NOTE: The following are excerpts taken from “Radioparagka” (Ράδιο Παράγκα) show—the Radio Station of the Church Greece. The show’s theme was “Obedience and Freedom” and it was broadcast on November 10, 2002. Fr. Constantine interviews Fr. Porphyrios, a monk from the Hilander Cell of St. Isaac the Syrian. Since the interview has a lot of repetitiveness and superfluous banter, this article has been condensed and contains only the pertinent information.
Since the turn of the century, a few Hagiorite monks have spoken out about the abuses that take place in various monasteries on Mount Athos. These individuals were from different monasteries, under different Gerondas, and yet tell the same story: authoritarianism, sick forms of obedience being imposed, individuals developing mental illnesses after years in these environments, compulsion of monastics to see psychiatrists and take psychiatric drugs, monastics attempting suicides and monastics committing suicide. This “authentic” Athonite monasticism has been prevalent since at least the 70s and these irregularities are now accepted as a normal part of the genuine 21st century monastic experience.
Fr. Constantine: Do sick forms of obedience exist?
Fr. Porphyrios: I will disillusion you, Fr. Constantine. Yes, only sick forms of obedience exist today. I’m talking about Mount Athos; I’m speaking purely about Athonite matters and I’ll be speaking from my own experience.
An Abbot yells at his monks, “You don’t listen to me! I lost 500,000 [dr.] on Coca Colas and 7 Up! You’re going to make me explode! Does my money grow on trees?”1 Contemporary Elders are tilling and organizing over Greece towards wild novices. And the finale of these relationships is authoritarianism, which reaches schizophrenia. The difference with the Great Anthony is that he said, “My child, in order to sit near me, certain conditions must be met and above all, love Christ.” Whereas what we seek today on Mount Athos, dozens of times, is what is said and sucked like candy from Athonite abbots who, as you know, 90% of them didn’t do one hour of obedience.
Fr. Constantine: They weren’t subordinates beforehand?
Fr. Porphyrios: Never! Only the elders who came from Joseph the Cave-dweller previously did obedience.2 All the others, from the office or Brussels, with their collars and their trousers, became abbots on Mount Athos. Forgive me, but this is the reality. But, exceptions exist. Nothing is 100% absolute. Even on gold we write 999.99.3 Understand? And so, St. Anthony said, “You must love Christ.” Do you know what contemporary elders say? “If you leave my side, you will go to hell my evil child. You will be lost!” Understand?
Once, I was at a monastery and a student came to stay for fifteen days. After fifteen days, they placed him as my assistant. I saw him with a new pair of shoes. Hm! He smelt like gun powder to me. I asked him, “Are you engaged, will you go, this and that.” He said, “I thought that I would stay here.” Today, he is a schizophrenic! And the monastery boasts 120-130 monks. I don’t know how many monks they have but 40 of them are taking psychiatric drugs out of obedience…bad obedience!
Fr. Constantine: Of course, when you say psychotropic drugs, there is a book written by a Grigoriatis monk who responds to such allegations. He mentions that psychotropic drugs are bought for Mount Athos. He also says that he buys them for the pilgrims that visit from abroad. Visitors come and say they need psychiatric drugs.”
Fr. Porphyrios: Excuse me! I myself bought psychotropic drugs for 40 monks! Understand? I personally bought psychiatric medication for 40 monks when I went out of Mount Athos to run errands. I don’t know how many monks there are now who take psychiatric drugs.
I tread differently. I went asked someone once—one with no taste, from the bench, the university—and I asked him. We chatted a bit and he told me, “You will do this!” I said, “I cannot.” He replied, “You will do this, it is obedience!” I was coerced; the priest said it. Fr. Constantine, everyone has been trampled by disobedience. I was pressed by obedience. I did obedience and suffered AF [atrial fibrillation] and was put on a pacemaker.5
Fr. Constantine: This priest gave you that medical advice?
Fr. Porphyrios: No! He told me to do something that my conscience couldn’t allow me to do. I told him, “I cannot do that thing.”
Fr. Constantine: Was the obedience a sin?
Fr. Porphyrios: The obedience was a spiritual sin, not a carnal sin. My conscience would not allow it.
Fr. Constantine: You had the right not to do this obedience since it was a spiritual sin.
Fr. Porphyrios: Yes, of course. Also, this priest wasn’t my spiritual father. We chatted, I told him one issue. What else do you want me to tell you?
Fr. Constantine: Everything! You lived the events.
Fr. Porphyrios: A certain monk in a large monastery fell into some small offence. He was ashamed to tell the abbot and he told some transient, worldly spiritual father. All of Mount Athos to Daphne learned about it. And his geronda—the great and holy geronda—called him to the Assembly and told him, “Because you didn’t tell me this, for one year you will not receive a blessing and I will not give you my blessing.” Fr. Constantine, before the new elders, spiritual fathers, such as the ascetic Geronda Sofronius, came to the monastery every month to confess people. The old elders wisely decided that a spiritual father from another monastery could come every month so that we could say something that we couldn’t tell the abbot so as not to create a disagreement or discord. Understand? Today, this has been cut off. Now if you confess to someone other than the abbot, you’re excommunicated and expelled from the community.6
And I’ll tell you something else. I saw a “very pleasant” abbot beating a subordinate and I lost it! I got my stuff and left. The abbot told me, “Come here! Do you know what I’m doing? What Abba Dorotheos did!” Eh! I couldn’t bear it and told him, “Excuse me, Geronda, but as soon as you become St. Dorotheos and Abba Seridos, then you can hit children.”7 It broke my heart. Now this monk is in the wind. I went and he told me, “Porphyrios, I beg you to discharge me.” We both cried. This is obedience today, Fr. Constantine. But when we haven’t done obedience ourselves, how can we impose someone else to do obedience? Naturally, obedience is salvation!
I remember Geronda Gabriel told me the following, “Do you see that man? He came from Cambridge with a transistor in the armpit. And I said to him, ‘What did you come here to do?’ He replied, ‘I came here to be a monk.’ I asked him, ‘Do you know what it means to be a monk?’ I tell you to fall from the balcony and you fall.’ The man replied, ‘Be careful, Geronda. If you’re telling me a joke, you catch me by my feet because I will fall.’ Geronda Gabriel told me, ‘He is an angel.’
And Geronda Gabriel Dionysiatis placed someone as the supervisor and tells him after three-four sessions; the monk disagreed, ‘Geronda, I will resign.’ The Geronda asked, ‘Why, my child?’ ‘I cannot disagree with my Geronda.’ Geronda Gabriel told him, ‘Ah, pay attention. I placed you there for this reason. You will say your opinion in governing. You will do obedience in spiritual matters. Also, I want there to be a contrary voice.’
Today, whoever disagrees about the Hegumen council departs. And they’ve gathered all the idiots; those who never tread in the monastery, they are from outside and they’ve placed them, how do you say…
Fr. Constantine: This is sick. If there is no voice to be heard…
Fr. Porphyrios: No, no, no. Let me tell you something else—Speechless!—about an abbot who went to a new monastery that had an old brotherhood. ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘are they dumb? Do they not have any other opinion than that from the Geronda?’ And Geronda Gabriel told Fr. Kallinikos, ‘You will stay, my child! Your objection is needed so we can find the right one.
Today, Fr. Constantine, the Geronda is the path (ο-δο) of salvation. And he is also our obstacle to arrive at Christ. ‘I am here (‘δω)!’ Understand? Things are tragic!
1. When Geronda Ephraim of Arizona was the abbot of Filotheou Monastery, on the Feast Day of Pascha he would traditionally bless the monks to have a can of Coca Cola for trapeza. He carried this tradition over to St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, AZ. In some of Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries, the monastics have soda frequently throughout the year.
2. The following is a pilgrim’s impression of his visit to Elder Joseph the Hesychast and his disciples in the 50s:
“Many times the Greeks have a weakness to make up stories, especially about people‘s alleged holiness, and as is often the case, once a story starts, it gets repeated and magnified and blown completely out of proportion. Others hear it and relate it in a different way, and it becomes another story, and soon someone has a reputation of being one of the greatest wonderworkers the Church has ever known.
“To some extent, this is what happened with this Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, and it‘s most definitely what happened to the other Fr. Ephraim, who took control of Philotheou Monastery, and who could not remain on the Holy Mountain, but resides in America. The three pilgrims came to Katounakia for a visit, and the meeting with Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia was quite eventless, other than the fact that Fr. Ephraim seemed like a reluctant prisoner, not one rejoicing in obedience. There was quiet talking, all in Greek, greetings and goodbyes.
“The outcome of this occasion was in stark contrast with the words of Fr. Ephraim in his book which recently appeared. Ironically, the book was named Obedience is Life: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, and in this very book this alleged Elder Ephraim records that he later forced his elder to begin once again commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch at a time when the Ecumenical Patriarch had openly espoused the heresy of Ecumenism. He thus recorded his own blatant disobedience in a book supposedly teaching obedience. The Elder Nikephoros, it is said, grieved very much that his disciple, Fr. Ephraim, had forced him to do something against his conscience. Three years before he died, however, the Elder Nikephoros returned to the church.
3. 999.99 (five nines fine) The purest type of gold currently produced.
4. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, it is taught that monastics lose their salvation if they leave the monastery, unless of course they get a blessing first which is almost impossible. Novices are encouraged not to leave because, “it’s almost impossible to find salvation in the world.” Rassaphores are treated and counselled as though they made verbal vows in church, which they didn’t (rassaphores are essentially novices according to the canons; theoretically “engaged” but not yet married with vows).
In 2000/2001 a monk from St. Nektarios Monastery was visiting St. Anthony’s once for an immigration appointment–when new monasteries were opened the immigrant monks who were transferred did not update their address and would travel back to Arizona when they had INS appointments. This monk did not want to return to St. Nektarios Monastery due to the angry and oppressive atmosphere that existed there at that time (as one of the Athonite Fathers said, “Do you want to destroy a monk’s spirituality? Send him to help establish a new monastery for the first couple of years.”). Geronda Ephraim gave him a blessing to be a monk at St. Anthony’s but due to the fact that he didn’t first consult his Geronda [Joseph] and did it of his own volition, it was frowned upon by many of the other monastics in various monasteries. Some even believed that this act would greatly hinder his chances for salvation and that although Geronda Ephraim gave a “blessing,” he was actually doing obedience to this young monk, and the whole affair was really just an act of self-will not really covered by a blessing.
In another case, a novice from Arizona received a blessing to go live at Filotheou Monastery on Mount Athos. Many of his brother monastics gossiped that in reality, Geronda didn’t actually bless it but rather this novice ceaselessly begged and harassed Geronda to allow him to go and in the end Geronda Ephraim did obedience to his will and “blessed” it. Later, rumors went around the monastery that he became deluded, was re-baptized at an old calendarist monastery, and was ordained a deacon. Afterwards, he left the monastic life and returned to the world.
These stories are used as cautionary tales to scare young novices and remind them that if they don’t stay with their elder no matter what, and do absolute blind obedience, they will become deluded, leave, and lose their soul. The basis of the message is, “you’re lost without Geronda Ephraim.”
5. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the only possible sin in obedience is disobedience; i.e. not obeying the command the elder has given. Both physical and spiritual obedience are expected, and it must be blind, without inner or outer questioning, back-talk, murmuring, judging, etc. Thus, if the obedience is a “spiritual” sin (i.e. lying, perjury, falsifying records, gaslighting pilgrims to cover-up a scandal, etc.), the disciple is not sinning if he/she obeys the command. The Geronda or Gerondissa are responsible before God for the commands given (thus, if the order they give is a sin, it is their burden and sin). The disciple is only responsible before God for the obedience they did or did not do, regardless of whether it is a sin or breaking of the commandments. In doing obedience they have not sinned and will not have to give an account before God on why they broke His commandments. If they disobey the command, they will have to give an account for their disobedience, and possibly lose their salvation for this crime.
6. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, a monastic does not have a blessing to confess to other spiritual fathers other than their own. I.e., a monk from Michigan wouldn’t ask the hieromonks in TX or NY if he could see them for confession. The only other person monastics can confess to other than their own spiritual father/mother in the monasteries is Geronda Ephraim in Arizona. A blessing is usually still required before this happens, though. The monasteries do follow St. Symeon the New Theologian’s teachings On Unordained Monastics Hearing Confessions.
7. Geronda Ephraim uses the story of Akkakios a lot in his homilies to his monastics. This story is meant to encourage moanstics to endure everything their superiors put them through with patience and without murmuring. “The humble monk distinguished himself by his patient and unquestioning obedience to his Elder, a harsh and dissolute man. He forced his disciple to toil excessively, starved him with hunger, and beat him without mercy. Despite such treatment, St Acacius meekly endured the affliction and thanked God for everything. St Acacius died after suffering these torments for nine years. Five days after Acacius was buried, his Elder told another Elder about the death of his disciple. The second Elder did not believe that the young monk was dead. They went to the grave of Acacius and the second Elder called out: “Brother Acacius, are you dead?” From the grave a voice replied, “No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?” [St. Akakios is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on July 7th].
8. This is the kind of obedience required in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. Similar to Abraham who didn’t question God when told to murder his son, Isaac, nor did he think twice about sacrificing him, so to should the disciple monk do everything Geronda asks without hesitation or a double mind.