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When I arrived in America in the early sixties for my higher education, I brought with me a naive faith in the Christian religion, the Church, and the God of my forefathers and grandmothers. It was a taken-for-granted faith based on an upbringing within the insulated and homogeneous confines of Eastern Orthodoxy, the dominant religion of Cyprus. The cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism of America, where religion is a preference rather than a fate, shattered that simple security of belief. After ten years of training as a sociologist I was turned from a believer into an agnostic. I had concluded, like most of my peers, that religion was a creation of society, after all. I came to consider it axiomatic that society gave birth to the gods, not the other way around; society created the religion it needed for its own survival. At worst, religion preserved class inequities by shifting people's focus from the real world of injustice and oppression to the fantasized beyond of "pie in the sky" salvation. At best, it helped people cope with their personal tragedies, a useful collective illusion for the maintenance of social stability and order. Therefore, when believers of all faiths kneel down to pay homage to their deities, in reality they unwittingly worship their society in disguise. It was a powerful, irresistible insight coming from the pens of the mightiest intellects of modern social philosophy and sociology.
By the time I completed my studies I had internalized this dominant yet unspoken worldview within the modern academic culture: religion, particularly traditional religion, which meant belief in a personal God, was a thing of the past, a residue of medievalism destined to an eventual oblivion.
I was not a cheerful agnostic. In fact, initially pondering the nihilistic implications of the death of God theology was extremely painful to me--"If there is no God then anything goes." But the intellectual universe I found myself in offered hardly any other alternative. A serious scholar could not be a believer in unprovable notions about the beyond, spirit beings, angels and devils, and the like. Those were the beliefs of preliterate peoples and of the loving and humble aunts that I had left behind in Cyprus. For a worldly man of letters, a social scientist, the only real world was the world of hard facts, of the concrete physical universe, and of ordinary consciousness. Any notions about the beyond were fantasies, delusions, or "mere beliefs."
Whatever ties I kept with the religion of my youth remained exclusively cultural. They were the result of my aesthetic appreciation of its chants and liturgical services, encoded in my mind since infancy. Religion became for me nothing more than a matter of personal identity. I continued to think of myself as a Greek Orthodox but a secular Greek Orthodox, in the same way that a secular Jew is still a Jew and a secular Arab is still an Arab. Therefore, during my agnostic phase, a relationship with Christian monks and hermits, the subject matter of this book, would have been virtually impossible. My mind was not open to the possibility that there may be value and wisdom outside the parameters of rational academic culture. At best, my tendency during my agnostic phase, was to consider such people nothing more than living museums of a world long gone. At worst, I would have explained the lifestyle of monks and hermits in psychopathological terms, dismissing the entire phenomenon of monasticism as a form of escapism which has no relevance to a postmodern age. That there were elders who, precisely because of their eremitic, silent existence of arduous personal struggles and spiritual practices, become possessors of genuine spiritual wisdom, was a totally unfathomable idea for me at the time.
But Providence works in mysterious ways. With my wife Emily, I arrived at the University of Maine in 1972 to begin my career as an assistant professor of sociology, and this was the beginning of my liberation from scientific materialism and agnosticism. My "liberation" began through the influence of a colleague who exposed me to the thought of the East and the yogi tradition of India. In addition to the controversial books of Carlos Castaneda and the writings of Alan Watts, Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and Georges Gurdjieff, the works of Indian sages like Paramahansa Yogananda and Jiddu Krishnamurti also became part of my regular spiritual diet for a number of years. The same colleague introduced me to transcendental meditation, imported to America by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during the turbulent sixties, and I piously practiced TM for over seven years as I sought "cosmic consciousness" and deep relaxation.
Meditation, the reading of books on oriental religions, and scientific works like those of Fritjof Capra and others on the interface between modern science and mysticism led me gradually to shift away from my state of unbelief. It increasingly became clear to me that the secular assumptions about reality, dominant during my university training, were in fact a grand illusion, a materialist superstition that had kept Western thought stranded and imprisoned for the last three hundred years. It was a destructive superstition that led sensitive Western intellectuals by the droves into existential despair, and in some cases even to suicide and madness. The realization of the phoniness of scientific materialism had a tremendously liberating effect on my mind.
A most decisive episode in my life that freed me from the last fetters of agnosticism was my encounter with a formidable healer and mystic known as "Daskalos." He was a sixty-six-year-old clairvoyant and teacher of esotericism I met during a field trip to Cyprus in 1979. So radically was my academic worldview challenged by this flamboyant Western "shaman" that I set aside a sociological project I was working on at the time in order to study him and his circles of disciples. For the following ten years I carried out field research and wrote about the extraordinary world of these healers. It was a world of wonders, out-of-body travel, psychic phenomena of all sorts, exorcisms, and outlandish healing feats that I could not possibly explain through conventional logic. How could I rationally explain the healing of a paralyzed woman that specialists both in Cyprus and in Israel had considered incurable? The cure took place in front of my eyes and was accomplished by Daskalos, who simply stroked her back for half an hour. New X-rays, taken immediately after his intervention, showed a perfectly normal spine as compared to X-rays taken a week earlier that showed a dislocated and damaged spine. Or how could I explain how this healer accurately diagnosed the medical condition of a woman living in New York City by simply touching her photograph with closed eyes, while her physicians were unable to find out what was wrong? Such phenomena were routine matters during my ten-year field observation of these psychic healers and mystics. I then found out that researchers in other parts of the world reported analogous experiences and observations. Meeting anthropologists like Michael Harner of the New School of Social Research, who studied shamans and witnessed similar phenomena, reinforced my self confidence that my own field observations were not personal delusions.
Based on my research with Daskalos and his then close associate Kostas, I reached the conclusion that human beings have dormant abilities within themselves that extend beyond the five senses and that mind is not confined within the brain. Furthermore, I was led to understand that there may also be stages of consciousness that extend beyond the rational stage. I realized that there are trans-rational stages of consciousness that mystics of all traditions have talked about throughout history and that what we call death is nothing more than another beginning, a transition to a different plane of life and existence. The Cypriot mystics taught a well-integrated "Christocentric" system of mystical philosophy that appealed to my rationalistic predisposition and training but which also opened my mind to the possibility of other worlds, far beyond the world of gross matter and ordinary rational consciousness. It was gratifying to discover such a spiritual cosmology within my own cultural tradition.
The interest generated by my books on the Cypriot mystics offered additional support to my new understanding of reality. Since the trilogy of my ten-year adventure came out, scores of individuals from all over the world have contacted me to confide that they too lived in the extraordinary world of the Cypriot healers and mystics as described in my books. In this way I gradually realized that large numbers of people, both in the United States and elsewhere, live double lives. They live their ordinary everyday life while undergoing mystical experiences which they dare not reveal out of fear of being labeled as mentally ill. Such people, I should hasten to add, are found in all walks of life, including members of the academic community such as behavioral psychologists, sociologists, physicists, and biologists. I discovered to my amazement that there is a para-culture out there that scholars, because of deeply entrenched materialist prejudices, have failed to notice.
The Cypriot mystics may have helped me overcome my agnosticism and scientific materialism, but they played hardly any role in helping me overcome my negative attitude toward organized religion. On the contrary, I took it for granted that authentic spirituality could only be found and flourish beyond the boundaries of established religion. I considered self-evident the notion that organized religion unavoidably implied the corruption of religion. In the history of religion I could find abundant ammunition to maintain such beliefs.
Like most Western academics, I associated the representatives of institutionalized religion, if not with narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and corruption, then at least with irrelevance. Until my recent encounter with a few extraordinary Christian monks and hermits, I had met no living "man of the cloth" who had inspired me spiritually or intellectually. In my view the clerical hierarchy seemed, with a few exceptions, boring and intellectually inadequate. Organized religion, I believed, had little to offer today to the restless yet serious and intelligent seeker of inner knowledge. At that time I couldn't have agreed more with a leading biblical scholar who lamented that "Christianity as we have known it in the West is anemic and wasting away."
Once I freed my mind from the shackles of agnosticism and scientific materialism, I assumed that in order to seriously engage in a spiritual, contemplative practice for personal transformation and inner experience, one had to take up methods of meditation such as those practiced by the lay mystics that I had studied or the yogis of India, preferably under the guidance of a master. More romantically, one perhaps had to journey to the exotic East and sit at the feet of self-realized gurus who dispensed their wisdom from Himalayan mountaintops.
My change of heart about organized religion came with an invitation to go on a pilgrimage. My friend Antonis, a Cypriot businessman interested in Christian spirituality, challenged me to join him in the spring of 1991 on a journey to Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, a thirty-mile-long by ten-mile-wide inaccessible peninsula in northern Greece, to meet "living saints that radiate the love of Christ." Their prayers, he claimed, cause miracles to happen and their auras are like shining suns. Intrigued, I took up his invitation, and my life and work turned around once again when on that very first visit I met Father Maximos. During the years to come, this extraordinary and charismatic Athonite monk became my mentor, teacher, and key informant of Christian spirituality as it was preserved on the "Mountain of Silence."
After agnosticism, after transcendental meditation, and after the philosophical breakthroughs from my long association with the lay mystics and healers of Cyprus, I was ready for an adventure within the mystical, experiential tradition of organized Christianity that survived in a few ancient monasteries unknown to the West and to mainstream Christianity. There on Mount Athos, reserved since the ninth century as a refuge for hermits and monks, I came in contact with a different Christianity. As Antonis promised me, and with the mentoring and help of Father Maximos, I was able to meet with hermits considered to be saints who lived in remote parts of the peninsula inaccessible and unknown to the casual visitor. They seemed to me indeed like Christian yogis, the type that Westerners seek in the ashrams of India. I realized then that the spirituality I encountered on Mount Athos with its millennial history had all the hallmarks, and perhaps more, of what we were searching for in the Vedas and Upanishads of India. "Mount Athos," I mused to Antonis as we sailed away from that first visit, "is like a Christian equivalent of Tibet."
Starting with Riding with the Lion, I began to broaden my focus of exploration from the formidable world of Daskalos and Kostas to the mystical, established tradition of Christianity. To my amazement I discovered that the spiritual practices and psycho-technologies we seek in India and Tibet are also present at the very heart of the Christian tradition, preserved in the cliff-hanging monasteries and hermitages on Mount Athos since the early centuries of the common era. Yet churches of all denominations as well as biblical scholars of the West are oblivious to the mystical wisdom that still flourishes in some of these monastic communities.
Upon my return to Maine, when I mentioned to friends and colleagues that I planned to include in my studies the life and world of Christian monks and hermits, I realized that I had to explain myself. Monks and hermits have a dubious reputation in Western culture, both among academic circles as well as among the general public. In our post-Freudian, pleasure-oriented age the eremitic lifestyle is repugnant to the modern mind. Such a lifestyle is often equated with bodily mortification, sexual repression, even sadomasochism, not to mention mysogynism and the unholy Inquisition. It is a heavy cultural baggage. Curiously, there is no such prejudice directed at monks arriving on American shores from the Orient. At a recent conference in Montreal where I spoke of my experiences on Mount Athos, an African-American writer, Luisa Teish, asked me whether the monks had done any cleansing around their heritage of having killed millions of women as witches. Dr. John Rossner, an Anglican bishop and professor of comparative religions who hosted the event, preempted my response as he jumped to his feet and declared to the audience that there was no Inquisition in Eastern Christianity. Dr. Teish was puzzled and pleased to hear that. "To blame the monks of Mount Athos for the Inquisition," I added, "would be equally as absurd as to also blame the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist and Hindu monks for that ghastly episode in Western history."
As I began to explore the mystical spirituality of Mount Athos, two persons played a crucial role in helping me clarify my thoughts and sharpen my focus: Emily and my artist friend and colleague Mike Lewis. Like Emily and myself, Mike has been deeply interested in spirituality but suspicious of organized religion, particularly the overly zealous variety. Furthermore, being a nonpractitioner of any formal religion, he was most helpful in sensitizing me to those elements of the mystical spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy which would be relevant to the lives of not only Christians but to anyone interested in the deeper dimensions of human existence. Likewise, Emily, with her eco-feminist sensitivities, never tired of reminding me of the imperative for inclusiveness as I delved into the spiritual landscape of Christian monks and hermits.
From the Hardcover edition.