Want to watch something really interesting?

April 13, 2009 | 39 comments

This episode of a BBC documentary about religion and spirituality is one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve seen in a while. It’s an hour long, so I put it on full-screen mode (by clicking the icon of the TV in the menu bar) and watched it during the kids’ naps while I fed the baby.

“Why can’t the road to God be eating tomato basil soup and getting up and having a lovely day?” asks Anglican vicar Pete Owen Jones before heading out to the isolated caves of the Egyptian desert to spend three weeks as a hermit, near the cave where St. Anthony the Abbot once lived. Only a few days into his stay in the utterly silent cave in the middle of the desert, he discovers spiritual warfare as he’s never experienced it before, as well as “the hell of reflection.”

His conversations with the priest-hermit who has lived in an isolated cave for years are fascinating, in particular about the often-underestimated importance of prayer. I’ve been thinking a lot about one thing in particular that the priest said, that “one hour of prayer, mindful of God, is worth a lifetime of beneficent service.” And what Jones learns about how numb he had been — and the painful process of coming alive again — gave me much food for thought.

I highly recommend getting a cup of coffee or glass of wine, putting it on full-screen mode, and settling in to watch this documentary.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone else who’s watched it. Great stuff, huh?

(Hat tip to Orthodox Fathers)


  1. Christine

    Thanks Jennifer. You post the most interesting items. I wish they would have covered his return to his congregation & discussed what he took home with him & how it changed his everyday. How much better did it make his prayer life at home? Was he able to reach that intensity months later… it's a shame that it just sort of scratched the surface. Very beautiful. Yes, lots of food for thought here.

  2. Creative Clayer

    Amazing. I think we all go into the desert at some point in our lives and come out glowing like this man. God has such an amazing ability to heal us through our struggles.

    My husband (a non-Christian) is always telling me how Christianity is the opposite of human nature, that we are asked to do things that simply don’t make sense. It’s occurred to me recently that it is in doing those things that our nature changes. We become better people because of it. I know now that human nature is what you make of it through accepting and obeying God’s will.

  3. Anonymous

    I LOVED this! I think we all have deserts in our own lives… really hard times when we do not want to pray, when it is difficult to believe in God and do His Will and I think this showed that we MUST keep praying and stay close to God no. matter. what. so that we can grow closer to God. He asked an interesting question at the beginning: why does the path to God have to include suffering? I think this is because, to use a familiar metaphor, we are the clay and God is the potter. We must be shaped by God into vessels (such as pitchers) which can be filled with Him. Because of our sinful natures, we are like mis-shapen pitchers or mounds of clay to begin with and we have to be pushed and pulled in ways that feel all wrong to us at first so that we can become the vessels He wants us to be. Once He has shaped us into pitchers, He can fill us with Himself and use us to fill others with Himself. This is why suffering leads to happiness. This video was a good illustration of this.

  4. Anne

    I have not watched this programme done by Vicar Peter Owen Jones (well, I think I may have passed through while others were watching and caught five minutes), but a quick word of caution about the man himself. While I accept that this programme may be good and very interesting (having not watched it, I am in no position to throw any sort of stone), I watched one episode of another recent series he did and, among other things, he wandered into a Catholic church and received Communion and appeared to represent the ‘all religions are equally valid roads to the top of the same mountain’ thinking which is so common nowadays.
    I could write more, but I would only be being judgemental and cruel… So I’ll stop.
    I will try to watch the video you’ve posted, I’m sure it will be as interesting as you say!
    God bless!

  5. Abigail

    I haven’t watched this yet but just wanted to say


    Basically, the Carmelites say that a) we are all living “in the desert” like the Israelites under Moses since our true home is in heaven, so that we need to live as exiles in this world and b) you can either make peace with living in the desert or you can fight it with bunches of “stuff” (buying comfort, addictions, and distractions)

  6. Multiple Mom T

    Haven’t watched it yet–plan to later on. Did want to pose the question, though, of hermits and how in the world they are fulfilling the great commission?

  7. Chris

    We all know that the Anglican Church is dwindling, no more so than in Britain itself. And a priest living apart from his wife and children is certainly emblematic of that moribund state. So also the dwindling congregation that we saw during one of the services filmed in the program.

    But I can’t help but consider that one man conscious of the eternal interior struggle between good and bad can make a difference. Nor is it possible to dismiss the good of service rendered to one’s fellows by such a one, even if those fellows are dwindling. That is a certain reminder of the desert, for if the one is of value to God — and he is — then how much greater is the value of the few? That too is an implicit service of the desert monks, and of Father Jones in his documentary. Not only do they offer prayers to God on our behalf, but they offer us the example of their own dignity, which continues to be recognized by God even in the absence of what the world deems to be important. In the desert, there can be no risk of seeking to please “all the right people,” as the saying goes, for there are no people to please, only God. But knowing that one such person is there, beloved before God, is also to know that others are equally beloved of Him.

    Father Jones at the beginning of the documentary is a self-acknowledged broken man. That, in and of itself, is a significant thing, for in its own way it reflects the prayer of the penitent sinner: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I think it no coincidence that this simple prayer seems to be a common one of the desert monks — and of Father Jones himself in the documentary.

  8. jbrooke6

    Is it just me or did anyone else feel like they were watching a religious version of “Spinal Tap”?? It was very thought provoking, but I agree with Jennifer that the more interesting bit would be how it actually changed him. Watching him practice asceticism seemed a little self contradictory!

  9. Anonymous

    Oh Jennifer,

    fear/uselessness/the rooms we choose

    the hell of reflection

    you are an icon of prayer..no lists/names..you pray and represent all mankind
    one hour of prayer is worth more than
    a day?? of beneficent deeds

    bring the empty fullness back with you

    The way he looked at the end of the
    struggle is something else..
    and how he said he was ” getting there”..
    good stuff Jen

  10. Joseph Langford, MC

    Fr Jones is everyman, at least the Western variety, and his journey a microcosm of what our culture—and all of us, weened on its values and “forma mentis”—must embrace. I cannot think of a more important message for our time, and a more thoroughly practical example of how all of us, even the formerly “numb,” can join in the great work of redeeming the West (we are all sated with stories of How the West Was Lost; we need (real) stories of how it can be won back, one person at a time, one breathed prayer at a time, one choice of the “narrow door” at a time.

  11. Jenan

    That was incredible. I really like what he said to Father Lazarus at the end, something like, “It made me feel better just to know that you were there.” That made me think of God and how He is always there, even when we can’t recognize Him in our lives, we still can take comfort in just knowing that He is there.

  12. Tom L

    One hour of prayer, mindful of God, is worth more than a lifetime of beneficent service. In me, all mankind lives. So if I pray, all mankind prays. If I don’t pray, all mankind turns from God. If you think like this, if you see yourself as the iconic embodiment of humanity standing before God, you will pray, because you will be terrified not to pray. You will achieve pardon for yourself, and for others. This is the guarantee of the desert.
    Father Lazarus

    In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … My solitude … is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self.
    Father Thomas Merton

    … man is one universal nature in regard to what he is, and man is many merely … in regard to the way he is. Man is one in virtue of his form, and he is many merely in virtue of matter. … Man as these many particulars is contingence and materiality; man as a universal nature is an intelligible essence and a limited aspect of the divine essence. … the difference between men is less real than the unity of men.
    Father Bernard Lonergan

    The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one …
    Jn 17:22-23

  13. Amy Andrews

    Oh wow, so interesting. What Father Lazarus said to Father Jones at the end…”I have to stay here, but you have to go back to your life in England. I want you to bring back with you the full emptiness.”

    The Full Emptiness.

    That is deep. I think I’m going to be pondering that for a while…

  14. Rachel Gray

    Multiple Mom T, I don’t know very much about hermits and how they explain their life, but part of it might be that everyone has a different calling in the Body of Christ, and praying for sinners is just as important and fruitful as preaching to them. Also, hermits might point to the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible, how Martha served the guests while Mary just sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching– and Mary was the one He commended. I don’t know if Martha was just supposed to let everyone go hungry or what, but at least the story shows the value of just listening to God, even if it seems impractical.

  15. Anonymous

    Despite myself I agree with jbrook6, it struck me as completely hilarious, esp the way his appearance deteriorated over time. What does this say about my spiritual state (though I’m a practicing Catholic who still has one foot in Lent) I don’t know.


  16. Gretchen

    I was impressed with the story. Yes, I wanted to know what happened when he went back (did he reconcile with his wife, is he preaching solitude to his congregation, etc), but the suggestion was that he was quite changed. I once had a friend who was suffering a fearful illness for which she refused medical treatment (she was a Christian Scientist). Instead, she kept herself so busy that she had no time to pray or even slow down. I told her that she needed to get someplace quiet and pray for herself and commune with God. She reacted with horror. “Be alone with God?! I could never do that! It would be torture.”

    I believe that the priest’s determination to spend three weeks seeking God was a very courageous act. For when one comes closer to the Great I AM, one must shrivel into a wretch–at least at first. And I think that is just what happened to him. He was wracked with guilt for a time. But he stuck with the time alone with God, and his countenance was changed. The physical suffered a bit, but the spiritual shone through him much more clearly than at the beginning of the documentary.

  17. Anonymous

    Wow, all the comments are great. Keep them up.

  18. Josephene

    Thank you for this. My husband and I watched it last night together. My favourite parts were his need to exercise. It made me think of being a Mom at home. Some days, I am on the edge of crying just for fresh air and physical activity that hurts the muscles. I feel I can imagine the physical frenzy of not getting occasional endorphins.
    Also, when Father Lazarus tells him that his changed face is a gift of the mountains. He did change, and maybe “just because” of sleep deprivation, fear and anxiety, hunger, tan, etc. But his face reminded me of the movie depictions of Moses come down from the mountain: touched by God, forever altered. I was curious to know what he brought back with him to his parishes at home, what struggles he endured after having begun to love being in the mountain.
    Naively and stupidly, as he himself said, I heard myself thinking, “I wanna do that!”

  19. Anonymous

    Count me out as someone who loved this documentary although I definitely responded to the priest hermit’s comment about “one hour of prayer, mindful of God, is worth a lifetime of beneficent service.” The comment prompted me to try to grab a rein on the distractions I feel as I pray. A challenge.

    That said, I found myself annoyed by Jones’ self-absorption. I also found myself thinking about the camera (and the camera crew, although it might have been just one person) following Jones as he explored the idea of going to the monastery to be alone for several weeks. (Was he really saying “alone”?? Aw, come on!)

    I could say more, none of it enthusiastic. Please feel free NOT to post this and consider it strictly a private e-mail. I won’t feel hurt, annoyed, insulted or whatever. I may have missed the whole import of the documentary. If so, I would not want my “miss” to affect (and afflict!) others’ viewing and response.

    ~ Nona

  20. Javier


    that was a very insightful remark. The guy is really self absorbed. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of a Transcendent God, or of Grace, or of Satan for that case (a real, personal Satan, exterior to us).
    The whole thing seems to be some sort of Yoga to him.
    I think he missed the whole point.



  21. Abigail

    Oh my! I was on pins and needles with excited this entire documentary. As a lay Carmelite the desert is so appealing. I can’t believe how beautiful everything looked.

    I felt so close to St. Anthony and that wonderful monastery. It’s nice to know that spiritually I’m living an adventurous life, even though I hardly leave my house as the mother of 3 young children. I definately felt much closer to St. Anthony than poor Angelician priest Peter, even though I’ll most likely never travel to Egypt.

    All of Father Lazarus” comments were so profound. “How strong is your sense of sin because this is a life of penance in service to the world” and also “we come to the desert to be awake.”

    I laughed outloud with Father Peter worried that the monk was mad. I told my husband, that hermit priest will be the most sane man you’ll ever meet. It’s true. Being awake and in constant dialog with God will keep you more sane than all of us poor Westerners struggling in an insane commercial world.

    I think this documentary really showed the beauty of the contemplative life and how just knowing there are Father Lazuruses out there is a major service to humanity. We won’t even know the full benefits of how their prayer life helped our world until heaven.

    I read a beautiful quote in my Carmel book yesterday. “In heaven, we will all be contemplatives.” Good to know that at one point in the future everyone will finally understand us.

    Thanks for the hat tip Jen!

  22. Javier


    one finds God (and Catholicism) if one is thirsting for the Truth.
    Jones is clearly not. He is after the “religious experience”. And as in the final scenes we see yogis, buddhist monks and christian eremites on an equal footing, it is clear that for Jones, any such experience will do.

    Javier from Argentina

  23. Anonymous


    Thanks for your supportive comments. I think your additional observations are absolutely on point.

    But, of course I would, wouldn’t I?!

    ~ Nona Aguilar

  24. Anonymous

    Javier and Nona,

    I completely agree that Fr. Peter was self-absorbed… but isn’t that one more reason why he should have been out there in the dessert doing penance and asking forgiveness? He might not even realize he’s self-centered. And, who knows what he took away from the experience. Maybe, in retrospect, he’ll realize that the time in the dessert praying to the one true God was better than the other religious experiences he went through. If he was truly searching for God, he will find him and God will show him the error of the other religions he was looking into as well as his self-absorption.

  25. Hope

    I think it’s rather hasty to conclude Jones was not thirsting for Truth. One Sunday not long before I converted to Catholicism I was sitting in my old church and judging my pastor as he preached. Into my head came the phrase, “don’t steal his story.” I wanted to dismiss his story because it didn’t come close to my own. All we have is our story. How we came to be where we are. I think there is more we can learn from one another’s stories than just that we don’t want to be like the other person. There are always nuggets of Truth to be found among the sentences.

    One of the things I most appreciate about my Catholic faith is nuance plus both/and thinking. I was bound in literalism and either/or thinking. Also the freedom to embrace Truth where you find it. It doesn’t take away from one’s faith to find it in unexpected places. It adds to it.

    Just some thoughts on an early Friday morning.

  26. Anonymous

    Nona and anonymous:

    There is a sentence Peter
    howls at one point during the film:
    ” Why is it always about You?”

    He is looking up and addressing God.

    This sentence has stuck with me because it symbolized the entire crux of the human condition: the Fall,
    the desire for it to be all about us.. the self-pity and sense of vehement and profound entitlement in everyone.. and in me too.
    That was probably the most significant thing Peter said. Everything Fr. Lazurus said was significant, naturally. Yes, this documentary..which only came alive when Fr. L. came on the scene, is something that is sticking with me too.

  27. cliquish chicken

    I really really enjoyed this and thank you for posting it.

    I must admit to being really quite angered by the comments about how self-absorbed Father Peter is. Those comments seem incredibly snide an judgmental.

    It wouldn’t be much of a documentary exploring religion if all he did was go to the cave. He had to get there. And by taking all the other steps and looking at all the other religions- he did. Assuming that those religions had nothing to teach him and that he was just thirsting after an experience seems so harsh.

    Anyway I really enjoyed the film. Thank you.

  28. Anonymous

    Dear Cliquish Chicken,

    You might be right about my response, i.e., that it was snide and judgemental.

    That was my response, however. Given that it was the minority view — and the minority view by far — I was perfectly happy to have Jennifer elect not to post it.

    May I gently suggest that there is a difference between “judgment” and “critical thought”. I think I was applying the latter. Alas, the latter sometimes comes across as (*sigh*) the former.

    ~ Nona

  29. Javier


    that is the problem with us, absolutists: relativists always think us snide and judgemental.
    Sometimes it seems as if one has to be in a perpetual ecstasy over diversity to avoid being called judgemental.

    Javier, from Buenos Aires (Argentina).

  30. cliquish chicken

    Actually- let me retract my comment about “snide and judgmental”. That was too harsh and I think I responded too quickly. After letting it all percolate for a bit I see your comments were not really snide at all. It just felt that way after watching for an hour as this man struggled for a month to come to where he was.
    I felt very emotional after watching his quest and I suppose I felt somehow attacked on his behalf, strange as that may seem.

  31. Brother Juniper

    As someone discerning a vocation to the Benedictines, this documentary film was a profoundly moving experience.

    St. Benedict lived the life of a hermit for many years before he began to attract disciples. He lived alone in a cave near Subiaco. Most people thought that he had gone absolutely insane by living without anybody around and anybody to talk to.

    When I saw Fr. Lazarus, I thought about St. Benedict. His comment on prayer really struck me. When I pray the Divine Office, I feel that I am praying for the world and that I am helping it to be a much saner place than it actually is.

    Yet now I understand that prayer is much more than just saying words out loud. It is about connecting inwardly with God in the silence of our own hearts and trying to reach out to Him even if we don’t hear him.

    Thank you for this experience and may the Lord bless you always.

  32. Anonymous

    << I felt very emotional after watching his quest and I suppose I felt somehow attacked on his behalf, strange as that may seem.>>

    That's not strange at all, Clickish Chicken. I'm sure all of us has felt that way; certainly I'VE felt that way in different contexts, different circumstances. Also, your original comment reflects your empathy and response to the documentary and its subject, Vicar Jones. I don't share that empathy and my response was quite different, of course, but I don't deny that many found this documetary to be deeply meaningful.

    ~ Nona

  33. green mom for Jesus

    I will watch this.
    As I was kneeling at Mass the other day, silently pray and praising God for our beautiful faith, it hit me once again that the joy Christ is allowing me to feel is not just for me. This joy is to be offered up in communion with the entire church – that my joy may fill the hearts of those who are in a point of suffering.
    The mystical body of Christ is an amazing and mysterious gift!
    Praise be Jesus Christ in Holy Mother Church.
    May our eyes always be open to His presence in everyone around us.

  34. Anonymous

    What a wonderful insight, green mom.

    As a lifelong Catholic, I’m only now beginning to begin “get it” about the gift of the mystical body.

    ~ Nona

  35. Tune

    One remark after reading every single comments in this post was: I don’t pray enough.
    Thank you Jen for sharing this beautiful video!
    Also, thank you for sharing your wonderful comments, it is really inspiring to hear all of your thoughts. My personal favorite: “I think there is more we can learn from one another’s stories than just that we don’t want to be like the other person. There are always nuggets of Truth to be found among the sentences.”

  36. Carrien

    I finally got some time to watch this.

    I was interested by how much in the middle of it he didn’t “like this theology”. He was obviously so uncomfortable with the idea that there may be actual evil that opposes good, and our attempts at prayer and interior connection with God.

    In me it leads to at least one conclusion, possibly two.

    1.)Prayer must be very, very important if Satan so strongly opposes those who pursue it.

    2.)Also, prayer must strengthen our faith and relationship with God if demons so valiantly try to keep us from it.

    It was also interesting to see as he struggled with this theology how he was juxtaposing it to his own view. It wasn’t a logical question, “Why does God send his children out to play in a garden full of snakes?” in the context of the theology of the desert fathers as shown in the film. It seems obvious that we are here to continue God’s work of subduing the earth and wresting it from Satan, or, to use his analogy, driving out the snakes. That was the commission, to subdue.

    He is bringing into it his own notion that a life of faith should not be dangerous, or uncomfortable. That God’s children should ever be babes and never take their place in participating with their father in advancing his kingdom on this planet.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

    It was very rewarding to watch him come to peace.

    It also for some reason triggered anew in my brain the idea of the transformational potential of suffering. We all suffer, because we are human, but only the child of God can endure suffering in participation with Christ and so in some way by suffering with Christ make that something redemptive, not only for ourselves but for the world.

    Much to think on. Thanks for sharing.

  37. Anonymous


    Your comments are prayer are so wonderful. One thing that helps me is to make prayer a part of my daily routine. Also, as I travel around running errands, I have learned to make it a point to offer aspirational prayers.

    Lately, I pray the Divine Mercy chaplet prayers as I walk about, running errands. (E.g., “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” Also, “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”)

    If you have thoughts about suffering, your ideas would be helpful to me — and to others, I’m sure.

    ~ Nona

  38. Elizabeth Mahlou

    Thanks for sharing. Fr. Peter's experiences are much in keeping with those of the old mystics; it is through experiences similar to those of the old mystics that I came into the Catholic faith so I pretty much anticipated what Fr. Peter experiences. It is great that he filmed it to share.

  39. April

    I'm so glad you mentioned that you had posted this earlier this year! Thanks!
    I was in awe of Father Lazarus, of course. His love of God and fear of God was so obvious. He had such a sense of humor too "Voila le pickax. Happy step making!" What a great note to leave someone.
    I was also amazed by the Bedouins. The chief Bedouin was so conscious of God in everything he said. Answering the question "if you could have anything in the world what would it be?" he said, "I ask only the God shelters me and keeps me in good health because you take nothing to the grave." What would the world be like if we all believed that?


  1. Desert spirituality at two o’clock in the morning : Conversion Diary - [...] to know that this is the kind of spiritual test that challenged even the great saints (see this documentary…

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