NOTE: The following newspaper article is taken from My San Antonio, August 22, 2006.
KENDALIA — Off FM 473, 6 miles east of here near U.S. 281, a modest sign directs visitors down a meandering 3-mile road to an oasis of Greek Orthodox spirituality hidden in the middle of the Texas Hill Country.
Each Sunday, 80 to 100 visitors gather to attend a 9 a.m. Divine Liturgy at the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery. Those who don’t live in San Antonio, Austin or the Hill Country rent nearby motel rooms.
Founded in 1996, Holy Archangels is less known these days than the 25-year-old Christ of the Hills monastery 5 miles southwest of Blanco.
The Blanco monks’ only affiliation with any recognized ecclesiastical jurisdiction — the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — lasted from 1991 to 1999. A church spokesman said its recognition was revoked because the Blanco monks refused to abide by church discipline.
But Holy Archangels is affiliated with the 1.5 million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the largest nationwide Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Denver, Metropolitan Isaiah, is its regional superior.
“People have always confused us with them, but we have no connection,” said Father Dositheos, 38, the Canadian-born abbot of Holy Archangels. The two groups of monks wear similar black robes and have long beards.
The eight monks of Holy Archangels are veterans of monastic life on Mount Athos in Greece. They left the “holy mountain” to join other pioneers in establishing Greek Orthodox monasticism across the United States.
Holy Archangels is Texas’ first Greek Orthodox monastery and one of 15 built in this country since 1989. A monastery for women was recently dedicated in Washington County near Brenham.
Metropolitan Isaiah said Orthodoxy itself remains unfamiliar to many Western Christians. They widely assume it’s “foreign” because of its ethnically based divisions, which include Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Coptic, Antiochan, Romanian and Bulgarian, to name a few.
They share one faith, but each division has its own hierarchy. Each still uses its own language to varying degrees, feeding the “foreign” perception, Metropolitan Isaiah said.
In parts of the United States with large Orthodox populations, the monks are readily recognized by non-Orthodox neighbors, said Father Ephraim, 36, a Galveston-born priest-monk at Holy Archangels. “But there aren’t many monasteries in the Texas Hill Country.”
Metropolitan Isaiah said early Greek immigrants in the United States didn’t build monasteries because “they expected to make a quick fortune and return to the old country.”
That changed in 1989, when a monk from Mount Athos, known as Elder Ephraim, began founding a series of monasteries across the United States. Holy Archangels was the 10th in less than a decade.
It’s a huge blessing to Texas’ Orthodox faithful, said Andrew Constantinou, a member of St. Basil the Great Parish in Houston.
He drives 250 miles at least biweekly to help clear brush, paint walls, tend the vineyard below the monks’ house and even fill potholes in the dilapidated road that connects the monastery with the outside world.
“For me, it’s a labor of love. A monastery gives us a place to recharge our spiritual batteries. Having a monastery to go to is almost like being in the old country. In Greece and Cyprus, there are monasteries everywhere,” Constantinou said.
The monks at Holy Archangels describe their vocation as a continuation of the early Christian custom of living, eating, praying at different hours each day and working in community as described in the Acts of the Apostles.
“I love it here. If I’d heard about monastic life at a younger age, I’d have come earlier,” said Father Joseph, a 31-year-old South African.
“On Mount Athos, I was touched to see the monks in their black robes. They had a peace about them that was otherworldly.”
He and the others, like bees painstakingly making a hive, are building a spiritual legacy that could far outlast their own earthly lives.
The monastery’s centerpiece is a strikingly beautiful Byzantine-style church built of Texas limestone with a red-brick finish and an arched facade, dedicated in 1998.
Everything in it comes from Greece, Father Dositheos said. Its intricately detailed iconostasis, an oaken wall bearing colorful icons of Jesus and numerous Eastern saints, was hand-carved. So were the rows of seats on both sides of the church that all face the building’s central axis. [NOTE: The company in Serres, Greece that does all the wood work for Elder Ephraim’s monasteries in North America (chairs in the church, iconostasis’, etc.) http://www.eleftheriadi.gr/
Matching the church’s architecture is a modern, spacious dining hall that’s much too big for just eight monks.
But perhaps the monks’ boldest statement of confidence in the future is a building still perhaps two years short of completion: a three-story, 40,000-square-foot dormitory designed to accommodate not eight monks but 50.
Father Dositheos said progress on the building depends on continuing donations, the complex’s only source of funding.
“We don’t collect a certain level of funds and then say, ‘Let’s begin,'” he said. “We just keep moving forward. People appreciate seeing progress each time they come, and they keep helping.”
NOTE: The following newspaper article is taken from My San Antonio, October 30, 2009:
The Greek Orthodox bishop of Denver, Metropolitan Isaiah, will preside over the consecration of a monastery in Kendalia as part of services to celebrate the annual Feast of the Archangels next weekend.
The Greek Orthodox bishop of Denver, Metropolitan Isaiah, will preside over the consecration of a monastery in Kendalia as part of services to celebrate the annual Feast of the Archangels next weekend.
Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, at the end of Twin Sisters Drive in Kendalia north of Spring Branch, will have vespers at 4 p.m. Nov. 7 with a meal afterward and then a vigil service from 6 to 11 p.m.
The consecration from 7-9 a.m. Nov. 8 will be followed by Divine Liturgy from 9-11 a.m. and a meal.
Expected at the weekend services are several hundred lay members and clergy from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the nation’s largest Eastern Orthodox group. The Denver bishop oversees a 14-state region from Texas to Montana.
The monastery was completed in 1998, but by custom such holy buildings are not necessarily consecrated immediately, officials said. Five monks and three novices live at the monastery and conduct prayer and liturgical services daily.
For more information, including the monastery dress code and directions, call (830) 833-2793 or visit www.holyarchangels.org.
On page 53 of the July/Aug 2007 edition of Krētē (monthly publication of the Pancretan Association of America), the following announcement of an adult baptism is given:
“Carrie Drew Odum was baptized at Holy Archangels Greek orthodox Monastery at Kendalia Texas and was married to Anthony Kylitis son of Kosta and Elenie Kylitis on Saturday July 7, 2007 at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in San Antonio Texas.
We like to wish them a happy and prosperous life together.”
Several months ago, the Greek-American newspaper, The National Herald, reported that the Synod of American Greek Orthodox bishops had expressed concern about Father Ephraim, and his followers. This former Athonite (Mt. Athos) monk has established some 16 monasteries in the United States since about 1989.
He is also known as Elder Ephraim. The news article stated in part : “It has been said that some sort of fundamentalist movement with a cult philosophy has been advocated by the followers of Ephraim, and is having an impact among the clergy and theology students at Holy Cross School of Theology.” After that article, I urged, in a letter-to-the-editor, that there be an investigation. To my knowledge, there has not been any inquiry, nor has been any further news reporting on the subject.
When the new Metropolitan (Bishop) of the New Jersey diocese took office this spring, it was reported reliably that at his first meeting with the clergy, he announced that Ephraim and his followers were not welcome in the diocese and that the faithful should go to their own priests for confession. This diocese includes some 50 churches in five states. There has been no further confirmation or a denial of the Metropolitan’s statement. In the absence of any denials, one can assume there is some validity to the reports about the Synod’s concern and about the Metropolitan’s directive.
There was also the warning earlier this year from another bishop, Metropolitan Methodios of Boston. He was quoted by the Herald as saying: “Neither is there a place in Orthodoxy for radical fundamentalism, religious fanaticism or cult leaders disguised as Orthodox sages.” “Was he talking about the Ephraim situation? If not, who was he referring to?
Are these accidental words: fundamentalist and cult? Did the bishops wake up one fine day and decide to use them?
In a similar vein, in 1998, Metropolitan Isaiah of the Denver diocese issued a protocol to his priests titled: “The Lord Does Not Want Slaves in His Kingdom”. He wrote in part:
“This spirit of blind obedience with the deadening of the free will is unfortunately being practiced among some of our people and even by some of our clergy. They will not do anything without first receiving a ‘blessing’ from their ‘spiritual father’. And if they have been convinced that the spiritual father is a walking saint, they will eat his unfinished food after the common meal and even consume other things which may have touched the spiritual father in some particular way. This is nothing more than idolatry. It puts God aside and constitutes the worship of His creature.”
He went on to say that: “It may be that some of our people, by following the monastic rule in the outside world, feel convinced that they are becoming more spiritual. However, they are sadly mistaken: for the monastic, as a novice, is willingly obedient in order to determine if he wishes to live the life of a monastic. Once he is accepted as a monk, he must resume the use of his free will in conforming to the way of life which he has chosen. The laity, on the other hand, cannot use the monastery or the spiritual elder as one uses a horoscope, not functioning unless they receive permission.”
He concluded with: “If there are members of the Diocese who have fallen into the error of negating their free will and being totally dependent on what their spiritual mentor instructs them to do, let them know that God does not want slaves in His Kingdom, but obedient children who constantly exercise their free will as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.”
Apparently he received some criticism, for he later wrote wrote: “I am totally surprised that certain persons misinterpreted the encyclical and thought that I was criticizing our Orthodox monastics and specifically one or two of our Orthodox elders…I was clearly referring only to those followers who relax or negate their free wills.”
During the administration of Archbishop Spyridon, in a November 1998 article in the Herald, the well-known reporter-commentator, Theodore Kalmoukos, wrote:
“Fr. Ephraim who came to America under nefarious circumstances in the early 90’s first joined the Russian synod in exile after receiving a ‘directive’ from God as he proclaimed at the time. However, when he was threatened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate that he would be defrocked, he received another ‘directive’ from God and abandoned the Russians. Ephraim has established a string of monasteries in America and, through intense confessional activity, has created many personal loyalties.”
“Fr. Ephraim has significant influence in the administration of the Archdiocese. The current Chancellor, Fr. George Passias, happens to be one of Ephraim’s most loyal followers. Ephraim is also admired by the new President of the Theological School, Archimandrite Damaskinos Ganas, who, according to sources, wants to invite Fr. Ephraim to hear confessions from students.”
Do the bishops define the situation as being an issue between them and the Ephraimites only? It would appear so based on a decision at the September 2002 meeting of the Synod. According to the press release from the Archdiocese, it was decided that the committees of the Synod would be combined with the committees of the Archdiocesan Council, “to provide for more input by members of the Council as well as to facilitate the implementation of decisions that are made in basic areas of the life of the Church.” But, the release went on to say that this would not apply to the committee on Monasticism. That apparently would be the bishop’s domain. It can also be noted that the currently disputed charter of the Archdiocese, “granted” by the Patriarch in 2003, includes authority for the supervision of the monasteries by the bishops.
One of the complaints voiced by some clergy and laity is that the Ephraimite confessors have focused on sexual matters. A member of a group visiting an Ephraimite monastery reported that the monk-confessor had a lengthy list of questions, most of them of a sexual nature, and gave severe penances even to married couples, with the penances being longer for the wives. In the evening, the men and women were separated to hear different speakers. The one who addressed the women berated them about being sinful, as women, and that their only virtue was in bearing children. If true, is this an example of the “fundamentalism” that has been referred to? In view of what has been learned these past two years about the clergy abuse problem , particularly in the Catholic church, the monks’ pre-occupation with sexual matters could indeed be seen as a form of sexual misconduct.
Is the concern about Ephraim and his monasteries a territorial or “turf” battle, as well as one of sacramental rights? Do the parish clergy and bishops feel that the monks are developing a following among the faithful and that a kind of encroachment is taking place? If the New Jersey announcement is accurate, it would appear so. It is also ironic that the Ephraim monasteries do not appear to have money problems, while the Greek archdiocese does, and at any given time, parishes are without priests.
At the 2000 Clergy-Laity Congress, Metropolitan Anthony of the San Francisco diocese responded to concerns expressed about Ephraim by saying he was chairing a committee of the synod that was looking into the matter. If there has been a report by this committee, it has not been shared with the faithful.
Archbishop Spyridon apparently tried to define the respective roles at a retreat for clergy in March of 1998, held at the Ephraimite monastery in Florence, Arizona. It was for the clergy of the San Francisco diocese, according to the archdiocese press release, and Metropolitan Anthony and 58 priests were present. The theme was the “relationship of monasteries to the local bishop and to the local parish”. The release said that the priests had “lengthy open dialogues” with the Archbishop, and that he stressed the value of all three orders in the Church, clergy, laity and monasticism. He was quoted as saying:
“Spiritual therapy is indeed the primary role of Monasticism. It is precisely this role that renders Monasticism friendly and, so to say, popular, at certain levels of the Church, because it does not elevate Monasticism above the other orders in the Church.” Just what was meant by spiritual therapy was not explained. One can hope that confession-by-list and the group sessions mentioned above would not be examples of such “therapy”. In any case, the current atmosphere would suggest that perhaps, in some circles, monasticism is being elevated above the other orders of the church. Have the Ephraimites not “kept their proper place”?
A message that appeared on the Internet in 1999 may provide a clue or two. It was apparently from an Orthodox priest in Arizona, and said, in part:
“My situation has progressed with the mission group here and there is new pressure on me to be in a more ‘regular’ situation. Let me explain. There are about a dozen convert families here who float between all the ‘ethnic’ churches because they are zealous for traditional spirituality and get impatient with either the closed minded ethnic dominance or a ‘modernized’ and enemic version of Orthodoxy. So these people spend a lot of time at Fr. Ephraim’s monastery in Florence and take seriously the advice of their spiritual fathers there. They have committed themselves to starting a new mission parish that is traditional, not dominated by one ‘ethnic’ flavor, doesn’t have the old world parish politics, has services every day, does outreach to young people, helps bring new converts deeper into the church, etc., etc. They are withdrawing from the Greek, Antiochian, OCA and ROCOR churches to begin this new mission, and are doing it under the guidance of the monks at the monastery.”
(Note: OCA is the Orthodox Church in America, and ROCOR stands for Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, two other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States).
While the charter mentioned above calls for monastery oversight by the respective diocesan bishops, Ephraim’s accountability is not clear. Who is his superior? Does he report to another elder on Mt. Athos? To Patriarch Bartholomew? To Archbishop Demetrios? Or to one of the American Metropolitans, depending on which monastery he’s visiting? Does he have any accountability to the Greek-American Orthodox faithful, as he moves about the country “in this world, but not of this world”, as the definition of a monastic goes?
There is a wide spectrum of feelings about Ephraim, among both clergy and laity. On the extremes, some view him as God’s gift to Orthodox spirituality in America, while others see him as a cult leader who should return to Mt. Athos.
One thing is apparent: an explanation from the American bishops about the Ephraim situation is long overdue. It should not be treated as a taboo subject any longer.
We are living at a time in which most people stress their total independence of all things or they prefer to come under the shelter and obedience of a charismatic leader. Few are they who follow the Christian principle of adoption as God’s children.
Nowhere in the oral and written testimony of the Church does one read that a person should be totally independent of all influence which is an impossibility, nor does one find that a person should practice blind obedience to any other person.
Our Lord says, “Whoever wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34)
Having been created in God’s image, we have intellect, cognition, freedom of choice, and understanding. When the Lord invites us to deny ourselves, He does so in order for us to realize that we must first make the decision that we are not who we think we are, but that we are to seek and find Christ within us as our real selves. Once we find Christ within us and we understand and accept that we are created in His image, He then adopts us, not as slaves, but as free and loving sons and daughters (cf. Galatians 4:1-7)
For one to have a blind obedience to another, whether a lover, or a master, or a religious guru, means that such a person no longer has a free will but has turned it over to another creature.
When a Christian turns his free will over to Christ, the Lord purifies it and returns it to him so that his obedience thereafter is based only on love exercised through that free will.
When our Lord expressed His obedience to the Father by emptying Himself of His glory and becoming one of us, He did so with the exercise of His free will. Otherwise He could never have said on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” It was His free will in obedient love to the Father that effected the Supreme Sacrifice.
Today it seems that some people will not make a move unless they check with their spiritual father in virtually everything. This phenomenon happened with certain converts to Orthodoxy some years ago when they were told where to live and where to work and how much money to contribute to the Church.
They thought that they were imitating the first Christians in the Book of Acts who held everything in common. But they did realize that the first Christians lived this way because they believed that the Lord was to return during their lifetime. Consequently these new Orthodox converts exercised a blind obedience to their religious leaders, relinquishing their free wills and their responsibility for making their own decisions regarding their families, their livelihood, and their welfare.
This spirit of blind obedience with the deadening of the free will is unfortunately being practiced among some of our people and even by some of our clergy. They will not do anything without first receiving a “blessing” from their “spiritual father.” And if they have been convinced that the spiritual father is a walking saint, they will eat his unfinished food after the common meal and even consume other things which may have touched the spiritual father in some particular way. This is nothing more than idolatry. It puts God aside and constitutes the worship of His creature.
It may be that some of our people, by following the monastic rule in the outside world, feel convinced that they are becoming more spiritual. However, they are sadly mistaken; for the monastic, as a novice, is willingly obedient in order to determine if he wishes to live the life of a monastic. Once he is accepted as a monk, he must resume the use of his free will in conforming to the way of life which he has chosen. The laity, on the other hand, cannot use the monastery or the spiritual elder as one uses a horoscope, not functioning unless they receive permission.
Actually, such an attitude betrays the fact that these people do not wish to accept the responsibility of directing their own lives, and prefer to pass this responsibility on to another.
If there are members of the Diocese who have fallen into the error of negating their free will and being totally dependent on what their spiritual mentor instructs them to do, let them know that God does not want slaves in His Kingdom, but obedient children who constantly exercise their free will as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
With Paternal Blessings,
Metropolitan Isaiah Presiding Hierarch of the Diocese of Denver