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Mojave or Sahara, Egyptian Christians love a desert

Just outside of Yermo, California, is a sign pointing the way to the St. Antony Monastery.

Do not expect a pleasant trip.

A ripple-cut gravel road fit only for hoverboards jiggles you along for about five miles.

St. Antony’s is a Coptic monastery — a monastery for Egyptian Christians — and once I got there, I first — as usual — visited the bookstore. I spoke with Brother Thomas, one of the monks.

“Is there another way out of here?” I asked. “I don’t have any fillings left in my teeth.”

He smiled his monastic smile.

“That’s kind of the idea,” he said. “We want people to make an effort.”

Surprisingly, many people do make the effort. And most will tell you it’s worth the time and trouble.

Founded in 1993, St. Antony’s was the first recognized Coptic monastery outside of Egypt. The monastery was named for St. Antony the Great, a desert-dwelling saint who left a legacy of living a bare-bones life. The current monks at St. Antony’s try to emulate his desert life as well as his gifts for wisdom.

In 2012 at the monastery, the St. Moses Church (or “cathedral” as the residents call it) was built. Today, it is a jewel in the Mojave Desert. Rather than seeming chilly and lofty — as many cathedrals do — St. Moses is warm and inviting. I spent an hour there and would have liked to spend another.

The church is filled with murals — icons — painted by a woman who is a resident at St. Antony’s.

She, too, has left quite a legacy.

Each painting feels filled with serenity. If the purpose of an icon is to transmit the inner essence of the figure portrayed, the icons at St. Antony capture the childlike grace and sweetness of Jesus about as well as it can be done.

If you’re interested, visit stantonymonastery.org and click on “multimedia” and then “pictures.”

As for the faith behind the artwork at the monastery, Coptic Christianity is part of the Orthodox branch of believers. It traces its history to St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. The Coptics claim to practice a pure form of Christianity that has remained the same for 2,000 years.

These days, the Coptics are moving forward on two fronts — they are reaching into Africa and also into North America. Although church membership has never been officially tabulated, it’s estimated there are 30 million Coptic Christians in the world, including the dozen or so monks in the desert of Southern California.

As I prepared to leave, I took a stroll around the grounds. In the desert, the busy, workaday world seems so far away it could exist on another planet.

Father Thomas would probably say, "That's the idea."

It’s why St. Antony the Great fled into the desert in the first place.

It’s why thousands of early Christians followed him there.

And it’s also why a small band of believers at the end of a washboard road in California lives in the desert now.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com