In a homily entitled, Papism as the Oldest Protestantism, Fr. Justin Popovich writes:
Essentially, Protestantism is nothing other than a generally applied papism. For in Protestantism, the fundamental principle of papism is brought to life by each man individually. After the example of the infallible man in Rome, each Protestant is a cloned infallible man, because he pretends to personal infallibility in matters of faith. It can be said: Protestantism is a vulgarized papism… http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/papism.aspx
Though a Geronda or Gerondissa is not “a cloned infallible man, because he pretends to personal infallibility in matters of faith,” the Orthodox Church and Orthodox Tradition teach that their words are (i.e. a disciple must obey the first words out of the elder’s mouth as from God; “The mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ,” as Elder Ephraim categorically states). So is every Geronda an individual, infallible pope? There is a circular reasoning answer to this: the Orthodox Church teaches that no man is infallible, thus every Geronda and Gerondissa are sinners. However, many Patristic texts emphasize that God speaks through the Elder and his words of spiritual counsel are infallible. Thus, it is not the person of the Elder that is infallible, it is their position, or rather, the words coming out of their mouth in spiritual counsel which are infallible. “Even if the command he is given is wrong, God will bless it anyway for obedience’s sake,” teaches Geronda Ephraim. Every monastery is essentially run by an “infallible pope.” By the very nature of blind obedience, the disciples of Geronda Ephraim view him in a very similar way to how a devout Catholic views the Pope.
There is little difference between Ignatius Loyola’s and Geronda Ephraim’s teachings on obedience and Eldership—in fact, they say almost the same thing verbatim. According to both Orthodox and Jesuit teaching, it is irrelevant if the Elder is a drunkard, a fornicator, a slave to vice, etc., because “an individual does not become a monastic for the Elder, but rather for Christ, and to do obedience to Christ through the Elder” (Geronda Ephraim, Homily on Obedience, given to the monks in the Gerontikon, AZ, 1998). So, even if a Geronda is cantankerous, physically abusive, and unspiritual—like in the story of Akkakios (The Ladder, ch. 4)—the disciple only needs blind obedience, combined with ignoring his faults and viewing him as a saint, in order to be saved. Geronda Ephraim has reiterated this point numerous times to his monastics both in verbal homilies, his books and mp3s, and the faxes he sends to his monasteries now and again: “Remember Akkakios!”
The Lord who makes wise the blind opens the eyes of the obedient to the virtues of their guide, and He blinds them to his defects. But the hater of good does the opposite. (Ladder 4:98)
Geronda Ephraim’s Teachings on Obedience
Though many of the monastic texts write about obedience, the novices in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are encouraged to read and focus mainly on the teachings of Geronda Ephraim and Elder Joseph the Hesychast so they can acquire the proper mindset. Basically, a novice is taught that Geronda Ephraim’s teachings contain the sum and essence of the Holy Scriptures and monastic texts and his teachings are all that is necessary for a monk, if they want to find salvation. An abbot once said, “If all the patristic books and even the Bible were lost, just having Geronda Ephraim’s and Pappou’s book would be enough to find salvation.” Some key teachings that are emphasized in Geronda Ephraim’s teachings and monasteries:
- He [the disciple] did not have his own way of thinking. His elder’s way of thinking was also his. This is why we say, “If we don’t have spiritual obedience, we haven’t achieved anything at all”. When we do not want what the elder wants, we are not in essence disciples—we do not have spiritual obedience. [Patristic Obedience]
- One must have spiritual obedience. One should say, “Whatever the elder believes, thinks, and decides, I also believe, think, and decide in exactly the same way”. [Patristic Obedience]
- It is not to our benefit to sadden and grieve those who struggle for the good of our soul. When we do not find rest or benefit in obedience, something is not going well; we are missing something. When a disciple is counseled by his elder about this or that, he should not take it merely as advice. In essence it is a command, even if it is not explicitly stated clearly as such. [Stories of Obedience and Disobedience]
- When a monk does not obey every counsel and exhortation his elder gives him, he is being disobedient. Does the elder have to say explicitly, “I command you to do this and that”, so that the monk is afraid and obeys? Of course not. Commands are given only in particular circumstances. [Stories of Obedience and Disobedience]
- So corresponding to how one obeys his spiritual father, he obeys Christ. [Stories of Obedience and Disobedience]
- If we are spiritually separated from our spiritual father because we disobey and criticize him, how will we be fortified against the demons at the hour of death? Without the protection of his holy prayers, how will we stand in the presence of Jesus Christ Himself? When we ascend and meet the aerial toll-houses, whose prayers will deliver us? The elder’s? But they have departed from us because we grieved him in this life and so they have no power in our hour of need. [Reverence and Love for the Elder]
- The spiritual father bears the living image of Christ, and the disciple is commanded to obey him and respect him solely for the love of Christ—not for the person of the elder, because he might be a sinful person; he might be on his way to hell, as I am. [Stories of Obedience and Disobedience]
- This is why a person’s life is enriched when he is obedient to a spiritual father. At some point in the future, such a person will appear before God full of virtues, as a tree whose branches are heavy and abounding with plentiful fruit. [The Art of Salvation]
A Gerondissa of Geronda Ephraim’s once said: “If Geronda Ephraim says the sky isn’t blue, then I will believe it is not blue. If Geronda Ephraim tells me this black thing is white, then I no longer see it as black but as white. This is what obedience means, and this is the kind of obedience a disciple should have if they want to progress spiritually and be saved.”
How Monastics are Expected to View Geronda Ephraim
In the monasteries, all the abbots and abbesses, and their second-in-commands, believe and teach that Geronda Ephraim is the holiest saint in the history of the Orthodox Church and that there will never be another human on this earth who reaches the spiritual caliber that he has attained. Besides the common miracle stories that are circulated about Geronda Ephraim’s feats and miracles, each abbot and abbess also has their own personal experience and stories to draw on which they also impart onto their brother/sisterhoods. In essence, a monk and nun are groomed over time to view Geronda Ephraim the same way as their Geronda or Gerondissa views him: the closest thing to Christ on earth.
Geronda Ephraim teaches, “a monk should say to himself whatever the Elder believes, thinks and feel I also believe, think and feel.” This is a very important concept because once a disciple reaches that degree of slavish devotion, where he/she truly believes “the mouth of the Elder is the mouth of Christ,” then they will accept without hesitation or examination, whatever comes out of their Elder’s mouth. As one monk in Arizona use to teach the younger novices, “Even if Geronda tells you to eat a romp roast on Good Friday, you do it without questioning the obedience, without examining the obedience, without criticizing the obedience or the Elder for instructing you to break the monastic canons.” In the monastic mindset, there is no sin or disobedience in doing blind obedience.
Each of Geronda Ephraim’s Abbots and Abbesses are his “ambassadors.” And the nuns and the monks in his monasteries are encouraged to see their abbot and abbesses in the same way as Geronda Ephraim: “holy, person of God and prayer, continuously enrapt in divine vision, a saint, etc.” Essentially, a disciple has to “deceive” themselves, and force themselves to believe things that are not true—like make-believe. The task of a disciple is to daily rewire their mindset—both in worldview and how they view their Elder—through a series of forced, repetitive mental exercises (i.e. continually telling themselves that their Elder is holy and an icon of Christ). They must also battle any negative thought or emotion against their Elder which they accomplish through changing into a positive thought or emotion or, if the negativity is too overwhelming, through beating themselves with a blunt object. Some disciples will venerate their Elder’s door, viewing his cell as the cleft in the rock where Moses saw God. Some disciples will do a full prostration outside their Elder’s door if they miss receiving his or her morning or nightly blessing. Some disciples do the sign of the cross whenever they pass their Elder’s cell, just as laypeople do whenever they pass an Orthodox church on the street. All these practices and exercises help reinforce the idea that the Elder is a deified human being.