Gifts of the Desert

Kyriacos C. Markides “Gifts of the Desert. The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality” [Image, 2005]
Gifts of the desert
“In Kyriacos C. Markides’s newest book, Eastern Orthodox mysticism meets Western Christianity as the internationally renowned author takes readers on a deep journey back in time to unveil the very roots of authentic spirituality.
In his previous book “The Mountain of Silence”, Markides introduced us to the essential spiritual nature of Eastern Orthodoxy in a series of lively conversations with Father Maximos, the widely revered charismatic Orthodox bishop and former abbot of the isolated monastery on Mount Athos. In “Gifts of the Desert”, Markides continues his examination of Easter Orthodox mystical teachings and practices and captures its living expression through visits to monasteries and hermitages in Greece and America and interviews with contemporary charismatic elders, both male and female.
Markides’s pursuit of a deeper understanding of Orthodoxy takes him to the deserts of Arizona and a stay at a new monastery in Sedona; to the island of Cyprus and a reunion with Father Maximos; on a pilgrimage to holy shrines aboard a cruise ship in the Aegean Sea; and finally to the legendary Mount Athos, home to more than two thousand Orthodox monks. Markides relates his journey and reflections in a captivating style while providing important background material and information on historical events to give readers a highly accessible, in-depth portrait of a tradition little known in the West.
“Gifts of the Desert” will appeal to a wide range of people, from Christians seeking insights into their religion and its various expressions to scholars interested in learning more about the mystical way of life and wisdom that have been preserved on Mount Athos since the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Great Schism that separated the Eastern and Western Churches. Perhaps most important, however, is the bridge it offers contemporary readers to a Christian life that is balanced between the worldly and the spiritual.”

“Dr. Markides is a sociology professor at the University of Maine, and his research has led him to conclusions that are rare among social sciences academics. Markides has come to believe that we are surrounded by unseen spiritual realities, and that it is possible, through repentance and prayer, to encounter and be transformed by them. He has come to believe in miracles, and that this world is not the result of blind chance. In many ways he is rediscovering the Greek Orthodoxy he was exposed to in childhood, and finding it full of wonders.
Mountain of silence
Markides’ previous book, “The Mountain of Silence” (2001), was read eagerly by those interested in Orthodox spirituality, chiefly because he had faithfully transcribed taped conversations with a monk trained on Mt. Athos, Father Maximos. Though Markides himself seemed not wholly on board with small-o orthodox Christianity, he was obviously fascinated by it, and Fr. Maximos’ verbatim teachings were worth more than the price of admission.
athanasios 1
That’s why fans of “Mountain of Silence” have been looking forward to “Gifts of the Desert.” But a friend who read an early copy told me, “Somehow, it’s pretty dry.” It took me half the book to figure out what’s causing this dryness: it’s that Jesus is missing.

The person who says, “I like Jesus, but I have no use for the church” is a cliché, but Markides is the opposite. He stands in awe of the Church (which he always calls by the Greek term, Ecclesia), but has no interest in Jesus. He is convinced that spiritual transformation, of the kind envisioned in Buddhism, Yoga, and Zen, is possible, and that a parallel path has been preserved in the traditions of Eastern Christianity. I happen to agree with that, and am grateful to have him as a teammate in the project of bringing knowledge of this “Forgotten Path” to Western readers.

But one of Markides’ chief concerns is to make the Orthodox way of spiritual transformation available to those who “are not necessarily Orthodox or even Christian.” Follow his train of thought as he presents his five “assumptions” to Fr. Maximos: “The world of the five senses is not the only world there is…Other [hierarchically arranged] worlds exist that interpenetrate our own…[T]he various worlds are in ongoing communication with one another…[W]e as a species and as individuals are never alone…[T]he world is utterly meaningful.” An orthodox Christian might scratch his head, but conclude that, if he means what you think he means, you’re probably both on the same track.

However, Markides expands on his third point like this: “Some members of our own reality make contact with these higher realms. We have called them shamans, psychics, prophets, saints, and so on. Their reports of what they find always are couched within the language of the culture that these gifted people happen to live in. Therefore, knowledge of these higher worlds is always colored, filtered, and distorted in varying degrees through the cultural constructions of time and place. Even living saints are subjected to this law.”

My guess is that this is the reason that “Gifts of the Desert” always presents the goal of the spiritual life as simply union with “God;” it would be divisive to bring in Jesus, as well as unnecessary. Jesus is just one more piece of culturally-induced baggage. So we have the topsy-turvy experience of reading fervent endorsements of the Church, Tradition, ascetic practices, miracles, and even forthright confrontation with those itchiest of topics, sin and repentance—yet the goal of our pilgrimage is not the Incarnate and Resurrected Friend who has erupted into so many lives, but something much more circumspect and vague. Humans are constructed to respond to other persons in a wholly different way than we do to theories or mystical conjectures. Flannery O’Connor’s “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” has an inherent problem.

It’s a head-scratcher, all right. While scoring a notch below “Mountain of Silence” in terms of meaty content, “Gifts of the Desert” still does a diligent job of expounding the way of theosis. But at the end of 300-plus pages, it seems like a desert indeed.”

““Gifts of the Desert” takes the form of a travelogue and personal memoir by Markides, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He begins with a visit to an Orthodox monastery in Arizona and tells the story of how the ideas of Mount Athos were imported to such an unlikely place, with vivid descriptions of its gardens and the wonder of seeing the buildings rise up from the desert. From there he travels to Cyprus to reunite with Father Maximos, who has reluctantly left his position at Mount Athos to become a bishop.

Markides joins a group of pilgrims, led by Father Maximos, on their tour of holy sites on the Greek islands. But after the trip is over, Maximos’s duties as a bishop make him less accessible than before, and so Markides “ambushes” him whenever possible, chauffeuring him from place to place and wrangling invitations to various events. Many of their conversations take place during long drives. Others are group discussions Maximos has dinner with parishioners. The following is an example of a typical after-dinner discussion. Maximos begins: “God comes and rewards, as it were, the struggle of the faithful person and gives him as a trophy the experience of the splendor of his own presence. This experience is so overwhelming that the next time around the person struggles with an even greater force to regain it.” “You become addicted to God, as it were,” I said. “Yes! You fight with greater energy as grace shows its presence even more intensely. It is impossible for a person who reaches that state to have any trace of doubt about the reality of God. That is real faith.”

By describing his visits to various monasteries, Markides gives a picture of the monk’s life, an austere existence that nevertheless fills many with joy. He recounts details of the persecution of Orthodox saints and describes how individuals from diverse backgrounds have been called to become monks, including bankers and more than one physician.

The book touches on conflicts that Father Maximos has had with opponents in the church hierarchy: one of his elders was accused of philandering, and Maximos himself was accused of being gay. Markides also attempts to reconcile modern ideas like feminism with the conservative traditions of the Orthodox Church, claiming, for example, that asking women to serve in traditional roles does not limit their freedom.

Some of the revelations are surprising. Maximos indicates, for example, that pride may take one further from God than sin: “The person who succumbs to sinful acts sooner or later will get disgusted,” Father Maximos explains. “It is so programmed in the very nature of our soul. But when a person succumbs to delusion … such a person absolutely does not listen to anyone else, only his own opinions. People who are under such spells have ears but they cannot hear.”

Marikides is still questioning and searching, and although he may be a spiritual novice, he is quite gifted at presenting complex theological concepts to non-theologians. There are a number of gifts to be found in these pages, ones that are likely to be retained for a long time.”

For the transcript of an interview (and access to the interview on-line) with Professor Markides, including a discussion of this book, on “Ancient Faith Radio”, see:

For Kyriacos Markides, see

“Father Maximos” is the pseudonym used by Markides for Metropolitan Athanasios (Nikolaou) of Limassol
“Metropolitan Athanasios was born on February 8, 1959 in Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus. In 1973, he moved to the Bishopric of Paphos, west of Limassol along the southern coast of Cyprus, where he attended the Gymnasium of Paphos. After graduating from the school, in 1976, he was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Chrysostomos I of Paphos and then entered the Theological Faculty of the University of Thessalonica.
After his graduation from the University of Thessalonica he entered New Skete on Mount Athos (Greek: Όρος Άθως) where he was tonsured a monk. In 1982, he was granted the Great Schema and was ordained a priest by Bishop Ardameri of Ierisos and Nicodimos of Mount Athos. In 1983, he was ordained Confessor by Bishop Pavlos of Veroia and Naousa. In 1987, while a resident of Vatopedi Monastery he was elected a representative of the Holy Community of Mount Athos. For the period of 1991-1992 he held the position the Chief Overseer of Mount Athos.
In 1992, Fr. Athanasios was asked to return to Cyprus by Archbishop Chrysostomos I. With the blessing of the Vatopedi Monastery, he returned to Cyprus and joined the brotherhood of the Priests’ Monastery in Paphos. On November 4, 1993, Fr. Athanasios was elected abbot of Machaira’s Monastery, and on November 14 he was enthroned by Abp. Chrysostomos I.
On February 11, 1999, after election by the clergy and people, Fr. Athanasios was consecrated and enthroned Bishop of Limassol on February 14, 1999.”\
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