I have read (and re-read much of) "The Mountain of Silence," though I confess that I have yet to resume "Gifts of the Desert" after reading 60 pages and losing interest. For this reason, it would be unfair to officially call this my third book by Kyriacos Markides, but I have read enough of him to know what to expect... for the most part.
"The Mountain of Silence" is one of those books about Orthodoxy that "broke through" the Orthodox world and has become better known. It is one I have recommended to many people. In recommending that book, though, I also provide with the recommendation a piece of advice: Listen to everything Fr. Maximos says, but be very careful of the author's interpretation of his words. He's often off just by a bit, but that's enough to cause big issues. For me, "The Mountain of Silence" is 85% really good stuff, and that good stuff is incredibly engaging and powerful. This book was a bit different...
The sociological and... shall we say, syncretistic... worldview from which the author approaches topics of Orthodox spirituality (or "mysticism," as it is often referred to, though I have hesitations about using this word) are often what made me pause when reading "The Mountain of Silence." As I said, he is sometimes just a little bit off in his understanding, but he's off enough to give me pause in recommending the book. At other times - and far more rarely - he is far more than being just a little off; he outright wrong in his understanding of certain theological truths. In this book, I would say that about 40% of it is really good stuff; 35% is basically travelogue with the author's own insights and observations (this will be interesting to some, less so to others); the remaining 25%, however, focusses on the author's view of various theological topics, and this part is, again, sometimes just a little off; at other times (and more often than in "Mountain...") it is just plain wrong. This makes me nervous in recommending this book.
The book recounts more of the authors conversations with "Fr. Maximos," both in Boston and in Cyprus. It also recounts some of his experiences on Mount Sinai (at St. Catherine's monastery) and on Mount Athos. The biggest problem with the book is that the sense of discovery and the drive to enter deeper into the mysteries of Orthodoxy seems much less "urgent," in a way. There is less excitement an discovery and awe before the beauty, wisdom, and peace of Orthodoxy. I think the reason for this is fairly simple:
In "The Mountain of Silence," Fr. Maximos was our guide. We had someone intimately connected with the Living Tradition of Orthodoxy through experience, and he took us by the hand and guided us into that Mystery, little by little. In this book, it felt much more like the author was trying to do the same thing, saying excitedly all along, "Look at it from MY perspective!" The problem is that, with Fr. Maximos, we had someone who had humbled himself before the Church and had developed the mind of the Church and the mind of the Fathers. He was passing along what the Holy Spirit had taught him. With Markides, we are getting someone with (forgive me for this!) much less humility, as he is not sharing a mindset provided by the Holy Spirit and experience within the ascetic Life of the Church in Christ but of a mixture of what he has been taught by figures such as Fr. Maximus mixed in with his sociological and ecumenical perspective. His worldview causes him to misunderstand the relation of the Orthodox Church and Christ, Who is Truth. This worldview, while not explicitly stated, can be read between the lines of his words.
Even without much theological knowledge, I suspect that many simply Orthodox faithful could detect this issue in reading this book. If their experience is like mine, they'll read Fr. Maximos' words with great anticipation, taking notes and losing a sense of time in his words; they'll read through Markides' comments, however, fully aware of time and without the sense of joy and peace that accompany Fr. Maximos' teachings. The problem is simple: I want to read a voice from the Life of the Church placed in an engaging and thought-provoking structure (i.e. Fr. Maximos with the skill of Markides' writing). Instead, I get far more of Markides' thoughts about the Orthodoxy I want to learn about, and I find his view slightly skewed in some placed and way off in others.
Near the end of the book, Fr. Maximos' discusses the great importance of the virtue of discernment, especially in relation to the virtue of love. This was a fascinating discussion. (In fact, this discussion with some other sections made me happy, in the end, that I read the book). This discernment is what is greatly needed when reading this book. Unfortunately, it is needed far too much for me to recommend this book in the way I recommended "The Mountain of Silence." I suppose I'll have to give "Gifts of the Desert" another try...