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JOURNEY BACK TO EDEN: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers

Mark Gruber, Author, M. Michele Ransil, Translator
Mark Gruber, Author, M. Michele Ransil, Translator . Orbis $18 (208p) ISBN 978-1-57075-433-3
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As a young monk and anthropology student, Gruber impulsively selected his dissertation topic—contemporary Coptic monasteries—after leafing through a National Geographic article on the Nile. The Copts, whose ancestors go back to the time of the Pharaohs, today comprise about 10% of Egypt's population; most practice an ancient form of Christianity that is distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Coptic monasteries in the Sahara desert became the topic of Gruber's year-long field study and a lifelong focus of personal and professional interest. More than a decade after his year in the desert, he began consulting his notes, letters, interviews and memories in order to create this memoir, whose form is part spiritual journal, part travelogue. It does not entirely succeed in either category. As a spiritual journal, it is distressingly exterior: Gruber reproduces long theological conversations with fellow monks, supplies interesting facts about liturgy and monastic daily life and composes formal prayers, but gives little sense of the interior struggles he must have endured if the year was as transformational as he claims. As a travelogue, his account needs updating; the events depicted took place in 1986–1987, and Gruber nowhere ties them to current Middle Eastern realities. Nevertheless, he tells good stories, like the one about the miracle he inadvertently performed while waiting for a Marian apparition. And who could forget the singing octogenarian who hiked up a mountain with him the week the mercury hit 130 and the thermometers exploded? (Sept.)

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