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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Short Trip to the EdgeWhere Earth Meets Heaven-A Pilgrimage
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i felt i was walking the trails with him. Scott adds his poetic voice to his travel, spiritual narrative. As a non-Orthodox Christian, it provided me a glimpse of what "goes on inside of Mt. Athos." I wanna go!
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.