The Tragedy of an Untreated Alcoholic Monk (St. Paisios the Athonite)

NOTE: Unfortunately, in some of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, there are monastics who have substance abuse issues. There are not a few former alcoholics and drug addicts in the ranks of the monasteries. However, there is also the phenomenon of monastics who like wine too much. These monastics can go unnoticed for awhile if they don’t confess their sin. However, sometimes another monastic who sits beside them will inform the superior, other times the superior will notice. In the early years of St. Anthony’s Monastery, there was a short-lived trend of monks who would eat an overabundance of artoklasia soaked with wine, “because it had to be finished.” For some of the monks, this was an excuse that validated eating enough wine-soaked artoklasia to get drunk. Other monks felt that they were doing their duty of brotherly love and helping the ekklesiastikoi finish the bowl. Some monastics have been outright banned from drinking wine on Sundays, Feast Days, etc. Other monastics have been permitted to drink only a 1/4 cup on special occasions. In some monasteries, wine is not served to the monastics except on big Feast Days, and sometimes then, not even. There is also the other issue of hard liquor in the monasteries. Some pilgrims bring Metaxa, and other types of booze as donations to the monasteries. This can also present temptation for monastics. Some superiors have at least one glass a wine daily for reasons of “health benefits.”

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Once on Mount Athos there was a monk who lived in Karyes. He drank and got drunk every day and was the cause of scandal to the pilgrims. Eventually he died and this relieved some of the faithful who went on to tell Elder Paisios that they were delighted that this huge problem was finally solved.

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Father Paisios answered them that he knew about the death of the monk, after seeing the entire battalion of angels who came to collect his soul. The pilgrims were amazed and some protested and tried to explain to the Elder of whom they were talking about, thinking that the Elder did not understand.

Elder Paisios explained to them: “This particular monk was born in Asia Minor, shortly before the destruction by the Turks when they gathered all the boys. So as not to take him from their parents, they would take him with them to the reaping, and so he wouldn’t cry, they just put raki* into his milk in order for him to sleep. Therefore he grew up as an alcoholic. There he found an elder and said to him that he was an alcoholic. The elder told him to do prostrations and prayers every night and beg the Panagia to help him to reduce by one the glasses he drank.

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After a year he managed with struggle and repentance to make the 20 glasses he drank into 19 glasses. The struggle continued over the years and he reached 2-3 glasses, with which he would still get drunk.”

The world for years saw an alcoholic monk who scandalized the pilgrims, but God saw a fighter who fought a long struggle to reduce his passion.

Without knowing what each one is trying to do what he wants to do, what right do we have to judge his effort?

* Raki is a Turkish unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic drink that is popular in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Serbia, and other Balkan countries as an apéritif.

Dr George Tsantalis with father Filaretos at Mount Athos

NOTE: The following is an analysis of the above story from Orthodoxy and Recovery, A blog about the direct connection between the spirituality of Orthodox Christianity and recovery from alcoholism, drug abuse, and other addictions.

Anyone who has dealt with alcoholics knows what happened here.  Basically, the monk was left as many are in the modern Church to ‘fend for himself’ when it came to his alcoholism.  You can hardly imagine in the Desert Fathers a monk being permitted to continue drinking with only his prayers to rely on.

Just for clarification, I want to make a few points:

  • Elder Paisios does not condemn the alcoholic monk.
  • He reports that the monk’s suffering in life, with no one really helping him, was met at death by God’s own army coming to bring him to heaven.  This type of ‘psychopomp’ is generally reserved for saints and ascetics, since they have repented.  In this case, the monk received the help he did not receive from men.
  • The deterioration in the monk’s condition, whereby at the end he was getting drunk with only two or three drinks, is common with end-stage alcoholism.  Over time, as the alcoholic’s body gives out, his tolerance diminishes.  He clearly drank himself to death.
  • The monk’s elder apparently had no idea what to do with him, and so simply put him in his icon corner and waited for a miracle.
  • Elder Paisios describes the physical allergy aspect of alcoholism in describing his exposure at a young age.
  • Give the time frame of the story (referencing the massacres of Greeks in Turkey in the 1920s), this monk’s experience of Mount Athos was during the ‘idiorrhythmic’ period ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Athos#Ottoman_era) when the monks lived separate lives and the common life of monasteries had not yet been reestablished.  This lasted until the 1970’s, when the renewal efforts began and the monasteries reestablished communal life.  From the Wikipedia article: “After reaching a low point of just 1,145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1,610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. In 2009, the population stood at nearly 2000.[3]

This tragic story ends on a positive note: even the alcoholic who received no help with his disease can count on God’s mercy in the end if he desires it.  However, it also portrays how many in the Church have handled the disease of alcoholism: judgment without help.  To be fair, most ‘normies’ either inside or outside the Church have no idea how to help addicts.  Yet, the Church has always had the tools necessary to treat addiction through ascetic struggle, like what we see in the 12 Steps.

 St Paisios the Athonite

Yes, the Steps are an ascetic struggle.  Don’t be fooled.  Most people are more willing to go on a diet rather than do the Steps.  Food is easy to give up when it comes up against being honest with one’s self.  Shallow and careless people can diet, but they certainly won’t take the actions the Steps demand.

If the Holy Mountain had been a healthier place (as it is now), undoubtedly this monk would not have been permitted to go so long without any help.  Mind you, there are still plenty of Orthodox who do not understand the Tradition well enough stop themselves from demanding the alcoholic ‘try harder’ to quit.

But, in my experience of talking to Orthodox monastics, when we discuss the matter of addiction and how the Steps work, they enthusiastically agree that what they do in their monasteries is essentially the same process.  The rejuvenation of monasticism is actually happening throughout the Church in recent years, and with this renewal (Mt. Athos is now harder to get into than Harvard) will come more opportunities for people to have the benefit of proper assistance in battling addiction.

Nowhere (other than the US and Canada) in the Orthodox world have we seen monasticism embrace the 12 Steps more enthusiastically than in Romania.  Patriarch Daniel has led the Holy Synod of Romania to embrace the 12 Steps (c.f. http://www.ortodoxantidrog.ro/en/start.html) and work towards integrating the program into seminary education curricula.  Floyd Frantz (http://www.ocmc.org/missionaries/missionary_profile.aspx?MissionaryId=4&PageTitle=Recent+Articles&SearchBy=2011) has reported that the monasteries are especially excited about the Steps and getting AA into the villages.

Hopefully, fewer alcoholics in the Church will be left to struggle without help from the rest of us.

http://orthodoxyandrecovery.blogspot.ca/2012/03/tragedy-of-untreated-alcoholic-monk.html

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