Recently I have had conversations with people who have been to the monasteries of Father Ephraim. I also have received one novice here who departed from one of his monasteries.
There are two teachings reported, which trouble me the most–one is about marriage and the other about the so-called “Aerial toll houses.”
“Aerial toll houses”?
Supposedly upon death, the souls of believers must pass through demonic tollhouses. According to this doctrine souls are tried and judged by demons. If the demons find more bad works than good works, or find some sin that has not been confessed to the Geronda and received his prayer of forgiveness–they are taken immediately to hell. This includes even the souls of the faithful who had acquired the Holy Spirit in this life and lived truly Christian lives.
This fable is based on an old Bogomil (Gnostic) tale, which teaches that the Geronda has excess merits with which he can pay the toll of his faithful disciples as they pass through the “Aerial toll-houses.” It seems that, based upon this Gnostic fable, some monastic leaders have taken to twisting and re-interpreting words of actual fathers of the Church and prayers of the Church–so that they appear to support this audacious claim of special spiritual power (i.e. an unscriptural and gross tale as the Gnostic “Aerial toll-house” fable).
The “Aerial toll-house” myth gives the Gerondas the power of supererogatory merits and leaves people guilty of sins–“which they did not know were sins or, which they forgot to confess to the Geronda and receive his forgiveness for.” Such sins, we are told, will cause the demons of the “Aerial toll houses” to seize a soul on its way to heaven and take it screaming to hell.
Surely this is a dangerous form of cultism.
Our press has produced three books refuting this tale:
“The Soul, The Body and Death”
“The Tale of Basil the New: Study of a Gnostic Document”
“The Aerial Toll-Houses: The Neo-Gnosticism of Seraphim Rose”
Synaxis Press, P.O. Box 689, Lynden, WA. 98264
[Note: Father Seraphim Rose’s monastery was instrumental in bringing the Holy Order of MANS, a purported “cult,” into the Greek Orthodox Church under the name of “Christ the Savior Brotherhood.”]
Marriage is “dirty”?
Men tell me that they went to a Father Ephraim monastery expecting to hear about the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, but instead heard that marriage is “dirty.”
It might be meaningful to know exactly what the Ephraimites are teaching about normal heterosexual relationships in marriage. By every report I have received, they are claiming that sexual relations within marriage is sinful and dirty and that even a newly wed couple should sleep in separate bedrooms–unless they are planning to procreate. Also, that even under such an arrangement a married couple must be careful not to take any pleasure in their sexual encounter.
We also know of at least one Geronda who insists that husbands telephone him and ask for a blessing to have sexual relations with their wives. I understand that Father Ephraim insists that a married couple must abstain from Holy Communion for a forty-day “purification” period after they have had sexual relations.
Marriage is difficult enough to sustain in our current times without such condemnation of heterosexuality and lawful relations within marriage. This matter is of great concern to us.
Brothers and sisters, before we begin our usual question and answer time, I want to say something, first, about the meaning of “geronta” [elder; starets]. Sadly, in our day, perhaps more in North America than in Greece, but even in Greece, there has developed a new guru cult concept of “gerontes.” Alas, this cultish idea is actually cultivated by many self-styled and even acknowledged “elders.” Gerontes or elders, many of them self-appointed and self advertised, others acknowledged by monastic establishments, have begun to act and be looked upon like the Hindu gurus, and this may be linked in part to the all-encompassing New Age Movement. In English, we call this a “cult.” It means that people have begun to have a “proskynisis” [worship] for the “geronta,” that comes parlously close to idolatry, but often even passes over the border into real idolatry. This is a great danger for us in our time. One frequently encounters people who say with complete conviction, “my salvation depends on Father so and so, my geronta.” Such people often even forget about Jesus Christ, because they place their hope only in some human being, and begin to make excessive and emotional claims for that person – and some of these “gerontas” make some astonishing claims for themselves, cultivating the emotional insecurities and fears, as well as the superstitions and delusions, of some of their more emotional followers. Those among them who should be easily recognized as charlatans or deluded and in plani (prelest), attempt to control and manipulate their followers and victims by interjecting into the sanctified and privileged realm of marital relations. They use confession as a tool for control, as a means of crippling people and making them dependent followers. They sometimes even ruin marriages and cause divorces by placing unscriptural and Gnostic restraints upon marital relations. Instead of counselling moderation and warning against “exotic” practices which lead to addictions, they seek to place guilt on married people for their normal and healthy heterosexual relations. This is not done in the interest of purity or salvation, but in the interest of control, in the interest of crippling people and undermining their ability to function as whole and rational Christians. This is part, and perhaps the worst part, of the violations and corruptions of the eldership which are so much a part of the general corruption and decay in the Orthodox Church today.
Nevertheless, the office of geronta or elder is an important and firmly established aspect of our Orthodox Christian life. It is very good to have somebody who has experience and knowledge that we can talk to and seek guidance from. The true “geronta,” the true elder, like a trained physician, helps lead us to the healing grace of the Holy Spirit, comforting us, correcting us and strengthening us in our struggle. On the other hand, some people develop not only a superstition about the “geronta,” but a crippling dependency on him, which a true and divinely inspired elder would never, ever permit. The truth is, a true geronta will teach us and impart knowledge to us but, then, he expects us to have knowledge and attain understanding. When a parent, whether father or mother, is raising a child, they try to educate the child and hope that, in the end, he or she will know more than the parent does, will be wiser and better educated and perhaps even more pious than they. We always hope that our children will surpass us in anything that is good and positive. The same thing has to apply to a true geronta: he will want you to know as much as he knows and, if possible, to excel him. The idea is to guide you toward knowledge and understanding, not to cripple you and make you dependent upon him, as some neurotic parents do with their children. Your salvation will never, ever depend on some human elder or guru. It will always depend only on our Lord Jesus Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. A true geronta does not focus your faith on him, but focuses our faith on our Lord Jesus Christ, encouraging us to learn and to know, to understand and to grow. Blind faith is no faith, especially when it is faith in a human being.
When we serve the Divine Liturgy, before we pronounce the epiklisis, in which we call upon the Holy Spirit to change the bread to the Body of Christ, we pray that God will send down the Holy Spirit upon all of us. If we pray that the Holy Spirit comes upon all of us at this most sacred and holy moment, it means that the fullness of the “Ekklisia,” [the Church] is the whole synaxis of the people of God and not only those who are standing inside the altar. It means that we are all worshipping and praying together and we all receive the Holy Spirit together.
Why and how have we become so cripple and feeble over the years that the people have forgotten that everybody, the “laos,” as well as the clergy and hierarchy, are responsible for the faith, and we have left everything pertaining to faith and worship to the clergy, and surrendered so much of our personal our personal responsibilities to both gerontas and would be gerontas. To be sure, many people will go to war with the clergy and hierarchs over money and real estate and privileges, but few will take them to task over matters of the faith itself, and those things which pertains to our salvation and the integrity of the gospel. People either became so indifference or so dependent, or so “comfortable” and desensitized that when the clergy went off the path, the people forgot that, they are supposed to push them back onto the path. Sometimes, as with our old calendarist brethren, people, saw that hierarchs and clergy went off the path, but they themselves are also ignorant about the faith that instead of pushing the clergy back onto the path, they pushed others off the path, in a different direction and became a scandal themselves.
My point in all this is that we are never called upon to surrender our role and responsibilities – neither to the hierarchy nor to the gerontas. Our obligation is not to become emotional and spiritual cripples, but knowledgable and rational sheep in the flock of Jesus Christ, able to defend the faith and able to ascend to true understanding. We are all called upon to move to purification through the struggle for a clear and pure conscience, one that can stand without reproach before the judgment of the Son of God.
We have here a quandary in that we must never think that we know more than we do know but neither should we be satisfied with knowing only what we now know, nor should we think that we are incapable of knowing all that we should know, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The “job,” the duty of the true geronta is not to know more than the people know and consider the people to be ignorant dependents but to make sure that the people learn and know all that is necessary for them, land even more than he knows, if possible. Even if we know all of the holy fathers so that we could quote every word by memory, if we have the knowledge only in our head, it means nothing. We have to have knowledge and understanding in our hearts. People become very arrogant because they know Orthodoxy in their mind, but they do not have Orthodoxy of the heart. This is absolutely necessary for us. If we have Orthodoxy in the heart, then we hold the faith in peace and with love; we do not become fanatical, and we do not become hard and arrogant. On the other hand, neither do we participate in any betrayal of Orthodoxy, because we truly and clearly realize that any betrayal of Orthodoxy is a betrayal of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we have to be very careful that we examine whoever is supposed to be a “geronta” and make sure that we do not trust somebody who tries to emotionally cripple us and make us dependent on him. But, I have to say the same thing about hierarchs. It is also not a good hierarch who tries to cripple you and make you dependent upon him. It is one thing to be a leader, it’s quite another thing to be a dictator. The bishop is called upon to be the shepherd of sheep, but the shepherd sometimes, leads the sheep for slaughter. So first of all, the bishop is supposed to be the shepherd and not a dictator, but he not supposed to be leading us to the slaughter, but leading us into the pasture so that we can be nourished by the food of God’s Word. The pasture is not just the words written in the Holy Bible, and not just the words of the holy fathers, but the spirit of the Scripture and of the holy fathers. We must, therefore, be diligent in our time, first of all, that we do not become arrogant and think we know everything, and, on the other hand, that we do not become crippled and dependent upon our teachers and would be teachers. We must seek some reasonable balance.
Now I will ask for questions, and in particular questions about the matters we have touched upon this evening.
Several months ago, the Greek-American newspaper, The National Herald, reported that the Synod of American Greek Orthodox bishops had expressed concern about Father Ephraim, and his followers. This former Athonite (Mt. Athos) monk has established some 16 monasteries in the United States since about 1989.
He is also known as Elder Ephraim. The news article stated in part : “It has been said that some sort of fundamentalist movement with a cult philosophy has been advocated by the followers of Ephraim, and is having an impact among the clergy and theology students at Holy Cross School of Theology.” After that article, I urged, in a letter-to-the-editor, that there be an investigation. To my knowledge, there has not been any inquiry, nor has been any further news reporting on the subject.
When the new Metropolitan (Bishop) of the New Jersey diocese took office this spring, it was reported reliably that at his first meeting with the clergy, he announced that Ephraim and his followers were not welcome in the diocese and that the faithful should go to their own priests for confession. This diocese includes some 50 churches in five states. There has been no further confirmation or a denial of the Metropolitan’s statement. In the absence of any denials, one can assume there is some validity to the reports about the Synod’s concern and about the Metropolitan’s directive.
There was also the warning earlier this year from another bishop, Metropolitan Methodios of Boston. He was quoted by the Herald as saying: “Neither is there a place in Orthodoxy for radical fundamentalism, religious fanaticism or cult leaders disguised as Orthodox sages.” “Was he talking about the Ephraim situation? If not, who was he referring to?
Are these accidental words: fundamentalist and cult? Did the bishops wake up one fine day and decide to use them?
In a similar vein, in 1998, Metropolitan Isaiah of the Denver diocese issued a protocol to his priests titled: “The Lord Does Not Want Slaves in His Kingdom”. He wrote in part:
“This spirit of blind obedience with the deadening of the free will is unfortunately being practiced among some of our people and even by some of our clergy. They will not do anything without first receiving a ‘blessing’ from their ‘spiritual father’. And if they have been convinced that the spiritual father is a walking saint, they will eat his unfinished food after the common meal and even consume other things which may have touched the spiritual father in some particular way. This is nothing more than idolatry. It puts God aside and constitutes the worship of His creature.”
He went on to say that: “It may be that some of our people, by following the monastic rule in the outside world, feel convinced that they are becoming more spiritual. However, they are sadly mistaken: for the monastic, as a novice, is willingly obedient in order to determine if he wishes to live the life of a monastic. Once he is accepted as a monk, he must resume the use of his free will in conforming to the way of life which he has chosen. The laity, on the other hand, cannot use the monastery or the spiritual elder as one uses a horoscope, not functioning unless they receive permission.”
He concluded with: “If there are members of the Diocese who have fallen into the error of negating their free will and being totally dependent on what their spiritual mentor instructs them to do, let them know that God does not want slaves in His Kingdom, but obedient children who constantly exercise their free will as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.”
Apparently he received some criticism, for he later wrote wrote: “I am totally surprised that certain persons misinterpreted the encyclical and thought that I was criticizing our Orthodox monastics and specifically one or two of our Orthodox elders…I was clearly referring only to those followers who relax or negate their free wills.”
During the administration of Archbishop Spyridon, in a November 1998 article in the Herald, the well-known reporter-commentator, Theodore Kalmoukos, wrote:
“Fr. Ephraim who came to America under nefarious circumstances in the early 90’s first joined the Russian synod in exile after receiving a ‘directive’ from God as he proclaimed at the time. However, when he was threatened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate that he would be defrocked, he received another ‘directive’ from God and abandoned the Russians. Ephraim has established a string of monasteries in America and, through intense confessional activity, has created many personal loyalties.”
“Fr. Ephraim has significant influence in the administration of the Archdiocese. The current Chancellor, Fr. George Passias, happens to be one of Ephraim’s most loyal followers. Ephraim is also admired by the new President of the Theological School, Archimandrite Damaskinos Ganas, who, according to sources, wants to invite Fr. Ephraim to hear confessions from students.”
Do the bishops define the situation as being an issue between them and the Ephraimites only? It would appear so based on a decision at the September 2002 meeting of the Synod. According to the press release from the Archdiocese, it was decided that the committees of the Synod would be combined with the committees of the Archdiocesan Council, “to provide for more input by members of the Council as well as to facilitate the implementation of decisions that are made in basic areas of the life of the Church.” But, the release went on to say that this would not apply to the committee on Monasticism. That apparently would be the bishop’s domain. It can also be noted that the currently disputed charter of the Archdiocese, “granted” by the Patriarch in 2003, includes authority for the supervision of the monasteries by the bishops.
One of the complaints voiced by some clergy and laity is that the Ephraimite confessors have focused on sexual matters. A member of a group visiting an Ephraimite monastery reported that the monk-confessor had a lengthy list of questions, most of them of a sexual nature, and gave severe penances even to married couples, with the penances being longer for the wives. In the evening, the men and women were separated to hear different speakers. The one who addressed the women berated them about being sinful, as women, and that their only virtue was in bearing children. If true, is this an example of the “fundamentalism” that has been referred to? In view of what has been learned these past two years about the clergy abuse problem , particularly in the Catholic church, the monks’ pre-occupation with sexual matters could indeed be seen as a form of sexual misconduct.
Is the concern about Ephraim and his monasteries a territorial or “turf” battle, as well as one of sacramental rights? Do the parish clergy and bishops feel that the monks are developing a following among the faithful and that a kind of encroachment is taking place? If the New Jersey announcement is accurate, it would appear so. It is also ironic that the Ephraim monasteries do not appear to have money problems, while the Greek archdiocese does, and at any given time, parishes are without priests.
At the 2000 Clergy-Laity Congress, Metropolitan Anthony of the San Francisco diocese responded to concerns expressed about Ephraim by saying he was chairing a committee of the synod that was looking into the matter. If there has been a report by this committee, it has not been shared with the faithful.
Archbishop Spyridon apparently tried to define the respective roles at a retreat for clergy in March of 1998, held at the Ephraimite monastery in Florence, Arizona. It was for the clergy of the San Francisco diocese, according to the archdiocese press release, and Metropolitan Anthony and 58 priests were present. The theme was the “relationship of monasteries to the local bishop and to the local parish”. The release said that the priests had “lengthy open dialogues” with the Archbishop, and that he stressed the value of all three orders in the Church, clergy, laity and monasticism. He was quoted as saying:
“Spiritual therapy is indeed the primary role of Monasticism. It is precisely this role that renders Monasticism friendly and, so to say, popular, at certain levels of the Church, because it does not elevate Monasticism above the other orders in the Church.” Just what was meant by spiritual therapy was not explained. One can hope that confession-by-list and the group sessions mentioned above would not be examples of such “therapy”. In any case, the current atmosphere would suggest that perhaps, in some circles, monasticism is being elevated above the other orders of the church. Have the Ephraimites not “kept their proper place”?
A message that appeared on the Internet in 1999 may provide a clue or two. It was apparently from an Orthodox priest in Arizona, and said, in part:
“My situation has progressed with the mission group here and there is new pressure on me to be in a more ‘regular’ situation. Let me explain. There are about a dozen convert families here who float between all the ‘ethnic’ churches because they are zealous for traditional spirituality and get impatient with either the closed minded ethnic dominance or a ‘modernized’ and enemic version of Orthodoxy. So these people spend a lot of time at Fr. Ephraim’s monastery in Florence and take seriously the advice of their spiritual fathers there. They have committed themselves to starting a new mission parish that is traditional, not dominated by one ‘ethnic’ flavor, doesn’t have the old world parish politics, has services every day, does outreach to young people, helps bring new converts deeper into the church, etc., etc. They are withdrawing from the Greek, Antiochian, OCA and ROCOR churches to begin this new mission, and are doing it under the guidance of the monks at the monastery.”
(Note: OCA is the Orthodox Church in America, and ROCOR stands for Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, two other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States).
While the charter mentioned above calls for monastery oversight by the respective diocesan bishops, Ephraim’s accountability is not clear. Who is his superior? Does he report to another elder on Mt. Athos? To Patriarch Bartholomew? To Archbishop Demetrios? Or to one of the American Metropolitans, depending on which monastery he’s visiting? Does he have any accountability to the Greek-American Orthodox faithful, as he moves about the country “in this world, but not of this world”, as the definition of a monastic goes?
There is a wide spectrum of feelings about Ephraim, among both clergy and laity. On the extremes, some view him as God’s gift to Orthodox spirituality in America, while others see him as a cult leader who should return to Mt. Athos.
One thing is apparent: an explanation from the American bishops about the Ephraim situation is long overdue. It should not be treated as a taboo subject any longer.