For years now there have been many assumptions and accusations concerning various cultic practises that occur in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. In certain cases, they are based in truth but slightly distorted. Many of these practises can also be found in various Lives of the Saints or Desert Fathers (though they’re not taught as a norm to be followed or practiced). These writings are where most of the ideas originate and Geronda Ephraim’s monastic and lay-disciples follow these examples:
St. Paisios the Great and the Monk who did not Drink the Dirty Wash Water from Christ’s Feet
In Chapter 5 of Counsels from the Holy Mountain, in the subsection Stories of Obedience and Disobedience, Geronda Ephraim retells a story from the Gerontikon found in the Life of Abba Paisios the Great:
“St. Paisios told his disciple one day: “My child, go drink water from that wash-basin”. The disciple thought to himself, “Instead of the Elder telling me to go drink from the pitcher or from the fountain—since I have come from my diakonema tired and sweaty—he tells me to drink from this dirty water in the basin!” He trusted his own thoughts and missed out on a great blessing! Later he thought, “Why don’t I go drink it?” But he didn’t find any water. Then Abba Paisios said to him, “You poor fellow! Do you know what that rinse water was? It was water that had washed the feet of Christ!” From then on, a spirit of grief came upon him, and Abba Paisios tried to console him, but how could he? He reached the point of having no peace at all. Then one day the saint told him (since he couldn’t be at peace and remain beside him ), “Go to such and such a place. There are three tombs there, and in front of one of them (he indicated which ) say a prayer and pay attention to what you will hear”. He did so, and heard a voice saying, “Go back to your Elder and be obedient”. But he had already shipwrecked internally. The house of his soul had been damaged beyond repair. This is why he passed the rest of his life vacillating and storm-tossed in his obedience to Abba Paisios.”
The above story was used as an example in many of Geronda Ephraim’s earlier homilies on obedience (not so much now after the foot water accusations). However, the Gerontikon is where many of Geronda Ephraim’s subordinates get their ideas—or examples to follow, if you will—i.e., the Gerondissa who voluntarily drank Geronda Ephraim’s foot water to cure a mouth ailment; finishing his unfinished food as a blessing; drinking his unfinished drinks as a blessing; doing the sign of a cross in front of his cell door as though it were a Temple of God; etc.
Though Geronda Ephraim is not known to have specifically give someone an obedience to drink the dirty water that have washed his feet, a truly obedient disciple would drink it without question if the Elder asked them. However, one of the Gerondissas under Geronda Ephraim was once suffering from a certain ailment in her mouth. She drank the wash water from the Elder’s feet and she claims it healed her.
The “foot water” accusation was quite commonplace among those who found issue with the monasteries in the late 90s. It also became a point of jokes and sarcasm amongst Geronda Ephraim’s monastics and lay spiritual children. So many of the loyal spiritual children who made pilgrimages to the various monasteries had stated they’d gladly drink Geronda Ephraim’s foot water whether he asked them to or not. The Elder’s more loyal followers, because they believe he is a living saint (and in many cases the most holiest that existed and the last of the saints), also believe that everything he touches becomes blessed due to the overabundance of grace they believe he posses.
Drinking Geronda Ephraim’s Unfinished Drinks
This is a tradition that stems back to Greece and the Holy Mountain and is not something exaggerated by Geronda Ephraim’s accusers. Again Geronda Ephraim doesn’t order anyone to finish his drinks or meals, but he is well aware that this happens. Such cases of “reverence” can also be found in various Lives of the Saints.
When Geronda Ephraim first started coming to North America, when he stayed at peoples’ houses (usually trusted and loyal spiritual children who didn’t scandalize easily), they would obviously serve him meals. As well, whenever he gave a homily, he’d ask for a glass of water, and it’d be brought with a napkin and a sweet. At the end of this, the owners of the house would share Geronda Ephraim’s unfinished meals, sweets and drinks either amongst themselves, or with other trusted spiritual children.
This also occurs in all the monasteries with the monks and nuns. For instance, whenever Geronda Ephraim gives a speech to the monastics, a glass of water, napkin and sometimes a sweet is brought on a silver or gold-trimmed platter. Geronda Ephraim rarely finishes the water. So when he goes and retires, the monastics go for the water (usually oldest monastic first down to the youngest if there’s any left). Also, someone will keep the napkin which the Elder was folding and unfolding throughout the entire homily, as a blessing.
This would also occur with Geronda Ephraim’s unfinished Greek coffee. A number of years ago, on the advice of Dr. Gerasimos (his personal doctor at the time), Geronda Ephraim gave up coffee altogether for health reasons.
Eating Geronda Ephraim’s Unfinished or Untouched Meals
As for meals in the monastery, the unfinished as well as the untouched food from Geronda Ephraim’s place at the Gerondia table is also shared as a blessing among the kitchen fathers. Though in some cases, the father who was reading gets first dibs. This tradition originates on Mount Athos and was brought here by the Athonite Fathers (though the Gerondissas and their nuns also follow this tradition). Younger monks and nuns generally have the obedience to follow the examples of the older monastics, as well as to do obedience to them.
There use to be a monk at St. Anthony’s Monastery named Fr. Palladios. He had arrived in 1997 and Geronda Ephraim said he was a secret saint. One day, when he was helping clean up the trapeza, he went to the Gerondia table and started pulling food from all the plates while saying, “Everything is blessed since they’re all holy.” He later left the monastery and returned to the world as a layman.
Anyways, this tradition is blessed in all the monasteries, by all the Abbots and Abbesses, thus a monk or nun who does this after a meal that Geronda Ephraim has attended will not be under the sin of “secret-eating.”
It should be emphasized here that Geronda Ephraim always has specially prepared dishes set for him at the Gerondia and rarely eats what everyone else is eating in the dining hall; especially on Feast Days. Thus, in many cases, it is also a matter of monastcis taking scraps of food they may not normally get to eat. As well, in fasting periods, where starvation and emaciation can be the norm, the scraps from the Gerondia table are like a consolation prize, so to speak. This was especially the case in the early years at Arizona. Fr. Gerondios’ cooking was not that good and many times the Fathers were unable to consume it, thus they’d load up on bread fruit and salad, but the cooked food (proteins) were not edible. Even Geronda Ephraim would comment from time to time that the food wasn’t even fit for animals. Thus, it became a proverb of sarcasm from monastery to monastery. Starvation is also why some monks started taking from all the Gerondia plates (i.e. Geronda Paisios and Joseph, Hieromonk Gregory, and at the time Deacons Ephraim and Joseph), justifying it by telling themselves all of these men were grace-filled saints and all the food was a blessing.
Doing the Sign of the Cross outside Geronda Ephraim’s Cell When One Walks By
Before Geronda Ephraim lived in the cell beside St. Panteleimon’s Chapel, he lived in the Gerontikon. Every time a monk or nun walked by the window of his cell, and sometimes by the front door of the Gerontikon, they would do the sign of the Cross, similar to what lay people are required to do when walking by an Orthodox Church. This can also be found in the writings of the Fathers, particularly Abba Dorotheos of Gaza:
“When I was still in the monastery of Abba Seridos, it happened that the servant of Elder John, the disciple of Abba Barsanuphius, contracted a disease, and the Abba ordered me to serve the Elder. I kissed the very doors of his cell from the outside with the same feeling that another might have when bowing down before the honorable Cross, so glad was I to serve him. Indeed, who would not desire to be vouchsafed to serve such a saint? His every word was worthy of amazement. Every day when I had finished my service, I made a prostration before him so as to receive forgiveness from him and depart, and he would always say something to me.”
Blind Obedience that Geronda Ephraim Marveled At
As Geronda Ephraim has repeated many times in his homilies on obedience, an Abbot or Abbess does not have to stand over someone threateningly saying, “I command you to do this.” Everything, no matter how trivial, that comes from their mouth is, in essence an obedience or command, and a subordinate is expected to follow it without hesitation, without questioning or examining the order or advice given.
Geronda Ephraim was visiting one of his convents and while he was talking to the abbess, a nun came up to him and started talking. He told her jokingly to go sew her mouth shut. The nun did not examine whether he was joking or not and immediately went to her cell, took out a sewing kit and sewed her own mouth shut. Upon finishing, she returned to show Geronda Ephraim that she had completed her obedience. Geronda Ephraim says about this incident that though he was not serious when he said for her to go sew her mouth shut, he marvelled at this nun’s exacting obedience. He also uses this story as an example of what kind of unquestioning obedience his disciples should have.