A Review of
Short Trip to the Edge:
A Pilgrimage to Prayer
In Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns recounts a series of trips to Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece that has been home to a number of Eastern Orthodox monastic communities since the Byzantine era. The original edition of the book, published in 2006, described the first three trips that Cairns made to the Holy Mount. This new edition, which includes helpful photographs, maps, and an epilogue, confirms that the initial account was not just a travel narrative in disguise or a temporary solution to a mid-life crisis. As the epilogue reveals, these trips have become regular events in the last decade. A self-confessed “slow pilgrim,” Cairns has developed a good amount of momentum by this point, having now made eighteen trips in his ongoing “pilgrimage to prayer.”
The book explores the relationship between pilgrimage and prayer in three sections. Part One, the longest, begins with a brief reflection on the poet’s mid-life crisis, and then focuses on Cairns’ first visit to Mount Athos in September 2004. Part Two consists of a return trip to the Greek peninsula, made only a few months later, followed by a pilgrimage the next spring to Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. In Part Three, Cairns returns to Athos, this time accompanied by his teenage son. All of these journeys are motivated by a desire to pursue a deeper prayer life. Cairns explains that spiritual stasis was “the nagging thorn” that first drew him to the idea of becoming a pilgrim (33). What Cairns desired was a life of prayer—or a life made prayer, to be precise—and the spiritual mentorship that would keep him directed toward that goal. For Cairns, prayer is a formative spiritual practice, as it is generally for all Christians. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, it is formative in the specific sense of leading the believer toward theosis, or union with God. For Cairns, theosis “is where—I pray—we will eventually arrive” (12). The book is not a theological treatise, focusing more on worship than on a propositional understanding of the faith. The concept of theosis, however, will remain a challenging concept for some Christians, who may wish for further information on this particular mode of becoming.
Short Trip crosses distances that are much more than geographical. On his path toward deepening the “full-body faith” offered by Orthodox Christianity (31), Cairns reveals glimpses of his spiritual background while pursuing his present goals. Readers learn that he grew up Baptist, for example, and spent portions of his adult in Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches. The journey to Athos, however, offers a means of cultivating a disposition of engagement that integrates mind and body in a way that he had not experienced in Protestant churches. On the ferry approaching the Greek peninsula, Cairns describes himself as “leaning ahead into what was coming, soaking up every possible detail along the way” (21). This same posture appears in a later description of Athos’ eremite monks. These particular monks, called hesychasts, “understood that humankind was created in order to…lean into those [divine] energies, dwelling, as it were, on them, and in them” (79). A description of prayer attests to the continuing importance of this posture of engagement. Cairns comes to understand prayer as “a means of glimpsing, taking part in, living into a reality that—thank God—is already so” (104). The shift of the verb from “leaning” to “living” suggests the kind of quiet epiphany that often occurs in these pages, where changes in understanding are slight or perhaps not fully understood. Once, when he receives the Holy Mysteries (what Protestants would call “communion”), he describes a peculiar feeling, “as if at the tongue something in me were meeting with itself” (161). This last example shows the poet’s growing awareness that his own prayer must join with the Holy Spirit inside him who prays to the Father on his behalf. Such is the advice of a priest on the third journey. “You must learn that it is God who prays,” the priest explains. “When you descend into your own heart, it is God you find, already praying in you” (216). For certain strands of Protestantism, the slightly mystical language will raise questions, and a few concerns, useful for further exploration.
Notably, in recounting these pilgrimages Cairns is not hopped up on the convert’s zeal. His prose is subdued, diverging from the intense lyricism that characterizes, say, Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). His language balances the academic and the foreign with the colloquial. Cairns guides readers through the book with a gentle, informal, and often self-deprecating tone, patiently explaining unfamiliar terms and practices. He recognizes, without trying to justify, the fact that worship on Athos excludes women. He readily admits when experiences seem to defy explanation, such as happens during the hours-long service of the Divine Liturgy which begins at 3AM each night in the monasteries. Twice during the service, he finds himself experiencing something like hallucinations. Another time, the rituals of the monks seem to transcend time, appearing as “a profoundly Byzantine sequence that I observed as if it had happened long ago” (137). The restraint that Cairns exercises in communicating these subjective experiences makes them more convincing, offering a stylistic equivalent of the humility that these journeys work to instill.
Most intriguing in Short Trip is its apprehension of beauty in terms that are both spiritual and physical. Cairns engages all of the senses in his pursuit of a life made prayer. The deep stillness that he gains from worship is “sweet” and “delicious” (161). Indeed, the poet is able to understand the psalmist’s command to “taste and see that the Lord is good” in what for him is an entirely new way. These moments of embodied apprehension are disquieting as well as pleasing, conveying a sense in which pilgrimage vivifies and overwhelms at the same time. Cairns develops a fear of God that “draws rather than repels.” The Divine Liturgy offers a “vertiginous beauty.” The adjective “appalling” captures the scandalous effect of these clarifying moments. Glimpses of metaphysical reality reveal God’s “appalling ubiquity,” as Cairns discovers the irony that distance enables us to see what is already shockingly near (67). Such discoveries represent the benefits, as well as the challenges, of accompanying the pilgrim on this Short Trip to the Edge.
Jeffrey Galbraith is Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College.