Midwest Book Review: A Short Trip to the Edge

Here’s a review from for newest book from Scott Cairns, courtesy of the Midwest Book Review.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer
Scott Cairns

Synopsis: Poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis (a fairly common experience among men nearing the age of fifty) while walking on the beach with his Labrador. His was not a desperate attempt to recapture youth, filled with Short Tripsports cars and younger women. Instead, Cairns realized his spiritual life was advancing at a snail’s pace and time was running out. Midlife crisis for this Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox Christian manifested as a desperate need to seek out prayer.

Originally published in 2007, this new edition of “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” from Paraclete Press includes photos, maps and an expanded narrative of Scott’s spiritual journey to the mystical peninsula of Mt. Athos. With twenty monasteries and thirteen sketes scattered across its sloping terrain, the Holy Mountain was the perfect place for Scott to seek out a prayer father and discover the stillness of the true prayer life. Told with wit and exquisite prose, his narrative takes the reader from a beach in Virginia to the most holy Orthodox monasteries in the world to a monastery in Arizona and back again as Scott struggles to find his prayer path. Along the way, Cairns forged relationships with monks, priests, and fellow pilgrims.

Critique: Impressively well written, organized and presented, this new edition of “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” with its photographic illustrations is an inherently fascinating and consistently compelling read from first page to last. Informative, thoughtful, written with insight and inspiration, “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” is unreservedly recommended reading for all members of the Christian community regardless of their denominational affiliation.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer
Scott Cairns
Paraclete Press
PO Box 1568, Orleans, MA 02653
www.paracletepress.com
9781612617329, $16.99, PB, 256pp, www.amazon.com

 

 

Portrait of Chayo as Saint Jude Thaddeus

by Susan Miller
Look for her upcoming book Communion of Saints from Paraclete Press

I never set out to write a book about the saints. I was a Catholic convert at 37, after a long struggle with discernment which began in my early twenties. I had never been baptised, never belonged to groups, religious or otherwise—even my friends often didn’t know each other. Over the years it seemed more and more important to be part of something bigger, and the Catholic church, as I grew to understand it, drew me in. I traveled a fair amount—to Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, and then in a period of very few years, to Canada, Peru, Spain, Morocco, and repeatedly, back to Mexico, sometimes several times a year. I usually began and ended my travels in Mexico City, the Districto Federal, which its citizens refer to as D.F.

I usually stayed with friends there, and these friends had a remarkable cook named Chayo. During my first visit, when I was 28, Chayo was introduced to me by Clementina, the matriarch of the family. She told me that Chayo had given her own kidney to her son when he was in dire medical condition. When I met her, Chayo was a little reserved, but soon she opened up, usually with some surprising statement out of nowhere. When I was growing up, I was taught that only criminals get tattoos, but I thought for a long time about getting a stem of flowers right here behind my ear. Or Ugh. That picture of me is terrible. Give it to the robbers. She’d tell me horrific cautionary stories about babies who got their toes chewed by rats in the slums of Mexico City, or she could repeat a gruesome joke about the earthquake, its punchline a phrase from a children’s song: A hand here, a foot there…

I can feel already that I’m giving you some of the wrong details. Her toughness was real, but she wasn’t hardened—Chayo radiated gratitude. She was always singing, with the radio, by herself, sweeping up the living room. She wasn’t just cheerful; she seemedMexican Lunch deeply contented. It surprised me when she admitted that, as a girl, she had been very talented at drawing and drafting and had wanted to be an architect. Instead, she had chosen a life of work in the homes of wealthier people. She never appeared dissatisfied or regretful. She had to work hard, coming to work from the North on the bus in the early morning chill, wrapped in a crocheted shawl, cooking and cleaning before most people had woken up.   She was good at her job, proud of her food, loved and respected by the people she worked for, and she always made time to teach me how to make one thing or another. And she shared with me her devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, who had helped her when her son’s health was failing.

One day, near the end of my trip, Clementina announced that Chayo was to take the day off from cooking and spend it with me at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She navigated our trip to the North of the city by communal van, subway, and a brief walk through one of the city markets that springs up at every corner in D.F. She told me that I’d recognize the Basilica from a distance: it’s the one that looks like a big stupid circus tent, she said. She was right—it wasn’t exactly an architectural triumph—but we rode the conveyer belt under the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego together, and visited the old cathedral, now sinking into the ground and filled with ex voto paintings by cured postulants. It seemed silly, though somehow quaint, to get a photo taken on a donkey, as people were doing on the hillside leading up to the smallest chapel. We walked up the hill to that chapel, and there both Chayo and I stopped to pray.

Praying can be such a private thing—and for each of us, it was—but somehow, I felt that the barriers between us, of language, nationality, religious upbringing, had somehow softened a little—that Chayo recognized in me the rootless quality that made some kind of home so important to me, and that I understood more about her solitary experience of belief. I don’t know if that day affected her feelings about me, but by the end of the trip, she was referring to me as her “American daughter.” It took another decade before I committed to my conversion, but I have always remembered her own example of faith as a model for me.

It was only later that I started to think of Chayo as a version of her favorite saint: the patron saint of impossible causes.

Portrait of Chayo as Saint Jude Thaddeus

In a green apron, Chayo stirs chayote soup,
holding her palm taut so she can daub a taste there

to check the salt. Her skin doesn’t feel the heat
though if I try the same I blister myself. She sings

while she chops chives into tiny rings
that float on the surface of the liquid.

When Clementina first told me about her, she taught me
in Spanish riñones, kidneys, because Chayo gave one

to her son, who almost died when his failed.
In Mexico City she pinned a bean-shaped charm

to the skirt of a statue. Priests, I dont talk to much,
she says, but San Judas Tadeo, him I trust.

 I prayed to him to intercede, to heal my son. She lifts a copper bowl
down from the cabinet and hugs it

against her chest with both arms. Now he works
as an engineer, and lives with his girlfriend. She sets the bowl

on the counter, lifts a stack of plates onto
the wheeled cart she uses to set the table.

She wraps warm tortillas in a cloth, spoons salsa
into a shallow dish, fills the serving bowl

with pale green soup I watched her form
from three chayotes, a potato, and bouillon.

Above her the stove-light burns in its hood,
illuminating each loose strand of hair on her head.

Nothing, she tells me, is a lost cause. This soup,
for example. If you cook it too long, add water and Norsuiza.

 If green beans turn dark, a little baking soda keeps them bright.
She smoothes her hair and straightens her apron,

ready to serve. And if you use a pressure cooker
for frijoles, theyll be perfect inside of half an hour.

This poem was originally published in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality, edited by Kevin Simmonds (Sibling Rivalry Press).

Mary and Martha in Chicago

By Sunset Septuagint

Have you seen the painting “The Scream”? I am currently on a trip to Chicago which began by travel on a full airplane which was late in landing. On arrival everyone immediately stood up, jamming the aisles while the passengers who had close connecting flights were fighting to get through to the front… What mayhem! Too bad there was no announcement for those not in a hurry to wait until the others got off.

Then I got in line to get a taxi…..there was a break in the barricade so wheelchairs could get through but behind the wheelchair others were cramming forward to get to the head of the line. Others ran to the end of the line behind the people waiting so they could hop into the cabs first without having to wait in line.

I am a very impatient person myself but this time I had no deadline so I started a conversation with a woman beside me in line and wound up telling her I was in Chicago for a doctor’s appointment. She asked the name of the doctor and when I told her, she said her father had the same surgeon and she told me how wonderful he was! Suddenly a weight of anxiety was miraculously lifted from my shoulders.

I thought of the Mary/Martha sermon last Sunday in church. It wasn’t the work that Martha was doing that was the problem but her anxiety and worry. By the grace of God alone for that moment in the taxi line, I was able to choose the better part to have a friendly chat with another person, and Jesus used the conversation with that woman to calm my fears!

Engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

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The Word

By Sr. Fidelis

We have wonderful and stimulating disagreements in our scholas! It is thrilling when schola members are so engaged that the small details matter — the lengthening of a note, the shaping of a particular neume — all in an effort to bring out the meaning of a word or phrase within a chant. That being said, however, I would like to offer us a quote this week from Dom Eugene Cardine about the final goal of chant:

“Gregorian Chant is a sung word, a sacred word which comes to us from God in Holy Writ and returns to God in praise…we must so greatly assimilate the result of our work that we end up by forgetting technique so that the listener does not hear it either…May good sense guide us and keep us halfway between inaccessible perfection and a routine which is too easily satisfied with anything at all.” (pp. xxviii-xxxi, The Restoration of Gregorian Chant, Dom Pierre Combe, trans. Marier/Skinner, Catholic University of America Press, 2003.)

May all of our discussions have this blessed ending!

gregorian_chant3.14.14 (1)

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Picking

By Sr. Spero

I picked some zucchini from the garden this morning. As I decided which squash to pick and which to let grow for another day, I realized that God is the great gardener. Sometimes it’s best to pick zucchini small for the best flavor. But sometimes a larger squash is better for soup or bread. And sometimes it’s best not to pick one at all, so the seeds can mature for the next crop. For me, it’s a matter of trust. Do I trust God enough to believe that when I’m picked I’m ready? Or if I’m not picked, do I trust that he might have some other plan in mind?

Zucchini

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A word from Saint Francis de Sales

“The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you  as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His grace, perfumed it with His consolation, taking one last glance at you and your courage, and then then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”

ChristySunset

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Hymn for the Feast of Saint Benedict

By Sr. Fidelis

This week we celebrate the Solemn Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Here in our Benedictine Community this is an especially significant day. We begin the service of Vespers with a beautiful hymn written by Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD), Benedictine reformer, and Doctor of the Church. Found in the Breviarum Monasticum, the hymn is written in Mode I and has a lovely lyrical tune setting off this stunning poetry. The writer uses phrases such as “precious jewel of the heavenly king”, “your heart fixed on the stars,” and “you work through the narrow beginnings of a strict life” as he recounts the life of Benedict.

Each verse begins with a stepwise melody in the lower range, blossoms in the middle in leaps of 4ths and 5ths, and then settles back to a repeat of the opening phrase. It sticks to the typical features of Mode I – beginning and ending on Re and at points hovering around La. The clarity and simplicity help paint the perfect backdrop for the hymn text.

In preparation for this day we have been reading through this text together – first to get our tongues wrapped around the words and then to digest them in our minds and hearts. It brings to mind his wisdom passed down to us over the centuries: Listen my Son with the ear of your heart….

BenedictHymn

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Saint Benedict

By Sr. Spero

I learned about St. Benedict from his Rule, imagining him as a fatherly abbot caring for the souls of his monks. Until a recent study trip on St. Benedict with the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy, I knew very little about his life. I discovered: His spiritual life began with three years alone in a cave when he was a young man. His first monastic experience was with a group of monks who asked him to be their abbot and then tried to poison him. He left undeterred and started 12 other monasteries in the same area. He has many miracles attributed to him, and was known as a mighty spiritual warrior. But his greatest success  is in the thousands of monasteries and millions of monks he has inspired to follow his way. St. Francis admired him greatly (the only portrait of St. Francis made in his lifetime is a fresco in the Holy Cave of St. Benedict), although he led his friars in a different way.

The study trip took us to Norcia, where Benedict was born, and Subiaco, the site of Sacro Speco (the Holy Cave), and monasteries covered with medieval frescoes illustrating the life of St. Benedict. Some no longer have monks or nuns living in them, but all have signs of a rich devotion to the saint. This seems to me his greatest legacy. The visible love of his followers—shown in their artwork, and the gift of their lives.

BenedettoinNorcia

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Saint Benedict

By Sr. Spero

I learned about St. Benedict from his Rule, imagining him as a fatherly abbot caring for the souls of his monks. Until a recent study trip on St. Benedict with the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy, I knew very little about his life. I discovered: His spiritual life began with three years alone in a cave when he was a young man. His first monastic experience was with a group of monks who asked him to be their abbot and then tried to poison him. He left undeterred and started 12 other monasteries in the same area. He has many miracles attributed to him, and was known as a mighty spiritual warrior. But his greatest success  is in the thousands of monasteries and millions of monks he has inspired to follow his way. St. Francis admired him greatly (the only portrait of St. Francis made in his lifetime is a fresco in the Holy Cave of St. Benedict), although he led his friars in a different way.

The study trip took us to Norcia, where Benedict was born, and Subiaco, the site of Sacro Speco (the Holy Cave), and monasteries covered with medieval frescoes illustrating the life of St. Benedict. Some no longer have monks or nuns living in them, but all have signs of a rich devotion to the saint. This seems to me his greatest legacy. The visible love of his followers—shown in their artwork, and the gift of their lives.

BenedettoinNorcia

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Praying with the Body in the Liturgy of the Hours

By Sr. Fidelis

We begin and end the office standing. Standing is a sign of reverence to God. As shown in paintings on the walls of the catacombs in Rome, the early Christians used to pray standing, with their arms uplifted. Although less familiar to us, standing was, for many centuries, the usual posture for communal prayer, and it is still the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches. In the Liturgy of the Hours, following the antiphon and intonation of the first half of the first psalm verse, we sit for the psalm. We stand again after chanting the first half of the last verse of each psalm, and bow for the Gloria Patri. Through all of these gestures, we are, as creatures, paying homage to God, our Creator, and to his majesty, and thus the gestures carry a weight of meaning far beyond the actual motions we make.

susanna1 Velata_priscilla

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