“Just now, we squint to see the Image through
this latent, bleak obscurity. One day, we’ll see the Image—
as Himself—gleaming from each face.
Just now, I puzzle through a range
of incoherencies; but on that day,
the scattered fragments will cohere.”
If you don’t recognize 1 Corinthians 13 in this translation, perhaps that good. Our hearing of that passage in the context of many a moony marriage ceremony has ruined our ears. Eros has something to do with God, but Paul was after so much more.
The poet Scott Cairns gets that. He has spent a career exploring the mystical dimensions of love in its human and divine expressions, sometimes in the hideaway Orthodox monasteries that lure adventurous pilgrims and usually in the company of dusty Greek texts. When he translates the ancients, as he does in the collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life[Paraclete Press, 2007], he is dipping his hand into a deep current of faith and prayer. The result is verse, poetry at its best, that takes texts from Christian history that many consider impenetrable and renders them luminous.
Take this body- and life-affirming fragment from Irenaeus:
“The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.” (5)
Or a meditation on ‘His Image Recovered’ by Athanasius:
“Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,
one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel
becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.
The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return
to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon
the same material. As He tells us in the Gospel, I came
to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.” (15)
But don’t expect all roads to lead to clarity or enlightenment. Cairns invites us to pause with words as well. One word he leaves untranslated when it arises—nous. He explains in the introduction that “it is the center of the human person, where mind and matter meet most profoundly, and where the human person is mystically united to others and to God.” (xiii-xiv)
The nous is the place from which Cairns has been seeking to live and he finds good companions in this volume. You would expect the passionate, hot-blooded saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle of Hampole, Julian of Norwich, and Thérèse of Lisieux. But Cairns mines the works of the more cool-headed and detached as well — Basil the Great, Meister Eckhart, and Gertrude of Helfta. Besides learning some great names, the reader is likely to be seduced into seeking out more from the wealth of Christian tradition.
Love’s Immensity has been sitting with my morning reading for a couple of years now. I’m returning it to the shelf, but I expect it to be back. Beauty never really fades from memory. Nor does true love as Paul would have it:
“In all of this, both now and ever,
faith and hope and love abide, these
sacred three, but the greatest of these (you surely
must have guessed) is love.” (4)