After waiting anxiously for it to arrive in the mail, I quickly finished the first book of assigned reading for Journey into Silence. Short Trip to the Edge, by Scott Cairns is a spiritual memoir that tells of the author’s midlife crisis in which he’s struck by the realization that he doesn’t know how to pray. The book traces the author’s steps as he travels to a Greek island heavily populated with ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries. It's on Mt. Athos that Cairns endeavors to, over the course of a month or so, seek out a life of prayer and locate a spiritual father with whom he can continue correspondence.
By the time of his adventure Cairns is in his mid-fifties, his children are all but grown and flown and he lives a life of academia, teaching writing and poetry at the university level. I was a hopeful reader, expecting to like it, hoping to relate. The cover picture was beautiful, the author’s description of his moment of awakening on a beach in the Chesapeake Bay compelling, but he lost me somewhere. Probably right around the time that his journey into prayer led him to take off for Mount Athos, a small island of monasteries where women (including, even, female pets) are forbidden and children are scarce.
At first blush, Cairns’ pilgrimage struck me as one born of too much privilege, which left me lacking in compassion for his journey. It was, overall, discouraging – I simply don’t live the kind of life Cairns and his fellow-travelers live, on numerous levels. This left me ranting to my husband, of course, then, later, led to this poem.
Hardly ever – these days – a musket-packing
Puritan with buckles on his boots, a pilgrim is a person
who, confronted by a spiritual distance to be crossed,
determines to undertake that journey.
- Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge
If this is what a pilgrim is . . .
Thank you for sharing,
but I couldn’t help
but be discouraged
by the story of your trip
to an ancient Island in Greece,
where you waited for hours
to speak with holy men.
If this is what a pilgrim is,
then there’s little hope for one like me.
Here I sit, reading of your journey,
stranded on my own island of sorts,
my small house just as heavily populated, perhaps, as Mount Athos –
per square foot that is.
Few men dare to travel here,
though they’re not forbidden.
(Tell a man you’re breastfeeding twins
and they’ll keep their distance of their own accord.)
As for hours of prayer uninterrupted,
these I do not have,
but I do have hours of cleaning and laundry,
which Brother Lawrence tells me may well be the same.
As for waking in the midnight hour for prayers and sacrament,
my nights are more often disturbed by children’s cries,
than the striking of a Semantron.*
As for the Mysterian,** the Eucharist you receive,
I know no mystery in the midnight hour,
other than the power of presence to calm
a quaking child in a room heavy with darkness and fear.
And dare I mention that nursing two bodies,
two souls, round the clock, is a sacrament in itself?
These are the rhythms of my days, the holy vigil I keep.
If I cannot find God here,
if the distance is truly as far as you think it is,
then what hope is there for me?
Then I remember
that I do find God here
in the midst,
in my lack of freedom and privilege,
in my tiny, cloister of a house.
And that, perhaps, you are more impoverished than I,
having to travel so far to find God.
Also, it occurs to me,
that it’s possible a time will come,
when children are grown and gone
and the night hours are long and quiet
when God himself may not be so easily at hand.
Then, finding myself there, wouldn’t I also travel
wherever was needed to find him near again?
So then, maybe we two pilgrims
are not so far apart as first I feared we were.
After all, isn’t it only by grace that any of us find God at all?
Travel safe my friend,
whether the road be long or short,
and may you know and be known by
the One who became a pilgrim
and traveled no short distance
to come to you.
* a wooden board that is rhythmically struck to indicate an approaching time of common worship in Greek Orthodox monasteries like those found on Mt. Athos.
** the preferred term for sacrament, particularly the Eucharist, in the Eastern church.
My desire to relate with Cairns as a reader and fellow pilgrim quickly turned into anger when, on the surface, I felt I couldn’t relate. But later this poem, which started out as a rant listing the many divisions between us, became an invitation to look beyond the surface upon which our differences lay. There I saw the deeper unity of a pilgrim’s heart. Beneath the concrete details of Cairn journey, which the book is steeped in, I was able to see the deep loneliness, longing and desire shared by all those who forsake all else for the joy of knowing and being known.
God moved me beyond the differences that divided to a more familiar place where Cairns and I could sit side-by-side discussing the distance we would both be willing to travel to find God near again. In this way compassion moved me from anger and division to companionship of the soul, and isn’t this something of which we could all use a bit more?
So, dear pilgrim, travel safe my friend, whether the road be long or short, and may you know and be known by the One who became a pilgrim and traveled no short distance to come to you.