The alleged June 11, 2012 suicide of former Greek Orthodox monk Scott Nevins sent shock waves through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Given the fact that Church officials have remained startling silent since Nevins’ death, perhaps “shock waves” is a bit of an exaggeration.
The reality is that, as of July 26, 2012 the only official statement from anyone within the Church hierarchy (perhaps an obligatory gesture at best) came on June 14, 2012, when the official website of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco posted a letter by Metropolitan Gerasimos, in which he writes:
It is my paternal obligation to inform you of a tragic event that has occurred within the boundaries of our Holy Metropolis. A young man who had come to our Faith and became a novice at the Holy Monastery of St. Anthony the Great, and subsequently left the Monastery for unknown reasons last year, took his life last Monday morning at approximately 2:45 a.m. Scott Nevins, 27 years old, had spent six years at St. Anthony’s. Last year, after leaving the monastery he enrolled in a college in Oregon. In the early hours of last Monday morning, Scott took his life in an area near the monastery. (source: http://sanfran.goarch.org/blog/announcement-regarding-scott-nevins-death/ )
One problem with the letter is that it’s not entirely accurate. For the fifteen months before Nevins’ death, he went out of his way to make sure that his reasons for leaving the monastery were well known. He posted his reasons on various Orthodox websites, started a YouTube page, and soon before his death began his own webpage. We may never know what led to Nevins’ untimely death, but one thing is certain. We know exactly why he left St. Anthony’s Monastery; he believed the monastery to be a cult. He, and many others, have been remarkably outspoken about this.
Was Metropolitan Gerasimos unaware of Nevins’ public criticism of St. Anthony’s? Although this is highly unlikely and improbable, who can authoritatively say? That’s the problem. No one can say, because the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are kept in the dark regarding what actually takes place in the upper echelons of the administration of the Greek Orthodox Church. What is really going on in that Monastery?
Far too many people within Orthodoxy believe that controversies and internal struggles should be managed “in house” — meaning, within the confines of the hierarchical ranks of the Church. Although no one likes to “air dirty laundry”, the reality is that this mindset is simply a little too medieval for Christians living in the twenty first century. It goes hand in hand with the adage “don’t ask any questions”. This is not acceptable.
While I would not change the ancient Liturgy, the Teachings and Traditions of our Church for all-the-world, the fact of the matter is that, if the Church is going to thrive — and not just survive — it must change the way it conducts itself in the modern world. The Church must democratize, and the flow of information must move in all directions. What I mean by “democratize” is simply consider the voice of the people. I am not suggesting we become Congregationalists, although that mode is implemented when it suits the hierarchy (it seems to be thrown out when it is focused on them).
Does that sound too “American” and too “modern”? Maybe, but then again what is wrong with being modern? I’m not advocating for an abolishment of Tradition, the Liturgy, or the Creed. What I am advocating for is an open ended, transparent structure where people are not kept in the dark about what is happening within their Church. This is what I mean about being “modern” – being open and dealing with reality in a compassionate and forthright manner.
More than that, I’m advocating for an Orthodox Christian’s right to freely express his or her concerns, opinions, and questions without threats of hellfire or the fear of retribution coming down upon them from on high. And by on high, I mean from among the ranks of the fundamentalist Orthodox who claim to speak for God — as they do when they insist that Elder Ephraim is a living saint.
As always, some people will “demand” to know who I am. Who am I to challenge monasticism, tradition, and the way we’ve always done things? The answer is very simple. I am not challenging all those things. However, I am an Orthodox Christian who has every right to voice his disgust over the abuse and ridicule Scott Nevins received not only in life, but in death. In recent weeks, the self-styled defenders of “true Orthodoxy” began popping up all over the internet to criticize the Nevins family as well as our departed brother in Christ, Scott Nevins. On one popular Orthodox blog, an anonymous writer says that:
“He [Nevins] was mentally disturbed and was given hospitality [by St. Anthony’s] to help him, but his mental state was beyond what anybody could do for him” (Source: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/11/mysterious-greek-orthodox-monastery-in.html)
For the moment, let us pretend that our friend Anonymous actually used the proper medical terminology and claimed that Scott Nevins was “mentally ill” rather than “mentally disturbed.” In addition, let pretend that Scott Nevins was indeed “mentally ill.” What difference would that make in the outcome of his death? Well that’s simple: for the fundamentalists it would mean that those of us who have questions about the Ephraimites should keep our mouths shut because Nevins was mentally “disturbed” — case closed, end of story! Well, at least that’s the conclusion that fundamentalists, like our friend Anonymous, “wish” we would draw from such statements. But we don’t.
“If” Nevins did suffer from a mental illness, a whole new list of questions must be asked: What makes St. Anthony’s (or any other monastery) qualified to give “hospitality” to people with a mental illness? Were there doctors and psychologists on staff at St. Anthony’s? If St. Anthony’s was “treating” Nevins for a mental illness, why did he, after six years of monastic “hospitality,” show zero signs of improvement? The list could go on and on. Yet perhaps one of the most pressing questions at the moment is quite simple: Why hasn’t the Archdiocese made an official statement about Nevins’ death? Why the shroud of mystery over the death of a young man on the grounds of one of our monasteries?
Let me repeat that. The Ephraimite monasteries are our monasteries. They are under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. They are supposed to be there for our spiritual enrichment and in turn, they must answer to us: the Church universal. If something is amiss, they are obligated to answer to us. But is the Church demanding that the Ephraimites answer for Nevins’ death? Who knows? Again, the shroud of secrecy and silence lies over the whole incident.
Yet despite the silence of the Archdiocese, the blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion about the tragic death of Scott Nevins. People publicly spew forth accusations of ulterior motives at those who would dare to question Elder Ephraim’s monasteries. Many others, like our friend anonymous, publicly announce that Scott Nevins was “mentally disturbed,” and one cannot help but wonder why they say such things. Are these individuals concerned with the loss that the Nevins family will endure for the rest of their lives? Do they desire to help the millions of people who suffer from mental illness? (That seems unlikely, given that many fundamentalists routinely disparage and diminish the profession and study of mental health as unnecessary.) Or are they trying to deflect criticism away from their beloved “Athos in America”? At times I am simply speechless at the audacity of the fundamentalists’ arrogance, perhaps born from fear, to absolutely refrain from asking questions about Ephraim and his leaders – as if we were questioning Christ and his disciples.
I do not claim to have the answers. I only have a load of questions which the hierarchs of our Church have, thus far, been unwilling to answer. And of course, their unwillingness to answer only forces me to ask more questions. Why doesn’t the Archdiocese come forth and answer our questions? Why are they silent on an issue of such importance? And, when will they acknowledge the fact that, whatever it is you believe about Elder Ephraim, St. Anthony’s utterly failed Scott Nevins in his quest as a novice? Yes, the Church can and does fail people because the Church is comprised of people. Hierarchs, monks, priests, and laymen are all people. People are not perfect. It is when the Church collaborates as a whole that it succeeds. And only by admitting that fact, can we hope to move forward and become a Church that learns from its failures and strives to not repeat mistakes that ultimately cost people their lives.
May Scott Nevins memory be eternal. May we as a Church learn from this painful event that has diminished us all.