The Mountain of Silence is a personal search by a recently reconverted agnostic sociologist into the world of Orthodox spirituality. Like most Western academics, I associated the representative of institutionalized religion, if not with narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and corruption, then at least with irrelevance. Until my recent encounter with a few extraordinary Christian monks and hermits, I had met no living man of the cloth’ who had inspired me spiritually or intellectually. Abruptly this changed.
In 1991 Kyriacos Markides accepted a challenge from a friend to journey to Mount Athos; there he met Father Maximos. During the years to come, this extraordinary and charismatic Athonite monk became my mentor, teacher, and key informant of Christian spirituality as it was preserved on the Mountain of Silence. The Mountain of Silence is the account of what he learned during the process of reconversion to the faith of his Orthodox Cypriot childhood.
Markides’s own life and reconversion convinces him that Western Christianity, indeed the entire West, needs Orthodox spirituality to restore the mystical dimension of life that was progressively lostbeginning in the Middle Ages by the West’s almost exclusive focus on the material and scientific approach to reality. Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly. Both are needed for proper breathing.
But in 1997 when Markides set out to write his book as a sabbatical project from the University of Maine, he discovered his mentor had left Mount Athos and had relocated in Cyprus, where he was currently serving as Abbot of St. Panagia Monastery. Not to be deterred, he sought and received Father Maximos’s permission to reside in the monastery, eventually becoming his official driver. The road trips provided the occasions for conversations with Maximos.
The chapters present Markides’s questions arising from his agnostic perspective and Father Maximos’s responses. Each deals with a central dimension of Orthodox spirituality: monasticism, saints, experiential knowledge of God, the threefold mystical journey to God, icons, the Jesus Prayer, angels and demons, extraordinary signs and wonders. Most interesting to me were three chapters dealing with demons, passions (logismoi) and strategies for responding to temptations. Markides vividly presents the spiritual and physical attacks of demons, attacks experienced by Maximos himself: He confided...that some time back a demon had tried to chew a piece off his leg, leaving behind some scars. During another incident a demon allegedly pushed him down the stairs. Such purported incidents seem to be quite common among circles of Athonite monks and hermits.
Initially I was disappointed that the book was not set on Mount Athos itself, as its title implies. However, I found to my delight that Markides’s lively explanations and illustrations compensated for the potentially sterile question-and-answer format; he presents the Orthodox doctrinal synthesis as well as its embodiment. The accounts are especially compelling because the tradition is illustrated not by monks of a vague distant pasteasily demythologized by academicsbut by monks of today.
It should be noted that The Mountain of Silence is a search for Orthodox spirituality as lived by the monks of Mount Athos, not as lived by the ordinary believers. Most of the chapters deal with physical and secondary affects of mystical phenomena, such as voices, visions, light, heat and warmth as well as with their preternatural causes, angels and demons. I suspect that Markides focuses on these dimensions as an antidote to his previously one-dimensional Western and materialistic view of reality. But since these aspects are not within the experience of lay believers, some may find the treatments troubling, perhaps even alienating. For instance, Markides relates Maximos’s story of a busload of 40 nuns who made a trip across Cyprus in 15 minutes, a trip that normally takes more than five hours. Maximos shrugs off Markides’s skeptical explanations: Such phenomena do happen in the lives of saints, he insisted. Read about their lives and you will see it for yourself.
We are blessed to live in an age of ecumenism. Since the Second Vatican Council, the mystical tradition of our Christian West has been immeasurably complemented by the Christian East. The Mountain of Silence is an important contribution to the dialogue. It presents an excellent overview of the main themes common to all Orthodox spirituality while avoiding the dullness of typical textbook treatments by the intensity of the author’s personal search and by vivid vignettes from Mount Athos. I recommend it to all ChristiansCatholic, Protestant and Orthodoxwho desire to grasp more deeply our common Christian spiritual roots.