Book Review: The Mountain of Silence by K. Markides

Kyriacos C Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology, spent several years studying mysticism and shamanistic practices in several monastic type communities. He’s written several books on these topics, this particular book is about his experiences with Father Maximos on Mt. Athos.

This book was recommended to me by O_Vivliothikarios on Twitter.

The Bad

The only bad thing about this book is that the kindle edition has no links to endnote content. This will likely change in an update.

One thing that is only relatively bad is that if you are familiar with church history or read the ancient fathers with any degree of thoroughness, many of the ideas that the book portrays as unknown or ignored will already be very familiar to you. But this is not really a flaw because the ideas were new to the author and will be new to 99% of the readers.

The Good

The narrative is engrossing. You want to know more about Mt. Athos, Markides, and Father Maxime the whole time.

The book also offers a great deal of spiritual counsel that, perhaps, many Christians, especially protestants, would be unfamiliar with. In the book you also get off the cuff answers to long standing theological problems and because they’ve rolled off the tongue of a theologians and mystic, the answers are fresh and memorable.

The best chapters are five, ten, and twelve through fifteen. Chapter ten is especially helpful as it discusses the monastic strategies for overcoming logismoi which is the Greek word for thoughts, but it came to mean much more. The most intriguing notion in this chapter is that prayer should not be used, in the moment, to overcome temptation. The reasoning is that it undermines the need for self-mastery, rational interpretation of our inner state, and a sort of resignation to external forces. More on that, here.

It’s worth mentioning the five stages of a logismos (124-130):[1]

  1. Assault – a thought enters the mind urging us to commit a specific sin. The best council is to literally ignore it or distract yourself. This is similar to Martin Seligman’s techniques.
  2. Interaction – at this stage the disciple interacts with the logismos, trying to reason with it, and perhaps entertains the possibility that it’s a good idea. This is not yet sin.
  3. Consent – This is, as it sounds, consenting to commit the act. This is sin, but not yet the same kind of sin as actually committing the act. The book has a great illustration of this principle.
  4. Captivity – This is when one succumbs to the logismos, puts it into practice, and therefore makes committing it easier next time. Think of it like driving a trail and creating wheel ruts.
  5. Passion – Finally, the action becomes an entrenched part of the personality that is difficult to part with and destructive to the self and to others.

The book is filled with other gems of this sort like the threefold path: catharsis, photis, and theosis, the strategies for overcoming sin, and nature of ceaseless prayer.

There are also some theological oddities in the book, especially in the chapter ‘Escape from Hell,’ but the certainly provide grist for the mill.

Conclusion

I highly recommend this book to anybody who wishes to understand ancient Christian spirituality, how to overcome temptation, or the Eastern churches. The biggest problem with the book is that some of the speculative theology might be confusing to new believers, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible itself is confusing, so it’s no big deal in the long run.

Footnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that Father Maximos’ discussion of the stages is has one less stage than the stages outlined in the glossary of the Philokalia.

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