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Scott Cairns


A Short Trip to The Edge

On pilgrimage to Mt. Athos.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

The boat is the Áxion Estín, and I am finally on the boat. The concrete pier at the bow marks the end of the world, where lies a modest village with an ambitious name; it is Ouranoúpoli, Heavenly City. We remain bound to its bustling pier by two lengths of rope as thick as my thigh.

Any moment now, the boat will be loosed and let go, and we will be on our way to Ágion Óros, the Holy Mountain.

The air is sun-drenched, salt-scented, cool, and pulsing with a riot of gulls and terns dipping to grab bits of bread laid upon the water for them. The Aegean reflects the promising blue of a robin's egg. A light breeze dapples the surface, reflecting to some degree the tremor I'm feeling just now in my throat.

I've been planning this trip for most of a year.

And I've been on this journey for most of my life.

For a good while now, the ache of my own poor progress along that journey has been escalating. It has reached the condition of a dull throb, just beneath the heart.

By which I mean, more or less, that when I had traveled half of our life's way, I found myself stopped short, as within a dim forest.

Or, how's this: As I walked through that wilderness, I came upon a certain place, and laid me down to sleep: as I slept, I dreamed, and saw a man clothed with rags, standing with his face turned away from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. He opened the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept and shook, and cried out, saying, What shall I do?

Here's the rub: by the mercy of God I am a Christian; by my deeds, a great sinner.

You might recognize some of that language. You might even recognize the sentiment. These lines roughly paraphrase the opening words of three fairly famous pilgrims, the speakers of Dante's Divine Comedy, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and the Russian devotional favorite known as The Way of a Pilgrim.

In each of them I find a trace of what Saint Paul writes to the church ...

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