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January 21, 2008

Two spiritual TV shows - Satish Kumar and Peter Owen-Jones follow in the footsteps of Richard D. North: Earth Pilgrim and The Extreme Pilgrim on BBC2

Posted by Richard D. North

Earth Pilgrim
BBC2, 18th January 2008

The Extreme Pilgrim
BBC2, 18th January 2008

Satish Kumar, a guru born amongst the deserts of Rajasthan, took us to England's green Dartmoor. Peter Owen-Jones, a vicar from England's green Sussex, took us to the rubbly deserts of Egypt. Thus do we learn one of the first things about pilgrims: they are tourists of discontent. Of our two, Satish Kumar seemed by some margin the sillier.

Satish always was, and I am sure still is, a really nice man. He has been a very successful - even a useful - social entrepreneur as well as some sort of guru to the more deeply green of the greens. He has got better looking over the years, so that now the BBC's cameraman was able to pose Satish's fine jaw-line and aquiline nose against any amount of Devonian craggery. The soft evening light played about the mystic's laughter lines. He was wearing - as the modern alternativist divine does - clothing which seemed to come from somewhere beyond the oriental end of the Orvis catalogue, finished with a pashmina in natural hues. A vision. And I fear an invitation to the charge of vanity.

What's more, Satish was a vision come to spout clichés until one wanted to slap him. I like nature as much as the next man. But Satish's prating made me see the spiritual richness of the bourse and the pub even more than usual. And what is it about him being at peace? What's that got to do with spirituality? And what's nature got to do with being at peace? Yes, I know we all find awed solace in a sunset, but the more we examine such thoughts the less they really stack up. Nature is nasty just as much as it is nurturing. Its awful indifference is bracing.

It is worth saying that the desert fathers went into the desert because it was and remains a dreadful place. (I tried to unpick the evolving - reversing - attitude to the wild in my 1986 book Fools For God and my 1995 book Life On a Modern Planet.)

The 4th century mind thought the wild was terrain in which demons felt stronger and freer than in the city. In the wild, animals were awesome, but also humbled by the presence of saints. The nasty desert was redeemed by the grace of God working through blessed men. Not really your modern ecologism. Father Peter went into the desert with the model of the 4th century St Antony in front of him, and with a modern local hermit, Father Lazarus, as his guide.

"Are you penitential?", the tough old boy asked (or words to that effect). He was on the money. Old style christian spirituality always was determined that the monastic life was essentially about undertaking suffering in much bigger doses than the non-specialist christian, or the mere priest, had to endure. The reward was, with luck, God's grace - and a place in heaven. Owen-Jones frankly admitted that he didn't like this sort of theology. It is the antithesis of the happy-clappy.

One of the problems with Father Peter (as Father Lazarus called him) is that he is a trendy vicar. His dress was a scruffier, Glastonbury, version of Satish's. One couldn't resist the feeling that he was determined to cut a piratical dash which would nonetheless have notes of Jethro Tull and Keith Richard.

Actually, the much-vaunted eastern christian tradition - it has very loftily been espoused by the likes of John Taverner - has long been augmented and contested by a very vigorous western tradition. The westerner had, after all, to wrestle with Greek rationality. The result was articulated most clearly by the Cistercian founder, Saint Bernard, who emphasised that monasticism was about the experience of directly and personally loving and being loved by a mysterious God.

Actually, Father Lazarus himself seemed pretty sophisticated and western in the way he talked. An earlier TV interview reportedly suggests that he was an erstwhile atheist Australian university lecturer, which certainly fitted his locution. Nothing remotely wrong in that: Mount Athos and the Egyptian desert monasteries are full of university graduates. That is what makes their talk of, for instance, the physical reality of demons so hard to take. Either they have a different use for the idea of metaphor than the rest of us, or they get experiences of a kind not granted the rest of us. Or they are lying, which I find hard to credit.

Anyway, to put it kindly, one has to see that modern, educated eastern monks have to be capable of running two or three incompatible lines of thought.

Anyway, whilst Peter understood well enough the experience he was after, I doubt he was entirely sympathetic to the experience which interests the Coptic monk near him on the hill, or the dozens down in the monastery.

At least Peter didn't bang on about being at peace. He seemed to see that his quest - his trip to the desert was the third TV pilgrimage he has made - was a matter of testing himself rather more than it was about getting goofily serene. But he was at least as prone as Satish to describe his adventure as being about himself. Indeed, it was hard not to see it as a quest for well-being of the kind which might just as well have taken him to a therapist.

Insofar as I understand it, the spiritual quest is either at odds with the therapeutic, or the therapeutic is only tangential to it. Spirituality is about getting oneself - one's self - out of the way so that one's soul (not a lot about soul from our two mystics) can at last satisfy its hunger for God. And also, one aims to get oneself out of the way so that God can get to work on the soul.

It is perhaps natural that Peter didn't want to embarrass us with talk about these two great improbabilities (God and his spark within us) for fear of offending his secular audience.

Anyway, let's wind back a bit and think about the place he went to, and the hermitage he found there. When I visited it in the early 1980s, St Antony's hillside monastery was a thriving pilgrimage destination a long morning's bus ride from Cairo. Copts in droves trekked there and worshipped, lunched and chatted. Then at nightfall most of them left and peace descended, broken only by the sounds of football matches being played in the nearby Army base.

None of this was shown by our BBC chums, who preferred to show us Peter arriving by motley Bedouin caravan. This all slightly matters because actually the monastery and its worship - beginning at around three or four am - is a minimalist spectacular and, I would say, very moving.

When Peter popped up the mountain for his three week stint of loneliness he was breaking a very long tradition of monastic good sense. This is that the hermit ought to be a man mature in monasticism. This is because isolation is not likely to be very spiritual or even healthy unless it is happening to a person who is experienced in the loneliness which a community is designed to provide and mitigate.

What's more, of course, it makes no sense to be a temporary hermit. Pretty well by definition, a man thrown out of society into isolation spends - let's say - three weeks getting used to the sound of silence. After that, he may put solitude to work.

So Peter's three weeks pretty well by definition could tell us only so much about the tradition he was exploring. We could admire his courage and his determination. We could see that he had some sort of spiritual success. But his enterprise seemed curiously presumptuous. Leave aside that he positively declares that he aims to put right a western spiritual deficiency, a desire which is arrogant and ignorant beyond belief. The film was too much about him rather than God, and about his emotional rather than his spiritual state. It was too much about his quick foray into something whose core message is "stability" - that is, staying put under discipline.

Of the evidence that Peter had the twin angels, Golden Virginia and Rizla, to keep him company in his cave, we'll say nothing except that if this had been decent film-making, we'd have seen him having a quick snout. I expect they were the most enjoyable smokes he ever had, and good luck to him.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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