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

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Traces the midlife spiritual crisis that prompted the author to journey to Greece's Mt. Athos, where he sought the counsel of local monks on how to discover the "true prayer life," a quest during which he forged relationships with a series of religious mentors and fellow pilgrims.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2007

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Scott Cairns

43 books45 followers

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5 stars
71 (43%)
4 stars
54 (33%)
3 stars
25 (15%)
2 stars
9 (5%)
1 star
3 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews
Profile Image for Nate.
347 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2008
Scott Cairns is an amazing poet, but he also can hold his own with prose. This story chronicles three pilgrimages he took, two to Mt.Athos -- "The Holy Mountain" of Orthodoxy, and one to St. Anthony's monastery in Arizona, founded by a monk from Mt. Athos.

Cairns basically was looking for an experienced spiritual director to help him find his way to a more substantial life of prayer. Instead of finding one personal guide, he was able to experience a lot of the richness of his tradition as well as struggle deeply with ways of integrating prayer into his very being. He realized that even this struggle, this uncertainty and confusion with how to move forward spiritually, is nevertheless a way in which one becomes closer to God. In fact, one of the monks that he talks to tells him that true prayer is in fact struggling with God. It's hard work, but God does bless and does reveal himself to those who really strive to open themselves up to him. It's not so much about us getting to God. God is already closer to us than our own heart. The difficulty is on our end. Are we trusting, striving, living, struggling and at the same time being empowered and enabled to see and stand in awe of his very holy presence?

I liked that this book was grounded in Orthodox spirituality, but it wasn't a tract for converting to Orthodoxy. Anyone interested in a deeper prayer life ought to read this.

Monasticism is something that Protestants are impoverished not to have a connection with. People whose very lives are prayer show us the potential of what it means to give oneself totally to God's love, which is the goal of our entire existence.
Profile Image for Skylar Burris.
Author 20 books230 followers
March 25, 2013
I enjoyed a poetry reading that Scott Cairns gave at my church a few years ago and also listened to a thoughtful sermon (lecture?) he preached there, and intrigued by both I picked up a copy of his spiritual autobiography. I enjoy reading spiritual autobiographies in general, and because I have never read one from an Orthodox (big O orthodox) Christian, I was looking forward to this one. I have to admit, however, that I found it very slow plodding. Maybe coming from a western Protestant background made it harder for me to appreciate the pilgrimage, but I have read plenty of spiritual autobiographies by Jews and Catholics that have captivated me, so I don't think that's it. The book seemed often to follow the pattern of "We did X and then we did Y and then we venerated the icons. Then we did A and then we did B and then we venerated the icons." Considering it comes from the pen of a poet, the work was surprisingly prosaic. The other problem is that it's hard to write a useful or interesting spiritual autobiography if you're unwilling to strip naked in front of the reader. So, for instance, we'll get something like this: "He then went on to tell me – as my jaw dropped – about three related issues in my life that I had neither mentioned to him nor anyone else in the monastery." And those issues would be? And his spiritual advice was? And that affected you spiritually in what manner? Then a few pages later we'll get an equally vague passage such as this: "I asked about a family matter, a health matter, and he responded with warm and sweetness that both humbled and comforted me." And that matter was? And his response comforted you why? And it caused you to change how?
Profile Image for Volkert.
866 reviews14 followers
June 16, 2017
Disclosure: I have known the author since 1975, when he was a Baptist teen preparing for college.

I purchased my autographed copy of this book at a poetry reading in downtown Seattle in 2008. For a variety of reasons I did not read it until 2013.

When I finally opened it, I assumed it was going to be an autobiographical travelogue of Scott’s first visit to Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain in Greece which is inhabited by Orthodox Christian monks in various monasteries. What I did not realize is that this volume covers three visits to Mount Athos, the final one with his then 14 year-old son, interspersed by one visit to Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona, all within the time frame of 9 months.

I was correct in my assumption that this book is autobiographical, but it is much more. In these pages, Scott talks about his search for unceasing prayer, as well as his desire to find a spiritual father on Mount Athos. Scott weaves in pieces of his personal journey, including his childhood in a conservative Baptist church in Tacoma, Washington, and his sojourns in Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, before “coming home” to the Orthodox Church. And while Scott is weaving these pieces into the narrative, he also introduces the reader to some of the theology and practices of the Orthodox faith, as observed on the Holy Mountain, as well as from his life and readings back home. (There is a helpful glossary in the back of the book.)

After reading the first chapter, I decided I needed to get out my pencil to underline memorable passages, and now looking back over the pages I see there are many. In one such passage he quotes Father Iakovos (one of the monks he visits several times) who tells his son, “Just as our lungs breathe air, so our souls breathe prayer. Our souls cannot develop, cannot survive without prayer.”

Who should read this book? I recommend it to Orthodox Christians, especially converts like me, who want to learn more about this faith, and especially about what it’s like on Mount Athos. More specifically, I recommend it to women who are not allowed to visit Mount Athos; this is as close as they’ll get. And I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a thoughtful spiritual autobiography (which I do).

I think anyone who is not Orthodox, or who is not at least a bit familiar with the Orthodox faith, may (at times) go, “Huh?” It may even seem slow and dry to those readers, at least until they realize that the slowness and quietness of the book is part of the point.

In these pages, Scott makes reference to The Way of the Pilgrim, one of the spiritual classics, along the lines of Pilgrim’s Progress, for Orthodox Christians. I recommend checking that volume out, but also Father Arseny and Everyday Saints, for very different perspectives on the Orthodox faith.
Profile Image for Scott.
52 reviews13 followers
September 12, 2011
I loved this book. Just from the point of view of good storytelling it was excellent. Possibly because I've met the author and heard him talk about this journey was helpful as well. It was extremely well-written and I felt like I could follow him as he traveled from monastery to monastery seeking his spiritual father.

Many Orthodox who are actively pursuing the goal of theosis long for a spiritual father as a guide, and Mr. Cairns was no exception. While his publicist has decided to call this sudden need a midlife spiritual crisis, I think a more apt description was a midlife spiritual maturation. Eventually we will reach a point where we are spinning our wheels and making no progress on our own. At this point a guide on the path can be just what we need to get us on our way.

A parish priest is a good start, but parish priests are extremely busy and have a lot to juggle. In many cases this is just not enough - and this is not intended to be a condemnation, but rather a simple observation. For most of us we have to be content with searching the writings of the Church Fathers, scripture, and the teachings of the Church and sort of stumbling along, especially in the US where Orthodoxy is just beginning to take hold, and most especially in the South.

Mr. Cairns had the enviable fortune to be able to pursue his quest for a spiritual father across the globe. While the rest of us may not be able to do as much, there is much to be learned and plenty of inspiration to be had in reading about his journey. Hopefully he will continue to document the results of his search and tell us more of what he discovers. Personally, I will eagerly await that next volume!
Profile Image for Evan Hays.
515 reviews10 followers
June 24, 2015
I have over the years been trying to read more about Orthodox theology--in part because my in laws are Orthodox but also because it is beautiful and teaches me to be a better Christian. This book is another excellent addition to those books. This one is particularly good because it is written by an American and gives a very warm and personal view of his journey as an Orthodox Christian visiting Mt. Athos seeking help to know how to "pray without ceasing".

Cairns is a poet and writer by trade, and it shows, although I must say the brief bits of poetry in the book do not strike a chord in me. But then again I am no connoisseur of poetry, so what do I know. The prose is good, but there are a few too many forced one word or few word sentences to try to make a profound point.

If you are interested to know about what Mt. Athos is like and you are a reader of English, this is the book for you. I would definitely recommend it to any Christian who wants to learn more about their own journey of faith.
Profile Image for James Korsmo.
452 reviews19 followers
July 19, 2018
I've come to love Scott Cairn's's poetry, and I was very interested to check out this book. And it's absolutely worth reading. It's part travelogue and part confession. Cairns was raised a baptist but eventually joined the Orthodox Church. This book recounts his pursuit of a life of prayer through a series of trips to the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. Carins's candor, which is what gives power to his poetry, comes across clearly here as well, as his honest reflections about his own halting attempts at prayer make the book relatable and all the more powerful (in what is surely a nod to Paul, the chief of sinners, he describes himself as the "slowest pilgrim"). He makes three trips to the holy mountain, and his pursuit of prayer does make some progress—he is "finally on the way," as he sums it up—but he describes it as more of a start than an achievement, and that strikes me as just right. The book is punctuated by deep insight, either from Cairns's thoughtful reflections on the Orthodox faith and its traditions (icons, relics, worship, monastic traditions, theological foundations) or from wise monastics who give counsel. I look forward to rereading this book, and I expect to gain repeated encouragement from it. I think the insight that has stuck with me the most is his connection of prayer with theosis (becoming like God): "Prayer is undertaken to accommodate union with God" (15). I couldn't help but wonder, is that where I'm aiming when I pray? This book is profound and enjoyable. Take and read.
Profile Image for Kami.
459 reviews
August 18, 2019
If you want a play by play account of a man's journey to a fascinating place, this is the book for you. I can picture in detail, the layout of Holy Mountain, all the services and characters and all his footsteps between them. There was very little introspection, or rather, whatever he learned from his trips was not really talked about in the book ("I learned a lot"). There were, still, lots of highlights that made me want to read more from the author. Perhaps his poetry and other work is less evasive.
Profile Image for Chris.
4 reviews
June 23, 2020
It’s not surprising to discover that the author himself is a poet because the narrative is a beautiful weaving together of the personal, theological, head, heart, humour and pathos. A beautiful book about spiritual pilgrimage in which the reader is able to catch a glimpse of hope for their own journey.
Profile Image for Aldon Hynes.
Author 2 books11 followers
June 26, 2017
This is an absolutely wonderful book; a poetic faith-journey memoir. While I have not been to Greece and am not Eastern Orthodox, so much of this book resonates strongly with my own faith-journey.

Profile Image for Brandon Jones.
18 reviews1 follower
January 15, 2019
I started this book wanting to read his journey to the Holy Mountain. But about half way through I was picking it up hoping to share in the authors journey and longing for prayer of the heart. A good read and look into monasticism and a layman’s journey to attain peace.
925 reviews
Shelved as 'to-buy'
July 4, 2019
From the Art of Memoir reading list by Mary Karr
Profile Image for Jen.
142 reviews28 followers
June 13, 2020
I picked this book up at my church bookstore earlier this year. It was one of those books I got simply because I loved the cover and the title (I do that sometimes) without knowing anything about it.

It was a lovely surprise on how much I truly enjoyed this book. I literally love the way he wrote (and also loved the content as well). The part about Mary Magdalene's hand and the part with the blue flame in the church to this day still stand out in my mind along with what Father Iakavos tells him on page 121.

After I finished reading this book I bought several copies and sent them to my friends. That's how much I liked the book.
Profile Image for Joshua.
7 reviews9 followers
July 8, 2012
Read this after seeing Scott at the Festival of Faith and writing. I have long admired both Scott and the Eastern Orthodox Church. I'm very comfortable with the idea that much of our theology emanates through each person. It's not that I don't believe there are larger doctrines to contend for that rise above a person and her story. It's that we mostly understand theology through people. Anyway, I've long wanted to know more about the Orthodox Church through Scott since I've read his poetry for so long and took a few classes with him.

In this book her generously takes us on his pilgrimage. We can appreciate our own tender need for a pilgrimage in light of his own. He presents himself as a hungry and broken man without divulging much that is often so typical of a personal essay. Even though we are following his story, we are allow to fall in love with Mount Athos, the monasteries and sketes, and with the other men who have given their lives to prayer. Most of all we are allowed to love God through this gentle book.
Profile Image for Samwise Grangee.
4 reviews2 followers
October 28, 2013
Eastern Christianity is a religion that works beyond the walls of the church. Cairns' memoirs of his trip to Mt. Athos both show how the beauty of Orthodox liturgy overflow into the everyday life of an Orthodox layman. He not only gives a comprehensive overview of all the major themes of Orthodox spirituality one is likely to hear dropped in conversation (theosis, noetic prayer, komboskini, etc.), but he also vulnerably and strongly invites us into his own spiritual life during this time. Cairns is a modern American poet trying to be a saint and is thus a fitting guide to many Americans who want to revere and savor the mystery of their faith with gratitude, sincerity, and humor. His anecdotes, phrasing and wordplays (prayer is often re-pairing things we divide) surrounding lessons in mysticism are refreshing and encouraging; and his descriptions of the landscape traversed, liturgy sung, and food shared make the whole narrative incarnate to us vicarious pilgrims.
Profile Image for Michelle Kidwell.
Author 39 books74 followers
December 16, 2015

Short Trip to the Edge

A Pilgrimage to Prayer (New Edition)

by Scott Cairns

Paraclete Press


Pub Date Mar 28, 2016 

I was given a copy of Short Trip to the Edge A Pilgrimage of Prayer by the publishers and there partnership with Netgalley for my honest review so here it is...In 2006 Scott Cairns first published Short Trip to the Edge an account of the first of three pilgrimages to Agion Oros or the Holy Mountain. This edition of the book includes beautiful black and white photos of the places visited on this Pilgrimage.

The trip to Oros was taken because Cairns wanted to deepen his prayer life. Short Trip to the Edge is about both a physical pilgrimage but about a Spiritual Pilgrimage as well.

I give this book five out of five stars...

Happy Reading...
Profile Image for Emily.
403 reviews
July 25, 2012
A friend said she didn't like this book because she couldn't get past the fact that no women are allowed on Mt. Athos. And I suppose that makes it challenging to imagine going where Cairns goes, but I still enjoyed his openness in talking about his spiritual journey and especially enjoyed the last trip and final chapter where he finds joy in community and learns to keep going despite not finding the spiritual father that he'd hoped to.
Profile Image for Michelle D..
24 reviews
July 24, 2014
This book contains many spiritual gems. I enjoyed Prof. Cairns writing style as well. It is hard to describe such a holy place and people, and he succeeds in making the reader feel like they are there on the pilgrimage along with him. I especially enjoyed the section where his son accompanied him on a trip there. Since I will not be traveling to Mt. Athos, I am glad to get such a glimpse into life on the Holy Mountain.
Profile Image for Katie.
43 reviews1 follower
May 21, 2012
So far, one of the best books I've read. As Frederica Mathewes-Green states, "Cairns is the ideal guide (to Mt. Athos)- relaxed, invitingly conversational, and often amused, but always evoking the awe that these mysteries deserve."
Profile Image for Skylar Burris.
Author 20 books230 followers
March 13, 2015
A bit dry. I enjoy his poetry and generally like spiritual autobiographies, but this did not provide me with quite the narrative poetry or spiritual depth I had hoped.
Profile Image for Hans Schmidt.
25 reviews3 followers
January 12, 2016
Beautiful and poetic story of reflection, discovery, humility and change. I am now hoping to take my son to Mount Athos when he is a bit older.
137 reviews1 follower
July 5, 2016
Great book about the author's pilgrimage to Mt Athos in Greece.
Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews

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