“If I had one of Abba Antony’s thoughts, I should become all flame. . .”

+Abba Sisoes, Sayings of the Desert Fathers

For most of the morning I traveled in silence, moving north beside the sparkling waters of the Red Sea. At Râs Az ‘farâna I turned west, leaving the cool breezes of the coast behind and plunging into the vast, arid expanse of the Arabian desert. Somewhere in the emptiness ahead lay my destination: Mt. Colzim, the site of St. Antony’s monastery. The inner mountain. For years Antony’s place had existed only in my imagination, a kind of dreamscape into being by a fourth century narrative of the monk’s life: a remote, wild place located far to the east of the Nile valley, under the shadow of tall, rugged mountains, fed by a small spring and dotted with date palms. Some part of me wanted to leave it that way—dream-like, fluid, mobile, embedded within a story rich and expansive enough to hold everything that I cared to pour into it. I did not want to locate it too specifically in time and space. I did not want to constrain the story or drain it of its power and mystery.

Still, I found myself drawn to this place. I bought a map of Egypt, took it home and unfolded it in front of me on the floor of my house. I ran my fingers down the long blue thread of the Nile river, south almost as far as Beni Suef, then east across the North Galâla Plateau, past the Wâdi Sannûr, theh Wâdi Abu Rimth, the Wâdi Irkâs until I arrived at the place I was looking for: Deir el Quaddîs Antwân. I said the names aloud. Strange, beautiful names. Uttering the namesof these places, I began feel the vivid reality of his world. It was a world I knew almost nothing about. Yet looking at that map, thinking about those places, I began to sense how deeply his story was embedded in that place. How the place held the story.

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Antony’s story has long haunted the Christian imagination. With narrative grace and mythic depth, it gives voice to one of the oldest of human hopes: that intimacy with God might be found. Yet it also gives unflinching attention to the treacherous and painful terrain one must often traverse to get there. The desert landscape through which Antony moves is both beautiful and terrifying. From early on it beckons to him almost as a lover. In time it will become the place of his heart, his home, a kind of paradise. But it is also a lonely and fearful place. The assaults he endures at the hands of he demons in his ascetic practice are ferocious and unrelenting. He is stripped of everything left helpless and exhausted, lying naked on the bare earth crying out for help. He is emptied out completely. His emergence from that place, when it comes, is slow and painful. His body bears no marks of the struggle he has endured. But those encounter him testify to unmistakable signs of his transformation. He emerges from his solitude luminous and whole, a healer and a bearer of compassion. He has been reborn.

There is a wild beauty to this story that I have long found irresistible. It reflects so many of my own deepest desires: a capacity for interiority, courage in the face of the unknown, compassion. What drew me to Mt. Colzim that day, I suspect, was the hope of entering more deeply into that story. Perhaps, I thought, standing under the shadow of those mountains in the Egyptian desert would help me to do so. In this, I was not so different from all those other pilgrims who had come here before me. The desire to make contact, to touch the place of the saint, the sacred place, is both strong and mysterious. That this desire should have taken hold of me at this moment was both surprising and disconcerting. I had always read Antony’s story primarily as a drama of the interior landscape. That was where my own interest lay and that is what I sought from Antony—guidance through that landscape. I had hardly given any thought at all to the physical locus of Antony’s life, to his actual place in the desert. Or to my own place for that matter. But I had grown hungry for the palpable. I was beginning to feel the need to ground my own religious experience in place, to let its particular texture inform and shape my soul. It was this, I think, that led me to notice something in Antony’s story that I had not seen before: his own intense feeling for place.

“He fell in love with the place.” This is how Athanasius describes Antony’s first response upon seeing the inner mountain. This extraordinary statement stands alone in the text with no further comment to illuminate its possible meaning. Only that Antony plants a garden, gives himself fully to the life of the place, and spends the rest of his days there. What was it about that place that Antony found so compelling? Did this wild and solitary place on the Galâla Plateau somehow correspond to and reflect the place at which he had arrived in his interior journey? Did Antony’s response owe something, as the story seems to suggest, to the physical character of the place—the quality of light, the spaciousness of the horizons, the dept of the silence, its stark beauty? Athanasius’s account reveals the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of trying to distinguish too sharply between these two landscapes. Already in Antony’s time the inner mountain had become a kind of dreamscape, a mythic place made sacred by the strivings of the monk who inhabited it. And yet it remained an actual place in the physical landscape–stark, arid, beautiful–a place responsive and hospitable to Antony’s spiritual longings. This fluid, reciprocal relationship between place and spirit, the interior and exterior landscape, became a distinctive part of world of the early Christian monks, the geographical particularity of the desert shaping their inner lives, even as their inner experience influenced how they imagined and inhabited the desert landscape.

It also shaped the early monastic understanding of what it meant to undertake such contemplative work–not simply for one’s own sake but also for the sake of a suffering, broken world. There is a strange paradox at the heart of Antony’s story and indeed at the heart of almost every story of contemplative engagement. Withdrawal, disengagement and retreat are critical elements of the contemplative project; but so is the mysterious process of returning and reengaging all that you have left behind. This was a constant tension in the ancient monastic stories and remains woven into the fabric of contemplative practice today.

To enter the inner mountain is to risk being transformed, for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.

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