UMaine sociologist Kyriacos Markides undertakes a pilgrimage to
discover the secrets of mysticism
Two paths, one
More than 25 years ago, artist Michael H. Lewis and sociologist
Kyriacos Markides each began research on the same subject —
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On his way to writing about sinners, Kyriacos Markides was distracted by saints.
That diversion has led him to become an internationally recognized
authority on Eastern Orthodox mysticism, focusing on the lives of monks,
hermits and Christian healers for whom religious, mystical experiences
are part of everyday life.
In 1979, Markides was in his native
country, Cyprus, to begin research on international terrorism when he
accidentally encountered a man who would change his life. Daskalos was a
lay healer who lived only two miles from Markides' family home, yet the
two had never met.
"When I was a boy, I heard stories about him," Markides says, "but we
were taught to stay away because he was presumably dangerous, and in
contact with the dead and the spirit world."
The more Markides talked with Daskalos and observed his unusual healing
abilities — on several occasions, he accurately diagnosed people's
illnesses over vast distances by simply "feeling" their photographs with
eyes closed — the more intrigued the sociologist became with the idea of
studying the extraordinary world within which the mystic lived and
worked. He placed the terrorism project on the back burner and instead
became an observer in Daskalos' circle of healers and mystics.
"As I watched these people in action and engaged them in conversations,
I gradually came to suspect that the basic assumptions about reality
within which most of us operate might be grossly inadequate," Markides
says. "We have assumed that reality is only what we can perceive with
our five senses and study with our scientific instruments. Of course,
science is extremely important and is the best method for giving us
knowledge of how our three-dimensional universe works. But the material
universe of our everyday reality may not be the only universe and the
only reality there are."
The initial contact with Daskalos and his circles of followers led to a
10-year research project and a published trilogy (starting with The
Magus of Strovolos) about their world and extraordinary experiences. It
also led Markides to realize that many people carry on double lives. On
one hand, they live ordinary, "normal" existences while, at the same
time, they report having mystical experiences similar to those of
However, they often remain quiet about their inner experiences in fear
that they may be misunderstood or, worse, stigmatized as mentally ill.
The work with Daskalos and his circles eventually opened the way to the
discovery of the mystical traditions and practices that survived in
ancient monasteries of Eastern Christianity. To do his research,
Markides has traveled extensively to meet monks, hermits, mystics and
elders considered to embody the "grace of the Holy Spirit."
One of his best leads came in 1991 when a friend told him that "real
saints" — people who radiated God's love — can be found on Mount Athos,
an isolated peninsula in northern Greece where 20 monasteries form the
center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
"Once I stepped onto the Holy Mountain, as it is called, my academic
life and work changed once again," Markides says.
At the first monastery he visited, Markides was met at the gate by
Father Maximos, whose wisdom and spiritual insights figure prominently
in Markides' research and second trilogy. Though only 32 at the time,
the charismatic Father Maximos was regarded by other monks as an "elder"
and a spiritual guide.
"It was as if he had been waiting for me," Markides recalls. "He took me
under his wing and became my informant about Eastern Christianity,
especially its more mystical side. It was then that I realized that,
contrary to the theories of the great German sociologist Max Weber,
there is a part of organized Christianity that has all the hallmarks of
what many Westerners search for in Hinduism and Buddhism, namely an
‘enchanted' or experiential path to God."
The monks at Mount Athos told Markides of the extraordinary experiences
of great saints and holy elders, of their visions and communion with the
spirit world, of speaking with angels and fighting demons. Through
Father Maximos, Markides also met a hermit living in a mountain cave.
The pair walked several hours to meet the man who, like most hermits,
was a former monk devoting himself to ceaseless prayer.
Contrary to the stereotype, the hermit was neither crazy nor an
antisocial misfit, Markides says. "He was full of lively humor, wisdom
and good heartedness. Because of an inner calling, he had opted to
devote his time and energy to praying for the good of the world. Scores
of healing miracles were attributed to him by devout pilgrims who
considered him a living saint."
Markides also has spent time with 40 monks at the Panagia Monastery in
the Troodos mountains of Cyprus. Again using the method of participant
observation, Markides studied their world and listened to tales of
miracles performed by living saints and the Holy Virgin. He listened to
extraordinary experiences of monks that prompted them to abandon "the
world" and spend the rest of their lives in prayer and contemplation. He
also challenged them with a scholar's secular skepticism.
"We were engaged in discussions about all kinds of theological,
spiritual and philosophical questions," he says. "I do ethnographic
research, what any other sociologist or anthropologist would do when he
or she enters into an ‘exotic' culture or subculture, and tries to
understand it from within and writes about it."
Mysticism, while still a prominent aspect of the Eastern branch of
Christianity, has been repressed or driven underground in the West, Markides says, because of the Enlightenment and the triumph of
rationalism and the scientific revolution.
While Western Christianity, through scholastic theology, emphasized
reason as the method to reach God, the leading Eastern theologians and
holy elders emphasized contemplation and the way of the "heart" as the
appropriate methodology on how to know God. This is radically different
from trying to "prove" God's existence through reason. Rather, it is
through spiritual practices, such as continuous prayer, reminiscent of
some of the yoga practices in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, that could
lead to mystical illumination and union with God, what the Greek fathers
of the church call Theosis.
"Perhaps for a more holistic understanding of reality and for the good
of the world, we may need to integrate the external enlightenment of the
West with the inner enlightenment of the holy elders and mystics of all
the great religions," Markides says. "It is becoming increasingly clear
to many thinkers today, including some pioneering researchers in the
sciences and humanities, that unless we incorporate the accumulated
wisdom of the mystics into our world view, we will continue to
shortchange ourselves in terms of our understanding of the nature of
Reality with a capital R, with perhaps disastrous consequences about the
future of our species."
Such a contention challenges not only Western theology, but also the
assumptions underlying mainstream scholarship, teaching and research on
virtually every college and university campus. But he insists that
mystical religion and mainstream science need not be enemies, but,
instead, partners in finding a more meaningful understanding of the
"Most academics work within the context of reductionism, of
materialistic prejudices that tell us that the reality we see with our
senses and study with our instruments is the only reality there is,"
"We need to expose students to the possibility that there might be more
to reality than what they know through their senses. We need to study
the record that the great mystics in all religions have left behind, and
perhaps employ in our daily lives some of their methods of meditation
At the very core of all the great civilizations and religions are great
teachers who had mystical experiences and visions — the Buddha under the
Bo Tree, Moses on Mount Sinai, Paul on the road to Damascus, Markides
"For example," he says, "it is impossible to imagine how Christianity
and the world would have been today had Paul not fallen off his horse
that fateful day of the first century when he underwent his mystical
by Dick Broom
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.