James Cowan (born 1942) is an Australian author. Cowan’s work lies at the intersection between modernism and ancient cultural perspectives. Many of his books explore the beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples as they attempt to come to terms with the modern world.
He discovered that the impulse “to forsake the world with all its opportunities and pleasures in order to pursue a life of self-abnegation” is found in Zen monasteries, Sufi orders, and Christian monasteries.
Although the fourth century desert hermit Saint Anthony wrote no books and never addressed devoted followers, he managed to pass on a system of ascetical behavior that is relevant to the present day where many seekers are trying to access the inner stillness through silence and prayer.
Cowan describes the importance of Saint Anthony as a pioneer of spirit:
. . . No man before him had so deliberately chosen to turn aridity into a positive value. The desert became his metaphor for being, his ageless encounter with lifelessness as a principle of rectitude. No wonder he was such a threat to Rome. This lonely man living in the desert imposed a new valuation on human endeavor: that people had the right to an inner life over and above their responsibilities as social beings. Such a premise went far beyond any that Socrates had proposed, even at his death. A new force had entered the world. By his retreat into the desert Anthony paved the way for others to take their first step on the road to selflessness.
St. Anthony was a renegade spirit, even in his own time. His goal was to change – no, to transform himself. Not ethically, not morally, but spiritually, mystically. All great spiritual disciplines are timeless. Stilling the mind, developing inwardness, cultivating detachment, these are all aspects of a genuine renovation of the spirit.1
Although we are all social beings, there is something to be said for taking time to develop mindfulness, and to some extent, withdrawing from the world. The point is to be recollected, to not be bounced around by the stress in our lives. Anthony of Egypt has an important lesson to teach on this score.
1 Portions of this blog was retrieved from: http://citydesert.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/desert-father-lessons-in-the-desert/ and http://www.innerexplorations.com/chtheomortext/cowan.htm.