I'm about half way through reading Kyriacos C. Markides' The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, and have become so frustrated by it that I'm wondering whether to continue. The book is made up essentially of conversations between Dr Markides, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine with a long-standing interest in what can only be called New Age spirituality, and a "Fr Maximos," who is in fact a thinly disguised Fr Athanasios, now Metropolitan of Lismassol in the Church of Cyprus.
In his Prolegomena, Dr Markides speaks of his journey from agnosticism, to transcendental meditation, to interest in the lay mystics and healers of Cyprus. Having heard of Mt Athos for the first time, he felt himself "ready for an adventure within the mystical, experiential traditional of organized Christianity that survived in a few ancient monasteries unknown to the West and to mainstream Christianity" (5), a "Christian equivalent of Tibet" (6). Herein lies the book's false premise: namely, that there is a specifically "Athonite mystical spirituality" at all. Granted, Mt Athos has an incomparably rich spiritual tradition and is a place of extraordinary holiness; it is not my intention to deny this one bit. As any Athonite monk would insist, however, there is nothing essential present on Mt Athos that can not be found in any Orthodox church where the Eucharist is offered, and nothing inherent in their "spirituality" that can not be found in any other part of the Church, however humble. The spiritual life that the Athonite monks practice, far from having survived in a few forgotten monasteries, is in fact the very heart of mainstream Orthodox Christianity, even if many of its members fail to live up to this standard. Again, this is not to deny that the Holy Mountain has a tremendous spiritual heritage from which we can all profit. My point is, following St Irenaeus of Lyons, that any "esoteric" Christianity is inherently gnostic and therefore heretical. The full wealth of the Church's spiritual treasures are open to all who have entered it.
St Gregory of Nyssa's words on the Holy Land could equally well apply to the Holy Mountain:
We confessed that the Christ Who was manifested is very God, as much before as after our sojourn at Jerusalem; our faith in Him was not increased afterwards any more than it was diminished. Before we saw Bethlehem we knew His being made man by means of the Virgin; before we saw His Grave we believed in His Resurrection from the dead; apart from seeing the Mount of Olives, we confessed that His Ascension into heaven was real. We derived only thus much of profit from our travelling thither, namely that we came to know by being able to compare them, that our own places are far holier than those abroad. Wherefore, O ye who fear the Lord, praise Him in the places where ye now are. Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever thou mayest be, God will come to thee, if the chambers of thy soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in thee and walk in thee. But if thou keepest thine inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if thou wast on Golgotha, even if thou wast on the Mount of Olives, even if thou stoodest on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, thou wilt be as far away from receiving Christ into thyself, as one who has not even begun to confess Him. Therefore, my beloved friend, counsel the brethren to be absent from the body to go to our Lord, rather than to be absent from Cappadocia to go to Palestine; and if any one should adduce the command spoken by our Lord to His disciples that they should not quit Jerusalem, let him be made to understand its true meaning. Inasmuch as the gift and the distribution of the Holy Spirit had not yet passed upon the Apostles, our Lord commanded them to remain in the same place, until they should have been endued with power from on high. Now, if that which happened at the beginning, when the Holy Spirit was dispensing each of His gifts under the appearance of a flame, continued until now, it would be right for all to remain in that place where that dispensing took place; but if the Spirit “bloweth” where He “listeth,” those, too, who have become believers here are made partakers of that gift; and that according to the proportion of their faith, not in consequence of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.To add a word from personal experience, when I was a graduate student I attended a tiny little church in the storefront of an old building in a bad neighborhood of a large city. The services were entirely in Church Slavonic, the priest had a speech impediment that made nearly everything he said difficult to comprehend, and not more than two or three old babushki showed up for Vigils. Nonetheless, I came to appreciate that there was just as much holiness in that humble little Bethlehem of a church as anything I had encountered in my travels through the churches and monasteries of the Holy Land, Greece, Russia, and Romania. So, simply put, there's no such thing as a specifically Athonite mystical spirituality that can't be found anywhere else in the Orthodox Church. It's telling that the author never speaks of the Church, only of the Ecclesia, which he defines thusly: "The sum total of the practices, methods, sacred texts, and testimony of saints and their teachings on how to know God. In includes the organizational structure of the Church" (emphasis mine). This is true in so far as it goes, but for Dr Markides it is a way of acknowledging the truth within the Church without identifying the truth with the Church. The "mystical spirituality" of the Ecclesia is something more expansive than the Church itself.
Then there is the problem of Dr Markides' methodology. Here he summarizes how he engaged Fr Maximos in conversation:
In my mind, however, I carried on a continuous but silent dialogue between the teachings of the holy elders of Christianity and the secular thinkers of the West [he names Nietzsche, Freud, and Frankle earlier in the paragraph] as well as the wisdom traditions coming out of Buddhism and Hinduism. When he [Fr Maximos] talked about "purifying the heart," I could hardly avoid contrasting it with the Buddha's "eightfold path." (62)He admits, however, that the very people with whom he was talking would not have approved of this method:
I was fully aware, however, that devout Christians, the Athonite monks included, are averse to any comparisons between Christian revelation and spiritual practice and the mysticism and spiritual exercises of the East. In the eyes of such Christians, comparisons may undermine belief in the centrality and divine uniqueness of Christian revelation, a fear that as an academic I could not share. (62)That is a strange and telling passage. His assessment of the attitudes of many Christians towards a comparative approach is quite true. My own feeling is that there's nothing wrong with an objective comparative approach, but that the author so often gets so many of them so wrong that the reader can easily be misled into making facile comparisons that are in fact completely misleading. One further marvels that the good professor has been so blinded by the academic refusal to make "value judgments" and "truth claims" that he simply refuses to open his eyes to the possibility that the Christian revelation may, in very fact, be true.
The result is that, again and again, Fr Maximos will say something perfectly correct (in fact, I haven't found any of his recorded words in any way objectionable) and then the author will distort them beyond recognition. I'll give just one example. Fr Maximos cites St Maximos the Confessor's use of the term "eros maniakos" to describe the intense love that saints feel for God. He makes a point of saying that this eros was a matter of "shifting your energy exclusively in the direction of God" (emphasis mine). All of this is perfectly correct and Orthodox. But this is how Fr Markides interprets these words:
Having been blessed only with the experience of human eros, I could not possibly fathom what the eros maniakos might feel like. I could only imagine such a state intellectually. I could accept, for example, that all erotic relationships at all levels of intensity from the grossest to the most sublime are different manifestations of the all-consuming love of the absolute God. It is like the sun emanating its rays. Human eros is the experience of the rays. Eros maniakos must be the entrance into the sun itself.In other words, Professor Markides takes the human sexual experience (even the grossest), multiplies it infinitely, and then projects this on God. He even suggests that "the experience of eros maniakos was best captured in stone by Bernini in his portrayal of the Ecstasy of St Teresa, stabbed through the heart by an angel, symbolizing divine love. She surrendered in his arms in a state of ecstatic rapture." Now, as I have argued elsewhere, this is precisely the opposite of what St Maximos in fact taught.
The book's fatal flaw can, to my mind, be captured in the words of the friend who introduced the author to Fr Maximos: "At last we have found a real master who also happens to be a Christian." The emphasis is mine, and critical.
This is not a book I would recommend to anyone who doesn't have a basic grounding in the history and theology of the Orthodox Church. Those who do have this knowledge should be able to cut through the crap, so to speak, and benefit from Fr Maximos' words. As I've written before (I don't recall which post), it is our mission to preach Christ crucified and not "mystical spirituality," Athonite or otherwise. All of that is premised upon entry into the Church through Baptism.
This book could have been a real treasure if only the author had written himself out of it.