Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides

Kyriacos Markides has repeatedly explored Christian mysticism and related subjects in his many books. In the course of his spiritual search, he stumbled upon a guide in Father Maximos, an Eastern Orthodox bishop and former abbot of a monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the center of Orthodox monasticism. This book is his second about Father Maximos, the sequel to The Mountain of Silence.

In an era when many have turned to Eastern religions in their pursuit of spirituality, Markides’s book shows that Christianity has an established tradition of searching for inner meaning. Gifts of the Desert contains its share of philosophy and wisdom, and is not something to be read without reflection. The title refers to ancient Christian spirituality that was created in the “desert” of solitude, in the literal deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.

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.