Behind the Glass Wall: Losing our Son to a Fr. Ephraim-Led Monastery (John & Jo Ann Pantanizopoulos)

*Questions for the Church
*How the Monastary shows Characteristics of a Cult
*What is healthy monasticism in the USA?
*Update (October 1999)
When Niko was five years old, we decided he needed swimming lessons. At that time, we thought the best gifts parents could give was to teach their children to love reading, to learn a musical instrument to lift their spirits and enrich their lives, and to learn how to swim. The first two gifts would fill their inner souls; staying afloat would save their lives. When the YMCA offered tadpole classes, we enrolled our sweet-natured blonde son. During the lesson, parents could watch from a large glass window in a room looking down on the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Sometimes I took a book to read, but didn’t get far because I was always looking to see if Niko had made it across the pool holding onto the styrofoam float.
After being able to kick across holding onto the float, the instructor made the children swim to the float-always holding the float just inches from their finger tips. The instructor had her hands full one day as she led two swimmers across the pool teasing them by placing the float just inches from their strokes. As I glanced up from my book, I suddenly saw Niko sink under the water as the instructor was lifting up her second charge. In panic, I leapt to my feet and banged on the window to alert someone to save my son from drowning. I couldn’t speak or scream; they couldn’t hear me down there. Would I have had time to run downstairs, find the door to the showers and the pool? Could I break the glass so my screams could be heard? With my voice frozen, I could only beat on the glass and watch him struggling under water until the instructor glanced up at my thumping and then over to Niko. She lifted his arm, his head rose above the water, and on he swam.
Niko is now 21 years old and a Greek Orthodox monk who goes by the name of Father Theologos. His father and I continue beating on the glass to save him, but no one has heard us. We feel our son, at a time in his life in which he was dealing with a transition from teen years to adulthood and with the sorrow of having an older sister diagnosed with a serious illness when he was 16, was unduly influenced to enter the monastic life since the age of 16. Our son is not alone. In the same year our son left, two other young people (ages 18 and 21) from our parish church in Knoxville, Tennessee entered a convent in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania and St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona. Never were we included in assisting our son in making such a monumental decision. Niko told us in April and left in May 1996. We are concerned for many reasons that these monastic communities founded by Fr. Ephraim are part of a growing cult, a dark and confusing corner of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, a misdirected type of monasticism.
* Niko is the only son of four children, a brother to three sisters. He made us laugh with his impressions, his wry sense of humor, his sensitivity to others, and his kindness. When he first told us he was becoming a monk, I cried telling him that he would lose his wonderful sense of humor. “No, I won’t, Mama. I’ll be the funny monk!” But there is no place in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries for humor or of seeing the funny quirks in life. Laughter is the result of the devil, Niko now tells us.
* Our son left home in May 1996 to stay a few weeks at a convent led by Fr. Carellas in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania before his trip to Arizona. We spoke on the phone several times and each time, Niko told us that the departure date had changed because he needed to be at the monastery at the same time as Ephraim. Each time he changed his departure date, he had to pay a $50 fine to the airlines. When I told him that the cost was adding up and asked him would he jump off a cliff if Fr. Ephraim asked him, he replied seriously, “Yes, of course I would!”
* After only one year and nine months as a novice, Niko was suddenly tonsured as a monk on April 30, 1998. Normally, three years from the time such young people enter the monastery first as novices, they take their vows and become monks. When we asked our son when he would know he was ready to take his vows to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. When we responded with, “Won’t God tell you?” he told us that he is unworthy to speak to God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.
* When we tried to contrast Niko’s isolation from the world to the life of Jesus who embraced the world by working with people in preaching, healing, and showing compassion, just as Mother Teresa has done, Niko responded with “that (Mother Teresa’s work) was just social work. Jesus had his calling; I have mine.”
* We encouraged Niko to consider becoming a priest instead of a monk and to use his talents working with people. We told him we would pay for his education at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, the only Greek Orthodox seminary in North America. He refused saying that Frs. Carellas and Ephraim said that the seminary was full of satan.
* After our interview with a reporter was published in The National Herald (Ethnikos Kyrix), a Greek language newspaper published in New York, we received many phone calls from distraught parents and friends of novices in Fr. Ephraim’s communities. We urged them to write letters and speak out, but they are fearful of going public with their family sorrows.
* Secrecy is paramount when a young man or woman leaves to enter a monastery or convent. Our son was told by Fr. Carellas to tell no one except his immediate family, and that only one month before he left our home. Niko left without telling his best friend, his aunts, uncles, grandmothers, even our current parish priest. The excuse was that if he told people, they might try to talk him out of becoming a monk, and then the devil would win.
* Fr. Ephraim has been known to have fought the devil who knocked on his door disguised as a goat. This goat attacked him, but the monk physically fought him off!
* Novice nuns have been known to wash this monk’s feet and drink the wash water because they and his followers think the man is a saint. He does nothing to discourage this sentiment.
* Fr. Ephraim has predicted that the world will end in 60 years.
* Fr. Ephraim was forced out of Canada because of the same recruiting tactics he is getting away with in the U.S.
* Divided families, divorces, and marital disharmony are the results of this monk’s teachings. We know that he has encouraged married couples to refrain from sexual intercourse and to live as brother and sister.
* Since entry into the monastery, our son has suffered from GERD, gastro-esophageal reflux disease. Before entry, Niko was never sick and had never suffered any stomach ailments. The novices are told that suffering is good and makes an individual a stronger Orthodox Christian. When he was in high school, he was the star dancer in our parish’s Greek Festival. The other dancers called him “Air Niko,” and he told us that he lived for Greek dancing. Now he keeps his eyes down rarely looking at us directly. He is a very thin, bowed 21 year-old young man.
* Following numerous letters (with responses few and far between) to bishops, the Archbishop, and the Patriarch, we finally were able to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew twice during his recent U.S. tour, once in October (1997) in Atlanta and once at the monastery in November (1997) in the presence of our son and several bishops. We asked that Niko be allowed to go home so we could have him checked by our family doctor. They all agreed it was acceptable; however, Niko later told us it was only a suggestion, not a command. Niko said that unless Ephraim told him to go, he would not leave the monastery. He would ignore the Patriarch’s suggestion.
* Niko does not ask about his family, his sisters, his cousins, his grandmothers. To do so, he says, is to ask about the world which he shuns. He refused to return home for his oldest sister’s wedding. He refused to listen to his 13 year-old sister’s song she wrote and sang for him on an audio tape, because music was from the devil. Christmases, Easters, and other holidays come and go each year without a phone call or a thank you note for the packages we send him. His letters to us have virtually stopped.
* A “spiritual elitism” surrounds the followers of Ephraim. Even in our parish church, a group of his followers defend him, saying “he has the power of discernment.” When I, Niko’s mother, stood up at our parish’s general assembly asking for some support in investigating this anomaly of losing three young people from our church to Fr. Ephraim’s monasticism, I was ridiculed and attacked by several of his ardent followers, told to mind my own business, and be glad my son was becoming a monk.
* St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona is a brand new community in the desert, built of only the best materials. During our November 1997 visit that coincided with the Patriarch’s visit, we overheard one man say that it was indeed “more like a Hilton resort, than a monastery.” Our son told us that as soon as it is complete, it will become a convent, and the monks will move on to build yet another monastery, perhaps in New York. During our November visit to the monastery, we spoke with a member of the Patriarch’s entourage. When we told him why we were there, he said that he understood our concerns: “this spiritual dependence is totally unnecessary and is getting out of hand. Someone needs to get a hold of this situation and provide a solution to it.” The same member, who is also a priest, said that he and his wife were uncomfortable that their own son, who was with them that day, could come this close to such an unhealthy environment.
We ask these questions we hope someone will be able to answer:
* Who is funding Fr. Ephraim’s movements?
* What is the charity Fr. Ephraim’s monks perform?
* Under whose supervision do his activities fall?
* What are the names of the novices and monks in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries and how do their families feel about their sons or daughters being in them?
* How many other families are suffering as we are?
* Does the Greek Orthodox Church have any procedures in place to assist individuals in looking at monasticism in a balanced way?
* What regulations, if any, govern these activities?
* Are any statistics available on the spread of Greek Orthodox monasticism in
the U.S.?
* What is “healthy” monasticism in the USA in contrast with Fr. Ephraim’s communities?
* Is the goal of the present Greek Orthodox Church leadership to divide families or to unite them by any possible means?
Note: We have asked the church these questions, but we have received no answers. We have been patient long enough in dealing with the Church’s hierarchy and speaking out publicly to get our son out of a psychologically abusive and spiritually dependent environment. We feel as if we have had a death in our family without a funeral. We miss our son! Although the church has gained one monk (our son), the remaining five members of our family have become estranged from the church.
Here are just a few of the characteristics of a cult, and they all match what we’ve seen and what we’ve read from our son’s letters:
** Control of the environment of their recruits.
In this monastery, recruits are physically separated from the society. Any books, movies or testimonies of ex-members of the group are to be avoided. We have asked our son to talk to a former nun; he has refused. Like cults, the novices and monks follow a rigid routine of sleep deprivation, limited diet, work, and controlled reading. Niko’s young sister wrote a song and recorded it on a tape. When we tried to play it for him during our visit with him, Niko said he was not allowed to hear music, even a simple song his sister wrote from her heart and recorded on an audio cassette.
** Demand for purity
In this monastery, the world is depicted as black and white with little room for making personal decisions based on a trained conscience. People and organizations are pictured as either good or evil, depending on their relationship to the ideology of the group. We asked our son if he knew that Mother Teresa had died. He told us she was a Catholic, a heretic, and her good works were just “social work.” When we reminded him that Jesus also did this type of “social work” with the people, Niko told us again that we were “talking idly.” He also said that “Jesus had his calling. I have mine.”
** Confession
In this monastery, serious sins are to be confessed immediately. Becoming a monk would be the result of regular confessions. From these confessions, Fr. Ephraim determines when Niko or any novice will be ready to become a monk. Information derived from the confession is used to make the novice feel powerless, more guilty, fearful and ultimately in need of the monastery and the leader’s goodness. This confession can be used to get the novice to re-write his or her personal history so as to reject the past life, making it seem illogical for the novice to want to return to his or her former life of family and friends.
** Sacred Science
In this monastery, the ideology is too “sacred” to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. In the eyes of the monks and novices, Fr. Ephraim appears as the absolute truth with no contradictions. When we asked our son how he would know he was ready to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. We asked, “Why doesn’t God tell you this?” He replied that he was not worthy to speak with God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy to have a dialogue with God. Upon a visit to the convent in Saxonburg, PA, Fr. Ephraim told our 13-year old daughter and other children present that the world would end in 60 years. How convenient that Fr. Ephraim won’t be around in 60 years, and will not be confronted for his false prophecy!
* Mystical Manipulation
In this monastery, novices have come to believe that they are actually “choosing” this life. If outsiders, even his parents, say Niko has been brainwashed or tricked, he repeats “I have chosen this voluntarily.” This statement was made even in the presence of the Patriarch and other Bishops in November 1997 at the Monastery of St. Anthony. Novices and monks thrive on this myth of voluntarism, insisting time and again that no member is being held against his or her will. Recruits are told that God is ever-present in the workings of the organization. If a person leaves for any reason, he/she is told that accidents or ill-will may befall them and that is attributed always to God’s punishment on them. We have a former nun’s testimony on this.
* Loading the Language
In this monastery, there is frequent use of “thought-terminating cliches,” expressions or words that are designed to end the conversation or controversy. Our son, when asked a difficult question for him to answer, will end the conversation with the statement “This is idle talk.” When we asked our son why he came to the monastery, he said it was God’s will.
* Doctrine over Person
In this monastery, the person is only valuable insomuch as he/she conforms to the role models of the cult (or monastery). Personal history and experiences are ignored. During our visit or phone calls, Niko never asks about friends, relatives, his sisters, or our lives. Only the lives and experiences of monks are true for him. Accomplishments of former monks are repeated to these novices, although none of their fantastic (monastic) experiences can be verified. For example, Niko and his sister were  awestruck from the story told them at the convent in Saxonburg about Fr. Ephraim’s fight with Satan who appeared at his cell door in the form of a goat!
* Dispensing of Existence
In this monastery, they decide who has the right to exist and who does not. The leaders decide which books are accurate and which are biased. Families are cut off. Niko has not written to us since December 1998. In December 1997, he wrote us a note that he would not come home as advised by the Patriarch during our meeting with the Patriarch in November 1997. We wanted Niko to be cared for by our physician for his GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). Our son said that only if Fr. Ephraim blesses his visit home would he have followed the Patriarch’s suggestion. We have written letters, called him on the phone, and visited him several times but always when we initiated the communication. All of these characteristics describe and document the similarities between monasteries administered by Fr. Ephraim and cults as they are known and defined by experts.In closing, we have come to the conclusion that people in the Church’s hierarchy will not do anything to save our son from the hands of such monastics. They appear to fall under no one’s jurisdiction or regulation. However, as soon as Fr. Ephraim’s type of monasticism is classified as a CULT in this country, we may then be able to save our son. Remember most cults are defined as a splinter of “first generation religions.” We hope this classification will be recognized by the Greek Orthodox clergy and laity as well as the media soon. Young people in transition and facing big decisions about life, such as college, career, and choice of spouse, etc., are easy targets for cult recruiters. Our main issues here are that our son was too young (only 18 years old when he entered the monastery), he was indoctrinated beginning at age 16 by our former parish priest who never involved us in the process, our son had no theological education and is presently not in good health. He never suffered from any illness before. The Greek Orthodox Church has no specific guidelines for proselytizing potential novices.We love our son very, very much, and we will continue to beat on the glass wall to save our son from drowning in a cult led by this monk.
**What is healthy monasticism in the USA?
In our opinion, monastics should have a good theological education, be of a mature age, and should make their choice after careful counseling with their priest and their family. Individuals that best fit the mold of monks should be the clergy. Such individuals have already made this choice to follow Christ’s footsteps and have the theological background needed. Monasteries should be the place for one to retreat from the world for a short period of time to meditate, pray, and discuss religion with others (i.e. in the form of a sabbatical from their everyday life) and then return to the world refreshed. Was this not Christ’s way? The expenditures for building such monasteries should be the responsibility of the Church (Patriarchate) and be run by the Church. Under no condition should a monastery be run by individuals such as the elder Ephraim. Such spiritual dependence at any level can only be cultic with disastrous results.

Geronda Ephraim as a young priest.
Geronda Ephraim as a young priest.
Fr. Demetrios Carellas and Saxonburg nun.
Fr. Demetrios Carellas and Saxonburg nun.

Update
Our son became a monk in April 1998, one year and nine months after entering the St. Anthony’s Monastery as a novice when he was 18 years old. At the age of 20, he became Pater Theologos. In his short note to us, he said even he was surprised when he discovered that he was to take his vows on that day. Since that note, we have received only one other short note to us. Then, in the summer of 1999, we accidentally read on the internet a Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1999, “Monks Turn Farm Into Monastery.” The reporter mentioned two monks: Frs. Akakios and Theologos. Wondering if our son could actually be in another monastery, we called the monastery and heard the voice on the answering machine. We knew it was our son Niko. We later sent him a birthday card and called again, leaving a message on the monastery answering machine. Still no letter, no phone call. Since then, we have discovered that Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Harvard, Illinois (northwest of Chicago) recently held a fund-raising banquet with about 600 attending paying $50 for a chicken dinner. A visitor told us that a tall thin young monk wearing glasses was there. He was not introduced and did not speak with any of the attendees. Our son, the one who told us so many times he lived to dance the Greek hasapiko and Kalamatiano is now the quiet monk isolating himself in obedience to the monk Ephraim.

https://web.archive.org/web/19991128190837/http://www.angelfire.com/bc/orthodoxsurvivors/cubehindglass.html

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