Audio length: 30:10 minutes
Transcript published: February 08, 2010
Kevin Allen interviews Kyriakos C. Markides, author of The Mountain of Silence and Gifts of the Desert, talks about his life, his books, and his spiritual journey. This interview--you're going to want to listen to over and over...!
Kevin: Welcome to this edition of the Illumined Heart radio program. I am Kevin Allen and today I am very excited to have as my guest for the next two programs, one of my favorite writers on spirituality and on his trail-blazing work on the forgotten path of mystical Eastern Christianity. He has authored six best-selling books on these subjects, including Gifts of the Desert, The Mountain of Silence, Riding with the Lion, Fire in the Heart, Homage to the Sun, and The Mogus of Strovolos. He is a native of Cyprus, he received his higher education here in the states, and he currently teaches at the University of Maine where he is a professor of sociology. And I know that many of you listening here have read his books. It is my pleasure to welcome Kyriacos C. Markides. Doctor, welcome!
Dr. Markides: It is great being with you Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you. Well professor, we have a lot of ground to cover, so let us get to work. You were born in Cyprus?
Dr. Markides: Yes.
Kevin: And you were baptized Greek Orthodox?
Dr. Markides: Right.
Kevin: Was the Orthodox Church a big part of your family and/or personal life when you lived on Cyprus?
Dr. Markides: Well, when you are born in Cyprus and you are from Greek background, you are born into the church, as it were. So, we used to go to church during Sunday celebrations and I was, in fact, an altar boy when I was young. My father stopped going to church after my mother died. She was 36. He got very angry at God, so he stopped going to church. It took him 10 years to get back to church. So that gives you an idea. But the church has always been a part of my upbringing, in terms of going to catechism and learning about the lives of saint. Who knows, maybe those early experiences set some kind of a groundwork for what happened later.
Kevin: Well, that is what I was trying to cover. Now when you get to the states, your father and your family move?
Dr. Markides: No, I had aunts and uncles who migrated to the United States in the 20s and 40s, and that is why I ended up coming to the United States myself. My father remained in Cyprus, and my sister.
Kevin: Okay, and you go to undergraduate school and graduate school in the states?
Dr. Markides: Right.
Kevin: And you write that at some point during your higher education you become a fairly committed, but not cheerful, agnostic.
Dr. Markides: Well, yes. When I came to the United States, I studied business administration, and at a certain point I realized that business was not for me, even though I was doing well as a student. I switched to sociology, which offered me an outlet, in terms of studying important questions about life and society. But by the time I got my doctoral degree, I became, as I pointed out, a reluctant agnostic, in the sense that I felt I had no other choice, being a modern, western, intellectual—I had to be an agnostic.
Kevin: You write that you internalized a scientific, materialist world view and a skeptical view of religion.
Dr. Markides: Right, right. But at the same time, I was not very comfortable with that position because I realized the nihilistic implications of such a position. And yet everything that came my way—in terms of books, studying, courses—gave me that message, that religion is [irrational], that religion is for the uneducated, that God is dead. This is the essence of moderism; we have inherited it from the 19th century.
Kevin: Yes, and it is especially prevalent, is it not, on the university campus?
Dr. Markides: It has changed. It is changing. It has been prevalent for a long time, but all of these perspectives have come under severe criticism and attack. And there are many reasons why that is happening. But I feel much more comfortable today, to speak about spirituality in the university context, than I have ever felt before.
Kevin: Interesting. Now you were exposed to eastern spiritual traditions and yogic traditions by a colleague and you write in your preface to Mountain of Silence that you were influenced by people like Carlos Castaneda, Allan Watts, Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Gurdjieff, Yogananda Krishnamurti.
Dr. Markides: Well, you mentioned them all. Yes, they played an important role in my moving away from scientific materialism, and that was during the 70s. As I was being exposed to this material, I began to question the agnosticism that I had reached in my academic training. So, in a way, the Castaneda books sensitized me to the possibility that there are other realities out there we simply ignore.
Kevin: Now you also mentioned, Kyriacos, that you were doing transcendental meditation for five to seven years during this period.
Dr. Markides: Right. During the time when I came to the University of Maine, my colleague, who was a transcendental mediator, convinced me that it was a good thing to do. You can meditate and then you can deeply relax and then you can work harder so you can get tenure. And it worked.
Kevin: Interesting. Now do you account for your re-interest in some of these spiritual traditions and ideas as the result of your intellectual journey, or part of your meditation practices, or both?
Dr. Markides: Well, it was part of the intellectual journey, really. And you have to keep in mind that I never left the church. I always would go to church during celebrations and frequently on Sundays, because that was part of my cultural identity. But at the same time, at that time anyway, I heard that there was nothing intellectually exciting within the church. So I looked elsewhere, and I found exciting reading in these other traditions and the names that you mentioned. So basically, my opening to the east, if you will, was intellectual.
Kevin: You were not doing any reading on patristics at this time?
Dr. Markides: No, I was not. I did not even know of that there were patristics.
Kevin: Interesting. So somehow your early catechism did not identify those areas of potential study.
Dr. Markides: No. This was mostly a kind of elementary school-kid kind of training, and the image of the theologians that I had in mind as I was growing up were people who were pretty much fanatics and that one does not want to identify with them.
Kevin: I understand. Now you go on a sociological field trip to Cyprus, apparently for different reasons than what ultimately occurred, and became a ten-year study, and…
Dr. Markides: Right. I was having my first sabbatical and I was planning to write a book on international terrorism. I planned to interview and write about former members of an organization that was considered by the British as a terrorist organization. So, at the very beginning of my year there I encountered, I bumped into, an old friend. She invited us to her house and we met her husband, who was a judge (she was a high school teacher) and we started talking about different issues, and I was very impressed with her knowledge about different mystical theories, and I said, “How come you know all these things?” And she said, “I have a teacher.” Well, it so happened that teacher was somebody I knew when I was growing up in Cyprus. He lived two miles away from my house. He had a reputation for contacting the dead and the spirit world. So, after eighteen years in America, by going back to Cyprus, those early curiosities were triggered in my mind and I wanted to meet him, I had never met him before and I got very curious to see, to meet, this kind of legendary character that I heard about as I was growing up. Once I met him, we had some conversations, and I learned what he was doing in terms of therapeutic healing. I got so intrigued that I gave up the terrorists and I started studying the mystics.
Kevin: Now of course you are referring to Daskalos.
Dr. Markides: Right, and his circle.
Kevin: Kostas and the others.
Dr. Markides: Right.
Kevin: And you described him as a western shaman with a Christocentric system of mysticism, which I must add is not “Orthodox.” Tell us about him briefly. I know you have, but give us a little - I know some of the things, for those who have not read your earlier books, he believed in all sorts of things that involved reincarnation, out of body travels, various psychic phenomena, exorcisms, clairvoyance. Tell us a little bit about him.
Dr. Markides: Even though he was Christian, somehow he also incorporated into his world view notions of reincarnation, and so on, because he claimed that he remembered past lives. But anyway, what impressed me about him was, first of all, he was not the ferocious person that I imagined, but a very humorous old man. I witnessed some extraordinary healings that he was instrumental in bringing about. I realized that here is a person who has some unusual abilities, such as diagnosing illnesses from great distances, without even meeting the people that he was diagnosing. For example, accurately diagnosing the condition of a woman in New York City by looking at her picture.
To me, that was extraordinary. We learned that the mind is confined within the brain and here is, right in front of my eyes, an experience that contradicted that materialistic assumption. And he kept telling me that the mind and the brain are not the same thing, that the brain is simply the vehicle for the mind, that the relationship between mind and brain is similar to the relationship between electricity and the battery. Electricity is everywhere. The battery is simply a vehicle for electricity, and when the battery dies it does not mean that the electricity dies. So these things intrigued me.
Then I witnessed the healing of a woman who was suffering in her spine and the doctors in Israel and Cyprus could do nothing to help her, and somehow he got her on her feet. So, that really impressed me.
Then I started thinking. I said, “If I can witness these things in front of my eyes, by an ordinary person like himself, why can I not believe what is written in the New Testament about all the healings and the miracles?” You see, one thing led to the other.
Kevin: Interesting, interesting. You seem, though, at this point in your writings—and please comment on my sense of this—that you seem to regard, at this point, all psychic phenomena, whether it is coming from a shamanistic, or yogic, or Christian experience, and regardless of the theology, as being somewhat equivalent in value and benefit. Was that the sociologist in you, or was, and is, that your personal view?
Dr. Markides: It was the sociologist in me, in the sense that at that stage, it was a revelation to me that there might be something over and beyond the physical material universe. So, that was the starting point. Then, of course, I realized that there are grey areas and there are problematic kinds of phenomena, that if something comes from the spirit, it does not mean that it is good, necessarily.
Kevin: Yes, and I would like to speak about that in a minute. I think of, and I know you are familiar with, people like Sathya Sai Baba and others that have done, and have demonstrated to do, seemingly miraculous works. I mean, Sai Baba pulls out lingams, or phallic symbols, of stone out of his throat, and things like this. So clearly, there is more going on than simply that all miraculous demonstrations are beneficial.
Dr. Markides: Oh yes. That is an important point to bring out, that sometimes individuals will demonstrate these extraordinary gifts, and one has to have discernment and discrimination. But that is another story.
Kevin: Well, you do talk about evil with Father Maximos in The Mountain of Silence in some depth, but I would like to ask you this here. Do you personally agree with his statement that there is an existent evil entity in the world, and it is not just abstract?
Dr. Markides: I would tend to agree with that, yes. And by that I mean that it is not just evil in the abstract, because I have shared so many stories from people who come and tell me about experiences they have had, and you realize that there is something there. Now, whether it is something that we created and acquired, some kind of a spiritual negative energy out there, that is another story. I cannot tell. But that there is evil that can be concrete and can act in the world, I think that is something that I would tend to agree with.
Kevin: Well, we do pray as Orthodox, the Lord’s Prayer, which speaks of the evil one.
Dr. Markides: Yes, well, we have to be careful not to give the evil one some kind of an independent status. Otherwise, it is like saying there is a good god and a bad god. We have to be careful about how we see those things.
Kevin: Is it fair to say that at this stage of your journey, as we have been discussing during your first three books, that you are still somewhat dismissive of organized religion, including Orthodoxy?
Dr. Markides: No, I am not dismissive of organized religion. If we did not have organized religion we would not have preserved all the traditions that we have inherited. We need organized religion, knowing, however, that there are problems with organization. The moment you have organization, you have problems, but without organization, we would have to, more or less, learn the Sermon on the Mount with every generation. So organized religion is extremely important. It is just that there is, in sociology, there is a theory about the dilemmas of institutionalization. And that dilemma—it simply means it is extremely important, but that there are problem, and within organizations you also have security, you have protection, and many other things. It is a plus and a minus at the same time.
Kevin: In moving on to starting to talk about Riding with the Lion, in the latter part of your book, you write of your life-changing pilgrimage to Mount Athos, and your first encounter with, then monk, Father Maximos, at Vatopaidi Monastery. Tell our listeners, please, first what, and where, Mount Athos, called the Holy Mountain, is.
Dr. Markides: Well, Mount Athos is a peninsula in northern Greece. It is thirty miles long and about ten miles wide, and since the 9th century has been a refuge for monks and hermits who had, more or less, been displaced from the deserts of the Middle East. The emperor of Constantinople set aside that peninsula for that purpose. So, since that time, since the 10th and 11th centuries, we have seen the emergence of these monastic communities there.
What I knew about Mount Athos was based upon hearsay. I had never been there. I thought it was a leftover of medievalism and nothing more important than just a kind of living community of strange people. A friend of mine who knew about my work with Daskalos and the healers, he said, “If you really want to meet saints, why don’t you come with me to Mount Athos?” At first I was reluctant and it was thanks to my wife, who urged me, “Why lose the opportunity to go and see what is happening there?”
So I went with this friend of mine, the man I call Adonis in my books. We went to Mount Athos and it was quite an adventure to get there. The moment I stepped into the monastery, there was Father Maximos, and ever since that first encounter, I switched my life, I have never been the same. He was only about 32 or 33 years old at the time.
And I realized that he had extraordinary wisdom, something that I did not expect to find within the Orthodox Church because the theologians that I was exposed to were so dogmatic and not very pleasant characters, that I did not have a very positive image. And all of a sudden I find this extraordinarily sweet man who, more or less, begins to talk to me about my interests. He was my initiation, you might say, a kind of re-conversion to my old religion.
Kevin: Interesting. Did you come back, if you will, to the Orthodox Church as a communicant at that point?
Dr. Markides: Well, at that point, if you want to say, “When did I do that,” that is when he asked me whether I was going to get communion during Easter, because that was the Easter period when I first went there, that was in 1991, and I said to him, “Why not?” I mean, after all, I am baptized Orthodox. But, he said, “Have you gone through confession?” I said, “Confession? I have not gone to confession since I was 12 years old!” And he said, “Well, don’t you think it is about time?” I said, “Well, Father, we will see.” So I was listening to the chants during Holy Friday, and it was a beautiful service. Then I felt somebody pulling me by the arm and he said, “Come, it is your time.” He was confessing next door. It was Father Maximos. And then, at that point, I said to myself, “Well, number one, if you want to be an investigator, you have to go all the way.” After all, I said, this is not like smoking mushrooms like Castaneda. It is just talking to somebody. “Second,” I said, “well, how can you say no to Jesus?” So we went to the confessional. He said, “Well, go ahead.” And I said, “Go ahead to do what?” He said, “Say whatever you want to about yourself.” So at first I was reluctant, but then I started talking about my life, and we spent about an hour. He was listening to what I had to say, and that was our first connection. I never thought I was going to write a book about him, because I was not planning on going back to Mount Athos soon. But then certain extraordinary circumstances brought us both to Cyprus. He was planning on spending the rest of his life on Mount Athos. He was not interested in leaving Mount Athos. But then his elders ordered him to go to Cyprus and work there, because he had a mission to do there. So he went and became the abbot of the monastery there. And at that very year, I was invited to become a member of an academic committee to advise the Cyprus government about promoting research related to Cyprus, and the stipulation was that we had to be in Cyprus twice a year, summers and Christmas time, in order to have these meetings. Well, it was like a kind of an interesting coincidence, if you will, or synchronicity, that here I was going to Cyprus twice a year to do this work, and then Father Maximos was there. So whenever I would finish with the work with the government, I would go and spend some time at the monastery. That is how I cultivated my relationship with him, until I got another sabbatical and I went there and became his chauffeur, and that is how I wrote the Mountain of Silence, in terms of my relationship with him.
Kevin: Before we get to the Mountain of Silence and Gifts of the Desert, which we will focus on in Part 2 of our interview, Doctor, I do want to go back a little bit to finish up on Riding with the Lion and this particular phase that you are speaking of, that is your 1991 visit to Mount Athos with Father Maximos. And even though it is clear that this was a life-changing experience and it really shifted and changed your world view, almost a coming home again, yet you wrote this: “When we finally enter a path, we will do so in full recognition and respect for the reality of other paths beyond the trees. We will recognize more readily that the infinite love and compassion of the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent personal God, in order to accommodate our great diversity, offered us many paths to the summit.” Now, I want to talk a little bit about that, and we probably have four minutes left, so we will have to go fairly quickly. This idea that there are many paths leading to the summit, that is clearly different from saying that we need to respect diversity, but yet acknowledging that there are differences in terms of ultimate truth. Your position here sounds to me a little spiritually relativistic, something, I know, that some of your readers wonder about sometimes. And we have clear and firm doctrine on the nature of truth, of God, of who Jesus Christ is, etcetera. So my questions are several-fold. One, do you hold today, to your quote in Riding with the Lion that many paths lead to the summit, and, are these summits even the same?
Dr. Markides: Well, you are asking very, very difficult questions, and I do not know whether I can finish them in two minutes. They are not easy questions to answer. In Gifts of the Desert, I have a conversation with Kallistos Ware and we address some of these issues in reference to other paths. I start from the assumption that God and Christ would not allow anybody without the opportunity to reach Him, and I start with the Gospel of John, in which he says that the Christ is the light that lighteth every human being that comes into the world. In other words, every human being has the Christ within. And my position is, who am I to know how Christ works in the hearts of human beings, to help them reach the summit? And perhaps I did not phrase it in a way that would be more compatible with mainstream theology, but that was my feeling, that somehow in this vast universe of billions of years and over a 100 billion galaxies, that Christ is always there and that Jesus of Nazareth expressed this cosmic Christ to the fullest as the Son of God. So I do not feel that what I have written is any different from mainstream Christianity, unless I am mistaken.
Kevin: We may not have time for you to answer this last one, and then we will have to close, but let me just get this one in, and if not, we will follow up. Do you view the incarnation of Jesus Christ as singularly unique and different in kind from the other traditions that you write about?
Dr. Markides: Well, I say that because I am a Christian, but who am I to judge how things work in other traditions since I have no clue, I have no exposure, to those traditions? I will leave that to God. It is not an issue that preoccupies me, really, because right now I want to understand my Christianity and how my own path can help me reach the summit. Living in a multi-cultural world, that can be somewhat problematic if we assume that we are uniquely privileged to have ncontact with Jesus and the Christ. That is my position. I could be wrong again.