Desert Father: Lessons in the Desert

James G. Cowan “Desert Father. A Journey in the Wilderness with Saint Anthony” [New Seeds, 2006]
desert father
“James Cowan (born 1942) is an Australian author. James Cowan is author of a number of internationally acclaimed books, including A Troubadour’s Testament and Letters from A Wild State. In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for his novel, A Mapmaker’s Dream. His work has been translated into seventeen languages…. Cowan’s work lies at the intersection between modernism and ancient cultural perspectives. Many of his books explore the beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples as they attempt to come to terms with the modern world. His interest, too, in early monastic life throughout the Levant (Mount Athos, Sinai, Nitrea Desert), as well as the anchorites of present-day Egypt, has allowed him to draw upon their experience in order to invigorate language. Myth, ritual and ancient belief are essential to the author’s approach to revitalizing metaphors.”
journey to the inner mountain
His books include: “Journey to the Inner Mountain: In the Desert with St. Antony” (2001); “Desert Father”(2006) and “Fleeing Herod: through Egypt with the Holy Family” (2013).
fleeing herod
For an interview with James Cowan:

Review of “Desert Father” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

“In his wonderful books Letters From a Wild State: Recovering Our True Relationship with Nature (1992) and Messengers of the Gods: Tribal Elders Reveal the Ancient Wisdom of the Earth (1993), Australian writer James Cowan demonstrated his appreciation of Australian aboriginals and native seers in the Torres Strait Islands, Borneo, and elsewhere, who have much wisdom to share about the natural world, the art of listening, and the importance of rituals. The author of more than 20 books, he has traveled to Morocco, Greece, Japan, Italy, Egypt, India, and Turkey to explore remote ascetical communities.
He discovered that the impulse “to forsake the world with all its opportunities and pleasures in order to pursue a life of self-abnegation” is found in Zen monasteries, Sufi orders, and Christian monasteries. Although the fourth century desert hermit Saint Anthony wrote no books and never addressed devoted followers, he managed to pass on a system of ascetical behavior that is relevant to the present scene where many seekers are trying to access the inner stillness through silence and prayer. Cowan has written a fascinating book about his own quest to find meaning in this desert path of selflessness.
He describes the importance of Saint Anthony as a pioneer of spirit: “Early Christian asceticism was 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. . . . 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 him 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 the 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.”
Cowan meets Lazarus, a reclusive monk, who becomes his spiritual guide in desert asceticism. He learns about Anthony’s life in caves, his battles with demons, his basket weaving, his renunciation of possessions, and his conduct as “an act of eco-centricity, a method of defining one’s existence by how little one might encroach upon nature and the world.” Cowan comes to see that this unlettered Greek’s inner voyage can be taken by contemporary seekers who are amenable to mystery, devotion, and silence.”
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Here is a dialogue on shadow that Cowan has with Lazarus, a contemporary Coptic reclusive monk:

” ‘I live on Mount Colzim in order to continue the tradition only. I don’t see my actions as those that should be followed by others, except the rare few like myself who wish to maintain the tradition of desert anchoriticsm for its own sake. It is our choice, and not to be recommended to the many who are desperate to nourish their souls and alleviate their spiritual anxiety. I can’t imagine, nor would I like to see it happen, that the desert would become once more populated by thousand of hermits living in caves. This would be to repeat history rather than to honor its gift. No, my dear friend; I feel we must find a new way to embrace the spirit of anchoriticsm. You speak of an asceticism of the mind. I do think it worthy of investigating, yes.’
” ‘Which means that we need to imagine a desert within ourselves. A place where we can dig out our own cave of the heart.’
” ‘Such a cave must include a spiritual depth that can only be derived from appropriate ascetical behavior,’ Lazarus responded: ‘We must recognize what ascesis truly means; it is the spirit of restraint, and we need to understand that it’s only through self-imposed aggravation that a pearl is produced. Those old Qatar pearl divers like Ephraim certainly knew what they were talking about!’
” ‘We must therefore learn how to practice asceticism even as we live a normal life. We need to find a way to impose upon ourselves a certain aggravation.’
” ‘The hair shirt can be made of other things beside the skin of a camel or goat.’
” ‘What, may I ask?’
” ‘Let me read you a piece which I feel might answer this question for you,’ Lazarus replied, rising from the seat and entering his cell. Presently he appeared, carrying a small book which he opened on a previously selected page.
” ‘John Cassian, one of Antony’s most notable successors in the ascetic life as you know, made some interesting remarks on the subject.’ Slowly he began to read:
” ‘We believe that discretion is the true light of the body. It is our sole guidance for life. We call it our divine council. Like a city that has its walls destroyed and is not fenced in, so is a man who does anything without council. Our inward house cannot be built without discretion. Herein lies wisdom, intelligence, and understanding. A house is built with wisdom, and again it is set up with intelligence. With understanding, the storehouses are filled with all the precious riches and good things. The blessed Antony maintained that discretion leads us in stages to God. It is the mother of all virtues.’
” ‘Discretion is a quality of the mind and of the soul,’ Lazarus elaborated, after he had closed the book. ‘If we look upon it as a kind of hair shirt — that is, if we choose to practice discretion in all things — then we may begin to ascend in stages toward a higher level of consciousness. Inner asceticism is achieved by wearing the hair shirt of discretion. Does this make sense?’
” ‘I think it does,’ I replied, ‘so long as we remain clear that the object of such restraint is the attainment of genuine spiritual knowledge.’
” ‘Cassian speaks of it as a kind of ripening of judgment. To achieve it, however, we must also address those seven principal errors of behavior that cloud such judgment. We cannot escape the reality that all our actions are governed in varying degrees by these. The early Fathers did not beat about the bush when they named them, either. And even today, though we may resort to psychology to explain our motives, the plain fact is that these faults in our character need to be acknowledged.’
” ‘You mean they shouldn’t be put to one side, but actually named.’
” ‘Cassian did so, so why can’t we? They haven’t lost any of their power to diminish our sensibility, nor our spiritual growth, simply because we refuse to do so. In many ways I think we are afraid of naming the old strictures these days, simply because we believe we have outgrown them. It is as if we have lost the ability to gaze directly at ourselves, and prefer instead to view ourselves as though through a prism, thus breaking up our self-image into many different permutations, so many subtle hues. It is clearly as a result of our penchant for psychoanalysis which distorts even the value of our flaws.’
” ‘What you are suggesting is that we have achieved a state of lukewarmness in relation to the way we conduct ourselves,’ I suggested. ‘There is no heat in our convictions because we have allowed our inner lives to grow cold.’
” ‘Putting it that way suggests that we have not understood the need to chart a middle course through the shoals of extremes. Rather, we delight in subjecting ourselves to such extremes. This is not the path of discretion,’ replied Lazarus.
” ‘Quite the contrary,’ I said. ‘We have become saturated in ineffectual decorative feelings and activities without aim. Discretion is opposed to this. It is opposed to the pleasurable and picturesque.’
” ‘It’s the reason why the Desert Fathers turned their back upon normal human activity, I believe. They felt it was impossible to achieve a genuine spiritual understanding in the world. But in those days they saw the world as an objective reality. We know otherwise. Today we know that the so-called “world” is a projection of our inner condition. To deny this reality is to enter the true desert. It’s why I feel we must conjure up our own inner desert. Even here, on Mount Colzim, I’m much occupied with the question of this interior desert. It’s not for nothing that Anthony called such a place the inner mountain. He knew, I’m sure, that he was merely playing with metaphors.’
‘Then the inner mountain is also made up of our flaws.’
‘Inasmuch as they are acknowledged, yes.'”
lazarus 3
“A truly remarkable story of Father Lazarus El Anthony who lives in solitude on the Al-Qalzam Mountain (Egypt). It was in a cave at this mountain that the great hermit, the founder and the father of the monastic life; Saint Anthony the Great (Abba Antonius)lived. At the foot of the mountain lies St. Anthony’s Monastery (Deir Mar Antonios), the oldest active christian monastery in the world, founded in 356 AD just after the saints death.

Father Lazarus was born in Tasmania and had worked as a university lecturer in a provincial city in Australia teaching literature and philosophy; very often preaching against Christianity in many of his classes. He spent about forty-years of his life as an atheist deriving his philosophy from Marxism. When his mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer and died, “he began realise that he had indentured himself to things, to the promise of illusory happiness; and began to understand the true paradox of existence: that it cannot be ordered or forecast”. Ultimately he abandoned his life in Australia and went in search of God and freedom. His pilgrimage eventually brought him to a life of a Christian Coptic monk. He met H.H. Pope Shenouda III, who lead him to where he is today.

It was not the magnificence of the pyramids, the Pharaonic heritage, the Roman monuments, the minarets, the cruises on the river Nile – the scope of Egypt’ s magnificent, nor the crystal waters of the Red Sea and stunning corals surrounded by an aquatic frenzy of underwater life and not even the incredible scent of the freshly cut herbs, coffee and aroma of hookah in khan el-khalili that attracted him to this place. It was the emptiness, the lifelessness, the peace and the wilderness of the Egyptian desert that was most attractive to Lazarus.

What many associate with death, Lazarus identifies with life. As he says “…coming to the desert and becoming a hermit… it was like I was dead and came to life”. Father Lazarus El Anthony is a man who defies logic. Like St Anthony, but seventeen centuries later, he sets out on an endeavour that defies aspirations common to most humans.
He chooses poverty over luxury, hunger over greed, celibacy over lust, solitary life over prominence, non-material aspiration over riches and the denial of all family affections as the basis of a new kind of adventure. It seems almost as if he wished to deny everything that made the human life worthwhile. Yet, the stillness of the desert becomes his metaphor for being, his ageless encounter with lifelessness as a principle of rectitude.
lazarus mountain
Here is a man living like St Anthony, who had forsaken the world in the pursuit of what the Desert Fathers called apatheia, holy stillness. Though for many solitary life would seem to be a lonely life, Father Lazarus from the beginning believed that the desert is a place where he could find life in all its fullness. A place where he would encounter his saviour and find his salvation. Among stones, sand and thirst he found his identification.

He claims he is not alone, and never felt alone. As he says: “I am alone from human company, but human company is not what I am seeking, I am seeking spiritual company and I have it”.

Living just on bread and water, occasionally honey, the only thing father Lazarus desires is to sustain his faith and focus on God. In the course of eight years he dug miles of hiking trail with his bare hands that lead to his cave from the bottom of the mountain. He finds that this foreign desert is his home, and despite all the hardships and terrible dangers, he persevered.”
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For documentaries on Father Lazarus, see and


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