Imagine being transported to the desert to experience a little taste of what St. Antony of Egypt lived each day 1,800 years ago. That's what you'll find if you take the time to watch the BBC documentary (Extreme Pilgrim) on the life of a desert hermit. It's the third part of a series on spirituality. In it, Anglican Vicar Pete Owen Jones heads to a silent and isolated cave in Egypt for three weeks to wrestle with his demons a la Antony the Abbott and the Desert Fathers. The result is a powerful TV experience that will make you think and leave you longing for a little quiet spiritual time of your own.
Once at the cave, Father Pete meets Father Lazarus, a Coptic Christian priest who lives in a cliffside cave day after day, year after year. Father Lazarus asks Father Pete if he is aware of his own sinfulness, explaining that the silence and loneliness of the cave is a life of penitence. "This is like hell. This is like a war," he says, talking about Satan's seductions and banishing any romantic notions of spiritual ecstasy amid the desert sands.
Father Lazaraus tells Father Pete that by being awake in his spirit, awake in his soul, he will bless the world through his prayers. He points to the narrow door of the prayer cave and the wider door of the "kitchen" and says that the narrow door leads to heaven, but once you get a bird's eye view of what's behind narrow door #1 it becomes painfully obvious that this three-week experiment is going to be a trial that tests physical, mental and spiritual strength.
One of my favorite lines in the documentary is when Father Pete wonders aloud why the path to God has to be so difficult. "Why can't the road to God be eating tomato basil soup and getting up and having a lovely day?" Then he trudges up the cliffs to face the unknown. After a difficult start, we see Father Pete emerge from self-doubt, frustration and sleeplessness. By the end of the three weeks, he likens his experience to being born, saying that he is "coming alive again." As he departs for England, Father Lazaraus challenges him to carry the "full emptiness" of the desert back with him to life in the world. But we all know how difficult that will be when "regular" life is anything but empty.
By the time the final credits rolled, I really felt as though I'd experienced my only little spiritual respite. I highly recommend it. Hat tip to Conversion Diary for this one. It's a gem. I just hope some day they make a sequel that will give us a glimpse of how Father Pete wove that desert emptiness into his busy life back home. I know I sure could use some pointers.