NOTE: The following text is Monk Michael’s response to Dr. Panagiotis Grigoriou’s (psychiatrist) critique in the Sunday Typos, June 10th, 2001.
Psychiatric drugs are not antibiotics. Do not confuse mucus with marmalades.
Our interview on April 22, 2001 dealt with many of the problems that occur on Mount Athos and even more mobilized against us. As they told me on my recent trip to the Mt. Athos, the Holy Community of Mount Athos, as well as the Church of Greece, has exercised more pressure to censure and refute me. There is even a decision made by the Holy Community to not sell my books in any of the stores in Daphne and Karyes.1
A neurologist-psychiatrist named Panos Grigoriou—Director of the Psychiatric Department of the general Hospital in Halkidiki—was one of those that mobilized against us. Firstly, the likeable psychiatrist with his epistle in the Sunday Typos 10/06/2001 is surprised because I consider psychiatric drugs an indication of morbidity and failure on Mount Athos. He states, “We take psychiatric drugs just as we take antibiotics, anti-hypersensitive or anti-rheumatic medicine.”
The above mentality of the psychiatrist is representative of a new generation of Christians—and monks in particular—that now consider psychiatric drugs as a natural fact of daily life. The conversation we had with a doctor-novice at Grigoriou Monastery at the Monastery of the Holy Forerunner in Dimitsana (Summer 2001), is indicative of this entire spirit. This novice-doctor made a special trip to meet me there.
Novice-Doctor: “Why does it surprise you, Fr. Michael, that monks take psychiatric drugs? Are they not people, too? For example, I arranged the pharmacy of our monastery and indeed I saw boxes with psychiatric drugs but they are used very little. Then I asked the Elder if we could make a special area for the psychotropic medicine and that space was made. I assure you that the monks taking psychiatric drugs continue their lives at the same rate without affecting their spiritual life in the least. Do you know such and such a priest?”
Monk Michael: “Yes, I’ve known him since 1975.”
Novice-Doctor: “Heh, I put him on medication when I arranged the pharmacy.”
Monk Michael: “You mean psychiatric drugs?”
Novice-Doctor: “Yes, I mean psychiatric drugs. But I assure you that he continues to be the same sweet, gentle, humble person as before. And those who confess him confirm this and they assure me that he gives rest to those close to him. So, what is your problem?”
I was startled!
Monk Michael: “Oh well, have you not yet understood as a doctor that healthy is quite different than sick? People take drugs when they lose their health and, in this case, mental health and balance, to support and continue their life. It is surprising that you say this is the same thing. Afterwards, you say that hundreds of boxes of psychiatric drugs inside the monastery and then assure us that they are rarely used. For me, the question isn’t how often are they used but rather what business does psychotropic drugs have in a monastery? What was the reasoning to purchase them? Under what pressing need did they fill their pharmacy with these drugs?
“Understand how ‘psychiatric drugs for Mount Athos’ sounds to my ears—it’s almost like telling me that you arranged contraceptives in the pharmacy. It’s about the same absurdity. So tell me about how this priest went to psychiatric drugs after 25 years [in the monastery]?”
Novice-Doctor: “Yes, but he remains the same as he always was.”
Conclusion: “No, my beloved psychiatrist, psychotropic drugs are neither antibiotics nor anti-rheumatic. Getting physically sick and probably restoring health once again is different than breaking down and your little soul becoming sick—a sickness that frequently the remainder of your life does not suffice to restore it.”
In a strange manner, both Dr. Panos Grigoriou and Makis Triantaphullopoulos expressed precisely the same question with the same words: “If some people have a need why shouldn’t they take psychiatric drugs?”
This is a misleading question. Firstly, let’s make a clarification: When the monks entered the brotherhood, did they take psychiatric drugs or not? If they didn’t take them when they entered and started taking them in the monastery after 10-15 years of the monastic life, then it’s time some prosecutor to investigate the situation and pull the ears of some abbots. In the latter case, it is unacceptable if the individual was already mentally ill when he entered the monastery because a mentally ill person is never allowed to join the monastic brotherhood. You treat him kindly, you support him, you share his pain, help him as much as you can, but you don’t enroll him. There are two reasons for not enlisting a mentally ill individual into a monastic brotherhood.
- Because you cannot recruit some young man for an uphill struggle—indeed even for the rest of his life—if he doesn’t have the necessary presuppositions to withstand the pressure and deprivation to make ends meet. The most basic presupposition for one entering a monastery is mental health and balance.
- The experience of the Athonite life knows that a mentally ill individual with a strong character can topple an entire brotherhood. Mental illness hides an indomitable ego that becomes uncontrolled and destructive when it finds room to be developed. This is expressed with an unbridled stubbornness, lack of cooperation, fixed ideas, tantrums, complexes, etc. Due to all these things, the mentally ill patient cannot join the monastic brotherhood.
Dr. Panos writes: “Fr. Michael implies that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems.” It is not restricted to that. There are many things that smash the soul of a monk.
- The false sanctities of their Elder.2
- Their “miracles” and “visions” that serve obvious purposes, such as absolute obedience and submission.3
- Dispute by the abbots of every healthy reflection and privation of the possibility of dialogue from the simple monk. It suffices to say that three Hagiorite Hegoumens have said to their brotherhoods: “For you, I am your God.”4
In the “neptic” monastery,5 the Geronda announced that he would travel again to America. A monastic thought: “Doesn’t it seem like our Geronda goes out into the world a lot? Why can’t we also travel?” That evening he confessed his logismoi (Geronda had imposed daily confession/revelation of thoughts); the monk told the Geronda his thoughts. The next morning, as the fathers exited the church to go to the dining-hall the monk was kneeling at the door and cried with a lamentable tone:
“Fathers and Brothers, forgive me, the sinner, because the devil deluded me and I judged my Geronda!”6
This happened recently.
But the cultivation in monasticism and turning their monastic interest exclusively to utopian goals, such as lights, visions, charismas, sanctimoniousness, foresight, etc., under its presupposition of absolute obedience to the ruling Abbot. According to them one “no” destroys and negates not only the existing spiritual edifice that they built with so much pain and toil, but also erases and excludes any future spiritual success—it also has tragic consequences.7
These theories replaced the mindset we found when we went to the Holy Mountain: the teaching of repentance and the awareness of our sinfulness as a presupposition of spiritual development and progress.
All these things, amongst many others, cause the complete suppression of personality and suppress any personal expression and healthy manifestation. Over time, these things consistently drive one to mental fatigue, melancholy, disillusionment and slowly to psychiatric drugs. As for the militarization and total subjugation of the contemporary neo-Hagiorite Abbots, it suffices us to mention what occurred at the recent biannual Synaxis of the Holy Mountain [These gatherings take place twice a year consisting of 20 abbots and 20 representatives of the monasteries in Karyes].
A monk left his monastery (Xenophontos) and sought a cell in another monastery. His Abbot, Alexios, intervened and persuaded the other monastery not to give him a cell. When the monk addressed two other monasteries, the Abbot chased him out of there. I asked the monk who told me about the incident, “Why did your Abbot do this?” He answered, “He wanted me to be discouraged as a monk and throw off my rassa. And thus he could justify this to the brotherhood, ‘Here was the one left; a humiliated failure.’”
At this biannual Assembly, Abbot Alexios proposed to the other abbots to make a decision: when a monk leaves a monastery, no other Athonite monastery should accept him. Then Parthenius, Abbot of St. Paul Monastery, stood up and told him:
“Are you not ashamed at what you’re saying? For the child to leave from his monastery means that he is not at rest and fatigued there. He has all the right to look somewhere else, within Mount Athos, to find rest. We already made the decision earlier and we did not give dismissal to monks who wanted to leave Mount Athos. If we deprive them of the ability to another monastery on Athos, then the children facing this dead end we thrush upon them might throw of their robes and go to the world to be married. Is this where you ultimately want to lead them?”8
And the monk who narrated this story concluded, “The good-natured Hagiorite Abbot [Parthenius] could not imagine that our Geronda (Alexios) wanted to push things there.”
But Geronda Parthenius of St. Paul Monastery is the exception in the neo-Hagiorite Abbots as he is of the old and genuine Athonite guard. Concerning the above, Geronda Parthenius, we say unto you: “May your memory be eternal, may your memory be eternal, may your memory be eternal.”
The sympathetic psychiatrist writes: “It is to their praise that the prudent and virtuous monks visit the psychiatrist.” This premise is unprecedented in monastic history because it is particularly absurd. The virtuous monk is presumed to be healthy because as long as virtue is a supernatural event, he will have some supernatural elements in his life. However, the restoration of mental health precedes every trace of spiritual phenomenon and virtue.
It costs him that we consider psychiatrists unnecessary for monks. I would like to say that if there are healthy and normal clergy in the Orthodox Church, then the collaboration with a psychiatrist would be superfluous not only for monks but for every conscious Christian and even every rational Greek. The psychiatrist tries to persuade us that he contributes to restoring the patient’s mental/spiritual health. I myself believe more in what Geronda Porphyrios told me:
“It is humanly impossible for the mentally/spiritually suffering to be helped except only through the Holy Spirit. He who created the human heart is the only one who is able to replace a part when it becomes sick.”9
Namely, the Geronda wanted to say that the boat of everyday life can overturn on someone and result in mental illness, whether with a careless life or through inheritance or by tragic events. From there on, let him look for the miracle in his life because only the intervention of some saint or God’s grace, through our repentance and contrition of heart, may bring healing and health. As long as Elders like Geronda Porphyrios, Geronda Paisios and others exist, psychiatrists are unnecessary for monks or any believer who has associated with them and derived strength from the life-giving power of their heart to continue their life normally without psychiatrists. But now that they have completely missed these healthy and life-giving spiritual personalities and they’ve been replaced by monkeys [also can mean mimics or cunning, malicious fellows], they have discovered that psychiatric centers are useful for monks!10
But psychiatric drugs—useful for the psychiatrist Panos and an honor for the virtuous monks who take them—are soul-destroying because they don’t only suppress mental anomalies and disorders, they also bind every instinctive potential movement of the heart towards its Creator. Therefore, psychiatric drugs exclude the main source of healing, which is the cultivation of relations with God.
The entire article attempts to make prose of the problem and annihilate it with enviable maneuver and excessive art. This whole effort seems funny to me and reminds me of General Mardonius’ speech to King Xerxes after the naval battle of Salamis.11 When Xerxes looked abject and shocked at the debris of hundreds of Persian ships, Mardonius undertook to console him:
“My King, do not be saddened about planks and beams. Did we come to Greece for timber? The mainland army remains integral. My King, don’t allow your heart to be depressed over some broken planks!”
Etc…etc…Panos writes lots of similar things.
- The fact that you can prose such tragic events and debase them like Mardonius as well as distort them with such force means that you need a psychiatrist—to at least restore your judgment and say things as they are and as they appear to the rest of the world. You see, I also find some useful roles for psychiatrists.
- You address yourself to the Greek people, reassuring them: “Nothing serious and ugly happens on Mount Athos, you can be certain.”
You and those you represent can convince and manipulate the Greeks because they are a species in decline and one does whatever he wants, especially the Hagiorites. But now we’ve entered the European Union where there are civilized societies with sensitivities and human rights. And the time will come when they learn about what is happening on Mount Athos. They will expose you and all of Orthodoxy will be vilified along with you. If you cannot tolerate a debate or criticism by a monk with comprehension and, I can assure you, with a genuine interest, then you will be ridiculed mercilessly by others for your antics. This is a spiritual law and it will be fully applied to you. Your special privileges and whims are recognized and imposed on the decayed Helladic society and Church. Not to God, however, Who requires sincerity, openness, honesty, courage and especially modesty and humility from those associated with Him; namely they don’t have a high opinion of themselves.
- This kind of censorship is used by the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. Books by authors who have criticized the person of Geronda Ephraim or his methodologies (i.e.; requiring absolute blind obedience, authoritarianism, etc.) are usually not sold in the bookstores. For a number of years, St. Anthony’s Monastery, and a few of Geronda Ephraim’s other monasteries, boycotted Geronda Porphyrios and Geronda Paisios’ books “because of all the difficulties they gave Geronda Ephraim in Greece and all their criticisms of him.” However, as more books were translated into English and demands for orders increased, the boycott was slackened. Now that both Elders are officially canonized as saints in the Orthodox Church, the earlier stories about their criticisms are no longer talked about and have been swept under the carpet as if they never existed.
- Before one enters a monastery under Geronda Ephraim, no doubt they’ve been inundated with many stories of the elder’s miracles and visions both by lay and monastic disciples. These stories are reinforced during the novitiate by the superior and other monastics.
- Geronda Ephraim’s homilies to his monastics, as well as the private conversations he has with them, are full of self-promotion and narrations of his visions and “special powers”, combined with a feigned humility and self-reproach as the worst sinner in the world. Examples are: entering the divine darkness, seeing the face of God, communicating personally with the Father, seeing the actual event of Christ’s birth, physical alterations with demons, having the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as personal bodyguards, bi-locating to various places around the world without his body—such as during a homily in St. Anthony’s dining hall to Montreal pilgrims where he revealed to them that he left twice while talking to them to check up on his monasteries and they didn’t even realize that he had left. These stories which are used to validate Geronda Ephraim has a living saint are also used as leverage to make monks comply in obedience, even when the obedience breaks the commandments, so as not to sadden the Elder and separate oneself from God. As one of his disciple Gerondas once said to his monks, “Your obedience or disobedience goes through me, to Geronda Ephraim, and then to God.”
- Some Gerondas have gone so far as to warn their monastics that saying no or refusing an obedience makes one susceptible to delusion and even demon possession. Any form of “rebuttal” or “back talk” is automatically categorized as demonic and evil. Geronda Ephraim has stated, “The mouth of the elder is the mouth of Christ. If your elder speaks, God speaks.”
- Monk Michael is referring to Filotheou Monastery.
- This form of punishment is called “being put in the Lity” and can be found in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (7th).
- Geronda Ephraim teaches his monastics, “On Judgment Day, Christ will ask you only one question: ‘Did you do obedience?’ If the answer is yes, you go to eternal life. If the answer is no, you go to eternal damnation.”
- Despite the fact that many monastic saints (and non-canonized fathers) in the history of Orthodoxy did not remain in their monasteries until death—and many times they lived in many different monasteries—Geronda Ephraim is very strict about his monastics staying in their monastery until death, or until their elder dies. If, for some reason, he allows a monastic to go to another monastery, it always has to be a monastery within his own family. Geronda Ephraim also teaches that it’s almost impossible to find salvation of a monk leaves his monastery (whether he has made the vows for the great schema or a rassaphore).
- Geronda Porphyrios once decided to attend some classes on psychiatry at the university. However, his response, though not totally negative, was not particularly encouraging. He acknowledged that “they tried to do something, but what can they do? Psychiatrists and psychologists are like a blind man who tries to understand the things around him by touch. The soul is very deep and only God really knows it” (Yiannitsiotis 200:186). Yiannitsiotis relates that at another time the Elder said, “I don’t want psychiatry, but I love psychiatrists.”… [He] understood that anything spiritual concerning the human condition is not going to be unveiled in psychiatry. The assumptions of materialism, which are part of this discipline, limit the reaches of physical medicine or even psychology. If psychiatry claims to understand the entirety of the human psychological condition, if it rests upon a reductive biological view of consciousness and the human condition, then those claims are counter to an Orthodox perception of the person. One can accept the behavioral sciences without accepting all of their metaphysics. Yiannitsiotis alludes to a remark he heard by a Christian psychiatrist spoken during a conference that may be a kind of summary of this topic: “As a psychiatrist I am not a healer of the human soul, but of the nervous system” (Ibid., 2001: 192). [Professor Daniel Buxhoeveden, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church, 2013, pp. 15-16].
- It is notable that many of the contemporary monastics and spiritual fathers from Greece who knew and revered St. Porphyrios and St. Paisios when they were alive do not hold a high opinion for Elder Joseph the Hesychast and his disciples. This is because the two saints disagreed with many of their methods and teachings, primarily the demand of absolute, blind obediene and authoritarianism. These two saints’ teachings about sick and disturbed forms of obedience are references to Geronda Ephraim’s fronima and teachings.
- Mardonius was a leading Persian military commander during the Persian Wars with Greece in the early 5th century BC who died at the Battle of Platea.