I’ve spent about seven years in the desert, during which time I have read an awful lot of depressing literature written by nihilists and misogynists, a lot of psychology and an equal amount of philosophy.  The only Christian literature I read during that time was a few years ago when I devoured almost everything that Richard Holloway had written, including a very challenging book on forgiveness that took up Derrida’s premise that forgiveness really only starts when you forgive the unforgiveable.  So, it was surprising to me to find that I was now interested in reading about Orthodox spirituality.  It was coincidental that I had also started working alongside a Greek Orthodox woman with whom I had become friendly.

I have really enjoyed reading two books by the American sociologist, Kyriacos Markides, about Othodox spirituality.  Markides is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine, a position which leaves him plenty of time in long holidays and sabbatical terms to travel to Greece and Cyprus and to England to research the monastic tradition of the Orthodox church.

 I read first the Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, 2001,  and then Fruits of the Desert.  The first book is an account of many conversations Markides had on Mount Athos with a young charismatic monk called Father Maximos.  The device of reporting conversations has both advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage is that the author appears not to colour the information that the monk provides.  He is simply reporting the monk’s words, not commenting on them, and thus leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind.  However, the device of reporting the monk’s words without comment leaves the reader with only a vague idea of the monk’s character.  Since the conversations are all question and answer sessions on Orthodox spirituality and do not concern other aspects of life, we only know what the monk believes about his faith, not how he deals with more mundane matters.  We are occasionally told that the monk laughs or smiles ironically, but that is all.  The monk, for all his charisma, appears more like a vehicle, a conduit through which to showcase Orthodox spirituality.

Another more fundamental objection is that the accounts ignores the feminine experience of God.  The monk is male and has no intimate relationship with a female other than his mother, and the interviewer is male, and no females are allowed on Mount Athos.  The author does not deal with the absence of the feminine – though we are left knowing that his wife would have a great deal to say on the subject – and we have to wait until a short interlude in the second book where he interviews the British Orthodox leader Kallistos Ware.  I found this frustrating.  I had lots of questions stacking up to be answered and they remained unanswered at the end of the book.

By the time of the second book the monk has been moved (reluctantly) from Mount Athos back to his home country of Cyprus.  He is quickly elected Archibishop and has a rude awakening from the peace and contemplation of his monastic existence to becoming a public, semi-political figure on a divided island.  Once again the format is a series of conversations with the now-Archbishop and the author, and sometimes the author’s friends.  These conversations are more worldly.  At least with his friends, the author touches on the political situation in Cyprus and, with Kallistos Ware, he discusses the role of women in the church and ecumenicalism.

“True faith means I live with God, I am one with God.  I have come to know God and therefore I know He truly Is.  God lives inside me and is victorious over death and I move forward with God.  The entire methodology of the authentic Christian mystical tradition as articulated by the saints is to reach that stage where we become conscious of the reality of God within ourselves.  Until we reach that point we simply remain stranded within the domain of ideas and not within the essence of Christian spirituality which is the direct communion with God.”