This article is taken from Krētē: Monthly Publication of the Pancretan Association of America, November 1994, p. 35:
Shortly after the turn of the century, Cretan immigrants to the United States began to settle in Western Pennsylvania: Ambridge, Aliquippa, Burgettestown, Canonsburgh, Clairton, Francis Mine, Langleloth, Slovan, Pittsburgh—the big city—and its suburbs and many other. There they found work in local coal mines and steel mills. The entrepreneurs soon followed: bakers, restaurant owners, cobblers, tailors and more. They raised their families, built churches, and organized social clubs in an effort to preserve the customs and traditions of their homeland, Crete. Today, many of their offspring—sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—still make their homes in Western Pennsylvania and many of them are now members of Arkadi-Maleme, the combined Men’s and Women’s Chapter of the Pancretan Association of America.
Recently, Arkadi-Maleme members were made aware of the tremendous pride exhibited by those first Cretans to arrive in this area. In a letter dated September 30, 1993 and addressed to the Cretan Society of Pittsburgh, PA, E.P. Christulides writes:
“A few months ago I was told by both Bishop Maximos and the Abbess of the Greek Orthodox Convent of Saxonburg (Pennsylvania) that the Parish council of the Holy Trinity Church at Ambridge, PA, decided to make a gift of one of the two bells they had removed from the old church when they sold it and then built a new one…I was asked if I could make arrangements to transport the bell.”
“I visited Ambridge twice before I made any transfer arrangements. But from the very first time I uncovered the bell, which was stored in a garage warehouse, I could not help seeing right in the front of the bell this inscription in big Greek letters: Thoria Kriton 1920…
“I made the arrangements and had the bell transported…It is a big bell and it has a very harmonious tone…It weighs around 1500 pounds…
“I believe with all my heart that you, the children and grandchildren of those Cretans who donated the bell in 1920…would like to get involved…The bell sits on an old deteriorated and broken base and it is dangerous to use…The bell may be damaged if the supports give way…
“I urge you to take this project seriously and build something which will remind your children and grandchildren of their parents, grandparents and their glorious roots…”
At a subsequent general meeting of Arkadi-Maleme, Mr. Christulides’ letter was read and the members agreed to fund the construction of a bell support or “cambanario.”
Above is a recent photograph of the bell atop the newly-constructed “cambanario.” The two young “palikaria” in the photo are Nicholas and Christos Semanderes, sons of Stavros and Eleni Semanderes. Stavro is the past-Treasurer and current Chairman of Task Force 2000 of the Pancretan Association of America. The “cambanario” was a personal donation of Mr. Semanderes.
The officers and members of Arkadi-Maleme wish to acknowledge and thank Stavro for his generosity.
People of all nationalities, races and creeds are invited to visit the Monastery at Saxonburg, PA, to view the bell, a proud memorial to those Cretans who left their homes in Crete to make their livelihoods in a foreign land, and who made tremendous contributions to the country in which they chose to make their new homes—and in which we, their sons, daughters and grandchildren now live. May their souls rest in eternal peace. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015079672146;view=1up;seq=67
*Questions for the Church *How the Monastary shows Characteristics of a Cult *What is healthy monasticism in the USA? *Update (October 1999)
When Niko was five years old, we decided he needed swimming lessons. At that time, we thought the best gifts parents could give was to teach their children to love reading, to learn a musical instrument to lift their spirits and enrich their lives, and to learn how to swim. The first two gifts would fill their inner souls; staying afloat would save their lives. When the YMCA offered tadpole classes, we enrolled our sweet-natured blonde son. During the lesson, parents could watch from a large glass window in a room looking down on the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Sometimes I took a book to read, but didn’t get far because I was always looking to see if Niko had made it across the pool holding onto the styrofoam float.
After being able to kick across holding onto the float, the instructor made the children swim to the float-always holding the float just inches from their finger tips. The instructor had her hands full one day as she led two swimmers across the pool teasing them by placing the float just inches from their strokes. As I glanced up from my book, I suddenly saw Niko sink under the water as the instructor was lifting up her second charge. In panic, I leapt to my feet and banged on the window to alert someone to save my son from drowning. I couldn’t speak or scream; they couldn’t hear me down there. Would I have had time to run downstairs, find the door to the showers and the pool? Could I break the glass so my screams could be heard? With my voice frozen, I could only beat on the glass and watch him struggling under water until the instructor glanced up at my thumping and then over to Niko. She lifted his arm, his head rose above the water, and on he swam.
Niko is now 21 years old and a Greek Orthodox monk who goes by the name of Father Theologos. His father and I continue beating on the glass to save him, but no one has heard us. We feel our son, at a time in his life in which he was dealing with a transition from teen years to adulthood and with the sorrow of having an older sister diagnosed with a serious illness when he was 16, was unduly influenced to enter the monastic life since the age of 16. Our son is not alone. In the same year our son left, two other young people (ages 18 and 21) from our parish church in Knoxville, Tennessee entered a convent in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania and St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona. Never were we included in assisting our son in making such a monumental decision. Niko told us in April and left in May 1996. We are concerned for many reasons that these monastic communities founded by Fr. Ephraim are part of a growing cult, a dark and confusing corner of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, a misdirected type of monasticism.
* Niko is the only son of four children, a brother to three sisters. He made us laugh with his impressions, his wry sense of humor, his sensitivity to others, and his kindness. When he first told us he was becoming a monk, I cried telling him that he would lose his wonderful sense of humor. “No, I won’t, Mama. I’ll be the funny monk!” But there is no place in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries for humor or of seeing the funny quirks in life. Laughter is the result of the devil, Niko now tells us.
* Our son left home in May 1996 to stay a few weeks at a convent led by Fr. Carellas in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania before his trip to Arizona. We spoke on the phone several times and each time, Niko told us that the departure date had changed because he needed to be at the monastery at the same time as Ephraim. Each time he changed his departure date, he had to pay a $50 fine to the airlines. When I told him that the cost was adding up and asked him would he jump off a cliff if Fr. Ephraim asked him, he replied seriously, “Yes, of course I would!”
* After only one year and nine months as a novice, Niko was suddenly tonsured as a monk on April 30, 1998. Normally, three years from the time such young people enter the monastery first as novices, they take their vows and become monks. When we asked our son when he would know he was ready to take his vows to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. When we responded with, “Won’t God tell you?” he told us that he is unworthy to speak to God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.
* When we tried to contrast Niko’s isolation from the world to the life of Jesus who embraced the world by working with people in preaching, healing, and showing compassion, just as Mother Teresa has done, Niko responded with “that (Mother Teresa’s work) was just social work. Jesus had his calling; I have mine.”
* We encouraged Niko to consider becoming a priest instead of a monk and to use his talents working with people. We told him we would pay for his education at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, the only Greek Orthodox seminary in North America. He refused saying that Frs. Carellas and Ephraim said that the seminary was full of satan.
* After our interview with a reporter was published in The National Herald (Ethnikos Kyrix), a Greek language newspaper published in New York, we received many phone calls from distraught parents and friends of novices in Fr. Ephraim’s communities. We urged them to write letters and speak out, but they are fearful of going public with their family sorrows.
* Secrecy is paramount when a young man or woman leaves to enter a monastery or convent. Our son was told by Fr. Carellas to tell no one except his immediate family, and that only one month before he left our home. Niko left without telling his best friend, his aunts, uncles, grandmothers, even our current parish priest. The excuse was that if he told people, they might try to talk him out of becoming a monk, and then the devil would win.
* Fr. Ephraim has been known to have fought the devil who knocked on his door disguised as a goat. This goat attacked him, but the monk physically fought him off!
* Novice nuns have been known to wash this monk’s feet and drink the wash water because they and his followers think the man is a saint. He does nothing to discourage this sentiment.
* Fr. Ephraim has predicted that the world will end in 60 years.
* Fr. Ephraim was forced out of Canada because of the same recruiting tactics he is getting away with in the U.S.
* Divided families, divorces, and marital disharmony are the results of this monk’s teachings. We know that he has encouraged married couples to refrain from sexual intercourse and to live as brother and sister.
* Since entry into the monastery, our son has suffered from GERD, gastro-esophageal reflux disease. Before entry, Niko was never sick and had never suffered any stomach ailments. The novices are told that suffering is good and makes an individual a stronger Orthodox Christian. When he was in high school, he was the star dancer in our parish’s Greek Festival. The other dancers called him “Air Niko,” and he told us that he lived for Greek dancing. Now he keeps his eyes down rarely looking at us directly. He is a very thin, bowed 21 year-old young man.
* Following numerous letters (with responses few and far between) to bishops, the Archbishop, and the Patriarch, we finally were able to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew twice during his recent U.S. tour, once in October (1997) in Atlanta and once at the monastery in November (1997) in the presence of our son and several bishops. We asked that Niko be allowed to go home so we could have him checked by our family doctor. They all agreed it was acceptable; however, Niko later told us it was only a suggestion, not a command. Niko said that unless Ephraim told him to go, he would not leave the monastery. He would ignore the Patriarch’s suggestion.
* Niko does not ask about his family, his sisters, his cousins, his grandmothers. To do so, he says, is to ask about the world which he shuns. He refused to return home for his oldest sister’s wedding. He refused to listen to his 13 year-old sister’s song she wrote and sang for him on an audio tape, because music was from the devil. Christmases, Easters, and other holidays come and go each year without a phone call or a thank you note for the packages we send him. His letters to us have virtually stopped.
* A “spiritual elitism” surrounds the followers of Ephraim. Even in our parish church, a group of his followers defend him, saying “he has the power of discernment.” When I, Niko’s mother, stood up at our parish’s general assembly asking for some support in investigating this anomaly of losing three young people from our church to Fr. Ephraim’s monasticism, I was ridiculed and attacked by several of his ardent followers, told to mind my own business, and be glad my son was becoming a monk.
* St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona is a brand new community in the desert, built of only the best materials. During our November 1997 visit that coincided with the Patriarch’s visit, we overheard one man say that it was indeed “more like a Hilton resort, than a monastery.” Our son told us that as soon as it is complete, it will become a convent, and the monks will move on to build yet another monastery, perhaps in New York. During our November visit to the monastery, we spoke with a member of the Patriarch’s entourage. When we told him why we were there, he said that he understood our concerns: “this spiritual dependence is totally unnecessary and is getting out of hand. Someone needs to get a hold of this situation and provide a solution to it.” The same member, who is also a priest, said that he and his wife were uncomfortable that their own son, who was with them that day, could come this close to such an unhealthy environment.
We ask these questions we hope someone will be able to answer:
* Who is funding Fr. Ephraim’s movements?
* What is the charity Fr. Ephraim’s monks perform?
* Under whose supervision do his activities fall?
* What are the names of the novices and monks in Fr. Ephraim’s monasteries and how do their families feel about their sons or daughters being in them?
* How many other families are suffering as we are?
* Does the Greek Orthodox Church have any procedures in place to assist individuals in looking at monasticism in a balanced way?
* What regulations, if any, govern these activities?
* Are any statistics available on the spread of Greek Orthodox monasticism in
* What is “healthy” monasticism in the USA in contrast with Fr. Ephraim’s communities?
* Is the goal of the present Greek Orthodox Church leadership to divide families or to unite them by any possible means? Note: We have asked the church these questions, but we have received no answers. We have been patient long enough in dealing with the Church’s hierarchy and speaking out publicly to get our son out of a psychologically abusive and spiritually dependent environment. We feel as if we have had a death in our family without a funeral. We miss our son! Although the church has gained one monk (our son), the remaining five members of our family have become estranged from the church.
Here are just a few of the characteristics of a cult, and they all match what we’ve seen and what we’ve read from our son’s letters: ** Control of the environment of their recruits.
In this monastery, recruits are physically separated from the society. Any books, movies or testimonies of ex-members of the group are to be avoided. We have asked our son to talk to a former nun; he has refused. Like cults, the novices and monks follow a rigid routine of sleep deprivation, limited diet, work, and controlled reading. Niko’s young sister wrote a song and recorded it on a tape. When we tried to play it for him during our visit with him, Niko said he was not allowed to hear music, even a simple song his sister wrote from her heart and recorded on an audio cassette. ** Demand for purity
In this monastery, the world is depicted as black and white with little room for making personal decisions based on a trained conscience. People and organizations are pictured as either good or evil, depending on their relationship to the ideology of the group. We asked our son if he knew that Mother Teresa had died. He told us she was a Catholic, a heretic, and her good works were just “social work.” When we reminded him that Jesus also did this type of “social work” with the people, Niko told us again that we were “talking idly.” He also said that “Jesus had his calling. I have mine.” ** Confession
In this monastery, serious sins are to be confessed immediately. Becoming a monk would be the result of regular confessions. From these confessions, Fr. Ephraim determines when Niko or any novice will be ready to become a monk. Information derived from the confession is used to make the novice feel powerless, more guilty, fearful and ultimately in need of the monastery and the leader’s goodness. This confession can be used to get the novice to re-write his or her personal history so as to reject the past life, making it seem illogical for the novice to want to return to his or her former life of family and friends. ** Sacred Science
In this monastery, the ideology is too “sacred” to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. In the eyes of the monks and novices, Fr. Ephraim appears as the absolute truth with no contradictions. When we asked our son how he would know he was ready to become a monk, he told us that Fr. Ephraim would tell him. We asked, “Why doesn’t God tell you this?” He replied that he was not worthy to speak with God; only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy to have a dialogue with God. Upon a visit to the convent in Saxonburg, PA, Fr. Ephraim told our 13-year old daughter and other children present that the world would end in 60 years. How convenient that Fr. Ephraim won’t be around in 60 years, and will not be confronted for his false prophecy! * Mystical Manipulation
In this monastery, novices have come to believe that they are actually “choosing” this life. If outsiders, even his parents, say Niko has been brainwashed or tricked, he repeats “I have chosen this voluntarily.” This statement was made even in the presence of the Patriarch and other Bishops in November 1997 at the Monastery of St. Anthony. Novices and monks thrive on this myth of voluntarism, insisting time and again that no member is being held against his or her will. Recruits are told that God is ever-present in the workings of the organization. If a person leaves for any reason, he/she is told that accidents or ill-will may befall them and that is attributed always to God’s punishment on them. We have a former nun’s testimony on this. * Loading the Language
In this monastery, there is frequent use of “thought-terminating cliches,” expressions or words that are designed to end the conversation or controversy. Our son, when asked a difficult question for him to answer, will end the conversation with the statement “This is idle talk.” When we asked our son why he came to the monastery, he said it was God’s will. * Doctrine over Person
In this monastery, the person is only valuable insomuch as he/she conforms to the role models of the cult (or monastery). Personal history and experiences are ignored. During our visit or phone calls, Niko never asks about friends, relatives, his sisters, or our lives. Only the lives and experiences of monks are true for him. Accomplishments of former monks are repeated to these novices, although none of their fantastic (monastic) experiences can be verified. For example, Niko and his sister were awestruck from the story told them at the convent in Saxonburg about Fr. Ephraim’s fight with Satan who appeared at his cell door in the form of a goat! * Dispensing of Existence
In this monastery, they decide who has the right to exist and who does not. The leaders decide which books are accurate and which are biased. Families are cut off. Niko has not written to us since December 1998. In December 1997, he wrote us a note that he would not come home as advised by the Patriarch during our meeting with the Patriarch in November 1997. We wanted Niko to be cared for by our physician for his GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). Our son said that only if Fr. Ephraim blesses his visit home would he have followed the Patriarch’s suggestion. We have written letters, called him on the phone, and visited him several times but always when we initiated the communication. All of these characteristics describe and document the similarities between monasteries administered by Fr. Ephraim and cults as they are known and defined by experts.In closing, we have come to the conclusion that people in the Church’s hierarchy will not do anything to save our son from the hands of such monastics. They appear to fall under no one’s jurisdiction or regulation. However, as soon as Fr. Ephraim’s type of monasticism is classified as a CULT in this country, we may then be able to save our son. Remember most cults are defined as a splinter of “first generation religions.” We hope this classification will be recognized by the Greek Orthodox clergy and laity as well as the media soon. Young people in transition and facing big decisions about life, such as college, career, and choice of spouse, etc., are easy targets for cult recruiters. Our main issues here are that our son was too young (only 18 years old when he entered the monastery), he was indoctrinated beginning at age 16 by our former parish priest who never involved us in the process, our son had no theological education and is presently not in good health. He never suffered from any illness before. The Greek Orthodox Church has no specific guidelines for proselytizing potential novices.We love our son very, very much, and we will continue to beat on the glass wall to save our son from drowning in a cult led by this monk. **What is healthy monasticism in the USA?
In our opinion, monastics should have a good theological education, be of a mature age, and should make their choice after careful counseling with their priest and their family. Individuals that best fit the mold of monks should be the clergy. Such individuals have already made this choice to follow Christ’s footsteps and have the theological background needed. Monasteries should be the place for one to retreat from the world for a short period of time to meditate, pray, and discuss religion with others (i.e. in the form of a sabbatical from their everyday life) and then return to the world refreshed. Was this not Christ’s way? The expenditures for building such monasteries should be the responsibility of the Church (Patriarchate) and be run by the Church. Under no condition should a monastery be run by individuals such as the elder Ephraim. Such spiritual dependence at any level can only be cultic with disastrous results.
Our son became a monk in April 1998, one year and nine months after entering the St. Anthony’s Monastery as a novice when he was 18 years old. At the age of 20, he became Pater Theologos. In his short note to us, he said even he was surprised when he discovered that he was to take his vows on that day. Since that note, we have received only one other short note to us. Then, in the summer of 1999, we accidentally read on the internet a Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1999, “Monks Turn Farm Into Monastery.” The reporter mentioned two monks: Frs. Akakios and Theologos. Wondering if our son could actually be in another monastery, we called the monastery and heard the voice on the answering machine. We knew it was our son Niko. We later sent him a birthday card and called again, leaving a message on the monastery answering machine. Still no letter, no phone call. Since then, we have discovered that Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Harvard, Illinois (northwest of Chicago) recently held a fund-raising banquet with about 600 attending paying $50 for a chicken dinner. A visitor told us that a tall thin young monk wearing glasses was there. He was not introduced and did not speak with any of the attendees. Our son, the one who told us so many times he lived to dance the Greek hasapiko and Kalamatiano is now the quiet monk isolating himself in obedience to the monk Ephraim.
The response initiated a short dialogue between the two men on an Orthodox forum:
My the Lord bless you.
With trepidation I would like to add my own thoughts to this thread on Elder
First of all I have visited the women’s community found by the elder in Saxonsburg, PA and Dunlap, CA. I also spend 2 or 3 days a year at St. Anthony in AZ. I haven’t noticed anything that I would identify as cultic (by the way, I have a Ph.D. in psychology and religion and have worked with people with cultic and occultic backgrounds). The monasteries are all quite strict in their observance, but are hardly outside the pale of Orthodoxy (or Orthopraxy for that matter).
Is 16 too young to begin to consider a monastic vocation? I don’t think so. At 16 I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and a priest. At 16 people know that wish to be married or go to a military service academy like West Point and make the Army their career. We have a boy in our parish who is just turned 17 and aspires to monastic life. So in principle, no, I don’t think that 19, 18, 17 or even 16 is too young to consider monastic life. I have friends who joined Roman Catholic monastic communities at 18 and they are fine. What I cannot speak to, as either an Orthodox priest or a psychologist, is the particulars of anyone I haven’t meet.
What I would like to comment on is this. As I said, I’ve visited a number of the communities founded (all with the blessing and active encouragement of the local bishops and the generous assistance of the laity) by Elder Ephraim. I am sometimes struck by the great difference between what I experience and observe at the various monasteries and how people respond to Elder Ephraim and how people describe the monastery or the Elder. In some cases, there is on correspondence between my experience and what I hear from people. I’m not sure why this is, but I can say that at least in my experience, both supporters and detractors seem about equally likely to inaccurate reporters.
As a married parish priest (I serve a small, poor GOA mission parish in far northern CA), I am not threatened by monasticism in general or Elder Ephraim’s communities in particular. Rather, I thank God for the monastic life and the positive influence it has been in my life, in the life of my dear Presbyteria as well as the members of my parish. We don’t any of us go around pretending to be displaced monastics exiled to a fallen world. We are none of us super ascetics or crypto-gnostics. What we are is a group of quite ordinary, late 20 century men and women from a variety of backgrounds struggling to live an Orthodox Christian life. We take help and encouragement from many sources, including, but not only, from the witness of our monastic fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.
I am sorry for the hurt and confusion that some have experienced because of the growth the various monastic communities here in the US. Please forgive me if I have offended you by my words. +Fr. Gregory Jensen St. George Greek Orthodox Church Redding, CA
You have chosen Christ’s way to preach the Gospels and minister to the people. Why did you not choose to become a monk?
Do you have any children? Have any of them joined a monastery? Will you concur if one of them left without discussing it with you?
At the Ephraim-led monasteries we visited, monastics told us, when asked, that they are there to avoid temptation. Do you concur with such a statement?
What questions did you ask the monastics you visited, if any, to draw your conclusions? Do you have a list of the characteristics of a cult, and did you make an attempt to check it against those in an Ephraim-led monastery? In general based on what did you draw your conclusions that
the Ephraim-led monasteries are not cultic?
We have asked three more priests to answer these questions for us. They never did! We hope that you will take the time to answer them. John
May the Lord bless and keep you.
First, let me say how sorry I am for the pain that your son’s decision to enter monastic life has caused you.
You wrote/asked: >You have chosen Christ’s way to preach the Gospels and minister to the people. Why did you not choose to become a monk?
Simply put, I was not called by God to be a monastic. Parish priest are called by God to serve His People in the local parish. This is my vocation, my calling from God. Monastics are called by God to call down mercy for the whole world. This is their vocation.
As a quick aside, I must say that I am confused with what seems to be the general tendency on this thread to confuse priesthood and monasticism. The vocations are different and so the training and tasks for each our different. > Do you have any children? Have any of them joined a monastery? Will you concur if one of them left without discussing it with you?
My wife and I cannot have children and so I cannot answer your question. > At the Ephraim-led monasteries we visited, monastics told us, when asked, that they are there to avoid temptation. Do you concur with such a statement?
Yes. Is there something wrong with this statement? > What questions did you ask the monastics you visited, if any, to draw your conclusions? Do you have a list of the characteristics of a cult, and did you make an attempt to check it against those in an Ephraim-led monastery? In general based on what did you draw your conclusions that the Ephraim-led monasteries are not cultic?
I didn’t ask any questions about to determine if the monastery was a cult. I saw no evidence of cultic behavior. > We have asked three more priests to answer these questions for us. They never did! We hope that you will take the time to answer them.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Concerning the choice of becoming a priest or a monk, all we tried encourage our son about was that he needed to have all proper education, theological and psychological, and then decide which way to go. As far as the calling goes, he never told us how it happened, but in most questions we asked him about, he referred us to the monk Ephraim. Before he became a novice, he had his first discussion with Ephraim. When our son asked Ephraim’s opinion on whether he should become a novice/monk, Ephraim replied, “You won’t know until you try it.” Is this a calling? When we asked him when he knew he would be ready to take his vows, he said the monk Ephraim would tell him. We then asked him why God wouldn’t “call” him or tell him when he was ready. Our son responded with, “I’m not worthy to speak to God. Only Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.” If this isn’t following a cult leader, what is? These are the questions that still puzzle us today.
Concerning temptation: We feel that a human is sent to this life by God to be tested and to control his/her temptations in accordance with the Bible. We also feel that whoever handles temptation in accordance with the Bible is one step closer to being worthy of God. Is this not the proper thinking? Was this not Christ’s way when he visited this earth?
We have studied cults and their characteristics and found many similarities to Ephraim’s type of monasticism. If you’re interested in reading these corollaries, please go to the Protection of the Theotokos web site: http://www.pokrov.org and read our story, “Behind the Glass Wall.”
Again, thank you for your response,
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.