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The spiritual exploits of Saint Anthony the Great—the prototype of the Christian
"Desert Father"—have been immortalized in stories and art since the fourth century. Here is the stunning account of a modern seeker's quest to get beneath the legends that surround Anthony and to determine whether his extreme way of life has something to offer people in today's world. James Cowan's quest takes him to Egypt, to the...
The spiritual exploits of Saint Anthony the Great—the prototype of the Christian
"Desert Father"—have been immortalized in stories and art since the fourth century. Here is the stunning account of a modern seeker's quest to get beneath the legends that surround Anthony and to determine whether his extreme way of life has something to offer people in today's world. James Cowan's quest takes him to Egypt, to the monastery that still exists near the site of
Anthony's hermitage, where he meets the monk who becomes his guide and mentor on the journey.
He comes to regard Anthony and the colorful men and women who shared his lifestyle in the fourth through seventh centuries with affection and awe—their departure to the desert a flight from the status quo of the newly Christian empire in order to preserve the radical path to liberation they saw in Christian teaching. Our modern efforts toward liberation may look different from theirs,
he concludes, but the ultimate goal is no different, and Anthony remains a luminous model for anyone who passionately seeks to know God.
From the Introduction
Few people inspire us more than those who remove themselves to the wilderness. They awaken in us an urge to abandon normal society so as to pursue a free and open life. Moreover, instinct suggests that we might be better off living outside the constraints of the law. It is as if we know that at some point in our development we have lost the gift of living at one with nature and the world. Of course, this is a fallacy; nonetheless it has remained a powerful impetus for change since the Renaissance. Navigators,explorers, travelers, and merchants have all ventured forth into the unknown in a bid to discover what is loosely understood as Shangri-la. The American Wild West was less a place than an attempt to fashion a retreat where the rugged individualist could flourish. Gauguin's sojourn in Tahiti gave credence to Rousseau's idealization of the lonely man in paradise, while Robinson Crusoe, living on his own desert island, became the prototype for many a disillusioned hermit existing on the fringe of society.
The life of Saint Anthony of Egypt conforms to this model. He proposed a radical new way of living that was both asocial and adventurous. He sought to distance himself from late antiquity's loss of belief in the classical ideal in order to explore his own spirituality. In doing so, he sounded the death knell on Caesarism and the cult of personality that had so dominated the classical world since the days of Alexander the Great. Civitas, the Holy Grail of Rome and the basis of its imperial expansion, was all but neutralized by one man bent on questioning the role of the state as an arbiter of human values. Anthony preferred to live as a "society of one" in the desert of Egypt rather than submit to the coercive nature of imperial edict. The rise of the state represented for him the diminution of humanity itself.
Early Christian asceticism was therefore as much a political gesture as it was spiritual. Anthony had found a way to return to his origins by escaping the net altogether. By setting himself up as a lonely bastion of flesh in the desert, he served notice on how his body would in future be governed. Christ may have propounded this new governance during his ministry in Palestine, but none since had seriously put it into practice. Early theologians were still in thrall to their classical teachers, after all. Even Saint Jerome admitted that he found it difficult to give up his library of classics in favor of those "barbarous" writings then circulating in Palestine and the East. In those years Christianity was just another cult struggling to be heard. The distance between thought and practice was still very great.
It would take a spiritual genius to fashion an alternative life. It would take an artist to recognize the desert as the perfect representation of his own loss of self. No man before Anthony, not even Paul of Thebes, had so deliberately chosen to turn aridity into a positive value. The desert became his metaphor for being, his ageless encounter with lifelessness as a principle of rectitude. No wonder he was such a threat to Rome. This lonely man living in the desert imposed a new valuation on human endeavor: that people had a right to an inner life over and above their responsibilities as social beings. Such a premise went far beyond any that Socrates had proposed, even at his death. A new force had entered the world. By his retreat into the desert, Anthony paved the way for others to take their first step on the road to selflessness.
I had been drawn to this haunting figure ever since I first read Helen Waddell's The Desert Fathers when I was a struggling young writer in London during the 1960s. The image of this bearded man living in a cave high up on Mount Colzim captivated me. Then it was an image, no more. Here was a man who defied logic. He proposed dirt, hunger, loneliness, demonic battle, antisociability, nonambition, nonmaterial aspiration, asexuality, and the denial of all family affections as the basis of a new kind of adventure. It was almost as if he wished to deny everything that made the human experiment worthwhile. Did he really think that such complete identification with stones, with sand, and with thirst could produce a more luminous presence? Even then, in that unheated flat in London in the middle of winter, Anthony taunted me with his subversive vision.
For the next thirty years his memory claimed me. I saw his portrait in paintings, his emaciated figure sitting on a ledge outside a cave. Here was a man who had abandoned books, who was suspicious of words, who regarded knowledge as a tool of the devil. Everything that I was as a writer, he sought to undermine. He pitched me into a world where the very integrity of the image became suspect. Under his auspices every work of art, every expression of beauty became the handmaid of appearance. I began to suspect that I had come under the baleful influence of a shade that had quit life because of its encounter with the greatest of all human fears, the failure to enjoy life.
But still Anthony's presence remained. Over the years I returned to his story again and again in my attempt to understand his significance. It was not enough to see him solely as an ascetic, because he was more than that. It was not enough, either, to regard him as a recluse, because he was more than that too. As understanding slowly dawned on me, I started to see Anthony as the primeval encounter I had always wished to have with my selfhood. He was a kind of gnomic being imbedded in my psyche, there to activate my dormant spirituality the moment I allowed him to do so. A trip to Egypt in 1999, ostensibly to study hieroglyphs and pharaonic tomb painting, precipitated his reemergence from the hall of memory. He came in the guise of a man that I met at Mount Colzim, on Anthony's mountain. I had gone there to pay my respects to an old obsession, believing that I had finally put it behind me. To meet Lazarus in his cave not far from the master's was to bring into focus the vitality of the ascetic ideal once more. Here was a man living like Anthony, who had forsaken the world in the pursuit of what the Desert Fathers called apatheia, holy stillness. The very word apatheia exploded in my mind with the full force of revelation when I first heard Lazarus utter it. He challenged me to step back in time with him, to abandon the illusion of distance that I thought separated me from Anthony, and begin the journey all over again. He made me aware that essential experience, whenever it occurs, never passes away. It is the vein of gold that lies buried underground for countless millennia, waiting to be unearthed.
My early version of Anthony, my Anthony of literary apprenticeship in London, was now transformed into an Anthony of the imagination. Lazarus alerted me to a thought I hadn't considered before: that this man was a minimalist. He was a figure as if sculpted by Giacometti in the fourth century, if that were possible. He had reduced himself, and his body, to the lowest—no, the lowliest, level. He was a man who had set out to reverse the process of human aspiration from one of expansiveness in the domain of the physical (man as owner, possessor, achiever, acquirer) to one who inhabited the least possible space. The Anthony that I slowly began to know and understand was someone content to occupy an inner space, the space of the spirit. He had made me aware that one could live a nonspatial existence in the midst of temporality.
Far from being a trip back in time, my journey to Egypt turned out to be a voyage into the future. The old pharaonic ideal of man as the supreme solar exemplar was now being supplemented by another—that of man as a generator of his own solar heat. Lazarus, the man I met living the anchorite's life at Mount Colzim, had shown me that it was feasible to live as Anthony had done, without in any way losing contact with the present. He taught me that asceticism is not an historical phenomenon but a way of life. Ascesis is none other than the science of the spirit. By following its practices diligently, and with due respect for the past, one could begin to perceive a reality unencumbered by the burden of images. This quality of perception is open only to those who are prepared to live what Ruysbroeck called "a ghostly life."
Saint Anthony's monastery in the Eastern Desert became my laboratory. There I came in contact with ancient writings that inspired me to make the long journey inward. My journey through Egypt became an encounter less with events of history than with those of the spirit. The monastery library housed some of the earliest forays into ascetic and mystical literature that I had ever read. Thinkers subsequent to Anthony had taken up the challenge laid down by the master to fashion a new sense of interiority for everyone. It was this world that I had come to explore. With Lazarus's help I was able to investigate a region of the heart not accessible to me before.
This book is about an unusual journey. There were no maps, timetables, or travel arrangements. The destination was also unclear. While making this trip I allowed myself to be consumed by a thirst for the ineffable. In addition, there was one piece of advice that Anthony gave me that I assiduously followed: don't expect resolution but, rather, accept the path as wayless. Learn how to lean out of yourself and gaze back at who you are. It was good advice. With Lazarus as my guide, I was able to sojourn in countries not recorded on any map. With Anthony as my invisible companion, I was able to transcend time and keep him company in his cave. There he taught me that ascesis is a mysterious elixir capable of rendering insensible the self. All I had to do was drink this concoction and wait until it worked its miracle.
Mount Colzim, Egypt
1. Toward the Inner Mountain 7
2. Welcome, the Stranger 18
3. Life of an Anchorite 37
4. Citizen of Heaven 49
5. The Law of Promise 61
6. A Worldless Journey 75
7. Crossing the Border 89
8. Eye of the Ostrich 104
9. In the Crucible of Fire 119
10. The Lion's Mouth 134
11. Conversations in the Desert 148
12. Garnering the Pearl 164
13. The Parting 180
Glossary of Terms 225
Glossary of Names and Places 229
Selected Bibliography 235