In response to “The Ephraim Question”: Defending an Attack on Traditional Orthodoxy (Juliana Chrisanthus RN)

Letter to the Editor

I was recently e-mailed a copy of Mr. Paul Cromidas’ article, entitled, “The Ephraim Question”, and apart from overwhelming sadness I was filled with a strong resolve, as one who has been visiting Elder Ephraim’s monasteries for the past ten years, to respond to the article and address some of its misinformation.  Mr. Cromidas’ article was another example of an attack on traditional Orthodoxy.  Many Orthodox Christians visit monasteries, and people like Mr. Cromidas constantly criticize those of us who choose to visit monasteries, particularly monasteries of Elder Ephraim. We should have the opportunity to defend our actions against those who continue to call us “cult-followers”.

Gerontissa Taxiarhia (l) with Gerontissa Makrina (r).
Gerontissa Taxiarhia (l) with Gerontissa Makrina (r).

I was blessed to visit, as Mr. Cromidas would say, an “Ephraimite” monastery for the first time over a decade ago.  I was just 17 at the time, and at that point in my life, I was a typical teenager who thought I knew everything.  I had major attitude and a chip on my shoulder.  I was overly concerned with my appearance, and materialism in general.  After all, it was the nineties; I was just doing what was commonplace “in the world.”  I wasn’t at all interested in the church, and felt services were long and boring.  To me, Orthodoxy was something I might think of getting around to, much later in my life.  Thank God that by His providence I met Abbess Taxiarhia (who reposed in 1994).  She was an embodiment of humility, purity, and true Christ-like love.  Before meeting her, I didn’t think there was such a thing as Christ-like love.  Yes, I had read the Bible, and heard of “love your enemies,” but I didn’t believe it; after all, the world had become much more “an eye for an eye”, than “bless those who curse you”.  I felt it unrealistic that love like Christ had could really exist, especially in this day and age.  But as I said, by God’s providence, I saw it, and continue to see it abundantly in many monastic communities that I have visited here and in Greece.  Monasteries that are filled with young men and women who were so overcome by their love for Christ, they abandoned the material world to seek the spiritual.  They have chosen to live their faith entirely.  They have chosen to dedicate their lives to Christ, who gave His life for them and for us.

Iconostasis (Saxonburg Monastery)
Iconostasis (Saxonburg Monastery)

Abandon the world for Christ?  They must be crazy.  Yes, in this world, so overcome by materialism that most teenagers carry cell phones and spend hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes, such an idea is considered crazy.  After all, who WOULDN’T want to make a lot of money, enjoy the “finer things” in life, and travel to exciting and exotic places?  Who DOESN’T want to “live life to the fullest?”  Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, RIGHT?  Yes, this is what the world tells us.  But in truth, the Holy Orthodox Church has been telling us for the past 2000 + years that such hedonistic thinking is incorrect.  Since the time of Christ, hedonism has been viewed as a horribly sinful way of life that leads to eternal damnation.  From the teachings of the Apostles, to such modern day saints as St. Nektarios of Aegina and St. John Maximovitch, our faith has taught us to live a life of temperance, moderation, obedience to Christ’s teachings, and purity…such things are not only the foundations of the monastic life, but for Orthodox Christian life as well.  You see, the Gospel of Christ, and the teachings of the Holy Fathers, from the time of the Apostles, were not written just for the monastics, but for all of us.

Fr. Zosima (Karamazov Brothers), a character based on St. Seraphim of Sarov.
Fr. Zosima (Karamazov Brothers), a character based on St. Seraphim of Sarov.

I mention obedience as being paramount to both monastic and Orthodox life.  Mr. Cromidas refers to obedience to a spiritual father as being the equivalent of a “cult”.  First of all, the concept of obedience to a spiritual father is not as radical and fanatical as some would say.  In 19th century literature Dostoyevsky illustrates the concept in such literary works as “The Brothers Karamazov”, with Fr. Zosima, a character based on St. Seraphim of Sarov.  St. Seraphim of Sarov had thousands come from great distances to confess to him, seek his counsel, and “receive blessings” before doing things in their daily lives.  Were his spiritual children behaving in a cult-like manner?  Were there not hierarchs and others who spoke out emphatically against St. Seraphim?  Yet our Holy Church thought enough of him to canonize him.  I understand, though, that in this day and age, the 21st century, and the “age of empowering oneself”, the concept of obedience to a spiritual father seems ridiculous.  We are taught, “I don’t have to answer to anyone, and I can do as I please.  No one should dare tell ME what to do.”  Yes, this is what the world teaches us, but again, completely opposite what the church teaches us.  The church teaches us to follow Christ, Who was obedient “to death, death on a Cross.”  To quote Elder Joseph the Hesychast:  “Let us take as an example our sweet Jesus Who was obedient to His beginningless Father to death on a cross.  He gave His body to scourges, His cheeks to slaps, and He did not turn His face from the spitting.  Do you see how much love the Compassionate Lord showed us?  So let us give up our will as well…” (Monastic Wisdom).  Do these sound like the rantings of a fanatical zealot?  Christ himself tells us to “deny ourselves” if we wish to follow Him.  As Orthodox Christians if we heed this call, and choose a Spiritual Father to aid in this plight, we are considered irrational and radical by the world’s standards?  Yes, in this day and age, if we choose to “deny ourselves” we are considered to be naïve, “following blindly”.  Sadly, the world’s “teachings” are now considered to be “normal” and the truth of the Gospel “abnormal.”

Relics of St. Joseph the Hesychast.
Relics of St. Joseph the Hesychast.

I feel compelled to address certain specific points of Mr. Cromidas’ letter that are particularly offensive, and very much untrue.  First of all, he states that Elder Ephraim came to America “under nefarious circumstances” in the nineties.  This is untrue.  Elder Ephraim had been visiting America and Canada since the early 1980’s.   During that time he met many faithful who yearned to have the examples of traditional Orthodoxy provided by monastics.  Elder Ephraim came to North America to answer the call of such people.  His presence in this country has ALWAYS been with the permission of the Archdiocese.  Any monastery he has started has been started with the permission of the Archdiocese and respective Bishop/Metropolitan.  Elder Ephraim has never disobeyed any hierarch in this country.  To imply his presence in this country came about under “nefarious” circumstances is simply untrue.

Fr. Ephraim at Holy Cross Seminary shortly after leaving ROCOR to rejoin the EP and GOA (1992)
Fr. Ephraim at Holy Cross Seminary shortly after leaving ROCOR to rejoin the EP and GOA (1992)

Mr. Cromidas also made the implication that some “Ephraimite confessors” (I assume he is referring to priests who are spiritual children of Elder Ephraim, aside from people who attack Elder Ephraim, I have never heard the term “Ephraimite”) seem to have “a form of sexual misconduct” by seeming to “focus on sexual matters” in confession.  Mr. Cromidas seems astonished that penance be imposed for sexual impropriety.  Does this world really even believe that there is such a thing as sexual impropriety?  Obviously not, as abortion and homosexuality run rampant, ten-year olds have babies, and elementary school children experiment with oral sex.  This is what is normal in this world.  We are taught to embrace our sexuality, that our “desires” are normal and “only human”.  To deny them is abnormal.  Sadly, even some who call themselves Orthodox Christians write books telling us that sexuality is holy!  Such lack of temperance is what gives people the green light to act as they please.  Shows like “Sex and the City” and “Coupling” seek to present the act of sex as something that we should be able to practice with whomever and whenever or wherever we can.  Is it any wonder young children are sexually active?  Is it any wonder that abortion and homosexuality are considered “normal”?  Such atrocities are the CONSEQUENCES of this world’s view on sexuality!  What THIS WORLD teaches us about sex is immoral and not Orthodox, I would even say demonic, yes, DEMONIC.  If we embrace the world’s view, we are no better than the animals, which lack the rational ability to control their passions.  And for Mr. Cromidas to imply that a priest imposing a penance and teaching moderation and temperance in such matters somehow shows sexual misconduct is so grossly un-Orthodox.  He need only read St. Chrysostom or St. Basil among others, who counsel temperance in the sexual life, and impose extreme penances for sins such as abortion.  Would Mr. Cromidas consider St. Chrysostom to have performed “sexual misconduct”?  But Mr. Cromidas, sadly, is not alone in his opinions; his is just another example of how the world views the church as “antiquated” and not applicable in today’s society.  The simple truth, albeit very unpopular, is that God created the sex act for the purpose of procreation to be used ONLY within the context of marriage.  Yes, I know that most everyone who just read that line probably thinks that such a concept is unrealistic.  I have even heard Orthodox Priests counsel people that it is unrealistic, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.  (For the record, I am not a monastic, but an educated, married woman, 27 years old, and a mother as well).   This world (once again) goes against what the Holy Church has been teaching us for 2000+ years; should we follow tradition, or the world?

Geronda Ephraim doing confessions at a spiritual child's house
Geronda Ephraim doing confessions at a spiritual child’s house

Mr. Cromidas also asserted, “Ephraim monasteries do not appear to have money problems.”  I can personally attest that his statement is FALSE!  Many of the monasteries struggle to pay their monthly bills. They do not receive any money from the Archdiocese, do not have “Stewardship Programs” and do not pass trays at services. They rely solely on donations from visitors as well as the sale of the handiwork of the brotherhood/sisterhood.  Many wealthy benefactors of the Archdiocese refuse to donate, as the monastery will not make them “a plaque” or name a building after them. Moreover, I have personally seen people who frequently attend parishes visit the monasteries and refuse to buy things because “it is too much to pay for an icon.”  Of such people I wonder, do they refuse to buy $100 shoes and $1000 suits?  For to adorn the body at all costs is acceptable according to the world’s standards.  But to pay for spiritual edification?  Nonsense, it’s not worth it!  My heart weeps for the world we live in, our priorities are so perverted.

20 pairs of orthopedic shoes x $200 = $4,000. Most monastics have work shoes/boots; church/going out shoes; and in some cases winter boots. That's roughly $200-700 per monastic just in footwear.
20 pairs of orthopedic shoes x $200 = $4,000. Most monastics have work shoes/boots; church/going out shoes; and in some cases winter boots. That’s roughly $200-700 per monastic just in footwear.

As for Mr. Cromidas’ frequent use of the word “Ephraimite”, I have to wonder, has he ever met Elder Ephraim?  In fact, I wonder how many of those who throw around words like “cult”, “guru” and “Ephraimite” have actually met with him to speak with him directly about their concerns.  It seems that such people are fueled by misinformation from a few people.  Lies are spread around so often in some circles, they are eventually regarded as true.  People are quick to take things out of context and present it in a way that suits their own agenda.  I would urge Mr. Cromidas to seek to find the truth for himself, rather than relying on the Greek Herald or other sources, even hierarchs or clergy who have not met or don’t really know Elder Ephraim.  But I also urge Mr. Cromidas to look to history.  St. Nektarios of Aegina was repeatedly mocked and accused of the most horrendous and unspeakable things — LIES of a few people, set out to slander a holy man who sought to teach traditional Orthodoxy to the people.  And today he is highly regarded as one of the greatest Saints of these times.  People flock to his tomb in Aegina and countless miracles have been performed through his prayers.  But do NOT misquote me; I am not implying Elder Ephraim is a “living saint”.  He is a monastic, going about his work of teaching traditional Orthodoxy to the people.

Icon given to monks & nuns for their cells. In some monasteries, monastics have a blessing to prostrate before it and pray to Geronda Ephraim for help during difficult warfares.
Icon given to monks & nuns for their cells. In some monasteries, monastics have a blessing to prostrate before it and pray to Geronda Ephraim for help during difficult warfares.

The sad truth is that the state of the world today is so opposite to what the Church teaches, and most people feel that the Church should adapt to the times, rather than the people resisting the changes of the world, and holding fast to their faith.  One need only read the Holy Fathers to see that, while the world has indeed gotten worse, the same passions and filth that plague society today have existed for thousands of years.  Think Sodom and Gomorrah.  Nineveh.  Corinth.  Could they not all be considered ancient versions of some “sin cities” like Las Vegas?  Yet God sent his angels to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Jonah was sent to convey His message of repentance to the Ninevites.  The Apostle Paul tirelessly sought to teach His truth to the Corinthians.  God sought to teach those people that living according to the world’s standards was not His plan for them, that they should repent and follow Him.  There are hundreds of thousands of examples throughout history.  Read St. Chrysostom.  Are his 4th century teachings not relevant to the things we face today?  Yes, relevant and applicable to those seeking to follow the Church, not the world.  God provides beacons for those who wish to follow Him; He has throughout history.  In this day and age, those beacons are the monastics, as they are living examples of traditional Orthodoxy.   Yes the world wants the Church to change, many Orthodox want to change the Church to suit their own purposes!  They want a “church” in which their sins would be justified since, after all, “we are only human.”  But the Church will never change, for it was given by Christ and preserved from the time of the Holy Apostles through the Orthodox Church.  Other religions will “change”.  Their homosexual bishops and women preachers will not influence traditional Holy Orthodoxy, because GOD will provide us with people who will help us cling to our faith, and will teach that faith.  In the words of St. Gregory the Theologian, “The faith which I was taught by the Holy Fathers, which I taught at all times without adjusting according to the times, this Faith I will never stop teaching; I was born with it, and I live by it.”  The world will change, and continue to change, and to prevent that change would be impossible.  Our one constant though, is our faith.  As the Apostle said, Christ is the same, “yesterday today and always.”

The Sodom and Gomorrah motif from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493. Note Lot's wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center.
The Sodom and Gomorrah motif from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493. Note Lot’s wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center.

Would many in this world consider me a lunatic, fundamentalist, zealot or cultist for my views?  Am I naïve for “blindly following” teachings which are not realistic in today’s society?  To think that way is not a new concept.  Were not those who followed Christ shunned?  And throughout the history of the church we are provided with thousands of examples of people so committed to following Christ, that they willingly shed their blood rather than deny Him.  They denied themselves, they denied the world.  They chose to follow Him instead of the world.  As they sacrificed their bodies to the most horrible tortures, I am quite sure that many onlookers considered them to be “following blindly”, and acting crazy.  But in the end, what the nay-sayers thought didn’t matter, for God rewarded such “blind obedience” with the precious crown of martyrdom, numbering such “zealots” among the righteous in His Kingdom.

Geronda Ephraim in his younger years.
Geronda Ephraim in his younger years.

Why am I writing this?  Because my heart weeps that when someone seeks to hold on to the traditions of our Holy Church, they are slandered.  Because since I choose to go to monasteries, I am considered to be “in a cult”.  If I attend a parish and cover my head with a scarf I get disapproving glares from people, but women who wear miniskirts, which leave nothing to the imagination, go about unnoticed in the Lord’s House.  Many Orthodox are complacent with attending occasional Sunday services, or even just Christmas and Easter.  How many people show up for the token red egg or palm cross?  This is what is considered normal in this world.  The bottom line is this: who is providing us with the examples of traditional Orthodoxy?  How many priests use the Fathers of the Church in their sermons?  I have heard priests in parishes quote “Ziggy” comic strips, as well as western philosophers and writers in their sermons. How many priests today seem more like “businessmen” then simple shepherds of their flock of faithful?  How many do not teach their parishioners to fast, much less fast themselves?  How many speak out openly for liberal political causes such as abortion? Greek festivals and Greek School programs are successful in the parishes and most Sunday School programs are failing, because many parents don’t bring their kids on a regular basis to learn about their faith.  Moreover, people who have no concept of Orthodox Theology are teaching Sunday School!  People leave church before the Great Entrance for “coffee hour”.  People show no reverence or respect when in Church; they talk, laugh and gossip during divine services.  I have seen parishes with 50 per cent of the people not even showing up before the Gospel!  Orthros services may as well not even be held in the parishes, for no one attends them anyway.  In fact, most people probably don’t even know what Orthros is!   How many children in the parishes could chant the hymn of their own parish?  How many of them could chant one hymn from the Divine Liturgy?  Many faithful, though, have been fortunate to find examples of traditional Orthodoxy through the monasteries.  Through the monastic presence in this country, traditional Orthodoxy will survive, and provide the faithful with the means to cling to their faith in its entirety.

Holy Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Saxonburg, PA.
Holy Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Saxonburg, PA.

This world has sought to wipe out Holy Orthodoxy with its ways.  But it will never succeed.  It will never succeed for Holy Orthodoxy is the ONLY truth.  It has been preserved since it has been handed down from the Holy Apostles.  It will be preserved for it is Christ’s and He will not allow it to perish.  Through the years, as other “denominations” have had problems with Holy Tradition, they have left the faith to form their own “religions” with their own “rules” which are more applicable to “the times”.  But this tradition that we as Orthodox have will NEVER die, it will be preserved until Christ comes again, when His Bride (the holy Orthodox Church) will be presented to Him, spotless and unchanged in its truth.   How does all this relate to the “Ephraim Question” which I set out to respond to?  Simply that what is being attacked every time Elder Ephraim is attacked is traditional Orthodoxy, because through his monasteries, people are being taught to cling to their faith, not the world.  Mr. Cromidas uses the phrase “in but not of the world” as relevant to monastics.   That statement is for all of us.  ANYONE who follows Christ should be “in but not of the world.”  Our church teaches us this.  This world is not our home, it will pass.  Our goal while we are here should be to live that we obtain paradise, our true homeland.  How do we achieve that?  We MUST be in but not of this world.  For we truly are NOT of this world, we are of Christ.  Monasticism has provided this country with many bright examples of how to live as Orthodox Christians.  The monastics are an example to all of us.

Entrance to Saxonburg Monastery
Entrance to Saxonburg Monastery

Before I met the Abbess Taxiarhia so many years ago, I was content to be of the world. I didn’t understand my faith.  I’m not sure I even wanted to. Thank God, for through one of Elder Ephraim’s monasteries, I was able to see how my life as I was living it was meaningless.  I had no clue as to what was really important.  Am I a “cult-follower”?  If seeking to live a traditionally Orthodox life (which I’ll admit I am not good at because of my sinfulness) makes me a “cult-follower” according to the world’s standards, then I am okay with that.  Being judged according to the world’s standards is meaningless…this world will pass.

Juliana Chrisanthus RN, Mars, PA.

https://web.archive.org/web/20061209105646/http://old.orthodoxnews.com/48/Letter.htm

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