Saturday, August 4, 2018

Questions and Answers 45 - 47

About Father Ephraim and his Monasteries, 
as well as Elder Joseph the Hesychast

Question 45: I hear conflicting accounts about visiting the monasteries established by Father Ephraim in America. What do you think about these conflicting accounts, and would you consider it safe to visit these monasteries?

Question 46: Thank you for answering my question on your website about the future canonization of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, but I must confess I see this as a conspiracy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate against Elder Ephraim of Arizona as to why he has not canonized Elder Joseph yet. Elder Joseph is perhaps the greatest saint of the 20th century, and probably the most significant one of Mount Athos in the 20th century. There is no reason not to canonize him?

Question 47: Would you consider Elder Ephraim of Arizona our greatest living saint?

Answer: I will answer all three of the above questions in one response, as these types of questions in one form or another have been asked to me many times over the years. I will answer it in light of my own personal experiences and on what has been said about Father Ephraim and Elder Joseph that makes them controversial figures, which are things few in America have heard about.

I have only visited six of Father Ephraim's monasteries in the United States and Canada, some more times than others, so my personal experiences come from them. Also, I have spoken with Father Ephraim either privately or with others also about half a dozen times or so, maybe more. It has been more than a decade since I last visited a monastery, the last specifically was the one outside Montreal. The last time I spoke with Father Ephraim was around the year 1999. My own personal experiences have been both positive and negative. With my own experiences, I also have dozens and dozens of pages in my files that I have gathered about the monasteries, and there are many things there that are quite disturbing.

Based on my own experiences, I found Father Ephraim to be delightful on the personal level. Every time I have talked to him, I felt like I was talking more like to a friend than anything else, and that is a good thing and shows his humility. Basically, he makes you feel comfortable. Though he did do something to me that I found to be quite uncomfortable, and it is because of it that I really don't have a desire to see him again.

One day, I think in 1999, my wife and I had visited Father Ephraim when he came to one of his new monasteries in North Carolina, though we didn't know he was there and we just happened to visit. So we spent about half a day with Father Ephraim pretty much alone. At one point my wife decided to go to confession to him, and I opted out as he was not my confessor. During her confession one of the monks, who translated for her as she didn't know Greek, asked me to come in and join her, by request of Father Ephraim. I thought it was odd, but I complied. I entered and Father Ephraim had me sit opposite him, while my wife and the monk were off to the side. Then Father Ephraim for about 2 or 3 minutes went on this long and uncomfortable talk about my sexual relationship with my wife, which shocked me to the point that now I have forgotten most of what he said, as within me I was wondering why he was saying these things, and it took about 30 seconds for me to even begin to comprehend what he was talking about because he seemed to be trying to avoid getting to the point. Among the things he said to me was that I should take care to never have sex with my wife on a feast of the Panagia, because if I do then I will lose her protection over me and her intercession. This is one of the few things I remember, because it actually made me a bit angry inside that he was saying these things, especially since I didn't seek his advice on anything that day, nor did he even ask me any questions to get an idea of what I thought of the matter or to maybe clarify for him something. It felt more like I was on trial for something. And now he left me to translate everything he said to my wife on the ride home. I walked out a bit frustrated by what just happened. Then when my wife asked me to tell her what he said, I lied and told her that it was just some basic marriage advice, and much of it I didn't really understand, then I changed the subject. After this, I really never had a desire to visit one of his monasteries again.

I have many other stories I could tell, such as the way the Greek older ladies would act around Father Ephraim, which was also very disturbing and I never heard anyone in the monasteries criticize them for the things they would do. For example, one day I was eating lunch with Father Ephraim with a bunch of other seminarians, and I was the translator for everyone. Behind me I heard a conversation of two older Greek ladies who were planning on taking Father Ephraim's food early before he finished it so they could eat what was left on his plate, because they considered the food on his plate to be especially sanctified. And yes, they took his food early. At another monastery the ladies would only crawl on their hands and knees around them, which Father Ephraim was clearly embarrassed about, but it was still very weird.

Another thing I have often heard from people that met Father Ephraim while he was abbot at Mount Athos, was how often spoke of his ambition to go down in history as a great builder of monasteries and gather a large following. When you read about how the monasteries in America were established, this ambition really shows. The financial issues alone are very disturbing and most-unmonastic, but to go into details on these things would take a long time.

Probably the worst thing I had to deal with the monasteries about was when I was first dating my future wife who had already been a convert from Catholicism, and was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation, though she was convinced that it was forced on her, because people close to Father Ephraim's monastery in Saxonburg told her that chrismation is not a valid way to be received into the Church from Catholicism, and that she should be secretly rebaptized at Saxonburg. For many years she refused to consider her chrismation valid, and though she wanted to be rebaptized, it took many years for me to convince her (somewhat) that it would be a greater sin to invalidate her chrismation and be rebaptized against the will of Metropolitan Maximos, who met with her for two hours before she was chrismated trying to convince her that she was only allowed chrismation. Practices like this and the effect they have on people made me lose a lot of respect for what the monasteries stand for here in America.

I also remember back in the mid-1990's when I was in seminary that a friend had told me that Saint Porphyrios was once asked about Father Ephraim, and Saint Porphyrios said that one day America will be another Mount Athos and that Father Ephraim is the greatest saint in the history of the Church. But as I later found out, this was all propoganda from the followers of Father Ephraim, perhaps by the monks under him as well. The truth of the matter is that both St. Porphyrios and St. Paisios the Athonite had negative things to say about Father Ephraim. One of their criticisms was the way Father Ephraim demanded absolute and total obedience; which he demanded from both his monks and nuns, as well as lay people in the world. St. Paisios would dissuade pilgrims from going to Philotheou because, he said, “it’s too noisy there.” Stemming from a consensus that Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded, by extension they judged the fruit by the tree that gave them birth. These are the things I remember hearing many years ago, but recently found more details online, where it says the following:

"As lay people, Geronda Joseph (Ioannis) Voutsas (St. Nektarios Monastery), Gerondissa Olympiada (Athena) Voutsa (Holy Protection Monastery) and Gerondissa Melanie (Xeni) Makrygiannis (St. John Chrysostom Monastery) had visited Elder Porphyrios when he was alive. They relate that he said many bad things about Geronda Ephraim not worth repeating. 'We heard it with our own ears,' they say, in a voice of disdain. In 1998, at the monastic leader convention convened by Archbishop Spyridon, Geronda Paisios, Dositheos and Joseph had a little meeting of their own where they agreed not to sell the books of both Elders Paisios and Porphyrios due to 'all the problems they caused for Geronda Ephraim in Greece.' As well, there are some teachings that are indirectly aimed at contradicting and criticizing Geronda Ephraim’s teachings. Furthermore, Elder Paisios did not even mention Elder Joseph the Hesychast in his book Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters–a book about all the great 20th century Athonite monks. Elder Paisios' lack of acknowledgement concerning Elder Joseph the Hesychast is a great affront to Geronda Ephraim’s disciples. The Abbots and Abbesses dismiss this behavior as jealousy on the parts of St. Porphyrios and Elder Paisios. Quoting the Ladder, where it states “Let no one regard dark spite as a harmless passion, for it often manages to reach out even to spiritual men,” they state that the two Elders were jealous because of the spiritual heights that Geronda Ephraim reached through his blind obedience to Elder Joseph, a virtue which neither of them possessed to the degree Geronda did. As well, they were jealous of his popularity because he was so young, yet attracted thousands of people to his monasteries on Mount Athos and in Greece. By the early-mid 2000s, with so many books being published on the two elders, in both Greek and English, combined with the hundreds of people asking for these books, the monasteries changed their minds and started selling their books. It’s a good money maker, as well, it’s too confusing for pilgrims for the monasteries to tell them the reasons these Elders’ books have been boycotted. Fr. Germanos Pontikas of St. Nektarios Monastery tells pilgrims that St. Porphyrios stated he was nowhere near the spiritual heights of Geronda Ephraim. An anonymous Abbot tells pilgrims that St. Porphyrios called Geronda Ephraim, ‘the saint of humility.’"

I can go on and on, but to answer the above questions based on my own experiences and the things I have heard, I would say that it's fine to visit the monasteries as a pilgrim, and you can judge the effect from your own experience. Like I said in the beginning, I have had both very positive and very negative ones. To go through both is the experience of life. Also, I mention the things about Elder Joseph the Hesychast to make people realize that he is not without controversy, whether it be just or unjust. His status however is much higher in America than in Greece, due primarily to his association with Father Ephraim and the monasteries here, as well as the fact that there was a disconnect between between Elder Joseph and the other great elders of modern Greece, with some exceptions. Lastly, I don't know who the greatest saint on earth is; this only God can decide and reveal.

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