Kyriacos Markides: The Mountain of Silence
By jsolof on Mar 22, 2005
At the recommendation of my friend Mike Christakis, I'm starting off this Lent reading Kyriacos Markides's account of his "search for Orthodox spirituality", to quote the sub-title. I'm only part-way through, but so far, it has been an enlightening journey (for both him and me).
One of the conversations he records in Chapter 3, while engaging in its own right, seemed particularly germane in light of the turmoil swirling around poor Terri Schiavo, as the federal government -- all three branches, in fact -- struggle to find the elusive "right thing to do."
Markides recounts a dialogue between Thomas, his neighbor on Cyprus, and Fr. Maximos, the spiritual father (or elder, gerontas in Greek) who is guiding the author on his quest. Thomas's secular sensibilities are upset by the monastic life of renunciation, and he questions Fr. Maximos on the value of such a life.
I hope the author will pardon this long citation:
Thomas... asked thoughtfully whether it was worthwhile for someone to abandon wordly activities and join a monastery. "If yes, then a parent can say, 'Okay, it is worth the sacrifice on the part of our family to have our son or daughter living in a monastery. But if it is in vain, why should my child waste her life like that?'"
"This question is answered by the very life of nuns, monks, and hermits," Father Maximos replied. "If we monks could not find a realization of our expectations here, do you think it would be possible for us to stay and carry on with this austere and deprived existence? What would be the purpose of it? Take me for example. I was eighteen years old when I became a monk. Being a monk does not mean that you do not have the normal urges of a man. You also wish to live with a woman, to go out and enjoy life as it is commonly understood. You have all the sexual urges that everybody else has, and like everybody else you would like someday to get married and have a family. Becoming a monk does not mean you have automatically transcended your human desires and ambitions."
"Yet, another power pulls you in the opposite direction and that is the experience of the Christ. When we enter the monastery we wonder, 'Am I going to find what I am looking for?' Or just forget it, get this black cassock off, find a woman, marry, have children and live like any other ordinary human being? A monk owns nothing, not a single penny. Yet, we stay. And not only that, we are attracted to this life. It fills us with enchantment and it revitalizes us even after twenty, thirty, or forty years have passed since the time we started on this path. I meet some old monks in their eighties who are still enthusiastic about the monastic life. I have been a monk for twenty years and I have never, not for a single day, felt tired of this lifestyle. I have never experienced boredom, never had any doubts about whether I made the right decision to become a monk. Never! I feel as if my life is a continuous motion in the direction of Christ. I found what I was looking for. Had it not been so then neither I nor the other monks would have remained in the monastery. It would have been absolutely foolish and meaningless. Why should we undergo all this deprivation? Wouldn't I be an idiot to do all these things without some concrete spiritual gain? Therefore the answer to your question is our very life. Each one of us is the answer."
St. Seraphim of Sarov uses the image of commercial trading to describe the Christian life.\* We trade in exchange for something of tangible value. Fr. Maximos's comments on the monastic life -- which is only, in the end, an extreme pursuit of the same spiritual life we all seek -- point to the tangible value of that life to its adherents. If we aren't actually receiving something of more value than what we give up in exchange for it, we would be idiots, to use his word, to persist.
"Let me ask you another question," Thomas continues. "Who is more useful to society, a doctor or a monk?"
Father Maximos grinned and sighed. "I have been asked this question before. What does monasticism offer to society? Well, this question is characteristic of a modern way of thinking. It is an activist orientation toward the world. Every act, every person, is judged on the basis of their utility and contribution to the whole. Parents urge their children to excel so that they may be useful to society. Based on our spiritual tradition I prefer to see human beings first and foremost in terms of who they are and only after that in terms of their contributions to society. Otherwise we run the risk of turning people into machines that produce useful things. So what if you do not produce useful things? Does that mean that you should be discarded as a useless object? I am afraid that with this orientation contemporary humanity has undermined the inherent value of the human person. Today we value ourselves in terms of how much we contribute rather than in terms of who we are. And that attitude toward ourselves often leads to all sorts of psychological problems. I see this all the time during confessions."
And thinking of Terri Schiavo, while I believe that the judicial processes she has enjoyed (endured?) thus far came to a reasonable conclusion -- obviating the obvious political grandstanding of the legislative and executive branches "on her behalf" -- yet I see the pictures of her and wonder if the decision to withdraw her life support is being made on the basis of utility, on the basis of what she can contribute, vs. who she is. She lives, she breathes -- she cannot feed herself. Many others, we would sustain in those same circumstances, without a moment's hesitation.
God help her and her family.
\*St. Seraphim made the following statement in his famous conversation with Nicholas Motovilov:
"In acquiring this Spirit of God consists the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, vigil, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ's sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God."
"What do you mean by acquiring?" I asked Father Seraphim. "Somehow I don't understand that."
"Acquiring is the same as obtaining," he replied. "You understand, of course, what acquiring money means? Acquiring the Spirit of God is exactly the same. You know well enough what it means in a worldly sense, your Godliness, to acquire. The aim in life of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money, and for the nobility it is in addition to receive honours, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government. The acquisition of God's Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.