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Seeking Spirituality

Deep Roots, Old Strength #9 by Michael H. Lewis, turpentine wash (with oils) 2005.

Seeking Spirituality
UMaine sociologist Kyriacos Markides undertakes a pilgrimage to discover the secrets of mysticism


Two paths, one journey
More than 25 years ago, artist Michael H. Lewis and sociologist Kyriacos Markides each began research on the same subject — spirituality.

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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 Daskalos.

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 cosmos.

"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," Markides says.

"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 and contemplation."

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 says.

"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 epiphany."

by Dick Broom
January-February, 2006

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