NOTE: The following article, entitled They Take Psychotropic Drugs on Mount Athos, is a Free Press (ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΟΤΥΠΙΑ) Sunday insert magazine “E” (Έψιλον), Issue 524, 22/4/2001. Peter Papavasiliou interviews Monk Michael Haztiantoniou who lived as a monk in the Sinai desert for 11 years (1988-1998) and Mount Athos for 14 years (1973-1988).
After 14 years in Simonopetra Monastery, the Athonite monk raised his voice in protest about what is happening in the Athonite state. Today, Monk Michael lives alone in hesychia in the mountains of Corinth, in a cell allocated to him by some pious people. He writes his books from this cell. He has published 12 books so far and many of his accusations can be found recorded in them; he denounces “things and wonders” about the Athonite republic from homosexuality to heavy psychotropic drug addiction! http://aretimaurogianni2.blogspot.gr/2013/06/blog-post_6872.html
PP: Do the abbots in the monasteries of Mount Athos display authoritarian behavior?
MM: When they first appeared, these abbots [NOTE: Author is referring to the disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast] projected themselves as charismatic personalities who had somehow received the mission from God to create a new model of monasticism.1 So, for many people these personalities were expressing hopes and dreams. They endeavoured, they created and built brotherhoods, monasteries, and were very actively involved. However, what all this activity has produced is significant. I can mention a conversation we had with Geronda Paisios on this subject. The basic question that disturbed me was: ‘Why my generation of monks, though they manifested refinement, culture, and sensitiveness—very positive signs for Geronda Paisios—did not yield spiritual fruitfulness?
PP: Do the abbots use special methods to persuade or to render all the monks conformable?’2
“I think that many Geronta Abbots started out differently and ended up otherwise. It was entirely different when the brotherhood numbered 6 to 7 monks and different when the same Geronda had more monks. In the beginning they organized it patristically and monastically. They had found a tradition on Mount Athos. Later, however, as the brotherhood grew, they started to ‘militarize’ it and treat it like a camp.”3
“Consistency and order had to be kept and a new element appeared which was crucial to the mentality of this organization: the showcase. They were extremely cautious in how they expressed themselves, regardless of how we lived and the things we said amongst ourselves. How will we appear? How will our showcase not be ‘scratched’? How can we ensure that our problems will not be heard about in Thessaloniki?”4
“I was present at the Assembly debate when some Abbot telephoned and said an Iveritis monk (i.e. a monk from Iveron Monastery) was found dead in Thessaloniki. This dead monk was a homosexual and had relations with two Romanians. It didn’t particularly trouble us because such incidents could occur in a large number of monks. But the Abbot whom it offended requested the Holy Community5 publish a paper which would state that this monk had no relationship with the Holy Mountain even though the victim was an Athonite monk for decades.”
“The Holy Community then discussed the matter and said: ‘How could we say this? Anyone would be able to prove us wrong since he hasn’t been erased from the Monastery…He is a canonical Hagiorite.’ This problem shows that many Gerondas today have transferred their interest to the showcase.”
PP: What are the problems behind the showcase? In your books you maintain that a fraction of monks take heavy psychotropic drugs, even by the Abbot’s orders.6
MM: This was also a very great and sad realization for me. It was a painful decision to start disclosing and writing about these things. I did it after 25 years in monasticism though my realizations had occurred many years ago. After publishing certain books that mentioned psychiatric drugs, many monks came forward and assured me that what I write is very mild compared to the realities that are in force on Mount Athos.
PP: You mentioned in one of your books that a pharmacist from Thessaloniki, who was spiritually connected with some monastery on Mount Athos, was put in a difficult position when an Abbot requested boxes of heavy psychotropic drugs from him.7
MM: We say that this monastery is the chief representative of ‘noetic’ prayer (i.e. the continuous repetition of the phrase, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ which leads to illumination); meaning it represents whatever is the most spiritual at this time to dispose Orthodoxy towards contemporary issues.
PP: Which monastery are you referring to, Fr. Michael? In what monastery did this incident with the two boxes of psychiatric drugs occur?
MM: The incident concerns Filotheou Monastery and Geronda Ephraim is the abbot who wanted the psychotropic drugs.8
PP: One can contradict that half of Greece takes psychiatric drugs, anxiolytics, or whatever else.
MM: I do not tolerate this situation. I wish everyone could improve their psychological and spiritual condition with effort and balance their everyday life. But even more, I cannot tolerate this (i.e. taking psychiatric drugs) from the people who came to occupy themselves with a higher way of life, consequently to overcome their human elements and weaknesses and acquire what we call the angelic life.
PP: Namely, the sober, meek and bland lifestyle of many monks on Mount Athos is due to the influence of milligrams of sedatives?
MM: I’ll make a comparison with the Bedouin when I lived in Sinai for 11 years. I was responsible for some hermitages many kilometers away and I watched them basking in the sun with a wonderful smile because they used hashish. They called them ‘sacred plants’ there. They used hashish in their daily lives like tomatoes. They, too, were very meek, mild, smiling and sweet. Consequently, external behaviors and conduct do not suffice for me.9
PP: Let’s return to the Holy Mountain. You’ve written in your books that the abbot, in order to exert psychosomatic control, imposes “reactionary” monks and those who doubt his words every night to take a strong dose of sedative every night. Is this true?
MM: This isn’t a canona that you described, but it does happen. I asked a monk who made a pilgrimage to Sinai, ‘How did you take a psychotropic drug for the first time?’ He answered me, ‘The epitropos (i.e. the epitropos is the abbot’s replacement) put a bottle on the table and told me, ‘You will take one pill in the morning and one in the evening. Geronda sends this and you must drink it …’ As the young monk told me, that night he did ‘obedience’ and drank the medicine. I asked this monk what percentage of the monastery took psychiatric drugs. He replied, ‘A very large percentage of the monks.’
PP: The young monk spoke to you about large percentages of monks taking psychotropic drugs. Was he referring to his monastery or the Athonite monasteries in general?
MM: He spoke to me about his monastery. Of course, I never imagined that psychiatric drugs would find an application in such a large scale. There was a doctor who had continued in Karyes and had taken it upon himself to arrange the pharmacy in a monastery. He had seen the boxes of psychiatric drugs. Later, this doctor decided to become a monk.
PP: Even after seeing the boxes of psychiatric drugs?
MM: Yes indeed. He even became a monk at this monastery where he arranged the pharmacy.
PP: Which monastery?
MM: It is a famous monastery which has over 50 monks in its ranks.”
PP: Can you be more specific?
MM: No, because I think it becomes more personal empathy. Namely, I know these monks. They will say that Michael attacked us personally. I do not want to but if, for some reason, the Community of Mount Athos invites me, then I will speak about the details. I can speak about these things there. I don’t want to become too specific or, perhaps, the time hasn’t come yet … However, the responsibility for these things is transferred to the Abbot and 2-3 persons of his entourage who impose. There is some responsibility and I would even say legal responsibility. One enters a monastery without taking psychotropic drugs and then after 10 or 15 years he starts taking them—and this in a large percentage. Well, then, if our community was healthy, they would not have tolerated this so simply and mildly.
PP: Are there such incidents of people entering Mount Athos healthy and coming out addicted to soothing substances and sedatives?
MM: Yes, this happens quite a lot … (quietly and with a sense of shame). Recently, I spoke with a former Athonite monk who told me: ‘I want to find a channel to speak. They tested 30 psychotropic drugs on me. I lived simply and naturally for 15 years. How did I get on the list to become a guinea pig?’
PP: Did you ever see them moving boxes (i.e. of psychotropics) on Mount Athos during the years you lived there as a monk?
MM: No, I didn’t know about these things. I saw the boxes but didn’t know what they contained exactly.
PP: You thought that they were simple drugs…
MM: Yes. For example, a monk had sent me once to buy medicine when I was out. He had given me a list. At the pharmacy, the pharmacist looked me over well and good.
PP: At the pharmacy in Thessaloniki?
MM: Yes. He asked me, ‘Who do you want these drugs for?’ I told him that I wanted them for a monk. He told me, ‘Father, did you know that these drugs are very heavy and we do not dispense them without a prescription?’ Then I thought they didn’t have the drugs I sought and went to another pharmacy where they told me exactly the same things. When I asked what these drugs were that no one could give me, the pharmacist answered, ‘My Father, I cannot give you these drugs without a prescription and without knowing who they are intended because they are very heavy psychotropics.’ Well, I was very irritated with the monk who sent me.
PP: In other conversations, Fr. Michael, you have revealed to me that many Athonite monks frequently visit a psychiatrist. Is this a fact?
MM: The first is in Thessaloniki. He does therapeutic exercise. He knows the mindset of the monks very well and is very familiar with them. Many monks go to him and they always start talking about the uncreated light (i.e., the indication of the Holy Spirit’s presence that surrounds spiritual monks with brightness) and noetic prayer.”
PP: Does this psychiatrist visit Mount Athos as a family physician?
MM: Yes, he also practises on Mount Athos but the monks visit him in Thessaloniki for more comprehensive treatment. There was an incident where a monk jumped from his balcony and they pulled him out there at a seaside monastery. Fortunately, the monk lived…
PP: As long as the incident is in the past, can we disclose it?
MM: And yet it never became known.
PP: In what monastery did this suicide attempt occur?
MM: Firstly, that boat as sailed … However, some specific questions preoccupy me: 1) Why would a monk not be able to leave from a place where he reached a dead end?—because we’re talking about authoritarianism. 2) If a monk attempted suicide, does the abbot have the right to keep him close by his side? I don’t think so. We know that we all became monks to claim a right, to give rest to our little hearts, to satisfy a spiritual longing, a thirst we have in life. How did these children reach such a tragic point and how did it not become an issue?
PP: Are there many suicide attempts on Mount Athos?10
MM: I know of an incident where a monk had set himself on fire.11
PP: What year was that?
MM: It occurred in 1994 approximately.
PP: Did this happen in a monastery or skete?
MM: In a monastery. Things are much milder in the sketes.”
PP: Who is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in Panagia’s Garden?
MM: Two sides are responsible (i.e. he means the abbots and the monks). However, I think the head is implicated more since he is able to sanitize the emergent. For the emergent comes and is delivered to him with an almost absolute confidence. I would like to see cases of some healthy personalities, open-minded, free, to operate without complex, oppression, etc. We have not seen this yet…
PP: The matter of psychotropic drugs has never been raised to the assembly of the Holy Community?
MM: From what I know, no.”
PP: Only the issue of homosexual relations was raised when and if an outbreak occurred.
MM: Many epidemic cases—indeed, some time ago, an old Athonite monk called me UFO and he expected me to be shrewd. There were cliques in Karyes, or in whatever cell, where we met famous monks and they waited for when I would leave so they could manifest more freely. I treated them all so naturally that I confused them. And so one monk asked me, ‘Well, do you not understand anything about what is happening?’ And he continued in the same tone: ‘Did such and such a monk never suspect you? Let me tell you that there is a cassette which has recorded conversations.’ I answered: ‘But I was friends with him for so many years. When did these things happen?’ And he answered: ‘That is why I call you UFO.’ Yes, homosexual issues have been raised at the Assembly, but I no longer believe in this institution to speak honestly, frankly, at a cost. For many years, decades, I saw that the showcase is their priority and I can also say at some point their economy became their priority. Not an economy in ecclesiastical terms, but rather a ‘practical’ economy, namely, the covering up of everything.
Fr. Michael, do you want to compliment/supplement something?
MM: I would like to emphasize that the children today on Mount Athos (i.e. he means the monks) are very good kids. The love, they look at you with clean eyes. I speak for the majority because there are certainly a very small number of monks who have a pure heart. We said the heads share a large portion of the responsibility…
- Monk Michael is referring mainly to the disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast—Elders Ephraim, Haralambos and Joseph—who took charge of 6 of the 20 main monasteries on Mount Athos in the 60s and 70s.
- In the 60s and 70s, many of the Athonite monks had issue with what they viewed as young upstarts (i.e. Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s disciples) starting a new brand of monasticism. Furthermore, many of the Athonite Fathers believed Elder Joseph and his synodia were deluded. Some of the more vocal Athonite opponents of Geronda Ephraim were St. Paisios the Athonite, St. Porphyrios the the Kapsokalyvite, Monk Moses the Athonite, and Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron (then Abbot of the Stavronikita).
- Some of Geronda Ephraim’s former monastics—both in Greece and North America—have remarked that the structure and atmosphere in the monastery was very oppressive and like a boot camp. Some have expressed that it was like a prison camp without the physical torture but rather with lots of psychological and emotional abuse.
- This “showcase” mentality still prevails in Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries. One of the main obediences for all his monastics is: “At all costs, do not scandalize the lay people. I do not want to hear complaints from pilgrims. No matter what, always show a good representation of monasticism to the pilgrims.” This is called “front stage” behaviour; i.e. this is the behaviour they want pilgrims to see, however, it does not represent in actuality the truth of what goes on behind closed doors—“backstage behaviour.” When a pilgrim witnesses an action unbecoming of a monastic, or expresses being scandalized due to something a monastic has done or said, then there will be some very serious consequences for that monastic individual. Sometimes this can also include a serious yelling rebuke in front of the scandalized victim to shame and humiliate the monk and appease the pilgrim. No doubt the entire brotherhood/sisterhood will be summoned for a homily where this monastic will be centered out, rebuked and humiliated. This is also done as a warning to the other monastics and to instill fear. Furthermore, the individual monastic will end up in the Lity at the end of the church services confessing their sin and begging every individual leaving for forgiveness.
- Athos is governed by the “Holy Community” (Ιερά Κοινότητα – Iera Koinotita) which consists of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries, having as executive committee the four-membered “Holy Administration” (Ιερά Επιστασία – Iera Epistasia), with the Protos (Πρώτος) being its head. Civil authorities are represented by the Civil Governor, appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose main duty is to supervise the function of the institutions and the public order. The current Civil Governor is Aristos Kasmiroglou.
- In St. Anthony’s Monastery, one of the monks was on anti-depressants before he entered the monastery and out of economia, Geronda Ephraim allowed him to continue. There have been unsubstantiated rumors of other monastics on psychiatric drugs, too. A monk at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY) entered the monastery taking Ritalin for his ADHD. Geronda Joseph made him stop his prescription immediately and he hasn’t taken any prescriptions for his condition since. There is a blessing for abbots/abbesses, and their second-in-commands to take things like Lorazepam (or other anxiolytics) when they suffer from severe anxiety or panic attacks—something which is frequent in their line of work. As well, on numerous occasions, Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery in Roscoe, NY, has given homilies about psychiatric and emotional problems being a direct result of a disciple’s disobedience. In these homilies, he has mentioned the fact that many Hagiorites who had been monastics for 15-25 years are suffering from mental illness as a fruit of all the disobediences they had committed. It was unknown if Fr. Germanos was also referring to himself and his own experiences, something the Athonite Fathers do many times when giving cautionary homilies.
- Many of Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries have a Greek Orthodox doctor, who is also devoted pilgrim. In some cases, a monastery may also have a monastic who is a doctor. In the early days, many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics did not have any medical insurance. Usually the superior and second-in-command would have private insurance. The monasteries bypassed expensive medical costs by having the loyal and obedient doctor write prescriptions for all their monastics without insurance in the names of those who had insurance. Also, these doctors would also put aside all the free medical samples they received from pharmaceutical companies (if they were medicines the monastics used) and “donate” them to the monasteries. Thus, most monasteries have a large medicine cabinet full of antibiotics, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs, psychotropic drugs (low doses which are said to be useful for pain), muscle relaxants, prescription pain killers, etc.
- Interestingly, Geronda Joseph (Ioannis) Voutsas, abbot of St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, is from Thessaloniki. He was also a pharmacist and earned his degree at the University of Thessaloniki.
- Though the main emphasis in Geronda Ephraim’s monastery is blind obedience and the Jesus Prayer, external behaviour and conduct also has a very serious importance. Essentially, ‘fake it until you make it.’
- Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Monastery, Rosoce, NY, has stated in homilies that there is a high suicide rate on Mount Athos. The Gerontikon and Synaxarion are filled with many cautionary tales about monastics who have become deluded or fallen into such despair that they attempted suicide. There are also many cautionary tales about those monastics who succeeded in killing themselves.
- To understand the psychology behind why people commit suicide via self-immolation, see: http://news.discovery.com/history/religion/self-immolation-the-macabre-mystery-140127.htm