The Truth about the Holy Mountain and its Monks (Dr Panagiotis Grigoriou, 2001)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Sunday Typos, June 10, 2001. It was written to refute Monk Michael’s accusations. Dr. Gregoriou is a Neurologist-Psychiatrist and director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital.1 In this article, Dr. Gregoriou validates Monk Michael’s claim that there are Hagiorite monks who have mental disorders, see psychiatrists, and take psychiatric drugs. http://www.psyche.gr/lgreekdiasyndpsyttheo.htm

ΝΟΣΟΚΟΜΕΙΟ
Halkidiki General Hospital.

I was motivated to write this article when I read the Monk Michael Hatziantoniou’s interview with the journalist Peter Papavasileios (see the magazine “E” in the Sunday Eleftherotypia, April 22, 2001).

The reason I thought of myself to be a “substantive qualifier” is that I’ve practised psychiatry for 20 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve been the Director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital in whose jurisdiction Mount Athos falls in terms of health coverage.

With my position, I know very well the question under dispute (the use of psychiatric drugs on Mount Athos). Moreover, the fact that I have regularly visited Mount Athos since 1974 (I was then a graduate student at the Medical School of Athens University) permits me to know the people and things of the area quite well.

Ιατρικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών
Medical School of Athens University

Firstly, why did the news use the pompous title with the exclamation that “They Take Psychiatric Drugs on Mount Athos?” For a prudent and impartial reader, it has the same “originality” as “They take antibiotics or antihypertensive or anti-rheumatic medications on Mount Athos.” Psychiatric drugs are also medications that relieve and help the people who need them. I don’t understand why particularly on Mount Athos the mentally ill should not take psychotropic drugs. Is it not a shame to be excluded from the therapeutic means of modern medical science?

Fr. Michael rents his garments: “I cannot bear this situation,” he says. He maintains that anyone can cure their mental symptoms with personal effort. Something that is heard daily amongst the ignorant: “Banish your anxiety, pull the sadness from your soul, throw it out,” etc. Similar views proceed either from ignorance or out of some unconscious fear against mental illness and psychotropic drugs. If such counsels were effective then the existence of our psychiatrists would probably have been unnecessary.

Prozac

Another “scandalous revelation” Fr. Michael makes—that Hagiorites are visiting psychiatrists—pertains to the same spirit! But are we psychiatrists such defiled beings that all sensible and virtuous people must avoid us “so as not to be defiled?” The fact that Hagiorites visit psychiatrists constitutes an occasion of praise, not reproach. If they didn’t visit psychiatrists then they should be accused of medievalism and criminal omission.2

RESPONSIBILITIES

I stress here that the attitude of some religious people—even spiritual fathers—who claim that anyone who lives in God should never resort to psychiatrists or psychotropic drugs is, in every respect, incorrect.3 They believe that psychiatrists wrongly assume responsibilities that belong exclusively to God and the spiritual father. The Hagiorite monks, following the vibrant spiritual tradition, avoid such absolutes. They recognize the difference between mental and spiritual problems. Like all other diseases, they consider mental illnesses result from defects and the corruption of post-Fall man. They do not identify mental illnesses with outside demonic influences. The respect of the Hagiorites towards the proper use of its results is an example of wisdom and ampleness of spirit.

If I understood correctly, Fr. Michael implies amongst his contradictions that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems. He also insinuates that some Hagiorites (I wonder what percentage?) who regretted becoming monks were trapped in the system and because they were prevented from leaving the monastery occasionally they killed themselves or set themselves on fire.4 Then the abbots, in order to deter their escape from Mount Athos, issue them psychotropic drugs to bend their will and make them thoughtless, subservient zombies! Yet, Fr. Michael doesn’t complain that he had such a treatment when he decided to abandon his monastery. Contrary to what one not acquainted with such things might imagine, the way of life on the Holy Mountain is not disease producing but rather psychotherapeutic.

Thic Duc
On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc shocked the world when he burned himself to death in public as a protest against the Vietnamese government, a gesture known as self-immolation.

The reference to famous boxes with mysterious contents is naive at the very least. The monasteries obtain their drugs from pharmacies, usually from Thessaloniki, because they don’t operate a pharmacy on Mount Athos. The medication orders for the needs of 80-100 people (with a large percentage of elderly) for a period of one or two months apparently have some volume and should be packed well in “boxes” to reach their destination safely. Usually, these boxes contain drugs of every kind and a portion of them are psychotropic drugs. Let he who doubts ask any pharmacy serving a population of 2,000 residents and let him learn what the current monthly consumption of psychotropic drugs is and a percentage of all drugs, but also an absolute number inserted in boxes and let him calculate their approximate volume. It should be taken into consideration that a significant portion of these drugs are consumed for the extraordinary needs of the numerous visitors as well as the hundreds of laymen who work on the Mountain.5

DISORDERS

Mount Athos is also entitled to have its mentally ill. It would be very unnatural if they didn’t exist since the percentage of those in the adult population who exhibit mental disorders at any given time has been estimated at around 15% for residents in the Western hemisphere.

Besides, as we know, one does not require a bill of health to become a monk, nor is a monk expelled from his monastery when some serious illness appears.6 Mount Athos is not an unrealistic place, nor does it aspire to present an outward image of an “elite” community, like the “caste” of Eastern religions or Gnostics or whatever else. The Athonite State, Panagia’s Garden, is an open space, social and genuinely human; a struggling society journeying towards God. The sick have their place and even honour in such a community! Where else would the remaining healthy monks show their love, patience and ministry if not to those who are beside them even if they happen to be sick?

Caste system

I cannot tolerate that Fr. Michael—the author of the article—professes the popular unscientific opinions: “Don’t go to the crazy doctor, he will make you completely crazy and you will be stigmatized for life!” Or, “Don’t take psychiatric medicine, they’re narcotics, you’ll become dependent and you’ll be rendered a vegetable!” Such positions need no response, this would be futile.7

As a doctor, my ascertainment is that the mentally ill on Mount Athos are treated more correctly, more scientifically and more effectively than whatever in the outside world.8 The monastic family surround the suffering brother with much care, love and tolerance and spare neither expense nor labor to ensure the best possible treatment and aid.9 He is provided a treatment rarely seen in today’s society, with respect to mental illness, the suffering monk’s soul and his dignity—a treatment that preserves the patient’s self-esteem.10 It should be made clear that in no way is an incompetent person involved in the treatment process. They follow the indication on the medication from the specialist physician, which is prescribed under the responsibility of the rural clinic in Karyes. Also, the administration of drugs and the assessment of the patient’s clinical progress are not made by upstart monks. Most of the monasteries have at least one or more doctor-monks with extensive experience who have impressed me with their scientific competence and awareness.11 The long existing journey of mentally ill Athonite monks is many times better than those who have mental illnesses in the world, where human dignity is trivialized with confinement in psychiatric asylums or the taunts of their fellow villagers.12

The Town of Karye
The Town of Karyes

Fr. Michael’s inappropriate parallelism of Bedouin doped out on hashish and the Athonite monks is an unfortunate verbal exaggeration.13 It might have been worthwhile before the interview was published to have a psychiatrist (of a trusted newspaper) examine the text and question whether Fr. Michael’s allegations have any scientific standing. I am certain that he would have agreed with me that the anti-psychiatry opinions usually belong to uneducated people.14

SCANDAL-MONGERING

Regarding Fr. Michael’s “showcase” allegation, Mount Athos does not claim to be a society of perfect men.15 Moreover, he stresses in the last paragraph of the interview (essentially negating everything previous): “The majority of monks are very nice guys! 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…” If this is the case then what is with all the scandal-mongering throughout the rest of the interview? He did not clarify for us from the start of the interview that he was only speaking about a few exceptions! He allowed us to believe that this is the picture of Mount Athos in general. According to Fr. Michael, what is the real and representative showcase of Mount Athos? The 5-10 likeable mentally ill patients, 5-10 unruly monks and the one monk who set himself on fire? Do we not wrong the 2000 struggling monks who live imperceptibly with ascesis, a pure life and hard work, and are happy and normal?16

We were distressed in seeing the exceptions generalized. The error of one was aggrandized and expressed while the virtue of the many was hushed up. The Hagiorites know this and it is natural and imperative for them to take precautions. We accuse them of hypocrisy because they protect themselves? What family would voluntarily surrender the proclamation of their son or daughter’s deviation to public vilification and shaming? By protecting the reputation of the person who erred, as well as the family’s reputation, from the sneer of the voracious publicity, we hope to heal the wounds. Otherwise, “the last error becomes worse than the first.” Mount Athos is a community of true love where the erring sinners are neither ostracized nor pilloried or stoned.17 They are consoled and covered as suffering brothers and they are “economized” with sympathy and spiritual treatment so they are induced to “repentance and come to salvation.”

Elder Makarios

Fr. Michael’s interview saddened me. He light-heartedly accuses holy people—humble and obscure to the general public—but accomplished in the heart of whoever knew those who apparently “raised themselves as charismatic figures” to captivate souls! It is a shame for a monk to offer his brothers and fathers as victims to the Moloch of publicity in exchange for the silver pieces and the honorary title of “debunker” and “whistle-blower” who apparently tells everything out right. The monastic life starts out with promises of obedience, humility, and devotion to the brotherhood. Self-projection and self-complacency are not included in these promises. In searching for the deeper “why”, I would say that Fr. Michael’s position against the Holy Mountain, in a psychodynamic interpretation, serves as a personal apology.18

Finally, I want to reassure and cheer up those who were perhaps troubled by reading the publication of “E”. No! The Mountain is not a “concentration camp,” nor some “mental hospital” for dissidents.19 The Kassandres and those appearing as benevolent dirge singers have no place here!20 Mount Athos did not lose the “rota”, it is not sinking! The Holy Mountain continues to sail correctly as it has for centuries. For over a thousand years, the rowers stand vigilant night and day at their oar. The Captain—the Lady of the Mount—holds the steering wheel firmly and the compass firmly shows God’s Kingdom. It is not shipwrecked and it collects castaways!

AthosMap
The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks.

NOTES:

  1. A google search of Dr. Grigoriou’s name in Greek only produces results in connection to this article. There is no photo, articles or a record of him anywhere in Greece other than in relation to this article. Other doctors with the same name do not have the same credentials as listed here. There is a Dr. Panagiotis Dimitrios Grigoriou in the UK, GMC # 7015533. His primary medical qualification is listed as Ptychio Iatrikes 2006 National Capodistrian University of Athens and he is obviously not the same person as the author of this article.
  2. According to the contemporary spiritual fathers of Greece, all neuroses stem from the guilt of unconfessed sins. The monastery is a hospital where the sick go to be healed. However, if daily confession and revelation of thoughts, combined with frequent Holy Communion and the Jesus Prayer isn’t helping the monk, will a psychiatrist be able to help the individual monk more than his own spiritual father? Hierotheos Vlachos writes, “Orthodoxy is mainly a therapeutic science and treatment. It differs clearly from other psychiatric methods, because it is not anthropocentric and because it does not do its work with human methods, but with the help and energy of divine grace, essentially through the synergy of divine and human volition… I know that the term `psychotherapy’ is almost modern and is used by many psychiatrists to indicate the method which they follow for curing neurotics. But since many psychiatrists do not know the Church’s teaching or do not wish to apply it, and since their anthropology is very different from the anthropology and soteriology of the Fathers, in using the term `psychotherapy’, I have not made use of their views. It would have been very easy at some points to set out their views, some of which agree with the teaching of the Fathers and others of which are in conflict with it, and to make the necessary comments, but I did not wish to do that. I thought that it would be better to follow the teaching of the Church through the Fathers without mingling them together. Therefore I have prefixed the word `Orthodox’ to the word `Psychotherapy’ (healing of the soul), to make the title “Orthodox Psychotherapy”. It could also have been formulated as “Orthodox Therapeutic Treatment”.(Orthodox Psychotherapy, Introduction)
  3. Most contemporary spiritual fathers are not against their spiritual children going to psychiatrists and, in certain cases, taking psychotropics. See http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/11/elder-epiphanios-theodoropoulos-on_11.html However, some spiritual fathers do not agree with monastics seeing psychiatrists or taking psychotropic drugs.
  4. It is amazing that Dr. Grigoriou, with all his experience, is unaware of the vast amount of research in his field on the subject of blind obedience, authoritarianism, cult-like mentalities, and the emotional and psychological abuse that exist in such oppressive atmospheres. Evidence shows that these things lead to neuroses, PTSD, and various other mental illnesses. Studies on the emotional and psychological effects of confinement and feeling trapped are also in abundance.
  5. Dr. Grigoriou does not clarify if these medications are administered to laymen by monastics that are licensed professionals, or if these professionals have up-to-date training.
  6. This statement is not true, at least for the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. There are numerous stories in circulation about the numerous monastics Geronda Ephraim sent packing on Mount Athos. The reasons ranged from not doing obedience, causing to many scandals, becoming a danger to themselves or others, homosexual incidents, or just so deluded that something really bad could have happened if they were allowed to stay. Geronda Ephraim has also sent a number of novices home from Arizona for various issues. As for prerequisites, homosexuals are generally not allowed to become monks. Geronda Ephraim has said it’s like inviting the devil into your monastery, and without going into specifics, he has hinted at the damage such men have caused in monasteries on Mount Athos. Also, people with mental illnesses are gently discouraged from becoming monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries and are usually told it would be better for them to remain and struggle in the world.
  7. Monk Michael did not say those things in his interview. Perhaps Dr. Grigoriou heard read them in some of his other writings?
  8. As a layman who visits the monasteries and witnesses the front stage behavior—without actually living in a monastery or being a monk and witnessing the back stage behavior—Dr. Grigoriou is not in a position to make such a catch all statement. Monastics who make statements like this usually have a PR agenda.
  9. Sick monks—either physically or mentally—have all had their own experiences of neglect from their brother monastics. One who has to stay in his cell may be forgotten and not have meals brought to him, or the person who tends to them may get caught up in another obedience and not show up to help, etc, in some cases remaining in a dirty diaper for a day or so before his monk-attendant comes to change his diaper and bathe him. A monastic suffering from some ailment may not be able to go to a doctor for a long period of time due to whatever circumstances, thus prolonging the suffering. At other times, the Geronda may say do patience and one has to endure. Again, one may have been given specific instructions for recovery and the Geronda will cut it short, saying it’s not necessary, you’re fine and you have to work, now go.
  10. Again, Dr. Grigoriou is trying to paint an unrealistic utopia experience for ailing monks. Fr. Makarios of St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ is a perfect example of how this is not always true. After he received his head injury and remained in a somewhat vegetative state, it put a strain on the brotherhood. Some of the younger monks giggled and mocked some of his newly acquired idiosyncrasies, especially during the services when he would stand up abruptly and say insensible things or pass wind in church throughout the night. Initially, Geronda said, “What use is he now? He has the mind of a baby,” and wanted to send him home. However, he did not send him away because he felt obliged to keep him (Fr. Makarios’ father is a priest who helps out at Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries). Of course, there was economia given to him due to his mental incapacitation but not all his brother monks had patience and understanding towards him. The reality in a monastery is once you start losing your usefulness you are made to feel like a burden. Woe unto those who get old and have nothing to contribute to the monastery; even more so if they need to take other monastics from more useful jobs to help them in their daily routine.
  11. In many of the monasteries, the doctor monastics do not keep up-to-date with their training. Thus, many times one finds a doctor with an outdated degree. Of course, the basics don’t change much but would you trust going to a doctor who graduated from university in say 1990, never had a practice, and has not kept up-to-date on his training or the new breakthroughs in science and medicine nor had his license renewed?
  12. Again, this is a far stretch of a statement. A perfect example would be the monasteries here in North America where fat-shaming is quite common among the monastics. The following information is not written to center anyone out or further fat shame individuals, but to point out that these things happen in the monasteries just as they do in the world. Furthermore, there is a complex link between obesity and mental illness and fat shaming is a method of stigmatizing. In the beginning, Fr. Germanos was constantly the brunt of jokes and taunts about his weight (both to his face and behind his back). In the mid-90’s, when Fr. Germanos was visiting Archangels Monastery in Texas, Geronda Dositheos walked up to him and said, “Do you know what we use to do to fat kids in school?” and he bumped his stomach into Fr. Germanos’ stomach. Also in the mid-late 90s, while Fr. Germanos was looking for property in New York, Geronda Ephraim gave many homilies to the Fathers in Arizona. In a couple of homilies, he’d joke about Fr. Germanos with his cheeks puffed, arms outstretched indicating fat, and wobble his body back and forth. All the Fathers would break out in laughter at this display. Though Fr. Germanos was not present for these homilies, he’d hear his brothers laughing and mocking him years later when these cassettes were digitalized and all the monasteries were given the DVDs. Another time, Fr. Germanos had forgot to erase his data from the treadmill they bought for the monastery. Fr. Kassianos, Fr. Michael and Fr. Kosmas had to move it from the living room up to the attic to make room for pilgrims and read the data which included his weight. These monks then joked about it and revealed to the other fathers, including Geronda, how much Fr. Germanos weighed. As time went on, stress-eating and high dessert diets increased in the other monasteries and the other superiors and second-in-commands also started to increase in weight and size; many hitting the 300lb + mark. As the other monastics’ weights increased, the teasing of Fr. Germanos decreased. Once, when the subject of how much weight all the abbots have been gaining came up, Fr. Germanos said jokingly, “It’s because you all judged me.” Taunts and shaming exist in the monasteries and neither the physically deformed, the handicapped or mentally ill are spared. Of course, those who become offended are given this explanation, “We do it out of love, not malice.” But in what universe can this be considered monastic, let alone Christian conduct? Sarcasm, contempt and mockery are not indications of brotherly love nor the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  13. It’s not a far stretch. For example, when Fr. Gergory was a hieromonk at St. Anthony’s Monastery, he drank skullcap, St. John’s Wort, and various other nerve relaxant teas around the clock. And he walked around like he was zoned out and doped up. Other monastics that have a blessing for sleeping pills or herbal remedies to help them sleep also have similar demeanors. The monastics who have a blessing to take Lorazepam for anxiety attacks, panic or stress also have similar doped out demeanors. However, the monastics who take antihistamines with pseudoephedrine are a little more alert and tweaked out (though in some monasteries the use of allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine is no longer blessed. This is because some monastics were abusing the medicine and taking it even when they had no allergy symptoms).
  14. Dr. Grigoriou opens his article with his credentials, familiarity with Mount Athos and the fact that there are Hagiorite monks on psychotropic drugs. These things, he states, make him a “substantive qualifier” to address Monk Michael’s interview. Now, Dr. Grigoriou suggests any psychiatrist is quite capable of analyzing the subject. Someone in Dr. Grigoriou’s position must be aware that many Greek psychiatrists are atheists and have biases and predispositions against Christianity, especially the monastic life.
  15. The deeper issue is when the showcase and external image of a monastery become more important than the individual monastics. How often does the showcase image lead to harm (either of a monastic or a laymen)? To what lengths will a monastery go—lying, perjury, gaslighting, cover-ups—what illegal activities will it commit, to ensure that its image remains spotless? And how do these methods damage individuals?
  16. This is a classic example of monastic minimization of serious issues. Not to mention, Dr. Grigoriou is actually stigmatizing the mentally ill by indirectly calling them “abnormal,” when he states that the other monks are “happy and normal.”
  17. Ostracizing does occur in monasteries. This usually happens when a monastic is not doing obedience or toeing the line. Many times, the superior may instruct the members of the brotherhood to ignore this individual, do not talk to him/her, walk away if this individual tries talking to you, etc. Ostracizing also occurs when one is punished in the Lity or given only rusks or one piece of fruit for a meal while everyone else has a full meal. Ostracizing erring monastics is suggested as an instructional technique by St. Basil the Great, St. John of the Ladder and many other Church Fathers.
  18. This resembles a spiritual father’s reproach to his spiritual child; the wording is attempted to instill guilt. The author is playing the Judas card; a classic amongst the Elders. A similar tactic was used in the HOCNA circles when former monastics started revealing the homosexual abuses perpetrated by their Geronda, Fr. Panteleimon Metropoulos. Ad hominen and straw man attacks and arguments were used against the former monastics that were sexually abused and raped. Gaslighting and dismissing them as deluded liars and Judas traitors was a common tactic used. In the last century, similar methods were used in other Orthodox scandal stories against the accusers/ whistle-blowers. In many of these situations, it eventually came to light that the accused were guilty and they ended up in prison or defrocked.
  19. The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks. (See Ralph H. Brewster, The 6,000 Beards of Athos, 1935, p. 26). Up to early 1900s, Ammouliani was a dependency of Vatopedi Monasteryof Mount Athos. In 1925, the island was given in the refugees’ families who had come from islands of Propontis (Marmaras Sea), after Asia Minor Disaster. The population of the island was developed quickly and today the island has over 500 residents. Nowadays Ammouliani is a touristic place with frequent transportation with the opposite coast.
  20. The Cassandra metaphor(variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’) occurs when valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others. In 1963, psychologist Melanie Klein provided an interpretation of Cassandra as representing the human moral conscience whose main task is to issue warnings. Cassandra as moral conscience, “predicts ill to come and warns that punishment will follow and grief arise.” Cassandra’s need to point out moral infringements and subsequent social consequences is driven by what Klein calls “the destructive influences of the cruel super-ego,” which is represented in the Greek myth by the god Apollo, Cassandra’s overlord and persecutor. Klein’s use of the metaphor centers on the moral nature of certain predictions, which tends to evoke in others “a refusal to believe what at the same time they know to be true, and expresses the universal tendency toward denial, [with] denial being a potent defence against persecutory anxiety and guilt.” (See Klein, M., Envy and Gratitude- And Other Works 1946–1963)
  • Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]
    Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]
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