Archive for the ‘Extreme Pilgrim’ Category


Coptic monastery of St Anthony

January 20, 2008



The fortress-like Coptic monastery of St Anthony the Great stands at an oasis spring in the Red Sea Mountains, 155 km (100 miles) south east of Cairo. It was founded in the mid-4th century, on Saint Anthony’s burial site. He, along with St Pachomius (the first monk to organise hermits into groups) were two of the first exponents of Christian monasticism, which originated in the Egyptian desert. The Coptic orthodox monastery, presided over by an abbot, is the oldest Christian monastery in the world.

The church is one of Egypt’s great treasures – some of the wall paintings here date from the 6th and the 9th centuries, and among them is a picture of the founder, St Anthony himself. He lived in a tiny cave, high above the desert, for 40 years soon after AD 300, and the monastery – really a city in the desert – was built in the 360s. Amazingly, the monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language directly descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians.


St Anthony the person

Anthony was born near Heraclea in Upper Egypt in the year 251 AD to wealthy parents. When he was twenty years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. In 285, he decided to follow the path of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, and so gave his wealth to the poor and needy, and placed his sister in the care of a group of Christian virgins, a sort of proto-nunnery at the time.

Anthony then headed out into the rugged desert terrain of Wadi el-Natrun to live as a hermit. His isolated lifestyle was remarkably harsher than his predecessors, and it is said that he was tormented throughout his life by the flatteries and temptations of the devil. These he initially overcame by the power of prayer, but not without consequence, and when locals from a nearby village discovered him unconscious, they took his body back to the church to recover. After a brief respite, Anthony felt compelled to return to his anchoritic lifestyle, and this time he settled in an abandoned Roman fort in the Fayyum. Still suffering from the torments of the devil, Anthony remained there for twenty years, only communicating with the outside world through a crevice by means of which he would say a few words and sometimes give advice, and from where food could be passed through to him.

Then one day he emerged from the fort. With the help of the villagers, they had broken down the door, expecting him to have wasted away, or perhaps gone insane in his solitary confinement. To their amazement, he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. He had experienced great personal ordeals, yet had emerged from his internment spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow.

Anthony visited Alexandria, offering comfort to the Christians imprisoned there for their beliefs. Openly confessing his faith, he was ordered to leave the city by the Governor of Alexandria. Anthony refused, publicly arguing with him in the distracted hope that he himself would be imprisoned and subsequently martyred. This did not happen, so Anthony returned to the abandoned fort in the desert that had been his home for so long. His reputation growing, many people came to visit him at the fort. Ultimately realising that the increasing visits were keeping him from his worship, Anthony decided to move deeper into the desert, roaming the wilderness for three days before finally settling by a spring of water and some palm trees. It is at this very spot that the monastery of St Anthony’s now stands.


Deir Mar Antonios, Christianity’s oldest monastery

St Anthony’s monastery lies at the foot of the el-Qalzam mountain near el-Zafarana, and was founded in 356 AD just after Anthony’s death. It is the oldest active monastery in the world. Hidden deep in the Red Sea mountains and relying on springs for their water supply, the Coptic monks at the monastery today still observe rituals that are little changed in 16 centuries.

Although knowledge of its early history is scant, we know that during the 6th and 7th centuries many monks from the Wadi Natrun area who suffered frequent attacks by nomadic Bedouin tribes sought sanctuary at St Anthony’s. But St Anthony’s itself was also subject to raids and attacks on many occasions, and during the 11th century was partly destroyed. These attacks prompted strong defences and fortifications, and between the 12th and 15th centuries the monastery flourished. In 1454 however, Bedouin servants plundered St Anthony’s, and used many of the monastery’s ancient handwritten manuscripts as cooking fuel. Today, around 1700 manuscripts survive in the monastery’s library.

Today, Deir Mar Antonios is a fortified self-contained village with gardens, a mill, a bakery, a library and five churches.


St Anthony’s has exceptional wall paintings of holy knights in bright colours and the hermit founders of the monastery in subdued colours and icons. These wall paintings, widely known to monks and art historians, were originally obscured by layers of soot, candle grease, oil and dust. Recently, in a collaborated effort between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the American Research Centre in Egypt, these unique and beautiful paintings were restored.

One set of the paintings is attributed to a team lead by a Coptic master named Theodore, whilst the other set appears to have been executed by team with a Byzantine influence. The oldest paintings date back to the 7th and 8th century, whilst the more recent examples are from the 13th century. In addition to the restoration work undertaken on the wall paintings, the woodwork inside St Anthony’s Church was also restored.


Saint Anthony, together with Saint Paul the Hermit are seen as the founders of Christian monasticism. Although Anthony himself did not organise or create a monastery as such, a community did grow up around him based upon his example of living an ascetic and isolated life. Those who wished to follow him needed the company of others in order to survive the harsh desert conditions. The nearby monastery of Saint Paul the Hermit exists to this day, and both monasteries are accessible by special tours from Cairo, Suez or Hurghada. A stay in either monastery can also be arranged in advance.


BBC2- Extreme Pilgrim P2

January 12, 2008


Pete Owen-Jones excelled himself last night. The second part of “Extreme Pilgrim” was aired on BBC 2 at 9.00 pm. He was exploring Hinduism by looking at the spiritual life and path of a sadhu.

sadhu is a common term for an ascetic or practitioner of yoga (yogi) who has given up pursuit of the first three Hindu goals of life: kama (enjoyment), artha (practical objectives) and even dharma (duty). The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving moksha (liberation) through meditation and contemplation of God. Sadhus often wear ochre-colored clothing, symbolizing renunciation. Pete Lataer in the programme becomes a sadhu.

Pete attended the Kumbh Mela, a mass gathering of sadhus from all parts of India, takes place every six years at one of four points along sacred rivers in India, including the holy River Ganges. Sadhus of all sects join in this reunion. 7 Million of non-sadhu pilgrims also attend the festival, and the Kumbh Mela is said to be the largest gathering of human beings for a single purpose on the planet.

Sadhus occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society, particularly in villages and small towns more closely tied to tradition. (We see this when Pete spends sometime in one such village as the new holy man.) In addition to bestowing religious instruction and blessings to lay people, sadhus are often called upon to adjudicate disputes between individuals or to intervene in conflicts within families. Sadhus are also living embodiments of the divine, images of what human life, in the Hindu view, is truly about – religious illumination and liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The greatest point in the programme last night for me personally was when Pete has time on his hands and for three days he meditates outside the Sadhu’s cave which is just out side the village. He makes a series of profound statements one of which struck me powerfully – “In the last twenty years I have had no time to sit back”

It seems to me that it’s exactly this “sitting back” which is almost absent from the idea of spirituality in the west. Waiting, meditating, reflecting, absorbing, listening, seem to be foreign terms in a driven society and in a driven church where both are seeking some form of success.

I took my hat off to Pete last night, I enjoyed the programme, I’m not saying that we should all go out and become Sadhu’s but at the very least we too can learn to become an extreme pilgrim.


BBC2- Extreme Pilgrim P1

January 10, 2008



Extreme Pilgrim is a compelling new series for BBC Two exploring the physical elements of three of the world’s great religions. (Click Here for some previews from the BBC2 website) (Click Here for an Episode guide on BBC Religion & Ethics) (Click Here for another preview of “Extreme Pilgrim”)

Pete Owen-Jones, a vicar in a Sussex parish, is dissatisfied with some aspects of his faith and sets off on three extreme pilgrimages to China, India and Egypt to explore Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and ascetic Christianity.

Pete started as a copy-writer in advertising. After a crisis of meaning, he found God and gave it all up to be ordained into the Anglican Church.

But now, 15 years later, he feels that the Church of England is too much a faith of the head, and not enough a faith of the soul, the heart or even the body. He now sets off on a quest in search of a more physical and mystical path to enlightment.

Pete says: “What I’m looking for is a spirituality that is absent from western Christianity. A spirituality I know exists in the extremes of world religions.

“I hope to enter worlds where rule book and doctrine are replaced by an individual relationship with God and where the attainment of enlightenment is won by hardship, privation and pain. I have to become an extreme pilgrim.”

In a bid to get to the heart of each faith Pete pushes himself to the limit of physical, mental and spiritual endurance: he undergoes hardship and exhaustion, bewilderment and anxiety, and yet throughout he undertakes his journeys with determination, courage and wit.

For his first journey, Pete travels to the famous Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province, a seven-hour train journey from Beijing. The Shaolin Monastery occupies a central place in Chinese cultural history, as it is the ancestral home of all martial arts.

Talking about the Shaolin Monastery, Pete says: “I’m told it’s the place where one can attain spiritual enlightenment in the practice of extreme martial arts which is about as physical as you can get. All I know about the fighting monks is you don’t mess with the fighting monks.

“And secondly, it is the expression of the divine within the physical. The Church of England in particular is incredibly intellectual. You know, huge libraries full of books and theological bookshops It’s all incredibly intellectual. But we don’t do anything physical. It’s going to be very challenging I think indeed.”

Pete is thrown straight into a gruelling routine of Kung Fu – the central technique in Chan Buddhism (also known as Zen Buddhism in Japan) – an experience that left the unfit vicar both physically and mentally exhausted.

“The trouble is it just uses every single muscle that I haven’t used for the last I don’t know how many years and so my whole body is complaining and so I know I’ve got two to three hours of absolute agony in front of me. It’s just so many different instructions, so many different moves at the same time, trying to keep them in your head, my body won’t do them.”

However half way through his pilgrimage and despairing over the commercialisation of Shaolin, Pete leaves the Temple to seek true Zen enlightment in a remote monastery in the mountains, near the San Yang stronghold and it is here in the much calmer but still physically strenuous environment that Pete finally begins to understand the art of Zen Buddhism.

“Inexplicably, I’m there. I’m not even thinking about it, just doing it. Doing Zen and martial arts … with a group of people who look out for each other. It is love, unselfish, non-possessive.”

For his second journey Pete travels to India and joins the Mela, the huge Hindu pilgrimage that draws to the Ganges.

In the bewildering world of Mela, Pete meets a Guru who agrees to take him under his wing and teach him how to become a Sadhu – an Indian Holy Man. He then sets off on a journey across northern India to the mountains in search of the Hindu road to spiritual bliss.

And in the final episode Pete travels to the Egyptian desert to follow in the footsteps of the Christian hermit and founder of monasticism St Anthony. His trek to the desert culminates in a long spell alone in a cave in the wilderness.

At the end of his journeys will Pete have discovered spiritual enlightment? And will he resume his place in his Sussex parish?