“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. Read the rest of this entry »