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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 in Rome in the first century: I do not understand what it is I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate, I do.

I get it. I really do get it.

In each of these confessions I suspect a common inference as well: something is amiss. There is a yawning gap between where I am and where I mean to go.

Lately, the crux of my matter has pretty much come down to this: having said prayers since childhood, I startled one day to the realization that—at the middling age of forty—I had not yet learned to pray.

At any rate, despite half a lifetime of mostly good intentions, I had not established anything that could rightly be called a prayer life.

I remember the moment of this realization with startling clarity, and with a good dose of chagrin. I was romping at the beach with Mona, our yellow Labrador. It was a gorgeous morning in early spring: absolutely clear, the air still crisp, tasting of salt from the bay, the water and sky mirroring a mutual, luminous turquoise.

I was throwing a stick of driftwood, repeatedly—as instructed in no uncertain terms by my ecstatic dog—into the Chesapeake for her to retrieve, and I was delighting in the sheer beauty of her astonishing leaps into the surf—wholehearted, jubilant, tireless—followed by her equally tireless insistence that I keep it up. She yelped, she pranced, she spun like a dervish as water poured from her thick coat into the flat sheen of sand at the water's edge.

In short, I was in a pretty good mood.

I was sporting cutoff jeans in February. I was barefoot. I was romping with my dog at the beach.

I was not the least bit depressed, or even especially thoughtful. I had hardly a thought in my head at all.

I was, even so, feeling a good deal—feeling, actually, pretty pleased with myself, and feeling especially pleased with that radiant morning on the shore, accompanied by a deliriously happy dog. My best guess is that, after some years of high anxiety, I was finally relaxed enough to suspect the trouble I was in.

We had moved to Virginia Beach about a year earlier, having arrived there with a palpable sense of reprieve from a stint of—as I have come to speak of it—having done time in Texas. I had left a difficult and pretty much thankless teaching-and-program-directing job in north Texas in favor of a similar but far more satisfying gig at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. We'd extricated our little family—by which I mean me, Marcia, our ten-year-old Liz, and our five-year-old Ben—from our rundown cottage in a run-down corner of a small (and, at the time, relatively run-down) north Texas town; we'd swapped those derelict digs for a bright, airy bungalow by the beach.

The contrast was stunning. Our first evening there, in fact, sitting at an oceanfront café, we were treated to the spectacle of a dozen or more dolphins frolicking northward as they proceeded to the mouth of the Chesapeake half a mile up.

Life looked good. It looked very good. It even tasted good.

I felt as if I had found my body again after having misplaced it for four intermittently numbing years in exile. I had even started running again, running on the Chesapeake beach or along the state park bike path most mornings before heading off to my job in Norfolk.

In the midst of such bounty and such promise, and provoked by nothing I could name, I suddenly thought what might seem like a strange thought under the circumstances. At the age of forty, I had accomplished only this: I saw how far I had gotten off track.

It was as if those difficult years in Texas had somehow distracted me from seeing that the real work—the interior work—was being neglected. And, to be honest, my difficulty with a handful of colleagues there and a regrettable lack of humility on my part had led me to speak and act in ways I knew, even at the time, to be wrong, ways that ate at me still.

Shame is a curious phenomenon. It can provoke further, entrenched, and shameful responses—compounding the shame, compounding the poor response, ad infinitum—or like a sharp and stinging wind it can startle even the dullest of us into repentance. Now that my job was once again rewarding, now that my family was safe and happy, I relaxed enough to glimpse a subtle reality: I saw how far I stood from where I'd meant to be by now.

Rather, I saw how far I stood from where I'd meant to be by then.

I have recently turned fifty. And though it is possible that some progress has been made in the intervening ten years of meantime, that progress has been very slow, negligible, and remarkably unsteady, with virtually every advance being followed, hard on its heels, by an eclipsing retreat—with hard words, harsh thoughts continuing to undermine any accomplishment in the realms of charity and compassion.

In his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, the beloved Mr. Auden puts it in a way that never fails to resonate with me, to slap me awake when I recite the poem (which I do as a matter of course every Christmas Eve): "To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all."

I get that, too.

Wise men and women of various traditions have troubled the terms being and becoming for centuries without arriving at anything like a conclusion. Every so often, though, I glimpse that some of the trouble may derive from our merely being, when—as I learned to say in Texas—we might could be becoming.

I wonder if we aren't fashioned to be always becoming, and I wonder if the dry taste in my mouth isn't a clue—even a nudge—that staying put is, in some sense, an aberration, even if it may also be commonplace.

I have been a Christian nearly all my life, have hoped, all my life, eventually to find my way to some measure of … what? Spirituality? Maturity? Wisdom? I'd hoped, at least, to find my way to a sense of equanimity, or peace, or … something.

As one desert father, Abba Xanthias, observed—clearly anticipating my Labrador—"A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge."

At the age of forty, I raised my arm to fling a sodden stick into the Chesapeake; I looked down to see my beautiful, dripping, yellow dog—braced, alert, eager, her eyes lit up with wild expectation. I didn't want to let her down.

My life at that precise moment reminds me of the bumper sticker I saw years ago: I WANT TO BE THE MAN THAT MY DOG THINKS I AM.

More generally, my life at that moment reminds me of an often-repeated comment one monk made to a visitor to Mount Athos. I imagine it like this: The visitor asks what it is that the monks do there; and the monk, looking up from the black wool of the prayer rope he is tying, stares off into the distance for a moment, silent, as if wrestling with the answer. Then he meets the other man's eyes very directly and says: "We fall down, and we get up again."

A little glib, but I think I get the point.

Monks, it turns out, can seem a little glib on occasion, and I've noticed that they have a penchant for the oblique; but I'll have more to say about that by and by.

As for me, at the moment when my brilliant day at the beach was suddenly clouded by an encroaching unease, I saw that I was less like that diligent monk and more like the actor in the tv ad who says, I've fallen, and I can't get up.

Even if the monk's words do offer a glimpse of a truth that is available to us all, I keep thinking that—for the saints, for the monks, for the genuinely wise, presumably for anyone but me—the subsequent fall needn't seem so completely to erase all previous progress.

I keep thinking that, for the pilgrim hoping to make any progress at all, the falling down must eventually become less, that the rising up must become something more—more of a steady ascent, and more lasting.

I also have an increasing sense that the subsequent fall need not be inevitable.

I keep thinking that this is actually possible, the proposition of spiritual development that leads us into becoming, and—as the fathers and mothers of the Eastern Christian tradition would have it—into always becoming.

The question must be how to get from here to there.

And that question has pressed me to get serious, to slap myself awake, take up my bed, and get to walking.

I hope to be, at long last, a pilgrim on the way.

The boat—whose name means It Is Worthy—is backing away from the chaos of crates and trucks and the crowd of very loud, very animated men burdening the concrete pier. With a shudder and a plume of diesel smoke, the ferry discovers a forward gear and angles out, pressing into the Aegean's dappled blue.

I was a little puzzled, at first, by the size of the crowd boarding the boat. And, earlier in the morning, I was a little panicked that my friend Nick and I had to wait to see if there would be room for us to join them. We had made the necessary arrangements to enter Mount Athos on this date but hadn't known to reserve tickets for the boat itself. Let that be a lesson for somebody.

Given a well-publicized daily limit of 134 pilgrims—120 Orthodox Christians and 14 "others" who are allowed to enter the Holy Mountain—I had no idea there would be so many pressing to catch the morning ferry, easily four hundred men, probably more.

I was puzzled, as well, by the early-morning demeanor of some of my fellow travelers. Though we were embarking about 9:30 AM, a good dozen or so were sipping cans of Amstel lager, and many of them were obviously nursing serious hangovers. Not just a few seemed still to be drunk, and one was passed out between two comrades who kept him from falling over—for the most part.

The official limit of 134 men, it turns out, applies only to the uninvited. There is apparently no limit for visiting monks, Orthodox clergy, or those pilgrims who have made arrangements to visit their spiritual fathers by invitation.

Still, those particular exceptions didn't absolutely account for the drunks.

The official limit doesn't apply to laborers either. In recent years, reconstruction support has come to Mount Athos from the European Union and from various public and private sources in predominantly Orthodox countries. Of the twenty monasteries and the dozen-plus sketes, nearly all are undergoing some degree of reconstruction and repair. Some, like Chelandári and Simonópetra, have suffered recent losses from fire, but all have suffered the toll of time. Megísti Lávra, Saint Panteleímon, and Saint Andrew's Skete, for example, appear to have a good many more derelict structures than usable ones.

A thousand years can erode a lot of stone and mortar, rot a lot of wood—even the iron-like chestnut beams and boards used for most wooden structures on the Holy Mountain. As a result, Mount Athos is occupied daily by an army of excavators, stonemasons, and carpenters; this morning, they weren't all hungover, but all bore the demeanors of men on their way to a day (or several weeks) of serious labor. I really couldn't blame them for their grim looks.

And I have to say that, progressively, during the boat ride, as the reality of Mount Athos began to weigh on my idealized, abstract expectations, I guessed that I too was on my way to work.

It wasn't until Nick and I had stowed our backpacks under our seats and were stretched out, feeling the sun on our faces, that any of this began to feel real. Nick, by the way, is Nick Kalaitzandonakes. As you might have noticed from his substantial surname, Nick is Greek. If you were Greek, you would also gather from his name that his family originally hails from Crete. Nick is also an American, having been naturalized about fifteen years ago. He is married to the indefatigable Julie, and they have two beautiful, busy kids, Maria and Yorgo—both brilliant, and each, in his or her own way, full of beans.

Nick and I have served together on the parish council of our Saint Luke the Evangelist Orthodox Church since before it was a parish council, since before we even had a parish. We were just a "mission steering committee" at first, working to establish the first-ever Orthodox church in mid-Missouri. It worked out pretty well.

Nick is also a colleague at the University of Missouri, where I teach poetry writing and American literature in the English department, and where he is an agricultural economist. Nick was also, for the first five days of this first pilgrimage, my guide and translator.

So far, my Greek is very lame. As with about seven other languages, however, I maintain certain priorities. I can manage—politely even—to get myself fed in Greek. And I can order red wine. Or single-malt scotch, when it's available. On this trip, I also learned how to reserve a room, pay a tab, count my change, and shove my way onto a bus. Nick, on the other hand, could help with the occasional theological discussion, and he's a pretty funny guy, to boot. Nick is also, as it happens, a pilgrim.

At that moment on the deck—with the breeze whipping up whitecaps on the Aegean, the ferryboat tooling along in what I swear was a confident, dactylic rhythm, and the first monastic enclaves coming into view along the shore—I realized that I was really going to the Holy Mountain.

Mount Athos has always been a unique phenomenon, and, for most folks, it remains a downright puzzling phenomenon; its uniqueness and puzzlement are all the more pronounced in the 21st century, when ancient pursuits like monasticism, asceticism, and hesychasm (EH-see-kazm; the pursuit of stillness) strike the modern psyche as anachronistic, extreme, and maybe a little perverse.

The monks also follow the Julian, or "old," calendar, and this involves a tweaking of dates to a point thirteen days behind where you thought you were.

Think of it as a cosmic pressure to slow down—or, maybe better, as a metaphor for our failure to know, even, where we stand, or when.

Then don't think about it again. The monks are, for the most part, gracious enough to suppose where and when you think you are, and will play along.

Oh, and one other thing: the clock. The hours of the day begin at sundown rather than at midnight. Not to worry; you'll catch on.

The easternmost of three peninsulas—easily the steepest and rockiest of three long fingers of steep and rocky land—reaching south into the Aegean from that region of northeastern Greece known as Halkidikí, the peninsula of Mount Athos is about thirty-four miles long and varies between five and eight miles across, covering less than 250 square miles total. The sharply rising terrain moves precipitously from sea level to 6,700 feet, which is the summit of the Mount Athos peak itself, very near the southern tip of the peninsula.

In physical terms, then, the area of the Holy Mountain isn't much. In spiritual terms, it is immense, impossible to chart.

Archaeological evidence suggests that since as early as the second century, ascetics have lived here in pursuit of prayer—in pursuit of, rather, lives of prayer. I'll get to what I mean by the italics soon enough. Or nearly soon enough. By and by.

Since the 3rd century—and perhaps even earlier—ascetics desiring lives of prayer have lived in community here. Over the next seventeen hundred years, the precise number of these communities has varied, witnessing intermittent increase and decline; some documents indicate that as many as 180 such communities flourished at one point. The establishment of these communities appears to have occurred in two distinct waves, an early wave during the 3rd through the 5th centuries, and a second, more pronounced wave commencing in the 10th century and continuing into the 14th century. (Megísti Lávra, founded in 963, is agreed to have been the earliest in the second wave.)

Today, twenty such communities are recognized as "ruling monasteries"; because Mount Athos operates as a virtually autonomous political state, representatives from these twenty constitute the Holy Mountain's governing body. Although seventeen are identified as Greek, one as Bulgarian, one as Serbian, and one as Russian, the Holy Mountain comprises a full array of Orthodox nationalities, including substantial numbers of Romanian, Moldavian, Ukrainian, English, American, and Australian monks. There are also a dozen or more sketes; these are very like monasteries, but ostensibly—with a few notable exceptions—smaller. Each skete is a dependency of one of the twenty ruling monasteries, on whose lands it rests. Some, like the Romanian Skíti Timíou Prodrómou (named after "the Forerunner," Saint John the Baptist), the Russian Skíti Agíou Andréa (Saint Andrew's Skete), and Skíti Profíti Ilioú (Prophet Elias Skete), look very like full-fledged monasteries, with a central katholikón (church) protected within a high-walled structure; others, including Skíti Agías Annis (Saint Anne's Skete) and Néa Skíti (New Skete), appear more like thriving residential communities spread across the steep Athonite slope, dotted with churches, chapels, and monastic kellía, or cells. There are, as well, throughout the Athonite wilderness, many scattered, communal farm dwellings, kalyves (communal huts), kathísmata (smaller huts for single monks), and hesychastéria (squat huts or simple caves etched in a cliff face for the most ascetic of hermits, an increasingly rare breed).

The twenty ruling monasteries are now coenobític, meaning that the monks all follow a common rule. Until recently, some were idiorrythmic, in which the monks pursued more individualized ascetic practice, often allowing for a more demanding rule. The idiorrythmic approach—still observed in many of the sketes and smaller dependencies—is thought by some to be an aberration of the ideal monastic community, albeit a necessary one brought about during foreign occupation by Franks, Turks, and so on. Others understand the idiorrythmic rule of the skete to be more aptly suited to those monks who are permitted a more strenuous áscesis.

In either case, the monastic rule has always revolved around prayer. And fasting, too—but fasting as a tool assisting prayer. It is safe to say that nothing about life on Mount Athos is understood as an end in itself, and that everything deliberate about life there is undertaken to accommodate prayer. Prayer is undertaken to accommodate union with God—what those in the business like to call theosis.

We should probably stick to prayer for now, but theosis is the crux of our matter, and that is where—I pray—we will eventually arrive.

Odd as Mount Athos may appear by contemporary standards, the Holy Mountain is visited by hundreds of pilgrims every month. The generally balmy weather and calm seas of spring, summer, and fall bring boatload after boatload scrambling to visit the steep and rocky slopes, the deep forests of chestnut, pine, and juniper, and the ancient enclaves; though wintertime draws relatively fewer, they continue to arrive daily and by the dozens whenever the weather-driven surf allows the ferryboats to dock.

That is to say, year-round, pilgrims arrive at Mount Athos almost every day, looking for something. One friend (now a novice monk at Simonópetra) told me that a good many visitors come in search of healing from serious illness—their own or that of a loved one. Some arrive because their marriages are failing or have failed; some come to kick an addiction or two; and some few arrive because they are drawn to a fuller sense of prayer.

Most of the visitors are Orthodox Christians, and most are from Greece; a good number arrive from other parts of eastern Europe, notably Romania and Russia. Concurrent with the rise of Eastern Orthodoxy in English-speaking countries, many also come from England, Australia, and North America. Many non-Orthodox arrive as well; from what I could gather, these are often from Germany and other parts of western Europe.

As I mentioned, the daily limit for entry to the Holy Mountain is 120 Orthodox and 14 non-Orthodox men. Since a vote among resident monks in the year 1045 and a subsequent edict of Emperor Constantine in 1060, women are not allowed entry at all, ever.

This last bit seems to many—as it has seemed to me—to be the most archaic element of the entire operation, an element that, for some of us, threatens to turn admirably quaint into regrettably anachronistic, verging right up on the cusp of damned insulting. Granted, there are many monastic communities, East and West, that choose to limit their communities to one gender; the Athonite monasteries are not unique in that respect. Many convents exclude men; many monasteries exclude women.

Be that as it may, Mount Athos is an entire peninsula, an entire monastic republic, and—some would say—the spiritual center of the entire Eastern Church. So the exclusion of women strikes the casual observer as extreme, not just a little misogynistic. That sense is not much mitigated by the fact that this prohibition extends to female animals in general—save those among the wild animals and the countless cats who are pleased to keep both the rats and the vipers nicely in check.

Explanations abound, of course. One tradition has it that the Virgin Mary (whom, incidentally, the Orthodox call Theotókos, or God-bearer), traveling by ship with Saint John en route to visit Saint Lazarus (then Bishop of Cyprus), was blown off course and came upon this beautiful peninsula. Moved by its beauty and isolation, the Virgin prayed to her Son that it might become hers to protect. The story goes that this was, and remains, a done deal.

Some legends include miraculous, audible warnings to historical female visitors—one of them being the stepmother of Mohammed the Conqueror who had come to return the gifts of the magi to the Christians near the site of today's monastery of Saint Paul (where those relics are now kept). By and large, the legends share one element: women are not to come here, and if they do come here, they shouldn't plan on sticking around.

My own guess is that the lives of prayer these men seek to acquire are understood by them to be more possible in an environment where certain longstanding human failures—pride, greed, violence, lust, and so on—are mitigated by a lack of opportunity. The absence of women effectively takes at least one species of error off the table, and indirectly protects the monks from a good many others.

That said, notable exceptions have been made in the past. In particular, during the Greek civil war—which occurred in the aftermath of World War II—the monasteries of Mount Athos offered sanctuary to many women and girls fleeing the brutality of mainland atrocities. The monks made places for them, saw that they were fed, and kept them safe for the duration of hostilities. When, back on the mainland, the coast was clear, the monks promptly cleared the Athonite coast of women.

I hoped to ask, at one point or another, about this continuing prohibition of what are, generally speaking, my favorite people. I hoped to hear an explanation that didn't sound quite so specious as the ones I'd heard so far. Mostly, I hoped at some point even to understand it, suspecting that, as with a good many things, the business might look different from the inside than it does from the outside.

On the Áxion Estín, leaning into the headwind at the bow, I was waking to the fact that after many months of planning and anticipation, Nick and I would soon be inside, setting foot on land blessed by centuries of prayer—genuine prayer, prayer of a sort I could only suspect, and desire.

Soon, I'd be walking through what the Orthodox call the garden of the Theotókos.

I hoped, moreover, to come upon a holy man, an adept, a spiritual father, who could help me to pray.

It was more than a little daunting.

In a curious and surprising way, at that moment the bleary-eyed stonecutter who was slumped next to me, picking at the bandage on his knuckle, became something of a comfort.

Scott Cairns is professor of English at University of Missouri-Columbia, where he directs the creative writing program and the Center for Literary Arts. Among his many books of poetry the most recent is Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (Paraclete Press). This essay is excerpted from his new book A Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage (HarperSanFrancisco). Copyright 2007 by Scott Cairns. Used by permission of HarperCollins.

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