Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven--A Pilgrimage


While walking on the beach with his Labrador, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis. Cairns realized that his spiritual life was moving at a snail's pace and time was running out. This crisis launched Cairns on a search for what it means to have a "prayer life, leading him to set out on a spiritual journey to the mystical Greek peninsula of Mount Athos.

With a humorous yet humble voice and a poet's ...
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While walking on the beach with his Labrador, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis. Cairns realized that his spiritual life was moving at a snail's pace and time was running out. This crisis launched Cairns on a search for what it means to have a "prayer life, leading him to set out on a spiritual journey to the mystical Greek peninsula of Mount Athos.

With a humorous yet humble voice and a poet's exquisite prose, Cairns immerses his readers in the history and power of the holy mountain and the faith of the monks who worship there. For centuries this ancient and austere place has been the spiritual center of the Orthodox Church. Only monks live there and only male pilgrims are allowed to visit its twenty monasteries and numerous "sketes. Cairns candidly shares the physical and spiritual realities of his pilgrimage, from his conversations with monastic leaders to mealtime conventions, never losing sight of his search for a prayer father in his quest to discover the true prayer life. The harsh beauty of Mount Athos and the devoted lives of its people are more than simply a backdrop for this remarkable story of spiritual growth; they are an integral part of Cairns's experience as a modern pilgrim.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A midlife spiritual crisis sent literature professor Scott Cairns halfway around the world to the mystical Greek retreat of Mount Athos, regarded as Orthodoxy's holy mountain. In Short Trip to the Edge, he recounts his three pilgrimages to these famed yet remote monasteries and also his visit to an Orthodox monastery in Virginia. Several of Cairns's own poems enhance a text that even without them is strikingly personal. This gracefully written book can be perused either as a spiritual memoir or as an extended meditation on prayer and worship.
Publishers Weekly
As a former Baptist who passed through the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches on his way to the Orthodox Church, Cairns, a poet and professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri, offers readers a unique and often compelling perspective on life as a pilgrim on Mount Athos, Orthodoxy's holy mountain. Recounting three visits to the mystical bastion of male monasticism and another trip to an Orthodox monastery in Arizona, Cairns writes transparently of his struggles to grow in the life of prayer as he searches, mostly in vain, for a spiritual father who can help him. His accounts of traveling to the various monasteries on Mount Athos are earthy and blessedly not saccharine, yet beautifully accented with descriptions of times when he was particularly moved by an experience of worship. Especially touching is his narrative of the pilgrimage he makes with his son, Benjamin, who affords a fresh perspective on all that his father has previously seen and related. Cairns includes several of his poems, which serve as well-placed enhancements to the text. His open attitude in explaining matters of faith makes this book suitable for a broad audience of readers on spiritual journeys. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Spiritual journey to Greece provides both clarity and questions. Cairns (American Literature and Creative Writing/Univ. of Missouri) continues his spiritual journey by visiting Mt. Athos, a Greek peninsula marked by a population of monks and pilgrims. Cairns explains that he has been implementing prayer into his life more and more for several years, and that he is in search of a spiritual father to help guide his quest to "become prayer." This quest leads him to Mt. Athos, where he meets striking beauty, monastic asceticism, unsettling contradictions and a rich spiritual environment. Cairns recalls three visits to Mt. Athos, culminating in a trip with his teenaged son. He encounters a variety of reactions from monks and pilgrims both, ranging from hospitality and genuine friendship to suspicion, condescension and ostracism. He is asked why he has flown several thousand miles to find a spiritual father when there are such people in his own country, and he learns in the end that indeed he is surrounded by spiritual fathers and mothers, including those who speak through centuries-old books. The author's writing style can be erratic and sometimes too casual for the weightiness of the subject matter. Still, his enthusiasm for his faith is apparent as he invites the reader to boldly believe in miracles while admitting that he has a long way to go in his own journey. Worthwhile spiritual memoir.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060843229
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/20/2007
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Cairns teaches modern and contemporary American literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri. He is an accomplished poet whose writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Books & Culture, and Image. He was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow.

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Read an Excerpt

Short Trip to the Edge

Where Earth Meets Heaven-A Pilgrimage
By Scott Cairns

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Scott Cairns
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060843229

Chapter One

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

The boat is the Áxion Estín, and I am finally on the boat.

The concrete pier at the bow marks the end of the world, where lies a modest village with an ambitious name; it is Ouranoúpoli, Heavenly City. We remain bound to its bustling pier by two lengths of rope as thick as my thigh.

Any moment now, the boat will be loosed and let go, and we will be on our way to Ágion Óros, the Holy Mountain.

The air is sun-drenched, salt-scented, cool, and pulsing with a riot of gulls and terns dipping to grab bits of bread laid upon the water for them. The Aegean reflects the promising blue of a robin's egg. A light breeze dapples the surface, reflecting to some degree the tremor I'm feeling just now in my throat.

I've been planning this trip for most of a year.

And I've been on this journey for most of my life.

For a good while now, the ache of my own poor progress along that journey has been escalating. It has reached the condition of a dull throb, just beneath the heart.

By which I mean, more or less, that when I had traveled half of our life's way, Ifound myself stopped short, as within a dim forest.

Or, how's this: As I walked through that wilderness, I came upon a certain place, and laid me down to sleep: as I slept, I dreamed, and saw a man clothed with rags, standing with his face turned away from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. He opened the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept and shook, and cried out, saying, What shall I do?

Here's the rub: by the mercy of God I am a Christian; by my deeds, a great sinner.

You might recognize some of that language. You might even recognize the sentiment. These lines roughly paraphrase the opening words of three fairly famous pilgrims, the speakers of Dante's Divine Comedy, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and the Russian devotional favorite known as The Way of a Pilgrim.

In each of them I find a trace of what Saint Paul writes to the church in Rome in the first century: I do not understand what it is I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate, I do.

I get it. I really do get it.

In each of these confessions I suspect a common inference as well: something is amiss. There is a yawning gap between where I am and where I mean to go.

Lately, the crux of my matter has pretty much come down to this: having said prayers since childhood, I startled one day to the realization that—at the middling age of forty—I had not yet learned to pray.

At any rate, despite half a lifetime of mostly good intentions, I had not established anything that could rightly be called a prayer life.

I remember the moment of this realization with startling clarity, and with a good dose of chagrin. I was romping at the beach with Mona, our yellow Labrador. It was a gorgeous morning in early spring: absolutely clear, the air still crisp, tasting of salt from the bay, the water and sky mirroring a mutual, luminous turquoise.

I was throwing a stick of driftwood, repeatedly—as instructed in no uncertain terms by my ecstatic dog—into the Chesapeake for her to retrieve, and I was delighting in the sheer beauty of her astonishing leaps into the surf—wholehearted, jubilant, tireless—followed by her equally tireless insistence that I keep it up. She yelped, she pranced, she spun like a dervish as water poured from her thick coat into the flat sheen of sand at the water's edge.

In short, I was in a pretty good mood.

I was sporting cutoff jeans in February. I was barefoot. I was romping with my dog at the beach.

I was not the least bit depressed, or even especially thoughtful. I had hardly a thought in my head at all. I was, even so, feeling a good deal—feeling, actually, pretty pleased with myself, and feeling especially pleased with that radiant morning on the shore, accompanied by a deliriously happy dog. My best guess is that, after some years of high anxiety, I was finally relaxed enough to suspect the trouble I was in.

We had moved to Virginia Beach about a year earlier, having arrived there with a palpable sense of reprieve from a stint of—as I have come to speak of it—having done time in Texas. I had left a difficult and pretty much thankless teaching-and-program-directing job in north Texas in favor of a similar but far more satisfying gig at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. We'd extricated our little family—by which I mean me, Marcia, our ten-year-old Liz, and our five-year-old Ben—from our run-down cottage in a run-down corner of a small (and, at the time, relatively run-down) north Texas town; we'd swapped those derelict digs for a bright, airy bungalow by the beach.

The contrast was stunning. Our first evening there, in fact, sitting at an oceanfront café, we were treated to the spectacle of a dozen or more dolphins frolicking northward as they proceeded to the mouth of the Chesapeake half a mile up.

Life looked good. It looked very good. It even tasted good.

I felt as if I had found my body again after having misplaced it for four intermittently numbing years in exile. I had even started running again, running on the Chesapeake beach or along the state park bike path most mornings before heading off to my job in Norfolk.

In the midst of such bounty and such promise, and provoked by nothing I could name, I suddenly thought what might seem like a strange thought under the circumstances. At the age of forty, I had accomplished only this: I saw how far I had gotten off track.


Excerpted from Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns Copyright © 2007 by Scott Cairns. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted August 12, 2010

    Must read for Orthodox Christians curious about the Holy Mountain and Monastic life on Mt. Athos. The author takes you along on his pilgrimage through a millennium of Orthodox Christian tradition and history.

    Orthodox Christians curious about the Holy Mountain and Monastic life in the Monastic Republic of Mt. Athos will enjoy this read. The author takes you along on his pilgrimage through a millennium of Orthodox tradition and history.

    Scott Cairns pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain is well written and delves into the ancient traditions and ceremonies that have been practiced in the 20 plus monasteries on the mountain for over a thousand years.

    A modern day look at the Byzantine era helps one re-discover the mysteries of religion, Orthodoxy and God.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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