Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer

Many thanks to Angela Doll Carlson of Ancient Faith for today’s review and guest blog post featuring Scott Cairns’ book Short Trip to the Edge.  

“And then I was standing at the edge. It would surprise you
how near to home. And the abyss? Every shade of blue,
all of them readily confused, and, oddly, none of this
as terrifying as I had expected, just endless.”

–Scott Cairns “Short Trip to the Edge”

Well, first off, I don’t generally “review” books. Let’s just be clear about that. Reviews can be so subjective, and what one person digs, someone else might hate. That’s just the long and short of it.

But, you know, the work of Scott Cairns has figured greatly not only in my writing but in my conversion to Orthodoxy as well. His memoir, “Short Trip to the Edge” was particularly influential. I read it for the first time about seven years after Scott’s poetry reading at Calvin College that I speak about in both Garden in the East and in Nearly Orthodox. I was already well on the road to becoming Orthodox, but still a few years away from making it legal, so to speak. I had met Scott, “friended” him on Facebook and then got busy bombarding him with questions.

Some of those questions were answered in that first version of his memoir and even more of those questions cropped up in the course of reading the book. He’s a gracious friend and was kind enough to answer them until I got myself into a larger Orthodox community. Sometimes I still bombard him with questions. He’s still gracious.

So when the new version of Short Trip to the Edge came along, complete with a new subtitle, I was eager to read it. I was told that the new book, in addition to the new subtitle, is a bit different from the first edition; there are now maps, some amendments, some small corrections and an epilogue that continues the story.

I’ll confess that I went into the re-reading of the book, all these years after reading the original, with some of the same thoughts I had as I entered into Orthodoxy. I thought, “I totally know all this.” I was right on some counts, there were moments I remembered well– the descriptions of the “switchback” roads of Mount Athos, the harsh conditions during the winter trip to the Holy Mountain, the painful search for a spiritual father and yet the beauty of it all, even so. I’m pretty sure I cried and cringed at all the same places. Don’t judge me, I’m a crier.

I’m not much of a fan of typical “conversion stories” which is fortunate because this memoir isn’t one. This is a story about a man in search of prayer, deep and resounding prayer. I remember that the book struck me on my first reading as part travelogue, part memoir. The triptych feel as Cairns crafts narrative through three visits to Mount Athos is interwoven with his spiritual journey at home, underscored most prominently by his search for a spiritual father. It echoed my own anxieties as I put my feet on the road to Orthodoxy.

Since becoming Orthodox, I’ve encountered this desire for a spiritual father quite a lot, in people I meet but also in myself. I tell people that I’m still looking for my own version of Dostoevsky’s “Father Zosima.” I’m only half joking. It’s a kind of pathology in our culture. We’re in some need, and we’re looking for someone who has answers.

In some ways, I think this desire is one of the driving forces that led me to Short Trip to the Edge the first time I picked it up– and it did not disappoint. The thing is, I didn’t know what I really needed was not someone who “knew the answers” as much as someone who was asking better questions. I found that in Scott Cairns’ Short Trip to the Edge.

Scott Cairns is a fellow traveler to his readers, sharing anxiety and joy and beauty each step of the way. We feel the weight of his backpack on those switchback roads, the heat of the day, the cold of the night. We see the weathered stones of each monastery and smell the incense-soaked katholikon. And we can almost taste the strong raki and rich dark brewed coffee and sweet or savory offerings at the trapeza after a lengthy night of Liturgy. And in this we are offered, at each point, the hospitality of the author to enter in, to taste and see. When Isaak is welcomed home, it is as though he turns to us and invites us in as well. Stepping into these sacred places feels a little less daunting with such a guide.

Whether one is pursuing Orthodoxy or simply recognizes the need for some brush with beauty, this “pilgrimage to prayer” is a worthy journey for the reader.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) is available here on Ancient Faith as well as the amazing and wonderful Eighth Day Books, Paraclete Press and all those huge corporate places too if that’s your bag. Don’t worry, I’m not judging you.

About Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is an Orthodox Christian poet, fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from publications such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Bird’s Thumb Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Ink & Letters, and Art House America. 

Her memoir, ‘Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition’ (Ancient Faith Publishers) was released July 2014. Her latest book, ‘Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body’ is due out from Ancient Faith Publishers in 2016.

Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, David and her 4 outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.

 

The Herz-Werk (“Heart-work”) of Rilke

by Mark S. Burrows

In her marvelous recent collection of essays on poetry, Jane Hirshfield suggests that “the desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.” She goes on to describe how, in strong poems, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees” (Ten Windows. How Great Poems Transform the World [New York: Knopf, 2015]). Poems carry the magic of transformation, bending the imagination in both directions—from inner to outer to inner, and back again. They change the way we learn to look, and thereby shape what we see. In turn, the “outer” world, by means of the leadings voiced in a good poem, reach into our inner being and change us, in large or subtle ways.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a style that exemplifies this, his use of often startling and unexpected metaphors shifting something in the way we see, as if offering us glimpses of a world that alters the ways we look—and, thus, what it is we come to see in this world and in ourselves. One of these poems offers glimpses of God through a peculiar gathering of images, ones few of us might have imagined if left to ourselves but which, once we encounter them, might come to feel as intimate to us as our breathing. It begins this way:

99 Psalms

The poem goes on to speak of how God stirs within us as we grow and change, “ripening” us in our journey, and above all in the struggles that will and do come, which Rilke alludes to with the pointed image of our “wrestling.” We find our lives deepened through feelings that might be discomforting, perhaps even a struggle, for us: viz., the experience of “homesickness”; wandering into a deep, dark forest; facing the silences that somehow, he suggests, might still invite us to song.

How is this to happen? Rilke refuses to say. His work as poet is not to tell us something, but rather to lure us: in this case, by awakening our vision with images that might initially strike us as strange and marvelous, as these surely are. Ours is the work of taking such metaphors into our musings, letting them come to work slowly on our inner way of seeing, inviting them to stir our imagination—which is the heart of what it means to “come to faith.” How a poem like this ignites our inner eye, and thereby alters how we look if not also how we live: this is the work of experiencing a good poem, taking us on a slow, meditative journey of coming to know. In engaging this “heart-work” (Herz-Werk), as he elsewhere calls it, we learn to take such images into the “deep” of our mind, coming to inhabit the outer world more perceptively and the inner world more knowingly. Through such images as these, as Ms. Hirshfield reminds us, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees.”

God as the “great homesickness we’d not mastered”? An unsettling, even unorthodox image, at least at first glance. But no less a figure than the great theologian of Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo, said as much: “To praise You is what we desire, we who are but a fragment of your creation. You stir us to delight in praising You, because You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Confessions I.1; my translation). Rilke, of course, carries Augustine’s thought further, suggesting that what we experience in our unrest is the very presence of the divine within us—a remarkable insight, to be sure. And what a provocative and liberating invitation it offers, pointing to our struggles, our troubles and confusions, not as our problem but rather as the very hope of our “ripening.” Here, the poet suggests how we might claim our struggle as the root of our ripening—and how this might become for us a path into song, the kind we might learn to sing “in every silence.” Perhaps, along this inner path of the heart, we might even begin to attune ourselves to God the “net” who is wide enough to snare our “fleeing feelings.” To be caught in this net is to be freed into the deep of peace.

Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives

“Once I began reading these stories I couldn’t stop. Each writer is a strong woman who has learned much from life and God. Gritty, funny, painful, affirming. No punches are pulled, but grace abounds.” —Luci Shaw, poet and author

From matters of politics to education, from social justice to health and wellness and beyond, this has been a year for the voices of women to ring out, and the Women of Redbud Writers Guild add their voices to the swell: voices of honesty, faith, deep spirituality, and generous wisdom. In their new book, Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives, they speak out on behalf of those women who might not have found their own voices yet, sharing stories of their own personal transformations, discoveries, and overcomings.

In forty stories, from global campaigns against social injustice and poverty, to the most intimate retellings of miscarriages and stillbirths, these Women of Redbud Writers Guild share a clarion call to all women: there is no pain that cannot be redeemed by the grace of God, no God-given voice that should be silenced, no one for whom the love of God through Jesus Christ will ever fall short.

Each of the diverse Women of Redbud Writers Guild — comprised of authors, lawyers, doctors, pastors, journalists, wives, mothers, and more — are as fascinating as the stories they share, for example:

Shayne Moore, a founder of Redbud and author of Global Soccer Mom, tells her story of a visit to Kenya to learn more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and becoming a voice for the voiceless

Margaret Ann Philbrick, who began her career advertising Pop-Tarts for Kellogg’s, now plants seeds in hearts, having surrendered her life to the cross of Jesus Christ, and shares her poem “We Write”

Emily Gibson, wife, mother, farmer, and family physician, chronicles the heritage of the farm where she and her husband now raise their sons, specifically the woodlot where the trees have been watered with tears after the suicide of a 14-year-old boy

Alia Joy, writer, speaker and blogger, shares what it was like growing up Asian American, and how the “sin of omission” – neglecting to show women like her to the rest of America – is one of the worst types of oppression

Read an excerpt

Paraclete Poetry Anthology Reviewed in Booklist

Booklist Online Exclusive: March 10, 2017 The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: New and Selected Poems. Burrows, Mark S. (Editor) Dec 2016. 224 p. Paraclete, paperback, $20. (9781612619064). 811.

Paraclete Press stands out from other small religion publishers by maintaining a poetry series of handsome paperback editions. This volume well represents Paraclete’s program with selections from those books and a few new or newly translated poems by their authors. By far the most famous of its poets is Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by editor Burrows, though the Polish Anna Kamienska (1920–96), Irishman Thomas Lynch, the Iranian-German SAID, and the Wisconsin Episcopal monk, Father John-Julian, are either also better-known or deserve to be. The late Phyllis Tickle, Publishers Weekly’s first religion editor, and the well-known literary biographer, Paul Mariani, are also Paraclete poets. Altogether, the range of poetic expression here encompasses spiritual journaling, prayer, legends and biography, visionary and ordinary mysticism, nature-contemplation, and, of course, prayer, as well as formally relaxed and precise individual poems. A worthy showcase. — Ray Olson

9064

Greg

Communion of Saints

In my teens, I discovered a poet named Gregory Orr when my friend loaned me her copy of his New and Selected Poems.  I read constantly, usually books from the library, but this book wouldn’t accrue fines if I kept it for a while, and I really loved it.  It was the first book I ever loved by a living poet.  I loved the weird photograph on the front of wax candles in the shapes of a human heart and two arms, hanging outside of a candle shop.  I loved the poems between the red covers, in which a poet flies in a small aircraft and opens up an egg to find his grandmother’s jade ring inside.  I bought as many of Orr’s books as I could find.  My favorite used bookstore owner, a tough, smart man who was formerly a super in Manhattan, flipped one of his books to expose the author photo on the back cover.  “Doesn’t he look like the most romantic gypsy?” he asked admiringly.  I had to admit that he did.

Once at college, I took an Introduction to Poetry course, then applied to take an intermediate poetry class with The Romantic Gypsy.  I typed up my poems and put them in his mailbox as I’d been instructed to do.  I hoped I might be accepted to his course, but I wasn’t sure it would work out.  Several days later, I came home to a message on my answering machine.  “Hello, this is Professor Orr,” he began.  I was in.

I remember the first days of class well: how much we all wanted to impress him, how foolish people sometimes looked when we tried.   Fortunately, Greg never laughed at our pretensions.  He had thought a great deal about poetry–he’d written his own textbook for our class, which we bought at the copy shop and read dutifully every week.  We all knew his life was full of personal tragedy–the hunting accident when he killed his brother, the early death of his mother–and because he spoke slowly, it seemed more like he was thinking out loud than lecturing, most of the time.  But he had a delightful, delighted smile and a sideways way of writing on our poems–his comments sometimes snaked down the side of the page.  They were spare but powerful.  I treasured them in the way I might have treasured love letters–except these were more sacred.

I took his class several times, and it got even more fun as the years went on, especially when I took the adult education classes that city residents could attend.  There I was surrounded by law students and graduate students and even some hippie women who seemed to be part of our local Sufi community.  These folks really wanted to write, and Greg validated what we did every week.  He was clear and kind, thoughtful of what we were attempting to do.  He seemed to accept anything we brought to the table, even when Rahima brought in a terrifying poem about getting a cockroach stuck in her ear canal and practicing zikr to keep from freaking out as she drove to the doctor.

Fifteen years after I graduated, I went back to visit him.  I had been in touch with him intermittently, and had attended his readings in the city where I now lived, but going back to my hometown, I had always been too shy to meet up with him.  This time, though, I’d been invited back to campus, so I stopped by the department and left him a note.  He taped up a response to his door, directing me to meet him just after his class.

When we met, he looked the same, although his hair was grey now instead of the dark brown it used to be.  He still had his handlebar mustache and his beautiful, wry smile.  He remembered me, which I expected, but he also remembered my college poems, which I did not expect.  He asked me about my current work, suggested a few places which might publish my writing, and, when I told him I was writing about St. Francis, asked about the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi.  He had examined them carefully enough to know that Giotto had left out an important episode in Francis’s life, the moment when he embraced the leper.  Greg still took me seriously after so much time apart, and I remembered how supportive he had been fifteen years before, when I had showed up to this same office early in the morning after my overnight shift, bearing purple morning glories and asking him about graduate school.

Teachers don’t always know their impact on their students, and students don’t always reflect on the importance of their teachers, but I am certain that if I had never been Greg Orr’s student, my life would have gone in a completely different direction.  Even now, when I pull out his books from my bookshelf, I can still feel the excitement of being a teenager, reading those poems, and listening to that gentle voice on my answering machine, telling me that someone who could really write felt that I might have something important to say.

Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus

2

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 seemed 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 St. 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 oat 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 don’t 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 smooths her hair and straightens her apron,

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

—from Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller

3

My friend Angela is an extraordinary person, and not just because she’s a consecrated virgin living in the world.  The year I met her, I wandered in the middle of my life into a church in Brooklyn, New York, and finally committed to convert to Catholicism.  Angela attended church without fail–it seemed that every single time I was there, she was there.  The priests often called her to come up and help, whether to serve communion or to read if our usual 12:30 lector, Eric, wasn’t there.  She always said yes, happily padding up to the altar in bare feet, a big smile on her face.  She was friendly, especially after she met me and found out that I was converting.  Every time I saw her, she’d say, “I love ya, kiddo.”  I didn’t know her that well, but I figured it was just because I was kind to her elderly mother, who sometimes appeared in church beside her, and sometimes didn’t, due to her advanced age and failing health.

My sponsor for baptism and confirmation was my old friend Charles, who lived a few miles across Brooklyn and had a tendency to lateness.  We had known each other for years; we became friends over disaster tacos when G.W. Bush was voted in for his second term.  Sometimes he was so late to things that they were over when he got there.  He’d come in to church to meet me, and I could hear him singing loudly, walking up the aisle during the final hymn.  Those were the lucky days.  Other days he just couldn’t make it at all, mostly because he was depressive.  I just knew that some days were good days for Charles and some were not so good.  I didn’t judge, though occasionally I’d be disappointed.  Mostly I didn’t count on his appearance, so that when he did show up, I’d be delighted.  Part of the reason I had asked him to sponsor my conversion was because I knew that church was important to him, but he needed a push to come.

Because Charles sometimes couldn’t make it, I appreciated Angela’s ever-present commitment to church.  I didn’t realize that she was extraordinary until lateCommunion-of-Saintsr.  At first, I just thought she was a nice woman.

The week of Easter the year I was baptized, my mother-in-law died, and then I got sick.  I don’t know if it was the flu, a terrible cold, or demons (though I still have my suspicions about that.)  I felt awful, though.  Aside from feeling like I had let my husband down in his moment of grief, I had an earache that turned into partial deafness for several weeks, as well as respiratory problems that you really don’t want me to describe in detail.  In addition, I was preparing for the full-body immersion in our baptismal font, which was designed like a tomb.  I was glad to know that there was a little bleach in the holy water, because I didn’t want to pass my germs to everyone else.  On top of everything else, my priest asked if he could wash my feet at Mass on Holy Thursday.  I was nervous about all of it, so when I went to attend Holy Thursday Mass, I asked my former student Kevin to come with me.  (I was afraid I might faint, due to being sick.)

Angela was there, so I introduced Kevin to her.  I half-expected that she might tell Kevin she loved him, too, but she didn’t.  Mass started, and I got my feet washed, and I came back and sat with Kevin and knelt and rose for prayers and did everything I was supposed to do for the first hour or so.  And suddenly, in the middle of kneeling, I started to feel very wrong.  “Are you okay, Susan?” Kevin whispered.

It turned out I did not faint.  But right in the middle of the consecration of the Host, with my newly clean feet, I had to sprint out of church and into the little bathroom in the entryway, because instead, I had to vomit.  Violently.

A few moments after, when I was washing the sink, I heard Angela’s voice.  “Are you okay? Kevin asked me to come and check on you,” she said.

“I threw up,” I said.  “I don’t know what happened.  Maybe it’s demons.”  I was joking, but only about half joking.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not demons,” Angela said, and laughed. She put her arm around me and helped me back to the pew, while everyone else was returning from the communion line to their seats.

Two days later, on Saturday morning, Angela came to the consecration ceremony for the catechumens.  Charles had come the day before to Good Friday service and scolded me for genuflecting, since the tabernacle was empty.  Charles would be coming, too, to my baptism at Midnight Mass that night, but that morning must have been a bad morning, because he didn’t make it.  It turned out that it didn’t matter.  Angela stood in for Charles at every moment, even helping my priest by holding the vials of holy oil, including the one that smelled like pine and incense, which he used to cross the palms of my hands, my forehead, and my chest.

That was when I realized that the source of Angela’s extraordinariness wasn’t just that she was a friendly woman from my neighborhood.  I knew a few permutations of love–the romantic kind, and the kind I had for friends, especially friends like Charles, whose wounds I recognized in myself.  There was the love I was developing for my priests, a special semi-parental kind which confused me at first until I could put a name to it.  And then there was Angela’s kind–the kind that showed up whether she knew you needed her or not, just in case you did.  And I did.

As I was packing up my things to go, Angela came up to me.  “How ya feelin’?” she asked.  I assured her that I was much better.  “I know.  You look alright,” she said.  “You’ll do fine tonight.  And don’t forget, I love ya, kiddo.”

“I love you, too, Angela,” I replied.

Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia

8

In celebration of National Poetry Month, this blog will continue to feature guest posts by our published poets. This week we welcome Susan L. Miller with reflections, stories and poetry from her newly released book Communion of Saints: Poems.

My poem “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” was inspired by my friend Carol, the first nun I ever met.  I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties in a parish in Brooklyn, run by Franciscans.  Two of my priests, Santo and Timothy, were often referred to by our parishioners as “Mary and Martha,” partly because of Father Timothy’s extraordinary work efforts.  Along with Wellington, our handyman, and a number of young men in our parish, Father Timothy remodeled an apartment behind the church.  The apartment, he told me one day during a two-hour confession-turned-church-tour, would be for our sisters.  He had drawn up plans by hand, showing the built-in bookshelves he would create in the living room, and despite the disarray of the project at the time, I could tell he had planned something very special.  He was even using the original wood to recreate the floors.

When I saw Sister Carol’s grey veil in the side aisle of the church for the first time, I made a point of sitting close by.  She remembers me greeting her by saying, “It’ll be nice to have some women here!”  I didn’t realize at the time what good friends we would become–but I did have hopes.

It was also Father Timothy who suggested to me during confession one Saturday that Sister Carol needed help in the Religious Education office.  He knew I was a teacher too, and I think he had hopes that I would eventually teach, but I started (and ended) my work there just doing simple data entry, registering children into their classes.  Sister Carol spoke so quietly that I would have to listen closely to her–being a little hard of hearing due to garage band hours logged in my youthCommunion-of-Saints.  She listened to me patiently as I ranted, often, about parts of Church doctrine that I found difficult to understand.  I knew her family lived up North, that she had spent years in Assisi and Massachusetts, and that she cared deeply for Sister Mercedes, our eldest nun.  She told me other stories.  When I asked if she had ever had a boyfriend, she told me the one about how, in her teens, she had a crush on a friend of her brother.  He had apparently planned their future together, but after she went away to college, “he found another young rose.”  Sister Carol did things her own way: the office key was marked “U,” for “ufficio.”  We laughed a lot.  We spent many hours together.  We had tea in the office at Christmas, and in the summer, once, she asked me to give her a haircut.  I was a little terrified to do it, since I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair since college, when my friend Travis had traded a pack of cigarettes for a haircut.  I figured that under her veil, very few people would see it if I made a mess of it, so I went ahead and gave it to her.  The soul of charity, she thanked me, but she never asked me to do it again.

It also didn’t take long for each of us to admit to the other that we wrote poetry.  I immediately encouraged her to show me hers, and brought poems of mine for her.  Sister Carol was more reticent, but one day, she e-mailed me an attachment.  When I opened it, a tiny poem was there–no more than ten lines.  No one wrote this kind of poetry in my graduate school–this poem had taken a walk in the wintertime dark and distilled it into its essence.  It was a lyric poem in the best way–concise, with a precision of language and image, and a mystery at its center.  I’m not sure I even knew how to read a poem like that, though of course I had, many times.  I wrote her back asking a bone-headed question about it.  I think she was disappointed, though, as with the haircut, she was kind.

It was only later, when she posted it on Facebook the next winter, that I read the poem and finally absorbed it.  She had editedit only slightly, but suddenly, it shifted into focus for me, and I understood what she might have seen and heard on that winter walk.  Sister Carol may have been quiet, but I realized what power she had as a speaker, if only I could find the right way to listen.

Winter walks at night
Not under a scrutinizing glance
But under a benevolent sky;
Even if dark and cold surround,
Clear and calm ring out
And I listen and hear.

For a long time, I thought that friendship was challenging because we must learn to love people who make such different decisions than we do.  I still think that’s a challenge, but I’ve also come to think of it as a gift.  And poetry, like friendship, makes us listen, even if just for once, to the way the voice in someone else’s mind might sound.

(Poem reprinted with permission of Sister Carol Woods, S.F.M.A.)

Premonition on the Holy Mountain

Years ago, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis. Cairns realized his spiritual life was advancing slowly and time was running out. For this this Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox, a desperate need to seek out prayer led him to Mount Athos—the Holy Mountain.

Originally published in 2007, Short Trip to the Edge is the 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 seeking out and discovering the stillness of a true prayer life.

Scott revisits Mt. Athos in the poem Premonition on the Holy Mountain: Remembering Brett Foster. Enter the katholikon, embrace the “dark hours,” join the host of silent witnesses and bide your time in peace as we prepare our hearts for Holy Week.

Read an excerpt of Short Trip to the Edge

Premonition on the Holy Mountain—remembering Brett FosterIn Vatopaidi’s dark katholikon
the liturgy has just begun, though we
three pilgrims have stood propped in our stasidi
for, lo, three dark hours already. The Psalms,
the Midnight Hours, the Matins—all have filled
our drowsy heads with Greek as we have drifted
in and out of what seems very like a dream.
It seems a dance, it seems a slow, a ceaseless
prayer, and, when I close my eyes, I feel
that I am also dancing with a crowd
of silent witnesses. It is a taste—
one might suppose—of what one finds interred:
embraced, asleep, and biding time in peace.

Just now, three tall thin monks float into view
to set lit tapers to the oil lamps,
and we awaken to the call announcing
“Blesséd is the kingdom of the Father,
of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I turn to see my friend. He has fully
wakened now, his face aglow, his face aflame,
his lovely spirit singing Blesséd is the name.

Other titles by Scott Cairns:

Slow-Pilgrim

Compass-of-Affection

 

“Is this what you were called to, Still Pilgrim?”

Listen as poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talks about the inspiration for her newest book, Still Pilgrim.

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“The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. These poems have become your poems, this story your story, bespeaking our (un)common beginnings and our equally (un)common end.” — Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, from the Afterword

Videographer: David De La Fuente