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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
NOTE: On a weekly basis, it is common to find frequent articles in newspapers, magazines, blogs, medical websites, etc., extolling the health benefits of masturbation, explaining its normalcy and encouraging both men and women to do it more frequently. Today, the medical consensus is that masturbation is a medically healthy and psychologically normal habit. In many health circles it is believed that masturbation can prevent conditions such as cystitis, diabetes and cancer as well as help boost the immune system. Experts also say masturbation helps with depression, self-esteem issues. This, however, was not always the case. During St. Nikodemos’ time, the medical profession had quite a different opinion. In the 18th century, the prevailing view of medical circles was that masturbation was a sin akin to suicide and a drawn-out method of the same.
Circa 1712 AD, Dutch theologian Dr. Balthazar Bekker published a monograph titled: “Onania, or the Heinous Sin of self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice.” He said that masturbation leads to “Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation to the point of impotence, lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face, decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide.“
In his book Confessions, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) warned his readers that: “Once a young person gets the habit, there is no breaking it short of death.” In the late 18th century, a Swiss physician named Tissot believed that alterations of blood flow during any sexual activity can lead to nerve damage, insanity, and blindness. He believed that masturbation was especially hazardous in this respect. Benjamin Rush, an American physician of that era, also viewed the practice of masturbation as dangerous to mental and physical health. He wrote several widely read articles on the subject.
In the Orthodox Church, no matter what the situation or excuse one uses, masturbation is a sin plain and simple. A man or woman who admits masturbation in confession will always receive a penance of no Communion for the specified time period and be told not to repeat this action again. Geronda Ephraim has stated on many occasions that if someone were to die with this sin unconfessed, they would go straight to hell; that is how serious this offense is.
In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries—both male and female, both here and in Greece—masturbation is a problem that frequently occurs, though it is more common in the male monasteries than in the female. A monk or nun that falls into masturbation will generally receive the 40 day no Communion penance, with an additional 50+ prostrations added to his or her daily prayer rule, and stern warnings. They usually will have to go to the Lity at the end of every service, go on their knees and recite the general statement given to Geronda’s monastics that fall into any form of carnal sin: “Forgive me, I am filthy in both body and soul.” Of course, if a monastic becomes a repeat offender, then the penances will increase. In certain cases, at the discretion of the superior, a monk or nun may be forced to confess their sin in front of the entire monastery. The superior will call all the monastics together, make the monastic go on their knees, and say, “Forgive me, I fell into the sin of masturbation (or fornication) last night.” This is followed by the superior rebuking and reproaching the guilty monastic and giving a cautionary sermon to the other monastics to be careful.
It should be noted that novices who fall into masturbation are usually sent home. If they are given a second chance, it will be many years before they are tonsured as rassaphores. Sometimes, after 5-8, or even more years, a novice will fall into masturbation. This will also increase the difficulty of being tonsured a rassaphore. However, by this point, many times it develops into a habit. Rassaphores do not get sent home as easily and are usually rebuked and punished more severely than novices. Again, it varies from monastery to monastery.
But one who has been polluted in body while awake is excluded from Communion for seven days, having also to chant the 50th Psalm and to make forty-nine prostrations.
But anyone who suffers an emission while he is awake is forbidden divine Communion for seven days, and is to say the 50th Psalm [LXX] each of these days, and make forty-nine prostrations daily.
Note that there is found a treatise attributed to Anastasios of Antioch which makes a notable distinction concerning emission which someone suffers while awake. As for emission while awake, a person either does it to himself or to another. That which he cause himself to suffer is due either to handling with the hand, and is penance for forty days (for this outright masturbation), or it is caused without handling with the hand. This latter kind either occurs only because of an assault, and is penanced one day, or it occurs by coupling with the thought without consent and without titillation, and is penanced three days, or it occurs by coupling with the thought and titillation without consent, and is penanced seven days, or it occurs by coupling and consent, but without titillation, and is penance twenty days, or it occurs with coupling, consent, and titillation, and is penanced thirty days. Emission produced by another person occurs either without colluctation or with colluctation. That which occurs without colluctation, but by touching and kissing, is penance twenty days; if with titillation, it is penance thirty days. If it occurs with colluctation and with another human, it is penance eighty days; but if it occurs with an animal, it is penance seven years. Those who suffer emission while awake on account of sickness and thus being subject to spermatorrhoea, and those who let out sperm mixed with their urine, are not subject to penance, because both of these types suffer from it without an assault from, or coupling with, or consent to thoughts. For this reason the said Anastasios does not mention anything about these.
Anyone having practiced masturbation is penance forty days, during which he must eat dry foods and make one hundred prostrations daily.
The present Canon designates that whoever commits masturbation is not to commune for forty days, passing those days with the eating of dry foods, that is, only bread and water, making one hundred prostrations daily. [NOTE: Monastics who masturbate in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are generally not forced into a bread and water diet for forty days. They will, however, be banned from all desserts and special foods that are given to the monastics as treats during that time period. As additional punishment, they may be called at the same time, not given the dessert, and forced to watch all the other monastics enjoying their treats. In some cases, there could be other types of food punishments and/or special privileges revoked].
As for the mingling of men with one another, such as producing double masturbation, it receives the stated penance of up to eight days.
The Canon here says mingling, not the complete sin of sodomy, but when two men masturbate one another, which act is penance doubly by the Saint, who penances the one committing it to eat dry foods for eight days and to make one hundred prostrations daily, because the one committing the sin is not only hurting himself, but also his brother, and this makes the sin a double one. Some have understood mingling to mean colluctation, which may occur between two men, or two women, or between a man and a woman, and is a lesser sin than fornication, but a graver one than masturbation.
If anyone among the Clergy, before being admitted to Holy Orders, fell into the passion of masturbation without thinking perhaps that on this account alone he would be dismissed from the priesthood, let him first be sufficiently penanced, and then let him enter the priesthood. But if he was caught doing this after entering the priesthood, after being suspended for a whole year for this, and being reformed with the usual penances, let him be readmitted to the priesthood. But if after becoming aware of its sinfulness, he committed it two or three times, let him cease from the priesthood, and enter the order of reader.
The present Canon says that if perchance someone before entering the priesthood fell into the offense of masturbation without knowing that on this account alone he would be excluded from the priesthood, let this person (being, that is, distinguished and virtuous in all other respects), after first receiving a rule adequate to his sin, become a priest. But if perchance after being ordained, he fell into it again, let him be suspended from the priesthood for a period of one year, and be reformed with the usual penances imposed upon masturbators, and then let him again be active in the priesthood. But if after becoming aware of its evil, he masturbated two or three times, let him cease from the priesthood, and let him enter the order of reader. Note that even masturbation alone is an impediment to the priesthood.
[NOTE: Over the years, many seminarians from Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA have made pilgrimages to monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. A common issue that comes up in confession is even though the male student has impediments to ordination—usually a carnal sin like masturbation—they have been told via father confessors connected to the Seminary that it is still okay to be ordained. The justification is that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese needs priests and if the hierarchs abided by the Canons, especially masturbation and other carnal sins prohibiting ordination, then hardly anyone could be ordained since these sins are so common and prevalent today. Some of these seminarians have ignored the counsels during confession at Geronda’s monasteries not to follow through with ordination due to these impediments (i.e., they’ve went on to be ordained as priests despite a hieromonk admonishing them not to proceed with it). Others have obeyed as they did not realize a hierarch was not allowed to override and give dispensation in the area of these Canons.
Fortunately for the faithful, the Church Fathers teach us that a priest can fornicate, be a rapist, pedophile, sodomite, a serial killer or whatever, and that’s okay when it comes to the sacraments because it’s not the priest or his virtue that sanctify them; it’s the grace of the holy spirit through his ordination and apostolic succession. So, even if an orthodox clergyman still has semen dripping down his thigh from buggering a little boy just before performing the Liturgy, the bread and wine still become the body and blood of Christ and the faithful can still receive all the benefits from the Chalice.
Apparently, during the Divine Liturgy, angels come down and put on invisible white robes of purity and everything in the Liturgy is blessed–this is different and more powerful than Mormon magic underwear. Afterwards, the angels come back and lift these invisible purity garbs off the priest and he’s back to his sinful old self. So, the faithful sheepfold can still, in “good conscience and faith” receive all the sacraments from a priest who they know is committing any of the seven deadly sins and then some because the Church teaches it’s a-ok; they’re still getting all the authentic blessings.
If you ask at the monasteries, however, it’s “suggested” that the monasteries’ church services are better not only because they are more authentic and traditional, but they also have more “spirituality and spiritual power” (or grace depending on who you’re talking to) than the churches in the world (i.e. parishes). “Even better,” so we’ve been told, is if you can get to attend a liturgy that Geronda Epraim is officiating (for men this is usually only on big feast days now, as Geronda Ephraim usually does his liturgies in the church beside his cell and only ladies can attend). Apparently, when Geronda Ephraim does a liturgy all the angelic host come to attend and watch the holiest saint on earth with a secret admiration. Though angels attend all the liturgies in the world, this one is more special because Geronda Ephraim is said to know the angels personally and is in constant communion with them. Even his cell has the personal protection from Archangel Michael who seems to act as a sort of personal guardian and bodyguard for the Elder. Furthermore, some say that on top of the extra guardian angel he received at ordination (Orthodox Church teaches every baptized individual is appointed a guardian angel at baptism), apparently God gave Geronda Ephraim a third guardian angel because so many demons constantly attack him. The monastic couldn’t answer whether this 3rd angel was Archangel Michael or whether the archangel is actually a fourth angel given to the Elder.
One wonders if the monastics who talk to laymen without blessing about these things ever confess this disobedience to their father confessor. The “inner core teachings” of the monasteries aren’t meant for the profane (i.e. non-monastics) except for in certain cases when the laymen is a subservient, loyal, obedient disciple. And even then, what is revealed is up to the Geronda or Gerondissa’s discretion. There are a few reasons why only a handful of monastics (usually these are tonsured/rassaphores and not novices) have a blessing to speak to lay people about spiritual topics and/or the history and way of life of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. The public are told it’s to preserve the monks spirituality so they can focus exclusively on reciting the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly, which is partly true. The other reason is control of the flow of information and the narrative presented to laymen. This is because it can sometimes take many years before a monastic acquires Geronda Ephraim’s phronema, and many times they do not have the discernment of what to say and not to say (i.e., what their superior would want them to speak about)].
But as for women, too, if any of them has allowed herself to be kissed and felt by man, without, however, being violated by him, let her receive the penance provided for masturbation.
The Saint penances a woman who accepts kisses from a man and allows herself to be touched by him with the penance of masturbation, that is, to eat dry foods for forty days and to make one hundred prostrations daily while abstaining from Communion .