An American in Paradise
Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers
reviewed by Mike Aquilina
Mark Gruber has done what most Christians can only read about in books of ancient history. He spent a year in the Sahara desert, sharing the life of the desert fathers—men who have, for the last two millennia, followed the austere way of John the Baptist.
What began as fieldwork for a doctorate in anthropology soon became a pilgrimage and ended in a profound personal transformation. In a most remarkable book, Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers, Gruber has gathered up his journal entries, letters, prayers, and marginalia from that period and woven them into a moving narrative.
Gruber, a Benedictine monk who now teaches at St. Vincent’s College in western Pennsylvania, begins his story as a graduate student at Stony Brook on Long Island. He’s a Benedictine monk, but very much a product of American culture. He finds himself in an awkward situation when a professor demands a dissertation topic as a prerequisite for remaining in her class. Panicked, Gruber responds with information from a photo caption he had skimmed, that very morning, in National Geographic magazine.
He would study the Copts, the native Christian minority in Muslim Egypt. The Coptic Church, one of the “monophysite” churches that rejected the Council of Chalcedon (451), includes by most estimates from five to seven million members, about a tenth of Egypt’s population.
And so he does. He arrives in Cairo, thinking himself fortified by a large fellowship grant, which had been wired there in advance. Unfortunately, the deposit somehow got lost in Egypt’s antiquated national-bank system. So he has nothing to go on but the few dollars in his wallet. Disinclined to wear his habit in public in a Muslim land, he stays, at first, among North Africa’s drifters in seedy hotels.
Gruber presents himself to the Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenoudah III, who gives him letters of introduction and outlines an itinerary for his travels. The patriarch also makes it clear that Gruber should start wearing his Benedictine habit and grow a beard. Pope Shenoudah received Gruber as an anthropologist but sent him forth as a monk to visit the monasteries of the Sahara.
In the desert, Gruber encounters communities of monks who live within enclosures built in the era of the church fathers, and in a manner not much different from that of their spiritual ancestors. The monks wear a coarse habit, eat no meat, and hold no possessions. They each keep to a small cell and keep silent, except for the times they gather together to chant the Psalms or celebrate the Liturgy. Their daily worship consists of several three-to-four-hour periods of sung prayer, all done while standing. In the course of a single day, they chant all 150 Psalms as well as other traditional canticles.
The monks receive Gruber as a monk, though with much curiosity, since he is an American and a “Roman.” They give him a cell and assign him a spiritual director, Abuna Sidrak. Another monk, Abuna Elias, an elderly man returning to the monastery after many years as a hermit in the desert caves, befriends the American and eventually adopts him as “Isaac” to his “Abraham”: the recipient of insights gained through long years alone with God.
Gruber is at first intimidated by the monks’ austerities. He has never fasted, even in Lent, the way they fast in ordinary time. His monastery back home chants in a month the number of Psalms these monks chant in a day. When some monks ask him to celebrate Mass for them, he worries about what they will think of the typically quick Western Liturgy. So he sings all the prayers—instead of reciting them—and packs the service with as many traditional devotions and hymns as he can recall. After an hour and forty-five minutes, he concludes the Mass, and the monks gratefully speak of its beauty—but complain that it was over when they were just getting started!
Gruber is drawn ever more into the life of the monks. They, for their part, come to a deep appreciation of their guest’s monastic vocation and his own tradition. He is ashamed of how little American monks fast, but they are amazed that any Americans, surrounded by unprecedented luxuries and comforts, can bring themselves to fast at all.
It is astonishing how clearly these desert fathers see the world that clamors so far in the distance. Consider Gruber’s summary of one teaching session with his director:
In the desert, Gruber also meets many ordinary Christians, who frequently come from the cities for counsel or blessings. The Copts, though scattered throughout a vast land, resemble a small town or a large, close-knit family. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Everyone seems to share some relation through bloodline or marriage. They feel near to their co-religionists, to the saints and martyrs of centuries ago, to their fathers in the enclosure, and to God.
They honor the martyrs especially, often enough by imitating them. Though the Copts are not suffering active persecution from the government these days, they are marginalized and their activities are severely restricted. Muslims are forbidden to convert, and the Copts must beg bureaucrats’ permission for even slight repairs to their churches. Still, they have not despaired. Their spirituality, says Gruber, finds its focus in the Cross and the apocalypse:
Gruber depicts the Copts as prodigiously open to the supernatural. On several occasions, the anthropologist finds himself a witness to apparently miraculous events. Ever the American, he finds himself straining to list several possible, though highly improbable, natural explanations. Meanwhile, the Copts sing, dance, and feast to celebrate the most logical explanation: the grace of God.
Gruber brings those graces to us who are strangers to the Copts, as he once was. He helps us to see a people—a persecuted, persevering Christian people—we could not ordinarily meet. And they help us in the West to see ourselves much more clearly.
In living with the Copts, the author found fresh insights on even the most tried and tired questions faced by the Western churches: sex roles and liturgical renewal, to name just two. For those discussions alone, the book would be worth the cover price. But it’s all the rest that makes the book priceless. It’s hard to imagine a reader coming away from this book without echoing Dom Julian Stead, himself a Benedictine monk and author, who called Journey Back to Eden the most beautiful book he’s ever read.
For news of the Coptic Church, see the website of the American Coptic Association.
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“An American in Paradise” first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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