Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times among the Desert Fathersby Mark Gruber
Pub. Date: 10/28/2002
Publisher: Orbis Books
In their austere desert monasteries Coptic monks maintain a tradition of Christianity that extends back to St. Anthony and the ancient Desert Fathers. Father Gruber's journey began almost accidentally as part of his doctoral research, but it became much more. His account of his year's sojourn - entertaining, poignant, and spiritually challenging - opens a window on a… See more details below
In their austere desert monasteries Coptic monks maintain a tradition of Christianity that extends back to St. Anthony and the ancient Desert Fathers. Father Gruber's journey began almost accidentally as part of his doctoral research, but it became much more. His account of his year's sojourn - entertaining, poignant, and spiritually challenging - opens a window on a mysterious world, saturated in prayer and silence, that functions as it always has to awaken hearts to the mercy and power of God.
- Orbis Books
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This book is popular with the Copts who otherwise have difficulty explaining their subtle religious mind to an increasingly secular western crowd. Some Coptic priests are gaining converts by it, no small trick given that the author is a Catholic monk writing the memoirs of his doctoral fieldwork year of anthropology in the Sahara Desert. Rarely does one find a book so pleasing to unbelievers, liberal or conservative believers alike. Best of all, it entertains the world weary reader. One could almost get religion again...
+Peace and grace. As a Coptic Orthodox Christian, I found this book an awesome read. It is rare to find a non-Copt who writes honestly, objectively and reverently of our church despite the sad schism between us and the Chalcedonians. Father Mark Gruber has written beautifully of our spirituality and of his own, his comments are insightful, honest, and often quite hilarious. I found it especially funny as an Egyptian to see his reactions and interpretations to certain things we say and do! I would like to meet the author himself. This is a great book, I reccomend it to all.
Father Mark Gruber, a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, came to Stony Brook University in the early 80s to study for his doctor of philosophy in anthropology.In his second year of study at Stony Brook, Father Gruber enrolled in a dissertation methodology class in order to hasten his degree program. Much to his astonishment, on the first day of class the professor announced that if students did not have dissertation topics, a compiled bibliography and completed research, they should not be in the class. When asked for his topic, Gruber responded, without thinking and knowing almost nothing about the topic, "Egypt. I shall investigate the Coptic people of Egypt." And thus, he began his study of the desert monasteries of the Coptic monks in Egypt, which would culminate in a year-long ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt. Now, many years since his doctoral work was completed at Stony Brook University, Gruber has written a journal of his experiences as a student of anthropology and a Benedictine monk in a world in which the secular and spiritual are deeply intertwined. The book, Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times among the Desert Fathers (Orbis: New York, 2002), offers readers an insight into the daily lives of the Coptic monks, Coptic Christians and the world in which they live, a world which is largely Arab and Islamic. It is an affectionate portrait, full of profound respect for the Coptic church. Father Gruber's journal of his year with the Copts cannot be called a travelogue of the trials and tribulations of a young American student in Egypt. Throughout his day-to-day activities and frustrations lies a deeper insight into the people of a world in which all things are influenced by the spiritual. In the early days of his journey, for example, he tells of building a sand castle on a beach. Father Gruber is accosted by some young Muslim boys who accuse him of spreading Christianity in Egypt, mistaking his sand castle for a church. Egypt is truly a place of discovery, Gruber says, " ... seeing the character of these people and how deeply their religious concerns and issues preoccupy them and how they tend to interpret everything they experience through the prism of their faith. In seconds, the boys kicked down the towers of my castles and ran away ... triumphant or afraid?" He also learns with some amazement of the Copts' respect for monks and priests, and he marvels at finding himself standing in churches using a handcross on lines of pilgrims who approach for blessings. On another occasion, he is baffled by an encounter with two Muslim brothers who, thinking there is a bad spirit in their house after their father's death, ask Father Gruber to bless the house. When he expresses his puzzlement, they respond that this is perfectly acceptable, and he should not fear any problems would persist. He is told not to interpret this as a secret vote of confidence from the Moslems. A friend tells him Moslems rationalize that the Muslim sheik is dealing with God directly and "if you want to resolve a problem with evil spirits, you need someone whose religion is of a lesser sort." While the book can easily be read as a journal from beginning to end, its daily entries lend themselves to being read individually as spiritual and cultural reflections on an ancient people who can offer insights to modern Western man. Father Gruber's conversations with the monks lead to his understanding of the sense of humility and charity of the desert monks. His travels to 12 Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert describe monastic lifestyles steeped in silence, prayer and an austere existence devoid of any modern conveniences. At the same time, the monasteries, defined in many ways by climate and geography, are built on a deep sense of community