A Search for Orthodox Spirituality
In his Prolegomena he describes how he came from Cyprus to the US, and lost his Orthodox faith as he became a professor of sociology. Over the years he rediscovered the spiritual realm and studied the usual things, including Zen and Carlos Castenada.
If you don’t remember Castenada, he wrote a series of books in the 60’s describing his purported conversations with a shamanistic Indian named don Juan, later shown not to have occurred. I admit that I read them too when I was younger and less wise.
This book reminds me very forcibly of Castenada’s work. There is some introductory and interpolating material, but the rest of it consists of purported (and somewhat unrealistic) conversations with the spiritual master. In this case that is Father Maximos, an elder sent back to Cyprus from the Mt. Athos monastic community to work as a missionary. He seems to actually exist, though.
Markides plays the role of a questioning and slightly skeptical seeker, and Father Maximos instructs him in the elements of Orthodox spirituality.
Central features to this spirituality are the necessity for self discipline, the necessity for divine grace, the necessity for spiritual guidance by saintly elders in the church, and the goal of Theosis—man being brought into God. Miracles are expected (and Markides is only nominally skeptical), the Eucharist is a holy power capable of bringing souls out of hell, direct experience of the Uncreated Light is possible, and the real battle is a spiritual battle against the forces of evil which first manifest as wicked or distracting thoughts.
How do you deal with wicked thoughts? To first order, ignore them and give them no home—they are from outside.
Markides comes to appreciate the importance of the monastic life and its incredible value to the rest of society; and develops his own Threefold Way description of how it works:
The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions.
- Catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions
- Fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, is a gift of the Holy Spirit after the soul has undergone its purification
- Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul
The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is a good tool for the non-monk to use to develop a life of continual prayer, but it isn’t exactly clear that non-monks are candidates for experiencing the Uncreated Light. I gather that this is supposed to be the job of the monks, who then help guide the rest of us. Or something like that. Markides asked very different questions from those I would have.
Markides’ asides are sometimes rather irritating. He assumes an attitude of superiority to the monk’s belief in hell (showing himself more ethical than Christianity’s founder) and he persists in framing questions in terms of social equality and freedom—which is not relevant to the master/apprentice or elder advisor/novice relationships. Rebuked by Maximos, he still doesn’t seem to get the concept. Maximos is also dismissive of Markides’ wife’s “eco-peace village” project as irrelevant to the real issues.
The monk’s regimen is quite strict: getting up at 3:30 to be ready for 4 hours of services at 4am, and so on. Watching them prostrate themselves before the icons over and over during the services would take a little getting used to as well. Monks bow and kiss the other’s hand when they meet, on the grounds that the person they meet is Jesus (“if you did it to the least of these”).
There are a few oddities in the book, such as the claim that Western Christianity was tightly connected with government (true) while Eastern Christianity was independent. That doesn’t seem close to true, as current events related in the book testify; unless he is restricting himself to the Eastern monks, in which case it might be (I’m not expert enough to say).
The picture of Orthodox spirituality he draws is similar to that offered in The Prayer of the Heart, so I’m assuming it is accurate insofar as Markides understands it.
For some reason the trade paper edition I borrowed from the library was printed in a thin and pale font, which makes it hard to read.
If you are interested in the subject, give it a read.