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!
This is the 27th Homily found in The Art of Salvation. Taken from Rev. Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos’ website.
As I have told you in the past, when I first came to Mount Athos as a young novice, my elder (Geronda Joseph) would frequently give advice. Among other things, he would tell me, “My child, the fathers of old here on Mount Athos would tell us that if a disciple gives rest to his Geronda, he has made God content. If he does not give rest to his Geronda with his life in general, then he has not made God content either.”
I held on to this very small, yet immensely powerful piece of advice within my soul, and I made it my principle and my possession. I told myself, “This will be my goal in life. Since this recommendation is so useful, with God’s help and Geronda’s blessing, I will try to never sadden him as long as I live, and I will try to please him with my way of life.” Thus, I tried twice as hard to give rest to my elder. God knows to what extent I did not sadden him and how much I made his content. I have seen that when a disciple attempts to keep his elder’s commandments and orders, God’s blessings lead the way for him.
It is not possible for a disciple, who, with humility, has given rest to his spiritual father, to fail in the spiritual life and not acquire the Kingdom of God. It is inherently impossible. And when we say inherently impossible, we mean one thousand percent certain. When the disciple asks for guidance and then attempts to apply the advice he receives, it is impossible for him not to succeed and not to find the grace of God.
Through his complete obedience, perfect faith, and the life-giving power of humility, Saint Symeon the New Theologian not only sampled the grace of God, but he was given the grace of the Holy Spirit “by the bucketload.” He became the saint whom we all know and was given the title “New Theologian” by our Church because he received theology directly from above, from the grace of the Holy Spirit. He did not study theology in a classroom, but acquired it by laboring in obedience and devotion.
Since God has called us through His infinite mercy to come here to the monastery and to wear the honorable monastic raso (cassock), we should take advantage of the time we have (now that we are alive) as best possible, so that our soul bears fruit and is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. This way of life is full of blessings and great spiritual rest.
Initially, of course, a person must exert himself because he brings with him an entire world of passions, thoughts, images, and the like. A small amount of effort is required in the beginning; however, once the initial difficulty is overcome, God’s blessing follows, and the fruit of all the initial labors begins to blossom. A person then sees the road wide open before him, he is filled with joy, and he rejoices as he sees himself enriched with a wealth of experience acquired during the battles with the devil. The Fathers refer to this experience as “the second grace” of God.
The first grace is when we feel the love of God and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But experience constitutes a “second grace” that never disappears, that never fades away, and which remains indelible within a person’s soul. In the beginning we will be tempted. It is quite natural for us to be attacked–this is consistent with the path we have chosen. Ultimately, however, we gain this experience, this second grace, which has enormous value. This knowledge is not only valuable and beneficial to us personally, but it enables us to help another weak brother, another person who is being battled, or a novice. Other people helped us, did they not? In the same manner, we are also obliged to help others who are being battled.
Hence we should not find it strange when a war arises or when we are assaulted by temptations. We should realize that the first grace withdraws, it abandons man occasionally in order to test him, and many times a person is brought to his knees by the unbearable weight of a particular battle or cross. At that time the second grace of experience arrives, as a good Cyrenian (vid. Mark 15:21), to lift the cross. It does not remove the temptation altogether, but it advises, “Be patient. This battle will also end, just as the precious one did. Be patient; it is a trial. Don’t you remember how much grace God sent you after the earlier temptation ended? This temptation will subside as well; be a little patient. Don’t you know that God performs miracles?” This how the second grace advises man. Thus, with the knowledge he receives and the courage he obtains from this advice, the temptation becomes lighter. He is strengthened in patience, courage, and faith in God, he finds rest spiritually, and bypasses the difficulty.
We know, through the enlightenment we receive from this “second grace,” that it is mandatory for temptations to arise, and for us to be battled by the devil, our passions, and our fellow man. It is a requirement that we be battled. However, we will also struggle; we will also make an effort. This effort will serve as the cornerstone upon which the beautiful house of God’s grace will subsequently be built. Then we will be left with the invaluable experience of the methods, ways, and cunningness with which the devil battles us. If God does not allow us to be battled, how will we learn this art and science? In time of war, we should be brave and courageous; when we contend with the devil, we should be relentless and crafty. This is what Saint Synkletiki advises us: “The devil is cunning when he battles us, we should also be cunning when we resist him.” When we courageously oppose and repel the devil, we have achieved a victory. From this point onward improvement begins and the door leading to grace and the Kingdom of God opens.
There is nothing wrong with battles. War does not signify disaster. It serves as a wake-up call for us, as an invitation to withstand, be crowned, and have the Angels command us in the next life. Work does not harm an employee; rather, it fills his pockets with money. If we want to become rich spiritually, we must welcome temptations and see them as a war, as an incentive to fight with the evil demons of passion and weakness, as an opportunity to be victorious and advance with the grace of God. If we do not overcome particular passion, it will continue to thrash us for the rest of our life. We will drag it behind us like a piece of filthy garbage. This is why God permits us to be battled; so that we can win and be freed from the disgraceful passions that defile our soul. We all feel and sense the filth of the passion and the devil when we are battled by a passion. Conversely, when someone is liberated, clean, and pure, he senses the fragrance of innocence and purity. Something similar occurs with the clothing we wear. If it is dirty and smelly, we feel repulsed, uncomfortable, and want to remove it quickly. When, however, it is washed, ironed, and has a fresh, clean scent, we enjoy wearing it and do not want to take it off. This is how we feel spiritually with regard to the passion.
When a person does not exert himself, his life becomes torturous because he suffers from his guilty conscience for yielding to the passions, and he feels discontent within himself. Conversely, when someone struggles, he feels happiness and joy; he feels that spiritual life truly contains the vitality of Divine Grace…
“…We are God’s children, yet we do not know Who our God is. We have a Heavenly Father and, in reality, we do not know Him. We believe that He is our Father, but our heart does not acknowledge this and has not tasted this; the eyes of our soul have not seen this Father. If we saw what kind of a Father we have, we would cry out like mad due to the infinite joy of having made such an invaluable discovery. We are the children of an awesome Father: awesome with respect to riches and gifts. When someone attempts to speak about this Father, he runs out of words. The closer someone comes to a light, the more he begins to lose his vision. Eventually he is blinded by the light and can no longer see anything. Similarly, as someone draws nearer to God, he begins running out of words and is no longer able to speak about Him. It is a great misfortune for us to have such a Father and yet remain in such spiritual poverty, in such spiritual misery, and not feel His love and bliss.
Why were we created? God did not create us simply to show that He has the power to create human beings. He brought us into existence so we can share in His bliss and delight in Him. He created blessed creatures to live in happiness. We, however, strayed from our destiny through our disobedience and have reached the point of being completely unable to recognize our natural Father. Instead, we love so many other things, while not loving God at all. If we loved God, we would keep His Commandments…
“…Things are very simple, but a sustained effort is required on our part. God is ready to help us at every moment. The saints in Heaven are interceding and praying for us because the grace of God guided us to follow their way of life. They also experienced temptations and sorrows; they also had ups and downs during their lifetime. They have enormous experience, and they realize that we contemporary people are weak and do not struggle properly. This is why they pray for us from above. They beseech God to help us, so that we do not fail to achieve our goal and our purpose.
Since we have the intercessions and prayers of our saints, let us have faith that God will help us to make a good beginning even now. Amen!
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 .
The liturgy of Preparation, also Prothesis or Proskomide, is the act of preparing the bread and wine for the Eucharist. The Liturgy of Preparation is done quietly before the public part of the Divine Liturgy begins and symbolizes the “hidden years” of Christ’s earthly life. This is where particles of the prosphoron are taken out for commemorating both the living and the dead. This is also the point of the Service where the names of the living and the dead are read. Every monastery has printed copies of name commemoration sheets either in the narthex by the candles or in the reception area. For an explanation of the Proskomide, see:
Orthodox Christians give names whenever they go to the monasteries but this traffic greatly increases during the two forty-day Lenten periods of Christmas and Pascha. In the male monasteries, the fathers go into the altar to read the names during the Proskomide. When they’re finished reading all the typed name lists, they then have a blessing to read their own personal list of names. Most monks have a notebook with the names of their family, friends and those who ask them to pray for them.
Every monastery has their own special list of names which are read every Liturgy during the Proskomide by the priest celebrating the Liturgy. Every list starts with Geronda Ephraim’s name, all of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics who have died, all the monastic names of that monastery, and all the benefactors of the monastery. The hieromonks of the monastery may have their own names incorporated into this list as well.
For the monasteries, benefactors fall into two categories:
The financial donors. This could be either huge donors, donors who give nice sums regularly, people who regularly donate large amounts of expensive supplies, people who organize large groups to come to the monastery (there is usually an extra fee placed on top of the cost of the seat, whether it be bus or plane, that is then given as a donation to the monastery), etc.
The donors of time and work. Not everyone has the means to give large sums of money to the monastery. Many of the pilgrims are working-middle class and in lieu of money will donate their time and effort to help build the monastery or to help keep it functioning.
Men with trade skills might help do construction, carpentry or electrical work for free. Women may help in the kitchen, or cleaning the guest houses, doing laundry, dusting furniture, etc. Depending on the seasons and monasteries, there is also help in gardening, shoveling snow, sweeping desert dust off the walkways, etc.
So these particular pilgrims, depending on the capacity of their aid, will end up on the permanent altar name lists that are read every Liturgy. They are classified as builders of the monastery. The only time they get removed is if they do something really bad to betray the monastery or join another religion and can no longer be commemorated.
Now due to the huge influx of names that the monasteries continually receive throughout the year, problems in reading them all in time before the Proskomide finished started to arise. In larger monasteries where there are 20+ monastics, it isn’t so much a problem. In smaller monasteries, it becomes difficult. However, Geronda Ephraim devised a strategy for his monasteries to sort the names they receive into different categories to lighten the burden:
Under $40: These lists get read only once and then are thrown out. They are put in a pile separate from the name lists that will be typed up on the computer. The 1x folder in the altar is always the thickest.
$40-$100: Though this category varies slightly form monastery to monastery, this pile of name lists is put in the “few times” category. This means the name lists will be read more than once in the Proskomide, but not the full 40 liturgies.
Over $100: This category of name lists usually makes it into the 40 day pile. This means the names will be typed up on the computer, printed out and placed in the 40x folder in the altar. Each monastery has their own system of tracking how many times a sheet of names has been read. After the list has been read for 40 Liturgies, it is thrown out.
There is another category of name lists that don’t even get read: the ones that are so illegible that no one can even make out what names are written.
So, if one wants to sort of guarantee that their names will be read for the entire 40 Liturgies, they should donate at least $100 or more with their list. Or, at the very least, they should donate large amounts of their time to help the monasteries with anything they require. In this way, the Abbot or Abbess may feel compelled or obligated to enter their name list into the 40x folder. The worth of a pilgrim is measured by their dedication and filial devotion to the monastery, whether it be donation of time, money, work, effort, etc.
Time is money. Reading thousands of names also takes time and effort on the part of the monastics. Not to mention, many of the monastics are eager to read their own personal name lists of family, friends from the past, pilgrims, etc.
NOTE: Though the Coptic Orthodox are not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox Church, this is an interesting story as there are many Eastern Orthodox Christians in northern Africa and the Middle East where ISIS operates. Also, a few of the Greek Orthodox monasteries in America have alleged militant Muslim camps as close neighbours (i.e. Fethullah Gulen’s compound in Saylorsburg, PA is about 30-40 minutes from Holy Protection Monastery; Islamberg, NY is about 40 minutes from St. Nektarios Monastery; the Squaw Valley Islamic Settlement in Dunlap, CA is right next door to Life-Giving Spring Monastery.) Geronda Ephraim would tell his monks and nuns who he brought here from Greece, “You have come here to die.” He has also hinted and stated outright in numerous homilies to his monastics they are the monks of the last days, the monasteries will be persecuted, and the monasteries will produce many martyrs in the days of the Antichrist. According to Geronda Ephraim, the monks of St. Nektarios Monastery will be the first of his monks to martyr.
There is a grey area in the monasteries concerning the Orthodox teaching on martyrdom. It is evident from the Synaxarion, and Orthodox tradition, that when a non-Christian is martyred for Christ along with other Orthodox Christians, his blood becomes his [orthodox] baptism and he is saved. Years ago, at St. Nektarios Monastery, the abbot was asked about Catholics and Protestant missionaries who are martyred for Christ, yet they are adherents to the wrong faith. He stated that though they are heretics, their martyrdom might account for something, and left it at that. Another monastic stated that even if they were saved, they would be blind due to not having received a proper Orthodox baptism, and though confessing Christ, their doctrine was not Orthodox. As an aside, Geronda Ephraim enjoys the Copts and admires their piety and reverence despite having the wrong faith.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has announced that the murder of the 21 Egyptian Christians killed by the so-called Islamic State in Libya will be commemorated in its Church calendar.
Pope Tawadros II announced that the names of the martyrs will be inserted into the Coptic Synaxarium, the Oriental Church’s equivalent to the Roman Martyrology. This procedure is also equivalent to canonization in the Latin Church.
According to terrasanta.net, the martyrdom of the 21 Christians will be commemorated on the 8th Amshir of the Coptic calendar, or February 15th of the Gregorian calendar. The commemoration falls on the feast day of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
Militants of the Islamic State released a gruesome video entitled “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross” in which they released a warning saying they were “south of Rome.” They then proceeded to behead the Christian men, some of whom were seen mouthing the words “Lord Jesus Christ” moments before their death.
While the killings have stirred fears of the Islamic State’s close proximity to Europe, they have also strengthened many in their faith.
In an interview with Christian channel SAT-7 ARABIC on Wednesday, Beshir Kamel, brother of two of the Coptic martyrs, even thanked the Islamic State for including their declaration of faith in the videos before killing them.
“ISIS gave us more than we asked when they didn’t edit out the part where they declared their faith and called upon Jesus Christ. ISIS helped us strengthen our faith,” he said.
Beshir said that he was proud of his brothers Bishoy and Samuel, saying that their martyrdom was “a badge of honor to Christianity.”
Kamel’s interview with SAT 7-ARABIC went viral, receiving over 100,000 views within hours of its posting online. When asked what his reaction would be if he saw an Islamic State militant, Kamel recalled his mother’s response.
“My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven,” Beshir said.
Hieromonk Michael was born to Reynaldo and Leonie Santos in 1969 in Quezon, Nueva Ecija (Philippines). He is the middle child of two sisters, Michelle (formerly a novice nun for 8 years at Holy Protection Monastery) and Myla. The Santos family immigrated to Canada when Fr. Michael was very young and settled in the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario. Fr. Michael was raised in the Roman Catholic faith.
After graduating high school, Fr. Michael went on to the University of Toronto, where he majored in philosophy.
In the mid-90’s, he was baptized by Geronda Joseph Voutsas at St. Kosmas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Caledon, Ontario. He was allowed to keep his original name, and it was one of the few baptisms performed by Geronda Joseph allowed to be videotaped.
Becoming a Monk He became a novice monk in 1998 at St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, AZ but was a member of Geronda Joseph’s synodia (at that time, due to Metropolitan Sotirios of Canada forcing their hand, the Brotherhood of St. John the Theologian Monastery in Picton, Ontario was forced to flee Canada and seek refuge at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, AZ. They became the Brotherhood of St. Nektarios after relocating to Roscoe, NY in 1999).
In Arizona, Fr. Michael mainly worked with the outside Fathers digging holes, planting palm trees, and doing hard labor. At the time, Geronda Ephraim nicknamed him “Kinezos” and “Kineziko” (meaning “Chinese” or “the Chinaman”).
In December 1998, the monks under Geronda Joseph drove up to Roscoe, NY and established the St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery. During Holy Week of 1999, Geronda Ephraim visited the monastery briefly. Along with 3 other novices, Fr. Michael was tonsured a monk by Geronda Ephraim in the old chapel of St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY. Once again, Fr. Michael kept his original name.
At the time, because Geronda Ephraim came up secretly and tonsured the four novices (i.e. without the Bishop’s knowledge, nor his blessing to perform priestly functions) it was decided the four novices would keep their original names. This was also partly because 3 of them were converts and had their names changed in baptism already. As well, as the monastery had only been open a few months and not many people had visited yet, no one would know the difference. Geronda Ephraim, via Geronda Joseph, gave the novices an obedience in case lay people who had seen the novices without koukoulis in church asked them when they were tonsured. “We were tonsured in Arizona, but they didn’t have our koukoulis ready. We just received them.”
The old chapel, which was connected to the main white house, was later converted into a living room and part time guest quarters for feast days. Geronda Joseph also used the living room at night for his vigils.
Before his ordination, Fr. Michael fluctuated from working as an outside Father (construction), ekklesiastiko (taking care of the church), cleaning guest houses, to bookstore (receiving pilgrims and exhorting them spiritually). Also, he was one of the few fathers that Geronda Joseph trusted to go on errands outside the monastery (either driving alone or with another monk).
Novice Michelle Santos Fr. Michael’s older sister, Michelle, was a novice at Holy Protection Greek Orthodox Monastery in Pennsylvania for a number of years. She started out at the original property in Weatherly, PA and relocated with the sisterhood to the new property in White Haven, PA.
Fr. Michael held his sister in high esteem. When talking to pilgrims, he would refer to her as, “my sanctified sister.” He had pictures of her as a nun in his cell for inspiration in his own personal struggle (and kept them up even after she threw off her rassa and returned to the world).
In the mid-2000’s, she left the Monastery and returned to the world, which evoked a lot of gossip and conjecture among pilgrims. As well, it put Fr. Michael in a difficult position as lay people would ask him in the bookstore, “What happened? Why did your sister leave?”
Michelle kept Fr. Mark Andrews as a spiritual Father for a short while afterwards, but it was awkward for her to return to Holy Protection for confession, as well, Gerondissa wasn’t comfortable with her returning as these things weaken the resolve of monastics (i.e. seeing their former co-strugglers in the world looking normal, healthy and happy).
Ordination to the Priesthood In 2009, Fr. Michael was ordained a priest. It should be noted that on Mount Athos, one of Geronda Ephraim’s prerequisites in determining if a monk was ready for ordination was whether or not he had prayer of the heart. There are various opinions among the elders in the American monasteries on whether or not Geronda Ephraim is as strict here in this regard as he was on Mount Athos.
Also, Fr. Michael was the recipient of a very special vision/miracle of St. Nektarios who appeared to him when he lost his balance off a ladder and carried him down to safety.
The information on this site is the property of The Holy Monastery of St. Nektarios. This is the only website on the internet that is managed and approved by the monks of The Holy Monastery of St. Nektarios. Information found posted on other internet sites and blogs regarding St. Nektarios Monastery and its monks has not been validated, and in certain instances is inaccurate and misleading. Everyone is free to read and reflect on the information on this site. However, none of the information on this site may be reproduced without the prior written consent of St. Nektarios Monastery. If you wish to use any of the material on this site pleasecontact us. †May our Lord Jesus Christ bless you!
Stories that may tarnish a monastery’s image and reputation, or expose some of the darker happenings in that monastery, will never be validated by a monastery and are usually dismissed as “ridiculous.” Elder Ephraim only wants outsiders to experience the “front stage” behavior that is curated for them.
It is very easy for a monastery to discredit stories and there is a two-fold method that is very effective:
The superior will instruct the fraternity to deny everything if asked.
If the information is coming from a former monk or nun then they will be discredited as having mental illnesses, being delusional, or left the monastery jaded and are trying to retaliate via slander, etc.
The above notice on the St. Nektarios website seems to be a direct response to this tumblr page:
There does not seem to be any indication that this Tumblr page claims to be the official St. Nektarios Monastery page or that it represents St. Nektarios Monastery. As with most celebrity “fan pages”, the reader assumes that the celebrity does not actually run the page, nor is it the official webpage of the celebrity (unless stated otherwise).
Yet, St. Nektarios Monastery used pilgrims’ donation money to hire a lawyer to have that Tumblr page pulled down in an attempt to control the narrative (i.e. suppress and censor the “back stage” behavior that was revealed).
The Tumblr page now has a disclaimer: “This blog is not directly affiliated with St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery (According to the monastery’s lawyers, this blog ‘misrepresents the ideological underpinnings of our client’s tenets’).” [Update: After this attempt to have the page pulled down failed, and the lawyer’s letter was published on social media, the monks started a complaint campaign to Tumblr and falsely claimed that photographs that they themselves did not take or own were copyrighted. The premise of their mindset is, “any image that shows the monastery is automatically copyrighted and their property regardless of who took the photograph.”].
It is imperative to keep an image of perfection unblemished, despite the fact that it is not in keeping with reality.
The one positive outcome of this whole affair was the Monastery’s admittance that their way of life is an ideology. This is quite interesting as ideology has never been used by the Church Fathers to describe monasticism or the Orthodox spiritual life.
“Ideology” has been used frequently by Orthodox authors writing apologetic texts against various political -isms, such as Communism, Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, Feminism, Racism, Nationalism, etc.; many of these –isms require a sort of blind obedience to a state or dictator much like the relationship between Elder Ephraim and his monastics.
Orthodox writers have also used “ideology” in apologetics against destructive cults and new religious movements; i.e. things that are new, novel, uncanonical and unorthodox (and many times requiring absolute blind obedience to a spiritual leader or guru).
Orthodoxy and orthodox monasticism have never been portrayed as an “ideology” in either ancient or modern Orthodox texts. The fact that St. Nektarios Monastery, Inc. views and understands their beliefs, lifestyle and spiritual teachings as an ideology should concern Orthodox Christians.
Two books usually forbidden for novices and rassaphores are the Old Testament –it can apparently cause much warfare for a beginner from lust to blasphemy—and the Rudder; and by extension the Exomologetarion. When a new monk or nun asks about certain canons or canonical issues—either within the church or within the actual monastery—there are various responses but one of the most common is about idle curiosity and delusion (the stories, of course, vary from monastery to monastery). However, one common theme is that reading about Canons is—besides being unnecessary for a subordinate under obedience to a guide who knows the canons—dangerous because it’s a knowledge that puffs up the ego, and worse, the devil can use this knowledge to make a subordinate start questioning his/her elder, “Why does Geronda do this when the Canons say otherwise, etc.”
The monks that came from Filotheou Monastery to America talk about monks that would question Geronda Ephraim’s actions based on the Canons, sometimes even in front of the Fathers when Geronda was giving a talk. These monks never lasted long in the monastery and usually threw off their rassa, returning to the world as laymen. Though apparently there was one hieromonk (commonly seen in photos beside Geronda Ephraim during the Epitafio Service) who also left Philotheou but went off to be a hieromonk on his own.
In Arizona, the Fathers had a perfect example since one of the novices who was scandalized with an icon in the Katholico which depicted the Father as an aged Christ, eventually left the monastery. “See, it starts small. The devil gets a disciple to start questioning his Geronda, and then he questions the brotherhood, the monastery, even God himself. Then, due to his ego, he leaves.”
Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, has frequently stated, “If we were all to be examined under the Canons we’d probably all be excommunicated.” This is kind of a catch all statement that is used when to justify not following certain canons. Some monks have a tendency to nitpick at canons that would not seem applicable today nor be a hindrance to salvation, so to speak, and allow these things to be a stumbling block for their monastic experience. Other monks do recognize serious ecclesiological breaches but tend to justify it with rationalizations of the church “is the last days,” the hiearchs are “ecumenists” and “traitors” who are “trying to hinder God’s plan being implemented with Geronda Ephraim, so it’s okay to do disobedience to them (i.e.; in a perfect utopian church where all the hierachs were traditonalists and staunch defenders of the faith, Geronda Ephraim would’ve been given a blessing for everything anyways).
Doing things under the radar
There is also another factor with why it’s better for monastics not to read the Canons—because they are frequently broken in the monasteries. Geronda Ephraim frequently overrides certain ecclesiastical requirements. This is explained off in a couple ways. In the beginning, the monasteries acted as though they were a sort of persecuted catacomb church and followed some of the examples of what a persecuted church “in resistance” would do. The hierarchy were ecumenists and compromised, so due to the unfairness of their decisions and attempts to hinder God’s will for the monasteries to expand, many things had to be done under the radar. This is why in the beginning, the abbots and abbesses didn’t always pursue relations with their diocese, so they could operate more freely without any hindrance from their hierarchs.
Also, in some cases, Geronda Ephraim “receives information [or a blessing] from above” that allows him to override the rules and canons of the church.
The actions in themselves don’t seem like big issues:
• Going into jurisdictions without the bishop’s knowledge either to tonsure monks or nuns to rassaphores, or perform ecclesiastical functions at the monasteries.
• Overriding a bishop’s ban on certain hieromonks entering a diocese to perform ecclesiastical functions. I.e. if one of Geronda Ephraim’s hieromonks is banned from a region in which they have spiritual children, Geronda will override the bishop and give them a blessing to go up and confess a dying spiritual child, etc. The reason is because the bishop’s bans are many times motivated by jealousy or resentment or hatred of the individual who was banned and not for proper ecclesiastical reasons.
• Allowing Abbesses and nuns to wear the great-schema even though they weren’t tonsured yet, so that the bishop doesn’t tonsure them into the great schema. There are some fine points about control and obedience that Geronda Ephraim doesn’t want hierarchs to have over his monastics.
• Tonsuring novices into rassaphores after only a year (not because they were ready, but because it gave a more serious representation to the people. This practise changed as time went on. As one abbot stated, “In the beginning it was about quantity, now it is about quality).
• In the case of secret baptisms of converts, the canons do seem to justify their actions. However, many converts have strict obediences to lie about where they were baptized so the monasteries do not get in trouble and the priest-monks do not get defrocked.
Bishop Anthimos Drakonakis Did an Ordination Service for Geronda Ephraim
There are also cases where it is said that Geronda Ephraim’s prayer can turn something uncanonical into something blessed by God. Such was the case when Bishop Anthony and Bishop Anthimos came to St. Anthony’s in the late 90’s to perform ordinations. There were some concerns about Bishop Anthimos canonicity as a hierarch due to past indiscretions:
However, Geronda Ephraim told his monks he did komboschoini the entire time Bishop Anthimos was doing the ordination service and angels came and blessed it. It was a legitimate ordination.
Geronda Ephraim Smuggled Elder Joseph’s Skull Off the Holy Mountain
In the early 2000s, Geronda Ephraim had to go to Filotheou to put order in his monastery since Abbot Ephraim Dikaios left his post and monastery without a blessing. Geronda Ephraim went to pick an abbot and told his monks that Fr. Nikodemos was revealed to him in a vision and thus he’s been the abbot of Filotheou ever since. During this time, Geronda Ephraim also “received information from above” and he feigned an illness so he could be flown off the Holy Mountain no questions asked. This is how he smuggled his Elder Joseph’s skull off Mount Athos without having to do any paper work or inform anyone. Now it permanently resides in St. Panteleimon’s Church which is beside his cell. Though what he did is technically illegal, he had permission from above, thus rendering “man’s laws” irrelevant. This also happens many times when he overrides ecclesiastical law with “permission from above.”
“The Exomologetarion is for the Priests, it’s not necessary for laypeople to read it”
The Exomologetarion is one other book that not only monks, but even laypeople are sometimes guided to avoid reading. In the St. Nektarios Monastery bookstore, a pilgrim asked if they had the Exomologetarion for sale. The pilgrim was told, “It’s only for the priests. Lay people shouldn’t be reading it. It’s not necessary for them to know these things.” After a short exhortation from the monk in charge of the bookstore, the pilgrim left with the feeling that the monks view lay people as “simple-minded people who get confused easily and don’t know how to interpret or understand things properly. This is why they should read more simple things that benefit their soul, rather than puff up their minds with vain knowledge.” Ironically, the pilgrim wanted to buy the book for a friend who was a seminarian, not for himself. The monk in the bookstore did not ask why the pilgrim wanted the book, but made an assumption, and gave a short sermon based on his erroneous assumption.
The Rasaphores in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are misinformed about the meaning of Rasaphores
There is also one other reason, perhaps, that the superiors do not want their monastics reading the canons: because then they will discover that they are being lied to in order to keep them in the monastery. There is a lot of oral traditions mixed in with canonical understandings in the monasteries here. A novice is told that if they die as a novice, they immediately go to Paradise. So, one finds novices who hope they die in that state. When one is tonsured, they are told, “Now it is for life, you can’t leave.” They are given the impression that they have the same obligation as a schema-monk who made vows to God during the Liturgy. Whereas, in reality, the canons and Patristic writings state the rasaphore is still a novice. The cutting of hair and reading of two prayers at the rasaphore tonsure is much different than the monastic verbally making vows and promises to God during the Liturgy. Furthermore, many of the Fathers only recognized two grades of monasticism: novice and schema-monk. The rasaphore is a later innovation, just as is the small schema. However, in the monasteries, a rasaphore is given the impression that if they leave, they automatically forfeit their salvation. Whereas the reality is the rasaphore is similar to a betrothal; it can be broken and a penance given. The great schema is more like a wedding; yet there can be no divorce. Many rasaphores have remained in the monastery, despite not wanting to be there anymore, because they have been given the impression that they have no choice, and there will be no hope of salvation if they leave.
Anyways, here are some of the canons about monasticism that people may not be aware of (most of them aren’t really applied in the monasteries here because they’re anachronistic. “Geronda’s work is apostolic and many things aren’t applicable anymore because it is the last days and we have to save as many souls before the world ends.”: