New York: Doubleday, (2001)
ISBN: 0385500912 (hb)
Reviewed by Alp Arat, Lancaster University
This work by sociologist Kyriacos C. Markides offers an unparallelled look into the monastic tradition of Orthodox Christianity through the lens of the Panagia Monastery situated on Mount Athos in Cyprus. Based on numerous field-based exchanges with its principal abbot Father Maximos, Kyriacos presents an illustrative and highly readable account of the nature and challenges associated with religious belief and practice in the modern world.
The study is primarily based on qualitative evidence gathered throughout Kyriacos’ prolonged residence in the monastery coupled with his voluntary duty of serving as a private chauffeur to Fathor Maximos. This allows Kyriacos to speak from a near-complete immersion in the monastic discipline, involving a strict daily regime of waking up at three-thirty in the morning, attending four-hour services until daybreak, before finally returning to his solitary cell at seven-thirty in the evening. Based on his regular use of a recorder throughout his personal exchanges and encounters during his stay, Kyriacos is able to draw on extended verbatim quotes and exchanges throughout the book. Taken as a whole, the book is intended to present the key elements of the Athonite spiritual pursuit through which ‘human beings completely obliterate their own egotism and reach the state of Theosis’, or alternatively put, union with God (10). It offers detailed discussions on the qualities and preconditions necessary for monastic life (34); the true meaning of loving God (46); questions dealing with religious iconography and idolatry (71); how to develop discernment in religious practice (85); discussions on demon possession, exorcism, and black magic (106); as well as unique insights into ‘logismoi’, an Orthodox reading of the interplay between matter and spirit in the form of so-called energy-thoughts (118).
Despite the eclectic topics under discussion and Kyriacos’ enviable position in the field however, this study fails to live up to its true sociological promise. The following excerpt offers one of the most acute illustrations of its underlying shortcoming: 'The way to know God, Father Maximos would say repeatedly, is neither through philosophy nor through experimental science but through systematic methods of spiritual practice that could open us up to the Grace of the Holy Spirit' (12). As repeatedly stressed by Father Maximos himself, ‘God cannot be talked about but must be experienced' (43), or else ‘we should at least realize that we are simply ideological believers' (45). Yet paradoxically, Kyriacos bases his study primarily on his discursive exchanges with his primary subject, as opposed to offering a more systematic understanding of how this ethos is actually put into practice by the monks and lay visitors on Mount Athos.
This ethnographic study consequently lacks the methodological robustness called for by its subject matter. Interview exchanges are predominantly based on second-hand anecdotal evidence and are often pursued through leading questions; there is little if any structured analysis of lived practices associated with prayer, work, ritual and other everyday aspects discussed throughout; and it is not clear whether individual chapters follow a logic that is aimed towards a greater sociological argument.
This raises the question as to which audience Kyriacos intends to target with this work. Thematically structured chapters allow for an accessible source of reference covering the key elements associated with such Orthodox spiritual pursuits. Furthermore the overall structure of the text follows an engaging question-and-answer format substantiated through numerous anecdotal references stemming from the teachings and experiences of Father Maximos. Consequently this work is certainly well placed to serve as an inspirational source of reference for spiritual aspirants of both Christian and non-Christian sensitivities. Nevertheless, beyond its valuable descriptive addition to our ever-expanding collection of both established and new religious movements in the modern world, it fails to offer greater insight to the sociological imagination as a whole.
Alp Arat, Lancaster University, UK