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Desert pilgrimage slakes a thirst for meaning

Desert Father A Journey in the Wilderness With Saint Anthony James Cowan Shambhala: 240 pp., $21.95

August 22, 2004|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is acting deputy editor of Book Review.

One of Christianity's first hippies was a hermit named Anthony. He didn't preach free love or drug experimentation, he simply turned his back on conformity. In the Egyptian desert of the 4th century, this son of peasant farmers cultivated a "society of one" that developed into a powerful form of civil disobedience, James Cowan writes in "Desert Father." You might even say that every activist in the '60s or today has benefited in some way from St. Anthony's efforts.

While the holy church waged crusades in the name of religious purity, Anthony provided Christianity with a peaceful alternative. In a monastery library at Mt. Colzim, where Anthony lived in a cave until his death in AD 356, Cowan finds crumbly books that "still have the power to ignite receptive minds ... [and dispel] the darkness we associate with subterfuge and convention."

Curiosity attracted Cowan to this project. So did an obvious relish for the antique past: The teachings of Anthony, Isaac of Nineveh and Evagrius of Pontus waft across the pages like wisps of incense. But Cowan is also in crisis; he feels directionless, lukewarm about everything and everyone. He needs this journey. On his arrival at Mt. Colzim, in the heart of the Eastern Desert, he spots a hooded figure on the mountainside. The man waves him up to a rocky perch where there's a foam mattress. This former literature professor from Australia (Cowan's an Aussie too) gave up his old life after his mother's death from cancer. The hermit, who calls himself Lazarus ("because ... I was reborn"), becomes Cowan's tutor.

From his studies and from Lazarus, Cowan creates a compelling portrait of the desert hermits, reminding us that most people deferred to these solitary figures over the bishops of the church in mystic matters. They cultivated the spiritual, the mysterious, in an age of rationalism and an Aristotelian attachment to the physical. These men, Lazarus says, saw the body and the mind "as objects to be overcome."

The core of "Desert Father" is Cowan's discovery that an educated 21st century person can benefit from these teachings. It was Aristotelianism then, it's McWorld today: Facing materialism and self-doubt, one must develop an "inner asceticism" that Lazarus says is achieved "by wearing the hair shirt of discretion." Fortified by all he has learned, Cowan leaves Egypt, and his renewed optimism reminds us of an important gift that religion bestows on its followers: the promise of a second chance. *

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