Pilgrimage to Holy Protection Monastery (Erin Leigh Lowery, 2011)

I have been trying to think of what to write about my pilgrimage to the monastery. There are things that are very hard to put into words. I’m going to give a basic account of what my days consisted of. (Leaving out some bits of information that are a little too private for the unfettered internet. If you want to ask me about it I’d be happy to talk to you in person.)

PA Sign

My drive up was a series of wind, traffic, rain, and hail. When I arrived at the monastery I was surprised to learn that I had beat the storm (by hours) and instead of rushing to the guest house trying to keep my things dry I gladly sat on the porch in the sun and listened to the birds and smelled the sister’s amazing roses while I waited for my friends to arrive. I had arrived in the middle of Compline & Vespers, which I didn’t know, and the whole property was empty and silent. There was something that originally stuck me as unreal about the place. Even the air was different. After some time, and some talk with friends, I realized it wasn’t UNREAL, it was HYPER-REAL. This place was more real than anywhere else I had ever been before.

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The guest house is laid out and organized like the world’s greatest hostel. When Joanna arrived she took me into the church for the end of Vespers. The smell, of course, was intoxicating. The chanting was breathtaking. The language was Greek, which might have been a problem, but I will get to that in a moment. After vespers Sister Marina showed us to our room. Sister Marina is a tall pretty woman. As I typed pretty I realized that I would have described all the sisters as pretty, though they are all different shapes, sizes, and ages. I think the reason I feel compelled to describe them as pretty, or even beautiful, is because the love and humility they each have make it impossible to see them as anything else. People talk about inner beauty, this was so much inner beauty that it was spilling out of them.

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Sister Marina is in charge of the guesthouse and she made sure we had food, pillows, clean sheets, and work. By Friday I was starting to listen hard for Sister Marina before meals so that I could go out and help her set the tables, otherwise she would do it so quickly and quietly it was almost like everything appeared there magically. I never felt tempted to just let her do it, which of course she wouldn’t have minded, because the warmth of her thanks for even the smallest task (like filling a pitcher with tap water) was intoxicating. She tried to teach me a Greek phrase, which of course I can’t transliterate, it is like thank you, but it literally means “you have lightened me”. Her task is hospitality, and she is certainly up to it.

12 Fr. Nicholas Palis (Holy Protection)

I tried to take a walk around the lower grounds at least once a day, it was just so pretty and so peaceful. Sometimes, especially if I was walking with Joanna who has been a regular at the Monastery for the last 15 years, a sister would stop and talk and we would be introduced. They would ask if I was Orthodox, and I would say “Not until July 30th” and each sister would say “Oh I will remember you in my prayers, especially on that day”. Joanna says that having one of the sisters promise to pray for you is not like having someone else promise to pray for you, they mean it and they don’t say it lightly. (Though they do say it often!!) One sister told us about the icons in the church and found us an akathist book in English to chant with a very special icon.

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If you want to work, there is always work to do! On our first day we peeled garlic. There would have been too much for the punch bowl they gave us to put the peeled cloves in. Thankfully, the Greek men staying in the guesthouse while they did construction for the sisters kept coming through and eating garlic like peanuts. On Friday and Saturday we picked rose petals for jelly and helped Kyria Maria make wedding and baptism favors. Kyria Maria is a Greek woman whose family has designed wedding dresses, favors, candles, and the like for 3 or more generations. She is not a nun, but works at the monastery, and is a gifted artist. She has a way of upholding her perfectionist standards without hurting your feelings. (I now have it on good authority that I am not capable of wrapping candy covered almonds in tulle!) I thought I was crafty, but Kyria Maria is on a whole new level.

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We talked with her for hours while we worked. She asked me about my background and I asked questions about Orthodox traditions. The conversations were slow, because her English is limited and my Greek is non-existent, but there was no rush.

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Church was something else entirely. On Friday morning, Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner, we went to Divine Liturgy at 3:30 in the morning. Of all the services we attended while we were there, this was my favorite. Partly, it was easier to keep up after Joanna was sweet enough to give me an early Chrismation gift, my very own prayer book in English. Partly it was ambiance. The church was lit only by oil lamps and candles. The sisters added a black veil to their habits in church. It didn’t cover the face, but it cast a shadow. It made the sisters indistinguishable from one another. All you could see was a black shape and hands. It struck me as profound. These women found fulfillment, love, and joy in losing themselves to Christ’s service. I pray that one day I can tame my passions and my desires are so simple and Godward.

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Also on Friday I met the Father of the monastery, Fr. Mark. He is a Texan man who has been speaking mostly Greek for the last 20 years or so. It gives a very interesting quality to his big voice. He spoke to me about the importance of confession and absolution. He answered a question I had about iconography with a lesson in my inability to work out my salvation without the grace and love of Christ. And it was an AMAZING lesson! He told me there are a few monasteries near where I would be moving in Oregon and advised me to build a relationship with one.

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On Saturday I met the Gerontissa, or Abbess, of the Monastery. (That is not a literal translation but an equivalent rank.) I had learned from Joanna that I was supposed to touch the ground in front of her and then kiss her left hand, but as a bent to touch the ground she embraced me and kissed my cheek. She wears love like a perfume. I keep thinking of it as a smell. It wasn’t something I saw, though her eyes are kind and her smile is gentle. It’s not her voice, though she has a beautiful voice whether she is speaking or singing. It’s just something that I was aware of. You don’t need her to look at you or speak to you to know that she loves you. In fact, you don’t even have to meet her if you are willing to take my word for it that she loves you, even if she doesn’t know you. She asked me about my conversion. She asked me about my husband. She told me that I should consider the monastery my home in the mountains. She also said I had to come back as often as I can until we move, and bring Brian with me. She ended our little chat by telling me that not only were there a few monasteries on the wets coast, but in fact their sister monastery was in Yakima, Washington and that I should go there as soon as I could and they would welcome me.

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One of the more poignant moments was the last interaction I had before we drove off. Kyria Maria said in her broken English, “You must come back before you move so that we can go to Holy Communion together, we will be together.” I almost cried.

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I was changed for the better, and I am trying to make sure that I don’t let it wear off. I don’t know if I communicated any of this well, but there it is. It was good for me to work out for myself. I hope it is helpful for someone who reads it.

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O Lady, Thou dost help us held fast by a storm of many afflictions: for Thou dost stand before the altar of the Lord, lifting Thine hands and praying that the Lord of glory look down on our unworthy prayer and hearken to the petitions of those who call upon Thy holy Name crying to Thy Son:Alleluia!

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Kontakion 4 – Akathist to the Holy Protection of the Theotokos

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On Problematic Spiritual Fathers (St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite)

1. Take care which spiritual fathers you go to A brother told me: Once, when my job was in a rural area, my wife had gone to a very strict spiritual father. When she had confessed a weakness of hers that she would have repeated, he berated her, he intimidated her and ever since that experience, it took her a very long time to decide to go to confession again. “Do you see”, the elderly Father said to him, “what excessive austerity can do? That’s why I tell you, take care which spiritual fathers you go to for confession – both you and your wife as well as your children – and above all, be honest in whatever you say, because that way, God will forgive everything and you will move up, spiritually.” [Hieromonk Elder Porphyrios, COLLECTED COUNSELS, Published by the Sacred Nunnery Retreat The Transfiguration of the Saviour, 2002, page 337].

In 1998, Gerondas Paisios, Dositheos and Joseph decided to boycott the books of Elder Porphyrios and Elder Paisios because of
In 1998, Gerondas Paisios, Dositheos and Joseph decided to boycott the books of Elder Porphyrios and Elder Paisios because of “all the problems they caused for Geronda Ephraim in Greece and all the critical things they said against him.” (This boycott is no longer in effect)

2. Some spiritual fathers commit a crime Look, my child! Our God, in His desire to educate His children who believe, trust, love Him and worship Him, resorts to various ways, methods and plans. Among the plans of our God is also the imposition of rules, which of course always aspire to the salvation of our souls. The same applies in your case. We cannot change or delete God’s plans. What is more, we cannot impose any on Him. But we can however ask of Him and beseech Him, and He, being the philanthropist that He is, can hearken to our prayers and shorten Time – or even dispense with it. Either way, it is up to Him. We ask for something, and He is the one who will approve. Even so, these rules do not have the character of revenge or punishment, but of education – and they have nothing to do with the rules imposed by certain spiritual fathers during Confession, who, either out of excessive zeal or out of ignorance, exhaust the limits of punishment without realizing that in that way, they are committing a crime instead of doing any good. I always scold them and counsel them: No severe punishments, just sound advice. Because severe punishments will only supply the “other one” (the devil) with a large clientele; that is exactly what he lies in wait for, and always waits with open arms to receive them! He in fact even promises them impossible things…. That is why the choice of spiritual father demands extreme attention. Just as you would seek the best possible doctor, you should do the same for a spiritual father. They are both doctors – one is for the body, the other for the soul! [Hieromonk Elder Porphyrios, COLLECTED COUNSELS, Published by the Sacred Nunnery Retreat The Transfiguration of the Saviour, 2002, page 337].

Both Elders Paisios and Porphyrios had an issue with Geronda Ephraim's demand of absolute blind obedience from both his monks and non-monk spiritual children in the world.
Both Elders Paisios and Porphyrios had an issue with Geronda Ephraim’s demand of absolute blind obedience from both his monks and non-monk spiritual children in the world.

3. Pay attention to what you say to spiritual fathers “Be careful what you say to the spiritual fathers that you have chosen for Confession. Because they don’t know everything. They must be very wise, discerning and experienced. They must have God’s spirit within them, in order to be able to solve your various problems.” It should be clarified here, that he was not referring to the simple, everyday sins that we all commit, but to the more profound meanings, like the prayer of the heart, the offensives of the wicked one, etc… [Hieromonk Elder Porphyrios, COLLECTED COUNSELS, Published by the Sacred Nunnery Retreat The Transfiguration of the Saviour, 2002, page 342].

Geronda Ephraim (AZ), Geronda Paisios (AZ), Hieromonk Ephraim (TX), Hieromonk Chrysostomos (παντού αλλά πουθενά), Geronda Joseph (MI), Geronda Nektarios (NC)
Geronda Ephraim (AZ), Geronda Paisios (AZ), Hieromonk Ephraim (TX), Hieromonk Chrysostomos (παντού αλλά πουθενά), Geronda Joseph (MI), Geronda Nektarios (NC)

4. Some spiritual fathers can confuse you “When you are a long way from the city”, he said to a brother, “and you can’t come here regularly, you should seek out a very good spiritual father there, to confess your sins. But whatever else preoccupies you with regard to the prayer of the heart or your thoughts, do not mention it to them, because some of them do not know everything and they can confuse you. You should come here and discuss the other issues with me.” [Hieromonk Elder Porphyrios, COLLECTED COUNSELS, Published by the Sacred Nunnery Retreat The Transfiguration of the Saviour, 2002, page 341].

St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite believed Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded. He also criticized Geronda Ephraim's demand for absolute, blind obedience as well as some of his other monastic practices.
St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite believed Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded. He also criticized Geronda Ephraim’s demand for absolute, blind obedience as well as some of his other monastic practices.

5. Spiritual guides who are animated by a Papist spirit I was discussing a related subject with him: It was about a certain “strict” spiritual father, who had refused to approve the wish of his spiritual child to visit the Elder Porphyrios and talk to him about a serious personal problem of his. This incident had made a painful impression on me and I told him about it. The Elder shook his head sadly and whispered: “What can I say? You see, he is also a spiritual father”. The Elder was always very careful and lenient in his judgments of others – especially when it pertained to priests who made mistakes. In lieu of a characterization, he preferred to speak to me parabolically: “You know, when a Papist missionary receives instructions for a mission, he gets onto a plane in Rome and when he arrives at the airport of an African country, that’s where he opens a sealed envelope and reads what his mission involves – which he is obliged to execute, even if he disagrees with it. With us Orthodox it is not like that.” I understood – more or less – what he was trying to tell me. Besides, it wasn’t the first time I had observed that there also exist in the Orthodox sphere several spiritual guides (fortunately few), who are essentially driven by a Papist mentality; who demand that their instructions be obeyed, in total disregard of the inner resistances of their spiritual children. They tend to cultivate a totalitarian mentality; because they themselves fear freedom they impose discipline, ignoring the fact that Orthodox obedience is the fruit of freedom. It wasn’t long before that bossy compulsion brought on the inevitable results: That same spiritual child of the “strict” spiritual father eventually declared to his friends (who had exhorted him to go to the Elder Porphyrios) that he no longer desired to visit him. In one of my visits to the Elder, I said to him: “I think that the reason he doesn’t come to you is not so much because he doesn’t want to, but because he is showing obedience to his spiritual father.” The Elder surprised me, when he replied: “He is showing obedience, because the advice of his spiritual father satisfied his ego.” It was the first time that I had ever heard the Elder speak so openly about a spiritual faux-pas. I knew he wasn’t doing it because he felt personally offended. The Elder himself never invited people to visit him. (I knew of one exception only, and even that was on account of the fervent pleas by the friends of a certain prejudiced person who was suffering. It was essentially a response to their direct request for a meeting). The Elder did not seek to acquire followers; he simply helped out whoever sought his help at his cell. It is possible he spoke thus openly to me, because he wanted to reveal yet another example of deceitfulness by the devil, among the Christians. And it made me think: “So, the motive behind that person’s obedience was the gratification of his ego.” [Hieromonk Elder Porphyrios, COLLECTED COUNSELS, Published by the Sacred Nunnery Retreat The Transfiguration of the Saviour, 2002, pages 387-389].

Elder Paisios the Hagiorite believed Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded which is why he never mentioned him in his book, Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters.
Elder Paisios the Hagiorite believed Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded which is why he never mentioned him in his book, Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters.

NOTE: A little known fact here in America is that both St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite and Elder Paisios the Hagiorite were very critical of Geronda Ephraim (then abbot of Philotheou Monastery). Stemming from a consensus that Elder Joseph the Hesychast was deluded, by extension they judged the fruit by the tree that gave them birth. As well, Elder Paisios did not like the practice of monks yelling the prayer. He was known to dissuade pilgrims from going to Philotheou because “it’s too noisy there.” Both Elders had issue with Geronda Ephraim’s demand of absolute and complete blind obedience; which he demanded from both his monks and nun, as well as lay people in the world. As lay people, Geronda Joseph (Ioannis) Voutsas (St. Nektarios Monastery), Gerondissa Olympiada (Athena) Voutsa (Holy Protection Monastery) and Gerondissa Melanie (Xeni) Makrygiannis (St. John Chrysostom Monastery) had visited Elder Porphyrios when he was alive. They relate that he said many bad things about Geronda Ephraim not worth repeating. “We heard it with our own ears,” they say, in a voice of disdain. In 1998, at the moanstic leader convention convened by Archbishop Spyridon, Geronda Paisios, Dositheos and Joseph had a little meeting of their own where they agreed not to sell the books of both Elders Paisios and Porphyrios due to “all the problems they caused for Geronda Ephraim in Greece.” As well, there are some teachings that are indirectly aimed at contradicting and criticizing Geronda Ephraim’s teachings. Furthermore, Elder Paisios did not even mention Elder Joseph the Hesychast in his book Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters–a book about all the great 20th century Athonite monks. Elder Paisios lack of acknowledgement concerning Elder Joseph the Hesychast is a great affront to Geronda Ephraim’s disciples. The Abbots and Abbesses dismiss this behavior as jealousy on the parts of St. Porphyrios and Elder Paisios. Quoting the Ladder, where it states “Let no one regard dark spite as a harmless passion, for it often manages to reach out even to spiritual men,” they state that the two Elders were jealous because of the spiritual heights that Geronda Ephraim reached through his blind obedience to Elder Jospeph, a virtue which neither of them possessed to the degree Geronda did. As well, they were jealous of his popularity because he was so young, yet attracted thousands of people to his monasteries on Mount Athos and in Greece. By the early-mid 2000s, with so many books being published on the two elders, in both Greek and English, combined with the hundreds of people asking for these books, the monasteries changed their minds and started selling their books. It’s a good money maker, as well, it’s too confusing for pilgrims for the monasteries to tell them the reasons these Elders’ books have been boycotted. Fr. Germanos Pontikas of St. Nektarios Monastery tells pilgrims that St. Porphyrios stated he was nowhere near the spiritual heights of Geronda Ephraim. An anonymous Abbot tells pilgrims that St. Porphyrios called Geronda Ephraim, ‘the saint of humility.’

Neither Elder Joseph the Hesychast nor any of his disciples are mentioned in Geronda Paisios' book about the great Athonite monks of the 20th century.
Neither Elder Joseph the Hesychast nor any of his disciples are mentioned in Geronda Paisios’ book about the great Athonite monks of the 20th century.

This note is taken from information gathered from various posts on http://stnektariosmonastery.tumblr.com/