“And then I was standing at the edge. It would surprise you
how near to home. And the abyss? Every shade of blue,
all of them readily confused, and, oddly, none of this
as terrifying as I had expected, just endless.”
–Scott Cairns “Short Trip to the Edge”
Well, first off, I don’t generally “review” books. Let’s just be clear about that. Reviews can be so subjective, and what one person digs, someone else might hate. That’s just the long and short of it.
But, you know, the work of Scott Cairns has figured greatly not only in my writing but in my conversion to Orthodoxy as well. His memoir, “Short Trip to the Edge” was particularly influential. I read it for the first time about seven years after Scott’s poetry reading at Calvin College that I speak about in both Garden in the East and in Nearly Orthodox. I was already well on the road to becoming Orthodox, but still a few years away from making it legal, so to speak. I had met Scott, “friended” him on Facebook and then got busy bombarding him with questions.
Some of those questions were answered in that first version of his memoir and even more of those questions cropped up in the course of reading the book. He’s a gracious friend and was kind enough to answer them until I got myself into a larger Orthodox community. Sometimes I still bombard him with questions. He’s still gracious.
So when the new version of Short Trip to the Edge came along, complete with a new subtitle, I was eager to read it. I was told that the new book, in addition to the new subtitle, is a bit different from the first edition; there are now maps, some amendments, some small corrections and an epilogue that continues the story.
I’ll confess that I went into the re-reading of the book, all these years after reading the original, with some of the same thoughts I had as I entered into Orthodoxy. I thought, “I totally know all this.” I was right on some counts, there were moments I remembered well– the descriptions of the “switchback” roads of Mount Athos, the harsh conditions during the winter trip to the Holy Mountain, the painful search for a spiritual father and yet the beauty of it all, even so. I’m pretty sure I cried and cringed at all the same places. Don’t judge me, I’m a crier.
I’m not much of a fan of typical “conversion stories” which is fortunate because this memoir isn’t one. This is a story about a man in search of prayer, deep and resounding prayer. I remember that the book struck me on my first reading as part travelogue, part memoir. The triptych feel as Cairns crafts narrative through three visits to Mount Athos is interwoven with his spiritual journey at home, underscored most prominently by his search for a spiritual father. It echoed my own anxieties as I put my feet on the road to Orthodoxy.
Since becoming Orthodox, I’ve encountered this desire for a spiritual father quite a lot, in people I meet but also in myself. I tell people that I’m still looking for my own version of Dostoevsky’s “Father Zosima.” I’m only half joking. It’s a kind of pathology in our culture. We’re in some need, and we’re looking for someone who has answers.
In some ways, I think this desire is one of the driving forces that led me to Short Trip to the Edge the first time I picked it up– and it did not disappoint. The thing is, I didn’t know what I really needed was not someone who “knew the answers” as much as someone who was asking better questions. I found that in Scott Cairns’ Short Trip to the Edge.
Scott Cairns is a fellow traveler to his readers, sharing anxiety and joy and beauty each step of the way. We feel the weight of his backpack on those switchback roads, the heat of the day, the cold of the night. We see the weathered stones of each monastery and smell the incense-soaked katholikon. And we can almost taste the strong raki and rich dark brewed coffee and sweet or savory offerings at the trapeza after a lengthy night of Liturgy. And in this we are offered, at each point, the hospitality of the author to enter in, to taste and see. When Isaak is welcomed home, it is as though he turns to us and invites us in as well. Stepping into these sacred places feels a little less daunting with such a guide.
Whether one is pursuing Orthodoxy or simply recognizes the need for some brush with beauty, this “pilgrimage to prayer” is a worthy journey for the reader.
Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) is available here on Ancient Faith as well as the amazing and wonderful Eighth Day Books, Paraclete Press and all those huge corporate places too if that’s your bag. Don’t worry, I’m not judging you.