In 2008 the BBC aired three documentaries under the group title Extreme Pilgrim. They were hosted by an Anglican priest, Fr. Peter Owen-Jones. On the series Fr. Peter took three trips to explore radical examples of religious practice. He did a program in India with Buddhist mystics, one in China with Shaolin monks, and one at the oldest Christian monastery in the world, St. Antony’s in the deserts of Egypt.
That last visit clearly had the greatest impact on him and I recommend you take an hour to watch the episode.
Recently I’ve pulled out my copy and watched it again with friends. One of the moments that touches me is a short prayer Fr. Peter says about half way through his three week visit in the isolation of a mountain cave high up behind the monastery. In his first week by himself, he has been frank about not enjoying the experience, feeling tired, and wanting to go home. At about the half way mark of his retreat, we see him preparing a simple meal. Then he closes his eyes and raises his chin slightly. There is no need to hurry and he does not. Finally, he speaks.
“Thank you, Lord, for this food.
For all that you give.
For all that we will become through understanding how much we are loved.”
I always find myself holding my breath, nearly in tears, at this simple moment. In the midst of stress and spiritual battles, what else is there to say?
For two years I have wondered how I should respond when people ask me, politely, sincerely, “How are you doing?” It doesn’t seem right to say, “Fine,” when it is fairly obvious I am not. And liars don’t get to go to Heaven. But I don’t suppose people have the time for details of the struggle. I have prayed several times asking the Lord how I should answer the question.
The last time I watched Fr. Peter’s pilgrimage to St. Antony’s, I noticed that his spiritual mentor, Fr. Lazarus, asked him this question when he went to check up on him at the end of the three week spiritual retreat. After commenting that Fr. Peter looked like he had lost some weight, Fr. Lazarus posed the question.
“How are you doing?”
Fr. Lazarus, an astute old monk who himself lives a solitary life in the caves, is not someone who would put up with a pilgrim who tried to brush him off. Fr. Peter hesitates only a moment before he answers.
“I’m getting there,” Fr. Peter tells him.
That may be the only satisfactory answer to make, when anyone asks.