COLUMBIA — For Scott Cairns, a poet and MU professor of English, part of living as a "true" Christian means being compassionate. But that's not, he assures you, as easy as it sounds.
Cairns, a man in his mid-50s who pulls his hair into a ponytail and sports a salt-and-pepper beard, realized years ago how far he was from his religious ideals.
He was in the middle of a jog along a beach at Chesapeake Bay when the world seemed to be in perfect order. His yellow Labrador retriever, Mona, had finished romping in the sea and joyfully sprinted up to him.
She looked up, full of trust, and he was overwhelmed with self-awareness: He wasn't the good man his dog believed him to be, much less a "good Christian," and he hadn't been for a long time.
"For most of my life, I've not been a really great person. I was a lousy, lousy Christian," he said.
"I can get angry," he confessed.
Cairns said he wanted to actually become a Christian, rather than just think of himself as one. "I decided that I wanted to be better, so I thought I would go to people who had sort of found a way to do that, to turn their lives into something more whole."
Those people became the crux of his religious journey, one he's still pursuing and shares with the public through prose and poetry. Those people are, against all odds in this technological age, monks.
Most of them are monks who live on Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula where Orthodox Christians like Cairns have traveled on pilgrimages for centuries. In an effort to resolve his spiritual crisis, he began going to Greece in 2004, and he completed his eighth trip to Mount Athos this summer.
It appears he simply can't stay away, but that is unsurprising given what the journeys have brought him — religious peace, a published book and two more writing projects in the works.
"For at least 15 centuries, there have been monks living together praying ceaselessly,” he said of Mount Athos. "There’s a sense of sanctity there, a great sense of presence. ... I go there, I come back, I continue that prayer life."
Cairns discovered early that the way the monks enhanced their spiritual lives was self-denial, a skill he was gradually able to assimilate into his own life.
"What they learn early is to control their appetites, in the full range of how that word applies, so those appetites don't control them," he said.
The monks allow themselves only meager portions of food, few hours of sleep and no contact with women. For Cairns, self-denial means not being irascible or intolerant of others.
He chronicles his meetings with monks in his book, "Short Trip to the Edge." Published last year, his work is poetic prose.
He takes readers deep into his spiritual life, from his personal epiphany on the beach through his first four pilgrimages — but it’s no somber homily. Though his writing might be most enjoyable for the sympathetic Christian, his genuine, conversational and occasionally irreverent style makes his work accessible to the empathetic agnostic or an atheist with a sense of humor.
To follow up that work, Cairns has started research on another book profiling a subset of the people who have become so meaningful to him: Its working title is "Young Monks."
"Those are the ones with joy, the young ones," Cairns said, explaining that he met a number of men on Mount Athos who had given up the secular world — and the prospect of ever having a wife or children — by the time they were in their late teens.
"It strikes me as really improbable and not a choice I could have made," Cairns said.
He met many young monastics on his first two pilgrimages to Greece around 2005, but he was not inspired to start "Young Monks" until he met a similar group in the United States.
He then began to believe that joining a monastery young is "something that is a phenomenon in America as well." Cairns visited St. Anthony's, a monastery in Arizona, and spent time with three particularly joyous "fathers" who "couldn't have been more than 22."
Now, a few years later, the monastery near Tempe is home to two monks under age 22, according to resident monk Mark Karageorgiou.
In "Short Trip to the Edge," Cairns recalled clearing tables, washing dishes and digging irrigation ditches with young men at St. Anthony's.
"I was especially moved by (his) sweet contentment and powerful sense of calm," he wrote of one monk.
According to Karageorgiou, a 45-year-old monk who has lived at St. Anthony's for nine years, there is a policy not to admit young men until they are 18. "They need their decision to be more mature," he said.
Once admitted, all monks adopt the same routine. Their day begins at midnight, when they rise for hours of prayer. Those services are followed by a little food and a lot of work, including cleaning and groundskeeping for the monastery, as well as helping to host pilgrims such as Cairns. But Karageorgiou also believes the inspiration to join can come at many ages.
"It's a calling," Karageorgiou said. "Whenever it is the appropriate time, you go. You know when it's the right time. ... You can't say no."
Cairns felt similarly when he was led to Mount Athos to join other Orthodox Christians in a quest for religious meaning, and he plans to return there, as well as spend more time in monasteries at home.
Cairns estimates there are at least 30 Christian Orthodox monasteries in the United States, though St. Anthony's is officially affiliated with only 17 others. According to The Pew Forum, Orthodox Christians make up the smallest mainstream Christian denomination, representing 0.6 percent of the religious population in America.
Though currently waning, the largest Christian group remains Protestants, who make up 51 percent. Cairns has had stints in Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, but the sense of mysticism and the monastic life Orthodoxy inspires seem to have tied him to a church for good.
"Young Monks" will only be his second full-length nonfiction prose work, though he will be composing it alongside his seventh collection of poetry. He hopes to complete both during impending trips to monastic enclaves in Turkey, Greece and the U.S.
So would he, scholar of monks and veteran pilgrim, consider himself a "true" Christian yet?
Cairns laughed. "Let's just say I'm better than I was."