There is so much to say about this book that there is absolutely no way I can say it all in a single sitting; but, I feel so strongly about Kyriacos Markides' The Mountain of Silence--and, I must say, strongly divided--that I think it justifies even such a shallow reflection as this will surely be.
First, I must say I am deeply torn over how I feel about The Mountain of Silence. On the one hand, much of it is a spiritual treasure. Dr. Markides' conversations with Fr. Maximos, an Athonite monk sent to be the Abbot of the Panagia tou Kykkou monastery on Cyprus, are a joy to read--in the sense that Fr. Maximos' reflections on the history and development of Orthodox spirituality are, and there's no other word for it, wonderful. Coming from an academically trained, Western protestant background, my understanding of monastic life is impoverished, and, understandably, a little skewed. Considering this, Fr. Maximos, and his recollections of his lessons with his teacher, Elder Paisios, have been a greatly enlightening read. I found the wisdom of the Athonite monks to be a challenge to a deeper conversion--which, I believe, St. Paul calls "the circumcision of the heart."
As I learned in catechism, asceticism is required of all Orthodox believers. The extent of the askesis, however, goes far beyond participation in the Sacrament of Confession and observation of the required periods of fasting. The division between the lay Christian of the parish and the monk is not so vast as our Western captivity wishes to make it. There is one rule of Christian faith, and it applies to monks and nuns as much as it does the rest of us living in the world; after all, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us, "The only difference between the married man and the monk is that the married man has a wife."
What, then, do those of us not in the monastery or the convent make of the ascetic practices to which we are called as Orthodox Christians? The answer to that question is the focus of what Fr. Maximos attempts to unfold to Dr. Markides over the six months that he spends with the Abbot at the Panagia monastery.
I say "attempts" because that leads me to my other opinion of the book; that is, as rich as are Fr. Maximos' teachings, it is equally painful to see how Dr. Markides--a sharp, smart man--cannot "get" what the wise Abbot is trying to tell him about the spiritual life. From this perspective, The Mountain of Silence resembles nothing half so much as a spiritual Macbeth--a high tragedy of epic proportions, played out in the life of a cradle Orthodox trained as a Western sociologist. At the risk of echoing what Frederica Mathewes-Green has to say about Markides, it seems as if, in his attempt to show the error of the prevailing materialism of Modernity, he goes toward the opposite error of Post-Modernism, and attempts to reduce the lessons of Mt. Athos to a formulaic system of spiritual exercises. He does what all post-modernists do, and confuses Meaning and Means. All of this happens, sadly, as Fr. Maximos repeatedly admonishes Markides not to do precisely that.
Instead of seeing the Orthodox spiritual tradition as the Fathers describe it (in the high patristic age, "the True philosophy"--but in our age, we might well say "the True Spiritual Enlightenment"), he engages in thinly veiled and barely contained syncretism that tries to equate the Athonite elders with the yogis and masters of Oriental religions. Also disturbing is Markides' openly acknowledged sympathies for the beliefs of Origen, which have been condemned by the Church since the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Markides objects to the anathemas placed on Origen and those who subscribe to his beliefs, because the condemnation of Origen's teachings happened over a century after his death, thus he was unable to provide a defense for himself. This smacks of post-modernist theories of "reclaiming" elements from a tradition to bring it into conformity with contemporary biases. In short, it is a dangerous game that, most likely, should not be played.
So, when I ask myself if I would recommend The Mountain of Silence, I can only say that I'm not sure it would be suitable for inquirers into the faith (and I'm terrified that this may be some people's first exposure to Orthodoxy), and catechumens should probably leave this book alone just because it may confuse them about the nature of the teachings of the Church and what is and is not acceptable in terms of theological opinion. Actually, I wish that I hadn't read it before getting some input from my Spiritual Father, just because it caused me to raise some questions that are better left for the classroom and out of the spiritual life. Separating the wheat from the chaff is definitely necessary with this one, and it requires a great deal of patience and prayer to do.