Last November, my wife and I drove one Saturday over to Columbia, Missouri, to see youngest son in college. We brought food relief, went out to eat (at the Flatiron, if you’re ever there and looking for something good and inexpensive), and then hit the University of Missouri bookstore. My wife and youngest son gravitated to logo clothing while I wandered among the book stacks, and specifically the poetry stacks.
One of the books I found was Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns.
Cairns is an accomplished poet and an English professor at Mizzou, where he teaches modern and contemporary American literature and creative writing. He’s also an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and he writes about his faith. A lot. His Love’s Immensity, in fact, is a collection of translations and adaptations of writings of various Christian apostles, disciples and saints on faith and prayer, from Saint Paul to St. Therese of Lisieux, and written as poems.
Short Trip to the Edge is the account of four pilgrimages Cairns made with the hope of finding a spiritual father to guide him in a life of prayer – two to the monasteries and “sketes” of Mount Athos, one to an Orthodox monastery in Arizona, and the fourth back to Mount Athos, this time with his teenaged son. To join Cairns on his journey is to discover some of the most revered places in the Orthodox church, to see how seekers and others undertake a pilgrimage, and to watch as they and the monks and priests leading them participate in worship.
It’s a very different kind of Christian faith from what I’ve experienced. It’s a tribute to Cairns’ writing that I found myself sitting alongside him, in my own “stall,” listening to the chants of the monks and standing in line with the other pilgrims to receive the Eucharist, and then afterward to join in venerating the icons. (And veneration of the icons is something almost alien to this evangelical Presbyterian.)
As I was finishing the book this past week, what should arrive in my email but a daily reflection from Mark Roberts, senior director of Laity Lodge and Scholar-in-Residence, part of the High Calling organization (my blog is affiliated with the High Calling Blogs). This is a daily email, and Roberts has been writing and meditating on the Gospel of Mark. Thursday’s reflection cited the Jesus Prayer. And Roberts said that, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, “One of the most common and influential prayers is… the so-called ‘Jesus Prayer,’ which has a variety of forms, and is spoken millions of times each day by believers throughout the world.”
And it’s the prayer that Cairns prays throughout Short Trip to the Edge.
Okay, so it was a coincidence. But I ponder coincidences like that, and I started to pray the words. I can’t say that anything miraculous has happened as a result, nor do I expect that. But I’m finding it is a way to calm myself and focus, and I’ve started praying it several times a day.
The words are simple.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Short Trip to the Edge also has things to say about poetry. Visit TweetSpeak Poetry for my post on that aspect of the work.
On Friday, my friend Jim Schmotzer looked at The Jesus Prayer in poetic form, and it's a beautiful rendering. The fact that it was on both of our minds at the same time is another one of those coincidences.