judgment aims to convict for the hope of amendment. Cairns hears God announcing judgment on the pretense of our self-obsessive piety, yet this kind of judgment means to produce ‘godly sorrow producing repentance which leads to salvation.’ (2 Corinthians 7.10; emphasis added).
Like Rosetti’s Up-hill poem, this poem concludes with somewhat of a twist. God not only hears these prayers, he responds. Yet his response surprises: 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.
Where is the answer to the prayer? God is near, but near in a way that we do not expect. He comes near revealing his love for our enemies. God appears with his love in the ones whose habits and sympathies offend, stirring our passions and angers.
Here is the measure of true repentance: loving ‘precisely these‘ who hurt us deeply. That kind of love is not natural–it is divine. For that divine love in our lives, we need true repentance and true prayer. When we turn to God with a pure heart, we need not fret over a possible answer. God has already given us his definitive answer to these prayers. God-With-Us, Jesus Christ, is the answer for every prayer we pray.
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