Two Troubling Teachings Reported (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo)

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.

NOTE: While Lazar was a deacon in ROCOR, he was ordered by the Synod of Bishops to stop lecturing in parishes on the subject of toll-houses. In 1981, he was ordained to the priesthood by a bishop outside of ROCOR which eventually led to his excommunication. For the next 20 years he aligned himself with a number of schismatic churches and defrocked clergymen. In 2002 he sought reception into the OCA and was received as a retired bishop by oikonomia with the title Archbishop of Ottawa. 

Toll-houses have been a point of contention and controversy primarily in the orthodox churches of the United States and Canada. At one time, there was a joke among the Athonite monks, “We should move to Canada because there aren’t any toll-houses there.” Apparently Metropolitan Sotirios forbade toll-house teachings in his churches and monasteries.

The writings around toll-houses aren’t the only ones in Orthodoxy that have been accused of and proven to be of Gnostic origin. Most modern-day theologians recognize these things. However, this is totally in line with the Orthodox tradition of “Christianizing” the pagan and gnostic elements that couldn’t be uprooted from the cultures that converted.

A more traditional teaching of aerial toll-houses in the orthodox church can be found here. When one studies the Patristic teachings about the toll-houses, they will find that the visions and experiences are all quite different from one another. However, since the toll-house teaching is not an official dogma of the church, contradictions and major differences in visions and experiences are irrelevant; the most important thing, according to the monastics, is the essence as well as the belief that they are real.

April 1, 2000

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.

Geronda Ephraim in his early years.
Geronda Ephraim in his early years.

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 toll-houses. 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.

Death of Saint Theodora and visions of spiritual trials. Russian hand-made lubok (late 1800's)
Death of Saint Theodora and visions of spiritual trials. Russian hand-made lubok (late 1800’s)

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 Bogomils in Macedonia.
The Bogomils in Macedonia.

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.”]

Father Paul (Dr. Earl W. Blighton), founder of the Order of MANS.
Father Paul (Dr. Earl W. Blighton), founder of the Order of MANS.

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.

[NOTE: In general, couples who go to confession at Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are encouraged not to have sexual relations if not for the purpose of procreation. There are also the ecclesiastical fasting requirements where couples are not allowed to have sex the night before receiving communion, fast days, etc.

Vaginal penetration between a heterosexual couple married in the Orthodox Church is the only sex allowed for Geronda Ephraim’s spiritual children; this is also backed up by the canons which have severe penances for masturbation, oral and anal sex.

Couples who have finished having children are encouraged to live as brother and sister–this could mean sleeping in separate rooms or beds–in order to focus on the spiritual life. Having sexual relations without the purpose of having children is considered no different than fornication by some spiritual fathers.

Also, when people ask about sex positions, they’re generally told to keep it missionary as other methods could lead or incite one to perform acts that aren’t ordained by the church.

The belief in toll-houses is part of the reason why the spiritual fathers under Geronda Ephraim probe deep for details when asking individuals about carnal sins, especially the female pilgrims; i.e. if they performed oral, did they swallow, etc.? Geronda’s confessors feel that if the sinner confesses every detail, they won’t experience some of the difficulties Theodora did during her ascent through the toll-houses. Thus, it is their obligation before God to ask the proper questions. However, many pilgrims have felt acutely uncomfortable with what seems a perverted invasion of their innermost actions.

The other reason for such detailed and ultra-personal questions is the belief in the monasteries that most of the “worldly” priests in America are clueless about orthodox spirituality, how to confess properly, how to give appropriate penances, etc. So, the spiritual fathers treat pilgrims who are confessing at the monastery for the first time as essentially unconfessed, even if they’ve been going to exomologesis in a parish for years. The only time this doesn’t happen is if the visiting pilgrim is already a spiritual child of one of Geronda Ephraim’s hieromonks or one of his devotee parish priests out in the world].

Fr. Seraphim Rose
Fr. Seraphim Rose
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, censing an icon of Fr. Seraphim (Rose)
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, censing an icon of Fr. Seraphim (Rose)