NOTE: This is a woman’s account of growing up in the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. Since the late 90’s and early 2000’s, factions of this sect have been joining the canonical Orthodox Church under the Serbian Patriarchate, the OCA, and the Bulgarian Diocese.
One day, while eating at a new Greek cafe in the local mall, mom saw two men with long beards and long robes sitting at the next table. She had read something in the paper about a new church in town, so she went over and asked questions. If I could go back and freeze time to change it, this is the very moment I would stop: that one second before we walked in there. It changed the lives of not only my immediate family, but many others as well.
We were urged to attend their “Liturgy” and “Reader’s services” at the little Boy Scout Hut downtown. And here is what happened in only a few short months.
The two men in the Greek restaurant turned out to be a priest from northern New Mexico, and a monk or “brother”. The priest had a long gray beard and ponytail, and he wore a long gray robe. The “brother”, who was later ordained a priest as well, wore a filthy black robe and had his long, unwashed hair pulled back into a knot at the back of his neck. He also had on a traditional Eastern Orthodox monk’s hat.
The priest, Father N., was retired from military service. The monk, Brother Benedict, later told us that he had been “discharged recently from the Army”; whether it was honorable or not, I never found out. He told us that he purposely disobeyed rules and did things like march while reading from his prayer book or chanting. He also told us, on the first meeting at the Boy Scout Hut, that because he was a monk, he was NEVER allowed to bathe again, or cut his hair, as long as he lived. I still gag at the familiar smell of sweaty monastic clothing, which I was later to come across in many churches and monasteries. I guess these people had never heard of the old saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Well, we were invited to attend our very first service, which happened to be a Liturgy, because the priest was there. Without his presence, the service was called a “reader’s service”, and it could be performed anywhere at all, even in a living room or a garage at someone’s private house. The services began in the local Boy Scout Hut, but soon moved to the new buildings out at Dog Canyon, a remote desert area between Alamogordo and El Paso.
We were inundated with information during the first meeting, and the lectures began right afterwards, and lasted about an hour or two. We were taught about world history, church history, secret history, world conspiracies, and the unseen world of angels and devils, and the coming Apocalypse. I did not want to go at all, but I was forced to go by my parents. First impressions are usually right, if they begin deep in your gut. Mine was, “This is weird. Why is no one else here, and why has God kept us from His ultimate “true church” for over 2000 years??”
I would like to add here that during the first two to three weeks of attending the increasingly frequent services, my mom started to wake up from nightmares. I am just telling you here what she said herself. She dreamed she was taken to a dark, gray building, and was surrounded by monks in brown robes with hoods. When she got closer, they had blood in their holy water bowls. This dream repeated itself for some reason, and she would wake up screaming sometimes. Now, I don’t know what she was reading at the time, and people are really impressionable; she began to go to the public library to research about groups of monks and the names they told her in her dreams. But when she told Brother B., he assured her right away that these monks were “obviously LATINS (Roman Catholics), because of the robes; and that God was “warning” us to come out of that church, as well as all others, and He was “leading” us to the one and only church of “apostolic succession”: the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, otherwise known as the “St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Church.” From that point on, everything that happened in our lives had some mystical meaning, and we were compelled to tell “everything” to our new “spiritual fathers”, so as to gain salvation. This included nightmares which were the obvious result of too much cold pizza before bed!
The services we were “required” to attend, as new catechumens, became more and more frequent, as I mentioned above. That is because we were slowly being “let into” the elite and the elect of God, and told about the ancient ways and secrets only known to the “true Orthodox.” (By the way, from the start the word “Orthodox” began to replace the word “Christian”, and the lovely name of JESUS was seldom used or spoken. A whole new vocabulary was instilled in us, and we had to use it daily.) We learned quickly how to “do” the Hours, the Matins, the Complines, and the Vespers, as well as the Reader’s services. We had to be ready for the imminent reign of the Antichrist, and learn how to keep the monastic services at home, secretly, for fear of persecution in America, which had already begun! Keep reading, it gets more thrilling!!
Both clergymen began to appear at our house, mostly late at night, or at dinnertime. Brother B. became the main “teacher”, and he would sit at the kitchen table with my family, keeping my dad up till 2:00 AM in the morning. I would often go to bed, then get up hours later to find him still sitting there, with his head about to fall on his crossed arms, listening intently to the loud voice of Brother B., under the dim light of the overhead lamp. My dad had to get up before 5:00 in the mornings to go to work, and he was slowly being run down to the point that he was accepting whatever was taught to him.
Looking back, I believe these two men were specially selected to establish their new “monastery” in the desert outside of Holloman Air Force Base, because they were both ex-military. Not only did they know the right lingo to use when converting people, who came mostly from the nearby base, but they carried that extra advantage of being trustworthy, because they had served in the military themselves. Several lonely or divorced GIs were drawn from the base: fresh meat for the cult, who fed on the earnest young minds as well as their pocketbooks. You see, we were told that the main purpose for the Dog Canyon Monastery of St. Anthony, was to eventually build an “exact replica” of the famous Hagia Sophia church in Turkey, which is now a beautiful mosque. Of course, on a bit smaller scale. Nevertheless, a lot of moolah was needed as soon as possible, as well as volunteers and donations from construction companies. So, as soon as my parents were “hooked”, they began to give large amounts of money to these men, and have continued to do so for the past 25 years.
I have not, to this day, seen any true “fruit” come from these places (I have gone to several of these monasteries): no orphans were helped, no soup kitchens were established, no shelters for abused women or homeless, etc. Because “monasticism” is the “highest” calling one can have in life. I remember feeling despair when I was told that the only path for women in God’s eyes was either to be married and have children, or to become an Orthodox monastic. Now, I have yet to meet a truly happy Orthodox nun (at least in America); the Catholic teachers I had had in school, for the most part, absolutely loved their lives, their vocations, and their students. Many had degrees and pursued continuing education. They spent more time actually doing things than praying that things be done, cloisters aside. This is just my own observation.
Next, mountains of books and religious reading material were presented to us, and we had to read through it all to even be allowed to be part of the true church. The writings and personal interpretations of the “holy fathers”, their lives and fights with demons and human passions, and the writings of a certain Fr. Seraphim (Eugene) Rose took precedence over the Bible. My parents began to follow the “St. Herman of Alaska” calendar, which gave specific little verses to read for each day of the week, for the whole year. They were not allowed to read the Bible alone, for danger of “prelest”, or being led into lies and “deception”. Since that time, my parents have not picked up a Bible just to read the dear old stories like Daniel in the lion’s den; they have not read a letter of Paul or Peter or John straight through, which is how they were meant to be read. The verses were taken out of context, and usually had nothing to do with each other. The more confused my parents became, the more they were told to just “trust the elders”; after all, we were told that all the Russian priests in this church could trace their ordinations back to the Apostles themselves; however, we were never shown any proof of this, of course!
Fr. Seraphim Rose was held up to us as a “modern-day saint”, whose books were held in authority comparable to the Bible. Now, this man was a bit of a scholarly genius, who had studied Eastern religions and faiths in CA universities, and when he was introduced to the Russian Church in San Francisco by his male lover, he brought many of these beliefs over into his new-found religion. This can be seen in his book, “The Soul After Death”, which details the human soul’s journey after death as it passes through the “toll-houses”, being constantly tormented by demons. That book alone would scare the living daylights out of a child or pure-hearted Christian, but his other books dealt with topics such as New Age philosophies and even UFO phenomena. His main topic was the end of the world, and we learned his most famous quote by heart: “It is later than you think”. Suffice it to say here that his teachings are widespread over the whole world now, even in Russia; however, they are NOT the official dogma of all Orthodox churches. There is even a pamphlet printed by a Greek church which is called, “The Soul After Death: The Neo-Gnosticism of Father Seraphim Rose”, which refutes this (in my opinion) crazy and dangerous book.
Which brings us to the biggest “selling point” for those of us who joined this cult. The end of the world. We were inundated with eschatological teachings from many different “holy fathers”, which often contradicted one another, but no one paid attention to those “small ” glitches or misquotes. I was extremely frightened when we were “taught” with authority that the Antichrist was ALIVE and ALREADY BORN, and we had to prepare for his imminent reign of terror! A certain Russian Archbishop in San Francisco (famous for levitating and glowing during services, as well as for “never sleeping” and “severe fasting”) said it had been revealed to him that the “man of perdition” had been born in 1962, and according to prophecy, would begin his reign at age 30– like the Lord’s. Some people in the church refuted this, but we didn’t know that. We were given weekly “reports” of mysterious young men who were seen being driven around in limos in Jerusalem. What more proof did we want???
We were recruited with the best tool of all: FEAR.
Then, one by one, every other Christian denomination was torn apart and condemned by our new “teachers”; my dad’s familiar old hero, Martin Luther was an “apostate”; ALL Protestants were going to hell; and the worst of all were the Catholics, or the “LATINS.” There is even a liturgy done annually which brands other people, churches, organizations, and ideas as “ANATHEMA”, or “cursed”. It was a cursing service, let’s just call a spade a spade.
We were each told to carry an icon of a young Aleut boy name Peter, who had been “hacked slowly to death in front of a California Catholic mission church a few hundred years ago.” And whenever Brother B. would read the “saints and martyrs” for the day, at the end of the long services, he would purposely yell out which ones had been murdered by the “LATINS”, and he would laugh, and everyone in the church would laugh. There was absolutely NO SALVATION outside of this church, which was called the modern-day “ARK” (like Noah’s ark.) Get on board fast or be damned.
Next, we were taught how to chant. Not just a few mantras. Long, long chanting while standing upright (sitting was for “old ladies” and “spiritually weak”.) 40 “Lord Have Mercy” phrases were multiplied into 120 by switching languages, even into Chinese. This was to be done several times during church, while staring at nothing but the icons (to look elsewhere was evil); and it was to be done before each meal, before getting up in the morning, and before bed. I watched my dad, mom, and brother become weary and glassy-eyed. They soon got it down so good that nothing could disturb them, they were in a trance-like state. This was the work of “the Holy Spirit”. We were also given “prayer ropes” to take with us everywhere, and pray with. A quote from Steve Hassan’s excellent book is needed here: “People indoctrinated to perform excessive (hours long) meditation or chanting techniques daily can become psychologically addicted to the mind control technique. [This]…generates strong releases of brain chemicals which cause not only a dissociated mental state, but also a ‘high’ similar to that created by illegal drugs.” (p. 44, Combatting Mind Control).
I would often challenge Brother B. or the other clergy, asking clear questions such as “how can this be required when the Lord stated “do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do…” I was either laughed at or told I was too stupid to understand these things–Orthodoxy was only for the “intellectually superior”. I quote. Also, because we were told that no one could be a Christian without venerating icons, or carrying them everywhere–I wondered whether a blind person could then be saved (??) I was told to be quiet. Then we learned about the wicked Iconoclasts in another history lesson.
Another book we were require to read over and over was the translated “Way of A Pilgrim”, which basically was an instruction book on how to chant while controlling the breathing, so that the chanting and meditation became internal and continuous; you were supposed to be able to work, eat, sleep, and even carry on conversations while chanting in your head. Now, what other religions does that remind you of? It was a simple way to learn how to put yourself in a trance-like state, and in such a state you were able to accept whatever garbage was thrust down your throat. A common tool used by all kinds of cults.
Then came the diet change: the fasting. Following the “ancient Julian calendar” and “ancient Christian life”, we were to fast according to the “elders’ ” instructions. Wednesdays and Fridays were ALWAYS fast days. Several long periods during the year, some lasting a whole 40 days, were fast days. The time before any Liturgy with communion, was fasting time. The new rules excluded all meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and even cooking oil, as well as alcohol (not many people followed that last one.) Sugar, peanut butter, vegetables, and white breads were eaten in small amounts. This was to “sharpen the mind for prayer”, “purify the soul”, and “put the evil flesh (body) into subjection”. For the body was evil. Period. (Gosh, women and girls were not even allowed to take communion or go certain areas in the church while they had their periods!)
This low-protein, high sugar diet will wear down a person very quickly, physically and mentally. Then they become more open to suggestions and acceptance of “holy teachings”. Bodily neglect was holy, it was the way to Heaven. It is also another commonly used method of cult mind-control. I watched my dad and brother loose weight rapidly, and become extremely tired and open to all sorts of infections and flus and colds. My little brother hung on to this fasting so rigidly, that in high school he was the “runt” of the class, causing great concern among the teachers and especially his principal. (My mom made sure to make friends with all our teachers and principals wherever we moved thereafter, so as not to be suspected of child abuse.)
Speaking of the “evil flesh”, fasting included abstinence between married people during the fast times, and before and after church services. Marriage was held in disdain. We were told that to be truly holy, a married man and woman should enter separate monasteries as soon as their children had been raised. Sex was only for procreation. It was also very evil, because it was a human “passion”, not a beautiful expression of love invented by God Himself. A few years later, I actually met a young Russian priest and his wife out in the Bay Area, who were firmly committed to separating when their kids were grown to go to pre-selected monastic communities.
The “passions” were talked about a lot, and they had to be controlled. Humility was taken to the extreme, until the constant repetition of this word reminded me of Dicken’s “Uriah Heep”, from his great “David Copperfield”! This is when confession was introduced to us. Not like in the Catholic church we had gone to. These were deep, soul-wrenching, tell-all, lengthy sessions, from which we would emerge in tears and terrible confusion. First, there was the “life confession”, which consisted of all we could remember before coming to the “truth”. Wow. Then they became weekly. I remember getting down on my hands and knees in front of an ugly icon, trying to think of something evil inside of me to write down to confess. The more I had written down, the “better” I was at confessing. It was an art. I met several people who said when they were in this cult, they would try to do or say at least one “bad” thing during the week, so that they would have something to say, and be allowed to take communion! I did that.
We were not allowed to say prayers from our own hearts. We had to use the prescribed prayers only from the Russian Orthodox prayer books. One of these had some long pre-confession prayer which I will never forget, because it said, “I am sorry for the sins of sight, hearing, speech, touch, and smell…” Now THAT one really confused me– how on earth can you sin by SMELLING something? I think that was where I dropped that book for good. It was just too ridiculous.
Confessions were to include EVERY single thought, natural desire, or pleasure one had experienced during the week. That meant “lust” of a man or woman for a spouse, “lust” for a piece of pie; “lust” for television or even a great new song on the radio! The whole “outside world” (the West, especially) was evil, and soon our house was devoid of the music and singing which had previously filled it. Nothing except pre-recorded liturgies and chanting tapes were played, both at home and in my dad’s automobiles. On a more personal note, I missed my dad’s singing, which we could hear all over the house (and in the shower), anytime he was home. Oh, how I have missed that! I believe he himself has forgotten the songs he used to sing. Or the “fractured fairy tales” he used to tell us at bedtime, until we laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. All the joy was gone.
Confusion reigned. Questions were answered in an indirect manner, “you will understand later.” It was total chaos, but it was completely controlled by those men who knew EXACTLY what they were doing to us, step by practiced step!
Then came a few weeks where my parents were arguing between themselves, sometimes heatedly, about the required “re-baptism”. Dad had already been baptized Lutheran, mom had as well; we all had. They finally gave in to Brother B.’s demands and convoluted explanations; however, they balked at his insistence that we all be baptized together NAKED, as the “ancient” Christians were. I will relate how we were re-baptized below.
Finally, the last stage. Our “new names and identities”. We were “given” names by Brother B., which he decided upon himself with the help of God.
They were names of Christian saints and martyrs, most we had never heard of, like “Kyriaki” and “Xenia of St. Petersburg, fool for Christ.” Mom became “Maria, joy of all who sorrow” (wow, was that the antithesis of her personality!), and dad became what he intensely disliked, “Lazarus”. Not the person, just the name. I was dubbed that Xenia gal, whose icon scared me with her dead husband’s army coat and her stringy gray hair. Her life, also, was one of a severely disturbed woman who needed help, or at least “some protein and a dose of lithium”, as quoted in one Greek Orthodox article. I was told that my own life should begin to mimic hers, especially in her suffering, so that I could become like her. (She lived in a graveyard, for Heaven’s sake!!) I NEVER let a person call me that after I left there, although my family still prays for “Xenia.” I told God to His Face, “If I die and you call out that name, I will not answer. My real, “pagan” name was given to me by my mom, because it was from an old song she liked. (Note: Elizabeth Ann is my pen name.)
We were then instructed to keep our “name-days” instead of birthdays. Talk about losing your identity!
Xenia also was a “fool for Christ”, which was a way the Russian church had of explaining away the religious fanatics who acted crazy. Didn’t Paul say, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, and power, and of a SOUND MIND”? Oh, but we were forbidden to read St. Paul (without the St. Herman calendar). Sorry. (Note: there are other “St. Xenias”, one of whom was an early Christian martyr.)
Finally, we were instructed in the proper way to dress and how to talk. Women had to wear long skirts, thick socks, long-sleeved shirts, and complete head coverings while attending any services. No makeup, no jewelry, etc. My very, very pretty mother, who always used to smell of perfume, and who wore pantyhose and nice clothes, as well as jewelry now and then—who had her hair colored and permed every two weeks or so– began to neglect her appearance. She wore shabby clothing, and refused all womanly things except for a heavy Orthodox cross which hung on a piece of dental floss. Men were encouraged to grow beards, or at least cover up all skin. My dad began to be ashamed of his military job and his uniform, and even his country. He wanted to be Russian. And lastly, my family began to talk like robots, using Br. B’s phrases and even his so-called humor.
We were pretty well ready for our “chrismation” and “denunciation of the devil”. This was done quickly in one service, and we didn’t know what was really happening. We were handed things to chant, told to bow to this icon or that, told to prostrate ourselves, and told to spit on the floor to the west. Then we were going to be baptized out at the Dog Canyon building.
We were taught how to bow and prostrate ourselves before all kinds of unknown icons; we were taught how to go into a chapel or church and make our way around, kissing all the faces of these cold paintings. It was repulsive to me and my dad, but we did it anyway. Um, didn’t it say somewhere in the Ten Commandments not to “bow down thyself before the images of anything in heaven or on earth”? I asked these questions. I got the usual answer. The Bible is not the sole authority on everything. There is “holy tradition” and the “holy fathers”, which often supersede the very words of God. “Become like little children and trust us,” we were repeatedly ordered. As Steve Hassan wrote: “It is not accidental that many destructive cults tell their members to ‘become like little children’. Adults can easily be age-regressed to a time when they had little or no critical faculties…dependent on our parents as the ultimate authority figures.” (p. 47, Combatting Mind Control.)
Next, we needed “real” godparents. Godparents were to be present at our baptisms, and throughout all of our lives. They were to guide us to Heaven, along with the “spiritual fathers.” And godparents had authority over anything mothers and fathers taught. That was a strange new idea. But we were assured it was “ancient Christianity.” So we were assigned strangers we had never met. Only my little brother, who was 11 years old at the time, was chosen to be one of the many godsons of the illustrious Brother B.
As I will write later, this fast-talking man gained complete control over my brother’s life, his thinking, and his will. This man became his “father” where my own dad was absent, and often would not return my brother’s phone calls after we moved. This “love-bombing”, which made my brother feel special, followed by long spells of silence from his godfather, to whom he had become severely attached, caused him to be on an emotional roller-coaster, well into his 20s.
I must add here that lots of strange things began to happen in the family, which I will recount below. These included not only “miracles” and “exorcisms”, but health problems. Some of them were quite subtle, but some of them were LOUD RED FLAGS, which should have been heeded by my deluded parents. Such as the rectal bleeding which my little brother began to experience after our involvement with the cult and its clergy. And the crying, and the violent outbursts, followed by intense periods of guilt.
He may have been molested. I know we all were spiritually abused. You can read about these things on the links listed at the left.
Finally, we were made to be a “mission” ourselves. Our next job was to “make converts”, teaching them what we had been taught, and to bring in more, uh, money. Actually, this was kind of a joke, because my parents were more concerned with “hiding from persecution” and “separating themselves from the world.” They only “made” one convert in 25 years: my dad’s very best friend, who was completely ignored when he became ill and then died a lonely death.
We were in a cult.