Desert Prayer With Egyptian Roots

Times Staff Writer

Down an unpaved road, past brooding icons and swaying stands of mesquite, lies St. Antony's Monastery, a place of scorching winds and emptiness that perhaps only a holy man could love.

Little moves when the sun is high, but as the day wears on, black figures emerge from solitary rooms. These shrouded men, most from Egypt, are practicing the oldest monastic tradition in Christendom and tending its sole outpost in North America.

They spend days and night in prayer, seeking a mystical union with the divine.

"The desert gives you a great calmness of heart," said Father Antonious Saint Antony, one of 10 monks living here. "After a while God seems like a friend."

Despite its remoteness, this 800-acre swath of the Mojave 25 miles northeast of Barstow has become a magnet for thousands yearning to embrace a way of life far different from mainstream America -- one shunning materialism, embracing poverty and denying the self.

Like the monks, most visitors are Coptic Orthodox hoping to reconnect with their past. The faith dates to about AD 60, when tradition says the Apostle Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt.

Cherie Anderegg, a Coptic convert from La Habra, was here on a retreat. She once attended a large, nondenominational church whose effort to appeal to everyone resulted in what she said was a diluted faith that left her unsatisfied. One night she and her boyfriend went to a Coptic service where the priest read the entire book of Revelation.

"We felt they were right, that this was the way Christ had set up the church," said the 22-year-old. "This church has not changed since it started."

Her friend Sarah Nicola, 22, of Anaheim attends Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church in Santa Ana.

"I was born a Copt," she said. "I come here to recharge."

Father Anastasi Saint Antony is the leader, or abbot, of St. Antony's Coptic Orthodox Monastery. A soft-spoken man with a ready smile and serene demeanor, he wears the traditional garb of a Coptic monk: black robe, black hood and long, untrimmed beard. Like the others, he goes by the last name Saint Antony.

"We are here to have a quiet life and unite with God; there is no other reason to be here," he said. "I came because I felt I was distracted. I could not concentrate on the verse in the Bible that says you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind."

The monks trace their spiritual roots to St. Antony, often called the Father of Monasticism, who retreated into the Egyptian desert about AD 285 for a severe, ascetic life of religious contemplation. Others followed and became known as the Desert Fathers. The tradition eventually spread throughout the Christian world.

Monastic life here is rigorous, physically and mentally. The monks take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and focus entirely on worship, not on themselves or their surroundings. They pray for hours each day, reciting vast portions of Scripture from memory and endlessly repenting of their sins.

Asked if he ever tired of this, Father Anastasi said, "Do you ever tire of saying 'I love you' to your wife?"

Though they eat and sometimes pray together, much of their life is spent alone in a tiny room they call a cell, with only a bed and a chair. Sometimes they stay in desert shacks adorned with small crosses on top.

"Every person has two struggles: the spiritual attacks from outside and the attacks from within," said Father Markos Saint Antony. "Here we have only one fight, the fight within. We have eliminated the outer struggles."

The monks begin their day at 3:30 a.m. in a red-carpeted church with gold-framed icons on the walls. Relics and bone fragments from saints sit in cases up front, where they are kissed by devotees.

Bleary-eyed visitors drag themselves in but don't sit. No one sits during the Liturgy, which can last three hours.

The service is in English, Arabic and Coptic, a language blending ancient Egyptian with Greek. Like a choreographed play, the monks chant their parts, drawing out certain vowels, then everyone chants in unison. The rhythmic recitations, clouds of incense and dim glow of oil lamps create an otherworldly, almost hypnotic effect.

When it's over, the sun is still below the horizon. Monks take the morning cool as a chance to work. Each has a job. Some cook, maintain the books or create mosaics and paintings. One puts out a magazine that goes to Coptic churches around the country. There are two novices who are tested to see if they can handle the rigors of monastic life. On average it takes three years to become a monk.

The rites continue periodically throughout the day, ending about 11 p.m.

Outside the church, Ehab Shoukry rested on a bench.

The 26-year-old Copt from Boston had been up since 3 a.m.

"I have never been to a monastery before," Shoukry said. "I like the quietness, and I love the communal prayers. I wanted to come and see what the desert is like. I'm just amazed by it. I feel comfort, I feel joy, I feel peace. The monks are like angels on Earth."

Michael Salama of Irvine tries to bring his Sunday school class here whenever he can.

"Our church has the most monks and the deepest monastic tradition of any other," said 21-year-old Salama. "It's just you and God. No cellphones, no nothing. This place gives you endurance while you are living in the world."

The monastery, dedicated in 1989, was built here because of its isolation, though it's within manageable driving distance of at least 23 Coptic congregations in Southern California.

On religious holidays, thousands bring food and supplies to the monks, who don't get paid and rely almost entirely on donations to live.

Monks like Father Anastasi, 30, appear to enjoy the occasional distraction. He meets with visiting youths who ask questions about life in the monastery and their own faith.

During one recent session, he counseled a young man worried about his career.

"Don't find comfort in your accomplishments," he said. "Find it in Christ."

Father Anastasi spent a year in an Egyptian monastery, then led a Coptic church in Honolulu before arriving at St. Antony's.

"My one hope is that I have become more Christlike since coming here," he said.

With its wooden buildings and careworn trailers, St. Antony's can't compare with the immense history, artistry and old stone monasteries of Egypt. Barstow and Newberry Springs are no Cairo or Alexandria.

But it makes no difference to the monks.

"The place may change, the desert may change, but God remains the same," said Father Moussa Saint Antony of Egypt. "And wherever I can be with God, I am happy."

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