To Scott Cairns: A Confession

Traci Rhodes,
www.tracesoffaith.com/blog

I recently finished my first Scott Cairns’ book, A Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer.This book’s first edition told the story of his pilgrimage to “Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain, a monastic peninsula in northern Greece that is perhaps more widely known as Mount Athos.” The revised version includes stories of subsequent visits. According to Cairns, “I have, at this writing, made an additional seventeen pilgrimages.

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I was particularly excited to read this revised edition before mid-April because I had plans to hear Scott Cairns speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What I did not anticipate was the need I would develop to confess a few things to the author. Cairns talks a bit about the actual act of “Confession” in his book.

Confession is an element of the ancient church that has remained difficult for me to embrace, despite my developing awareness of its necessity.

The kind of confessing I have to do is of a different sort however. So, here goes.

Mr. Cairns, I picked up this book when I saw you were going to be speaking at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I like to read as many authors as I can beforehand and this book was on a site I go to for books to review. While the subject matter certainly enticed me, I wasn’t sure I’d like the book.

  • I went to Missouri State University. I have such fond memories of my college years, which left me with a bad taste for the University of Missouri. We were always the “other” school and I may have resented that a little. When I read you teach at Mizzou, I was skeptical.
  • You’re a professor and I can have some hangups about being a writer because I don’t hold a degree in English. Actually, one of the handful of B’s I ever received was from an honors English class my freshman year in college. I wondered if your writing would be too academic in nature?
  • You write a lot of poetry. I do like poetry, truly, but so often it goes deeper than my mind travels. Some poems use symbolisms and metaphors I struggle to comprehend and I wasn’t sure if I’d like your particular poetry. Would it appeal to the common reader or again, be more scholarly?
  • Finally, I don’t know anything about the Eastern Orthodox Church. What if your book made me feel even more ignorant than I already do about what I don’t know? Could I learn something of this ancient faith that would enrich my understanding? It’s what I hoped for most of all but I wasn’t certain.

Mr. Cairns, I enjoyed your book very much! Further, it was a delight to meet you in person. I’m going to muster up the courage to read some of your poetry next.

You taught me about the Jesus Prayer, which I found beautiful and calming and enough. My mom leaves soon for her first trip to Greece and she has explicit instructions to bring me home a prayer rope. For those of my readers who don’t know:

They are, commonly, black wool, tied in strings of thirty-three, or fifty, or a hundred or more hard, square knots (sometimes wooden beads), usually held together in a loop by a cross-shaped gathering of knots and tassels. The knots or beads are for focusing on repetitions of the prayer. The cross is kissed reverently at the beginning and the end of each cycle through the rope. The tassel is for wiping your tears, which, if you’re lucky, will eventually accompany your prayer.

I learned so much about the beauty of Greece, the holiness of venerating the icons, the dedication in choosing a monastic life, the wonder of Antidoron. Thank you. I realize now my misgivings about reading your works had more to with my own insecurities. I can see why Mount Athos has become a regular pilgrimage for you.

One paragraph, though, touched me the most. It has not let me go. For I too left behind my Southern Baptist roots.

Even now, on occasion, I wonder if the better choice wouldn’t have been to stay put. It certainly would have been the more aggravating choice, but I wonder if the braver choice would have been to remain in that besieged community where I was first taught the love of God, where I might have taken part in that community’s recovery of a fullness that’s been more or less left behind – as it were – by historical aberration and unfortunate, reactionary choice.

 

I received a copy of “Short Trip to the Edge,” written by Scott Cairns, from NetGalley for the purpose of generating a review. Italicized quotes are the from the book. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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