Ancient Faith Radio

Kevin: Welcome to this edition of the Illumined Heart radio program. I am Kevin Allen, and today’s program is Part 2 of my interview with Doctor Kyriacos C. Markides, the author of best-selling books, Gifts of the Desert, The Mountain of Silence, Riding with the Lion, Fire in the Heart, Homage to the Sun, and The Magus of Strovolos. By the way, if you missed Part 1, you do not want to, so you can download it from the archives link on Ancient Faith radio. Welcome back, Kyriacos.

Dr. Markides: Good morning, Kevin.

Kevin: Well, let us go back to where we ended, and that was that you have met Father Maximos, who at this point is the abbot of the Panagia monastery on Cyprus.

Dr. Markides: Right.

Kevin: He was the disciple of the well known and venerable Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain.

Dr. Markides: Yes, he was one of his elders.

Kevin: And Elder Paisios reposed in 1994. Elder Paisios was a very interesting man in his own right, a man of great humility, spiritual experience, clairvoyance and other spiritual gifts—healings by location, the direct experience of Christ in the material body, and his special relationship with animals, much of which you point out. And so you now begin a serious investigation of Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

Dr. Markides: Yes, following, what you might say, the method of participant observation, I spent time with Father Maximos and at the monastery and met with people who were the living embodiment of the tradition, because I really do believe that Father Maximos embodied these spiritual Christian traditions to the fullest. That is why I spent more than ten years, on and off, studying him and his world. I proceeded to do this study not necessarily as a devotee, but rather as an explorer, and that is how I wrote all of my books.

Kevin: How would you characterize—and I know this is a tough question, because you have written two books on this very subject—but how would you characterize Orthodox spirituality as Father Maximos taught you, especially the kind one finds on the Holy Mountain?

Dr. Markides: Well, you see, I thought that spiritual practices, attempts to encounter the Spirit, was somehow a monopoly of Oriental religion. That is why a lot of people in the West, not finding that within Christianity, they go to Hinduism, to Buddhism, to Tibet. Here I discovered, on Mount Athos, that those things I was looking for in the Himalayas were right in my back yard. That is what excited me about meeting Father Maximos and Elder Paisios. I met him the year before he died.

Kevin: You actually met Elder Paisios yourself?

Dr. Markides: Oh, yes. Yes.

Kevin: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Dr. Markides: I wrote about it in Riding with the Lion. I gave him a different name at the time because he was still alive. I gave him the pseudonym Father Vasilios, but in fact, he was Elder Paisios.

Kevin: I did not know that.

Dr. Markides: Oh yes. So the person that I wrote about—I gave the pseudonym Maxilios—he really was Elder Paisios.

Kevin: So you have been at least twice blessed?

Dr. Markides: Well, yes. I hope so.

Kevin: Talk a little bit more, though, about—when you talk about how you thought the spirituality that you were looking for only existed in the mountains of the Himalayas and Tibet, obviously you knew that the theology of the Orthodox church existed, but you were looking for something more. You must have been talking about the experiential.

Dr. Markides: Right, exactly. I thought that an experiential path to God, or to other realities, to transpersonal realities, did not exist within Christianity. And you will notice that much of transpersonal psychological theory today is based upon studies of Zen Buddhism and Oriental religion, because many of those practitioners are still not aware of the rich spirituality that exists in the Eastern Church. I think you mentioned Thomas Merton discovered this, and he knows about it.

So I what tried to do, really, is to bring to the awareness of Westerners that there is a spiritual methodology, if you will, that is found within Christianity itself, and Father Maximos represented that. Also, I was very excited to see that there is a traditional eldership, that there is the elder with his disciples, that he initiates them into the spiritual practice of prayer. I thought that those institutional setups existed only in Hinduism and Buddhism. That is what excited me. And Father Maximos was also a very wonderful person to hang around with.

Kevin: Yes, but isn’t it true, Kyriacos, that the pursuit of spiritual experience, in and of itself, is rather frowned upon within the Orthodox Athonite tradition?

Dr. Markides: Well, if you do not have guidance by an elder, then you can get side-tracked. Instead of transcending your egotism, you reinforce it. That is one of the possible traps of spiritual practice, that instead of attaining deep metanoia and repentance, it can stimulate the ego.

Kevin: Yes. I think that T.S. Elliot once said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”

Dr. Markides: Well, this is the jewel of Eastern Orthodox practice, I think. This is what is so impressive, the focus of overcoming your egocentricity and narcissism. I have not heard abuses of the kind that I find in some other New Age kind of guru worship situations, where the emphasis is not on metanoia and humility. To me, this is an important lesson that I learned studying Father Maximos in his world.

Kevin: What do you think that the Christian spirituality of Athos offers to the Western world today that is not available in the mainstream churches?

Dr. Markides: Well, this is what we just talked about, namely a clear method on how to experience the Christ. That Christ is not just an intellectual thing, but rather something that you can come in contact with.

Kevin: Do you think that even within the mainstream Orthodox church, that there is enough of an emphasis and a direct link to Christian mystical tradition, or do you see even a disconnect there?

Dr. Markides: I see a disconnect there also. I think that many Orthodox do not know what they have in their back yard. An example is myself, because that is not really taught. So it is only recently that we see a kind of a turn toward the patristic kind of teachings. Numerous publications have come out lately about living elders, and elders that made an impact during the 20th century. I did not know anything about St. Silouan the Athonite, for example. I did not know anything about Elder Gabriel. I did not know anything about Elder Porphyrios and …

Kevin: Joseph the Hesycast.

Dr. Markides: Yes, and Elder Sophrony, who set up the monastery in England, in Essex. So with the books that are coming out, we have at our disposal an incredible world to start with.

Kevin: It is interesting. My view is a little bit different, and maybe you could comment on this. I have been to Athos twice, and I was actually struck by the fact that these spiritual athletes that are there, at the end of the day, they do practice the same Orthodox Christianity that we do in the parishes.

Dr. Markides: Exactly, yes.

Kevin: It is not as if they are on a different planet or they are different beings.

Dr. Markides: Right, and what is interesting is that regardless of one’s education, they all do the same kind of practices. So that was very impressive. What they are doing, really, is they are working on their own egotism and they are getting whatever manna is needed for them, for their own spiritual development.

Kevin: One of the great moments in The Mountain of Silence comes fairly early when Father Maximos says, through your writings, that the entire methodology, as you mentioned, 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.

To me that just gave me such encouragement and inspiration to proceed on my journey. I just loved that part. And frankly, that is why I think that book is a bona fide spiritual classic that will only grow in importance in the years ahead.

You struggle in The Mountain of Silence and in The Gifts of the Desert with the idea of a conventional belief in hell and damnation. Why?

Dr. Markides: Number one, I find the notion of eternal damnation somehow overdone amongst Christian circles. I wrote extensively about these both in The Mountain of Silence and in The Gifts of the Desert, so I do not need to repeat what I have already written there.

But I find that in an ultimate way, whatever hells are out there are really hells that we ourselves enter into. We have our own subjectivity. In other words, we can be in hell or in paradise right at this very moment in this life. And I do not think there is an objective hell that God created to send people who sin there. Hell is the absence of God and the absence of love, and the more estranged we are from God and from love, the greater the experience of hell. I can understand hell as a subjective state of experience that leads us to being alienated from our divine connection.

That is hell. We see it all over the place. All we need to do to see that there are hells around is just to read the news. So I believe that the absolute love of God presupposes an ultimate restoration of human beings, assuming that they undergo deep metanoia and repentance. It is not something that is going to happen automatically somehow. Our own will has to be engaged to escape our own hell. Even though this is not mainstream, nevertheless, I take comfort from the fact that I think great spiritual teachers of Christianity, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, taught something like this, even though it has not become part of the external, official doctrine.

Kevin: Yes, I am glad you point that out. In fact, is it not the case that the church has actually rejected Universalism, certainly the kind that was forwarded by Origen. He was anathematized, I think, fifteen times at The Fifth Council. 

Dr. Markides: 300 years after he died.

Kevin: That leads to an interesting question, and let me pose it. Is our tradition, is the patristic tradition, supposed to form us? Or are we free to search out heterodox opinions within it, and sort of craft our own theologies—which is essentially reforming the tradition—so that they may be more appealing to ourselves or fit our current level of understanding?

Dr. Markides: Well, that is very risky and tricky. I would say that I do not have any of the answers, to tell you the truth. These are deep theological questions that I am still struggling with. I do believe, however, that we need to be open to growth within the tradition itself, that it is not something that is frozen.

We need, for example, to come to terms with the Enlightenment, and not see science as an enemy of spirituality. A lot of Christians today consider science as the enemy, and many scientists consider religion as the enemy. I do believe that science is the way to study the physical universe, and, as Father Maximos himself would say several times, the Bible is not a geology book, but rather a wisdom for reaching God. Therefore, when Christians come and say, for example, that the world was created six thousand years ago because that is what it says in the Bible, well that can only undermine religion.

Kevin: Yes, I would completely agree with that, and I do not sense—please correct me if I am wrong—that our tradition poses a conflict between spirituality and science, maybe the way that some of the Western Christian faith traditions do.

Dr. Markides: Thank God for it.

Kevin: I agree, and thank God for it. As I look at the impact that your work has had on me, I find that there are two temptations, or struggles, that I deal with when I am reading at least your last two books. Let me ask you about them. The first one is that it tends to put a higher value on the monastic life, as the spiritual athlete, and its rigors, versus the life of the lay person. Please follow up on that for me.

Dr. Markides: If I gave that impression, it is because I had been spending time with monks and hermits. But as Father Maximos would repeatedly say, these teachings are not for just monks, but people who live in the world. I think it was Elder Ephraim or Paisios, I believe, who said that the modern city is a great place to do spiritual work, because of all of the temptation.

Therefore, it is through these temptations and resisting to the temptations that we develop spiritually. To be in a monastery is something that I think is a result of an inner calling, and we obviously cannot all become monks and nuns. I cannot be a monk or a nun. I think it is a special kind—in the same way that not everybody is called to be a nuclear scientist. We can benefit, however, from the insight and the homilies and the writings of these people. But it is a mistake to assume that we can only find God on Mount Athos or in a monastery. You can find God everywhere.

Kevin: Good. I like that. And my second struggle that I would love you to respond to is this: with the emphasis on the paranormal religious and mystical experiences that obviously interest you, and frankly interest me as well, I am wondering if some who read it may feel a little depressed or discouraged by what they might consider a normal life of Orthodoxy. My question is, must one have these paranormal experiences in order to be formed and to make spiritual progress?

Dr. Markides: Well, I do not have any paranormal experiences myself, so at the same time I feel great that I have found this path and I try to work on myself as much as I can, particularly working one’s tendency to be angry when one is provoked. That is an ongoing struggle. It is not going to happen from one moment to the next. I think that to pursue paranormal experiences is a terrible mistake.

In fact, as the three-fold way that I wrote about stipulates, these are gifts from God. It does not mean that if you do not have them at this point, it means that somehow you are not making progress spiritually. And furthermore, to pursue those things directly can lead you astray. That is much of what is happening today with people who claim that they are spiritual but not religious, and they pursue these kinds of spiritual paranormal experiences, but if they are not purified within, that can lead to some difficulties, let us put it this way.

Kevin: Thank you for clarifying that. And the three-fold path that you mention—and you mention purification—is purification, illumination, and then ultimately theosis.

Dr. Markides: Yes, I think that this is a kind of structure that is part of our human existence. The elders have spoken about it. Perhaps they have not called it the three-fold way, but that is what I have called it, in the sense that before you can reach God, you have to undergo the process of purification, of catharsis, to work on your narcissism and your egotism, and the Orthodox church has incredible tools to help people reach this state of purification, and whatever comes as a gift is a gift from heaven, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a state of illumination. People can be healers. They can be—like Elder Paisios—clairvoyant. They can do all the things that people identify with the paranormal. And then theosis, or God realization, is a never-ending process, in terms of re-establishing our connection with God.

But you know something, I think that everything we do has a hidden spiritual agenda behind it. For example, I had to reflect about my own discipline of sociology, and I think that deep down it is a spiritual enterprise. It helps us develop compassion toward the other. And that is part of the process of developing closer to God, I believe.

Kevin: Following up a bit on that, this idea of separating the so-called paranormal and mystical from the normal, do you see partaking of the Holy Eucharist in this mystical sense of what you have written as conscious reality of God within ourselves? I know for me, I cannot imagine what could be more mystical than partaking of the glorified body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Dr. Markides: Well, of course. That is why take communion myself. It is interesting that you hear the same rituals, the same ceremonies, Sunday after Sunday, and you do not get bored. Imagine if you had to listen to university lectures, the same ones, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, or the same songs for that matter. Whereas, the sounds, the words, the whole liturgical procedure, it puts you into a different frame of mind. It opens the heart.

Kevin: In Gifts of the Desert, Kyriacos, you mention a death row prisoner in Florence, Arizona who was tonsured a monk by the monks of Saint Anthony’s Monastery. Have you had any further word on him? I have had several people want me to ask you that question.

Dr. Markides: Well, I heard rumors, I do not know how true they are, that he was about to be released for some reason, that somehow he was not going to be executed. I do not know what the story is. But he has undergone a major transformation himself while on death row. I heard that he might have some kind of a terminal illness. So I do not know what the story is.

Kevin: I have two more questions, and then we are going to unfortunately be out of time. You write in Gifts that Saint Paul’s experience underscores the reality of, and let me quote this, the “cosmic Christ residing in the heart of every human being.” And you have spoken a bit about that in this interview.

Is not that one of the problems with viewing Christ in kind of this mystical way? Couldn’t it lead us to a Gnostic, or almost a Hindu-ized, version of Christ, versus the incarnated Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary, lived, was crucified, and rose from the dead? How do you reconcile that Christ, the mystical, eternal Logos, with the God-man Jesus Christ?

Dr. Markides: Well, I do not think that to believe in the eternal, cosmic Christ contradicts belief in the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ. After all, I thought it was interesting that Paul never met Jesus in the flesh. But at the same time, he was certain of the historic incarnation of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, so the two are not contradictory.

But again, I am a philosopher at the same time and I have to think about the fact that in a few billion years, this planet, this universe, is not going to exist. But the Christ, that is, the eternal Logos, that was fully manifested in Jesus of Nazareth. The historical Christ, the historical Jesus Christ, the way I understand it, is the historical manifestation of the cosmic Christ that is beyond time and beyond space. In other words, it is the Alpha and the Omega.

The astronomers are telling us, that the universe itself is not going to last indefinitely.  It is 15 billion years old and eventually it is going to lead to some kind of catastrophe. From our point of view, we do not have to worry about this. We will not be around 2 billion years from now.

When I think about those things, I can only imagine that the Christ is beyond all of that, and is fully manifested in the historical Jesus. So it was as if the absolute God offered the Son, His Son—in other words, our own archetype—to help us come close to Him. In other words, the historical Christ is the manifestation of the cosmic Christ archetype. That is how I see it. So we have a blueprint of how to become God. It is like God telling us, “Look, I am sending you My Son to show you what you must do in order to reach Me.”

Kevin: Well, on that note, and that is a profound note—please download this and listen to that last one a few times, folks—that is all the time we have. Dr. Kyriakos C. Markides, I just want to say thank you so much for taking this time to be with us today on the Illumined Heart.

Dr. Markides: Thank you Kevin. It has been my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.