Six times Scott Cairns, celebrated poet and MU professor of creative writing, has made pilgrimage to the holy peninsula of Mount Athos, that forbiddingly austere sliver of Northern Greece that for nearly 16 centuries has served as the spiritual center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
On his first journey, recounted in a new memoir, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven -- A Pilgrimage, Cairns searched for a "spiritual father," someone to redefine his relationship to God, to teach him to live his life as a "prayer without ceasing." Finding such a mentor proved elusive, but the holy men he encountered made a profound impression. The more time he spent with the monks at Mount Athos -- in worship, at meal times, in their offices or touring the grounds -- the more he hungered for the peace, the abiding stillness, the closeness to God that these men seemed to carry in every situation. Or, perhaps more to the point, Cairns yearned to realize the closeness to God that carried them in every situation.
"God leans into us always, and we only lean into him intermittently," Cairns says. "The monks that I'm talking about have attained this state of leaning into God always. ... It's something I want to achieve, but haven't achieved yet."
In the meantime, Cairns writes. At 52, he has published seven volumes of poetry, two in the past year, and his poems have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The Paris Review.
His admirers include author Annie Dillard, who has called Cairns "one of the best poets alive," and best-selling literary critic Harold Bloom, who describes Cairns's poetry as "original and well-wrought." Last year, Cairns's work earned him a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, an award reserved for those who, according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, have demonstrated an "exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." The fellowship included a $38,000 cash prize, which Cairns used to make three visits to Mount Athos.
Cairns joined the MU English faculty in 1999 after spending five years teaching at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He was recently named director of MU's creative writing program and also heads the University's Center for the Literary Arts.
While Cairns' work is steeped in religious sensibility, he's not interested in writing sermons. In his view, any worthwhile literature, poetry especially, must begin as an exploration, not a dissertation. As Robert Frost famously put it: "I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering."
Unfortunately, Cairns says, the majority of those we might call religious poets are making too few discoveries.
"They think it's about saying what you think, about expressing what you know. If you write that way, whether you're a religious person or a secular person, if you're writing propaganda about your particular disposition, then the result is always going to be crappy poetry."