NOTE: This is a woman’s account of growing up in the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. For those unfamiliar with the background of this organization, Fr. Jonah Paffhausen wrote an article about the “Journey of the Holy Order of MANS / Christ the Saviour Brotherhood and the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood into the Canonical Orthodox Church”:
Welcome. Please take a few moments to read a personal account of one family’s life after entering an Eastern Orthodox cult in America. This is a brief memoir about the serious consequences of blindly following a “spiritual father”, and what happened to a loving, normal family because of this. I also relate how it feels to be disowned by one’s own family for not being part of the cult. My hope is that this site will be of help to at least one other person coping with similar circumstances. I also hope it will serve as a warning to families: NEVER disown, abandon, or shun a person simply for believing differently.
I am a former “Russian Orthodox Abroad” member; my “identity” was Xenia of St. Petersburg, a woman whose life I was told mine own should resemble, according to God’s will. A frightening thought, if you know how this woman lived. I was forced into the church by my parents, kept in complete control throughout my teenage and young adult years, and finally escaped: first, in my mind and soul, and then physically. I still suffer some PTSD symptoms, common with cult withdrawal; however, I am finding the faith of my childhood, something simple and bright, which is the first light I have seen in a long, long time. My wish is that this blog will help ONE person, somewhere, to have the courage to speak out and perhaps even say all alone, “The Emperor has no clothes!” (Hans Christian Andersen).
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CONVERSION AND MIND CONTROL TECHNIQUES
As you read the personal story of my family and how we came to be part of this cult, please refer to two excellent resources: The Watchtower Expositor: Cult or Cultic (by Craig Branch); and Combatting Mind Control (by psychologist and cult expert Steve Hassan.)
CONVERSION TECHNIQUES (Craig Branch)
Below are ten techniques of unethical thought reform and mind control (I quote), with some examples of how these were used by the Orthodox cult.
1) Focus on felt needs & defects, with exaggerated promises of fulfillment.
It was drilled into us over and over that we were spiritually “sick”, that our whole “mind-set” and way of life were evil, and that we were damned if we didn’t accept the new baptism and join the church. We were promised unending love from the church, help in any crisis, and spiritual fathers who would get us past the “toll-houses” and save our souls after we died. We were promised to always be the “right believers” who were the “elite and the elect of God”, and who would play a large role in the conversion of others before the final Tribulation.
[NOTE: The general teaching of the Orthodox Church is that all humans are spiritually sick. The Church or Monastery is the hospital where the sick faithful go to be treated. The sacraments are the medicines that the Physician uses to cure the souls of the sick. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the general consensus is, “You can be saved in the world, but it’s better to go to confession in the monasteries and have Geronda Ephraim–or one of his priest(monk)s as a confessor. In the last days, all the orthodox churches in the world will have apostasized and joined the ecumenist World Church/Religion. True orthodoxy will only be found in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries.
Some spiritual children of Elder Ephraim have read Elizabeth Ann’s story and callously stated that these things only happened because she didn’t have a holy elder nor was she part of the canonical church (In monastery double speak, this is code for “you’re hopeless without Geronda Ephraim or one of his priest-monks”). With an air of self satisfaction, they would state with all certainty that such things could never and would never happen in Elder Ephraim’s monasteries or parishes.
It is an odd phenomena but laymen who visit the Elder’s monasteries and decide to become dedicated disciples, often become Geronda Ephraim experts almost overnight. After a handful of visits and hours of absorbing stories concerning “miracles”, “visions”, and “prophecies”(minus the multitude that never came to pass), this lay person is now an “expert” and can tell you everything that doesn’t happen in the monasteries despite never having been invited into the monks’ quarters, nor a monks’ only homily, etc. It’s amazing.
2) Rigid Control of Time and Activities
Required to attend more and more services; demanded to read lengthy prayer books at home throughout the day; pushed to do the “Hours”; taught by book “Way of the Pilgrim” to constantly chant the “Jesus Prayer” at all times, even in school.
[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, monastics are required to recite the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; either mentally or out loud. This is expected no matter what they are doing: listening to someone speak to them, eating, going to sleep, working, attending church services, etc. In theory, his monastics aren’t suppose to idle talk or be too chit chatty with other monks or laymen. Everyday of the monastic’s life is ruled by someone else, and their time and activities are rigidly filled controlled.
3) Information Control
Not allowed to read newspapers, magazines, or non-religious books, especially during the time as “catechumens.” Told that all new movies and T.V. programs and T.V. news were “of the devil.” Given more and more Orthodox “patrisitic” ( holy fathers’) writings to read and re-read. Told to cut off family, which my mother did by way of letters.
Those who control the information control the person. In a mind control cult any information from outside the cult is considered evil, especially if it is opposing the cult. Members are told not to read it or believe it. Only information supplied by the cult is true.
[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics aren’t allowed to read worldy publications (many do though when they’re afforded the opportunity), let alone information critical of Geronda Ephraim or his monasteries. If they are allowed, this will be curated by the Superior and many times it will turn into a mocking fest of the writer or commentator (many times, the monastics don’t actually get to see the article or news clip to make an informed decision. The Superior gives them only the “necessary” details and makes the informed decision of interpretation for the disciple. With big events like 9/11, some monastics were allowed to watch the news clips and footage of the planes. In some monasteries, Greece winning the World Cup in soccer is also a big enough event, so big that many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics had a blessing to watch the highlights and in one case, the entire game (nationalist and patriotic sentiment for Greece is very high in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries)].
4) Language Manipulation
Besides being taught to laugh at certain words such as “the Latins” or “the West”, we were taught an exclusive new vocabulary for “insiders”, some of which is put in bold print in the posts at right. Our new names were to replace our real names, forever. The lovely name “JESUS” was seldom used.
[NOTE: The monasteries also have their own vocabulary and special knocks which many laymen also adopt for their everyday use at home and among like-minded Christians–“Na Einai Evlogemeno” (“Let it be blessed”), response to be asked to do something. “Evlogeson” (“Bless”), asking forgiveness, usually a response to making an error or offending someone.
One of Geronda’s elders once observed, “Sorry lost all meaning when the word ‘Evlogeson’ was invented.” He was referring to the fact that no matter how greatly a monastic errs or offends, they have a reflex response to say ‘Evlogeson’ without thinking, with no heartfelt meaning.
Though “Latins” and “the West” are words and concepts looked down upon and sometimes laughed at in the monasteries, this is also the same spirit of almost all the Orthodox patristic writings and encyclicals since the Great Schism of 1054. Other words that receive similar attention are: “Oi Ebraioi” “The Jews” (lit. “The Hebrews”); “Oi Zionistes” (“The Zionists”); “Ta Protokolla” (“The Protocols of Zion”); “Tektonismos” (“Freemasonry”); “O Patriarches” (“The Patriarch”)].
5) Discouraging Critical, Rational Thought and Questions
Obvious contradictions and questions were greeted with either long, convoluted, and evasive explanations, or we were told that “you will understand later when you have become an adult in the faith. Just become like little children.” I was laughed at when I pointed out specific verses in the Bible, which I knew very well. I was even called “that Baptist girl” in a derogatory way. We were told during the second liturgy that clergy and priests must ALWAYS be obeyed, EVEN IF THEIR PERSONAL LIVES WERE NOT HOLY (i.e. they had murdered a person!) I quote Br. B. Now I add (“even if they have sodomized your child.”)
[NOTE: In orthodoxy there is an “answer” for every question, even those with no answers. Most things that are in conflict with orthodoxy or don’t fit in with the vague and contradictory theology around creation and the fall are usually dismissed as “unimportant” or “unnecessary”… “Dinosaurs aren’t important to salvation, don’t waste your time with those things” (common monastery advice to youth)… “Don’t read the Old Testament, the New Testament is what’s important. Anything of real worth in the Old Testament can be found in our church services, it’s better to read those” (advice to those who start getting ‘demonic warfare’–monastic code word for critical thinking and rational thought–after reading about God commanding His people, the Hebrews, to commit infanticide, genocide, and other atrocities)…”God allowed it in His mercy to rescue the children being abused and to punish the sinners; i.e. human traffickers, pedophiles, polytheists, etc. See, you judge God as merciless and cruel but He has a wisdom and reason we can’t always see right away” (a Hieromonk’s explanation for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami)… to the question of “Why does God allow some children to get raped and others not?” this hieromonk replied with the who can know the Lord’s mind response that is supposed to stop the questions there.
6) Instruction in Trance Induction Techniques
One of the first things taught to us: how to stand completely still, stare at the icons, and say “Lord Have Mercy” in five different languages, sometimes amounting to 120 phrases at a time. Again, “The Way of a Pilgrim” was to be memorized and internalized, to learn how to breathe properly and chant simultaneously. Continuous repetitions during Complines, Matins, and then Liturgy, while staring at the icons, made me go into a kind of half-sleep–still able to listen intently and remember things.
[NOTE: When the monasteries first started, Geronda Ephraim only allowed the Jesus Prayer to be said in Greek. This did result in a bit of protestations from non-Greek monastics (mainly converts) who wanted to say the Prayer in their native language. One novice spoke to Geronda Ephraim personally, who responded, “The Prayer is better in and more powerful in the Greek language. It’s the language of the Holy Spirit, it’s the language the New Testament was written. Also, we’re a Greek monastery mainly for the Greeks so it’s better if they hear the Greek language.” In some monasteries, as years went by, some individuals were blessed to say the Prayer in their native tongues (English or Russian or Romanian, etc.).
Geronda Ephraim’s monastics are also required to focus mainly on the Jesus Prayer during all the church services, in order not to be distracted by the words of the services.].
7) Confession Sessions (a powerful tool to manipulate, blackmail, and emotionally bond you to the priest; a depersonalization or stripping of yourself–submission to the group.)
As explained at left. Confessions would be labeled “good” or “bad”, depending on how much we could come up with and whether we started “weeping”. The priests put each person under an intense “grilling” session, delving into EVERY thought and action.
[NOTE: Confession is a very powerful tool in the monasteries, especially to keep the monastics in line. If one is sinning in a specific way, the Superior many times exposes this action in front of all the other monastics in an attempt to humble and crush the disciple’s ego. Other times, a monastic can be put in the Lity, near the entrance of the Church, where they go on their knees and repeatedly beg everyone for forgiveness, stating their sin or passion, until the last person exits the church. Often, a lay person’s confession will be revealed to the monastics for their spiritual “edification” and also to see how “it’s hell” in the outside world. Though the superior or senior monastic revealing these private, personal stories usually don’t reveal the name, most monastics can figure out who they are talking about. Some monastics will then take this information and speak cryptically to this lay person trying to pass themselves off as some kind of clairvoyant. They won’t say anything outright and feign humility about this “gift” but in the process, this awestruck layperson will also reveal more personal information about his friends and family. This cycle continues until the superior finally catches on, one way or another. It’s embarrassing to witness.
8) Guilt and Fear (Weapons used to maintain group/church loyalty, suppress questions and defections.)
As I have already said, FEAR was the most powerful tool which made us listen to and believe every lie we were told. The Antichrist was ALIVE and about to begin his prophesied ministry; “it was later than we thought”, and unseen demons were constantly around us. The realization of our immense sinfulness (which was never relieved) caused terrible guilt. Some of us were made to feel guilty about going to the bathroom, because our pure guardian angels would have to watch this. Thoughts of going to another church, or none at all, caused immense spontaneous guilt.
[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim would never confirm if the Antichrist was born but he would talk cryptically in ways that would make people think that he was or was soon to be born. He often gives homilies to his monks telling them they’re the monastics of the last days, the last generation, and will be martyred under the Antichrist. When Geronda use to visit Saxonburg in the early 90s, he’d point to children and say, “They’re going to see the Antichrist.”
A monastic, and layperson if possible, is instructed to always find some reason to reproach themselves. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics constantly listen to and read homilies by their Elder. In all his talks, Geronda Ephraim criticizes, insults and reproaches himself. All his monastics believe he is the holiest man in the world, the last great saint of the Orthodox Church. Geronda Ephraim says he sees himself as nothing more than an useless, pathetic, beast not worthy of anything in this world. The monastics are constantly trying to acquire this mindset; not to believe only in lip service but rather to the depths of their entire being.
The Orthodox Patristic texts, as well as Geronda Ephraim, encourage their followers to cultivate an anxiety and fear that they call “Holy”.]
9) Control of Sexuality and Intimacy
In this cult, all sexual desires, normal sex in marriage, and physical love in marriage was “impure” and part of the “fallen flesh.” So it was severely restricted to only certain times during the week and the year. All was to be confessed.
[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim and his priests generally teach their spiritual children to abstain from carnal relations the night before Holy Communion, on Feast Days of the Virgin Mary, during the fasts ordained by the Church (Wednesdays, Fridays, Great Lent, Dormition, Christmas, etc). Essentially, there are over 200 days of the 365 day year where an Orthodox Christian couple must abstain from sex. These numbers don’t factor in the abstinence days when a woman is on her menstrual cycle or pregnant.
On days where sex is allowed, Geronda’s spiritual children are encouraged only to do basic missionary sex, try not to enjoy the carnal passion too much so it doesn’t lead to dirtier things, and avoid contraceptives or the pull-out method. Any act related to oral (felatio, cunnilingus, etc.) or anal (penetration, analingus, etc.) is to be avoided as they are sins that carry heavy penances (i.e. years without communion, etc.). These admonitions are only for married spiritual children as any sexual act outside of marriage (including solo acts such as masturbation) are considered serious sins and punishable under the canons.
Abstaining from sex when a couple stops having children is also encouraged. The monasteries call it “Living like brother and sister.”
10) Excessive Financial Obligations (a form of complete submission to God.)
The only place for tithes and donations was cultic Orthodox churches or monasteries (the one in Dog Canyon never was built.) Later on, in a Russian Abroad Church in Sunnyvale, CA, I was pushed to give my monthly wages to dubious causes, such as the “compound” which was to be built, with greenhouses and all.
[NOTE: Most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries don’t pass around collection plates during the Liturgy, nor do they have fixed prices for Sacraments (i.e. baptism, marriage, etc.). Everything is run on donations and there are various things each monastery does to raise funds on top of whatever art, craft, food, they sell.
Rich benefactors, or potential benefactors, can sometimes be groomed and cultivated into a lifetime helper. It helps if the individual has a sick husband or wife and is desperate for a cure or miracle. If the individual goes into remission or the medication treats whatever (though more emphasis is placed on the blessing with relics than western medicine) one could be looking at a lifetime benefactor who will also bring other rich people to the monasteries. This kind of cultivation isn’t viewed as unethical because the monastery is repaying these individuals spiritually with prayer and offering them the means of salvation which “is worth more than all the money in the world combined.”
RECRUITMENT AND MIND CONTROL (Steve Hassan)
“…’mind control’ may be understood as a SYSTEM of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking, and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity.” (p. 7, Combatting…)
“If deception, hypnosis, and other mind control techniques are used to recruit and control followers, then people’s rights are being infringed upon.” (p.37.)
Note: Steve Hassan’s FOUR COMPONENTS OF MIND CONTROL are best described and connected with the Orthodox cults in the PSEUDO-PROPHET.org webpage. Personal family experiences are briefly recounted below:
1) BEHAVIOR CONTROL (includes control of environment: location, clothing, diet, sleep patterns, jobs, rituals..)
We learned to act like Br. B. and the other cult members. We learned how to fast, to celebrate feasts (on the proper old-Calendar days), how to cut off the outside world and even American holidays. (I LOVE AMERICA!!!–Elizabeth Ann.) We learned how to do all the prayer services; how to cross ourselves with three fingers, properly, at specific times during the day; how to venerate icons. We learned how to speak, dress, etc.
2) THOUGHT CONTROL
Besides the new language, we learned “stop” wicked thoughts, or “blocking” techniques like chanting “Lord Have Mercy,” or the “Jesus Prayer” over and over, louder and louder. My parents and brothers still start to chant and talk “over a conversation”, which is VERY RUDE, if the person they are talking with questions their beliefs. We learned to feel the “unseen battle” and consider ourselves the “Church Militant”, as opposed to the “fallen outside world.”
3) EMOTIONAL CONTROL
Fear reigned supreme. Fear of other people not in the cult (almost the whole world! ), fear of imminent death, fear of the Apocalypse, fear of the living Antichrist, fear of PERSECUTION, fear of demons, fear of the consequences of leaving the cult–or questioning things like the “Holy Fire”. Oh, did I mention that ALL psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists were trained in satanic methods? Fear of the world conspiracies. At one point, my parents were certain that our phones were always “bugged” by the government, because of our foreign friends!!
GUILT. About supposed “bad thoughts” and made-up sins. Confessions.
4) INFORMATION CONTROL
As I describe at right: no worldly newspapers, TV news, non-religious books or magazines; even old friends and family were shunned in case they would “draw us away from the faith.” We never again saw a movie in a theater together as a family (except for ‘Pinocchio’, once). The “Orthodox America” paper gave modern movie reviews, which almost always were negative and demonic. All questions had to be through the “spiritual fathers” or clergy. Rational, critical thinking was abandoned.
THREE STEPS TO GAIN MIND CONTROL
(These are explained on pp. 67 -72 of Steve Hassan’s book, Combatting Mind Control. Here I briefly connect them with my own experience.)
As my family “died” to our “old selves” and old lives, we were broken down physically, mentally, and emotionally. Fasting, sleep deprivation, rigorous prayer schedules, confessions, lectures, and lack of contact with old friends and family did this. We believed our former lives had been ALL evil, wrong, and deluded. We were the most pitiable creatures on earth–spiritually fallen.
We were given our new baptisms, new names, and new identities, with life instructions. More reading material, more lectures, and complete compliance with the behaviors of the cult members were required. We were “re-taught”.
After being completely divested of our old selves and old lives, then “taught” how to live the “truth”, we BECAME the new people. We were now part of the family! Immediately, we were told to form a “mission” church, to bring in more converts (and their checkbooks.)
Well, that is a brief overview of the initial cult experience as it related to our involvement with the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. It didn’t end there.