Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present (Charles Stewart, 2002)


NOTE: This article is excerpted from the The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), pp. 279-309


The Mixed Dream


Early Christian preachers such as Justin Martyr assimilated all of the pagan gods to ‘demons’ under the control of the Devil (Pagels 1988: 42). According to pagan cosmology, demons were not intrinsically evil, but they were biddable. The magical papyri of the last centuries BCE and first centuries CE reveal how people sought, through ritual incantations, to command demons to carry dreams to others. In one particular example, a man named Hermeias exhorts the demons to cause his unresponsive object of desire to lust for him, even when she is ‘drinking, working, conversing, sleeping, dreaming, having an orgasm in her dreams, until she is scourged by you and comes desiring me.1

Granted the prevailing association of demons with dreams in popular thought, Christians were counselled to distrust their sleeping visions as possibly satanic. Dreams thus came to be placed squarely on the negative side of a morally polarized universe. John Climacus, whose Ladder of divine ascent synthesized the ascetic tradition and became a handbook for monks, wrote: ‘Devils often take on the appearance of angels of light or martyrs and they appear to us in sleep and talk to us … And if we start to believe in the devils of our dreams, then we will be their playthings when we are also awake’ (Climacus, Ladder, 3).

Beginning with Tertullian, the Church Fathers held that dreams could come variously from God, the Devil or the Soul (Tertullian, On the soul, 47). This tripartite scheme was apparently adapted from pre-Christian philosophical traditions. A look at the third-century BCE Alexandrian physician Herophilus’ classification of dreams reveals that the erotic dream figured centrally in the transition from paganism to Christianity:

“Herophilus says that some dreams are inspired by a god and arise by necessity, while others are natural ones and arise when the soul forms for itself an image (eidolon) of what is to its own advantage and of what will happen next; and still others are mixed (synkra-matikoi) and arise spontaneously (ek tou automatou) according to the impact of the images, whenever we see what we wish, as happens in the case of those who in their sleep make love to the women they love.”2

Greek physician Herophilus, considered to be the father of human anatomy, was accused of conducting live dissections of some 600 prisoners.

The interesting part of this scheme is the third, or mixed category. In so far as people see what they inwardly desire in these dreams, they seem identical to enypnia – the physical state dreams discussed earlier.3 Yet, this identification cannot be correct, since Herophilus pointedly differentiates them from the category of dreams produced exclusively by the soul. Mixed dreams have an exogenous element; they result from outside forces – the impact of images on the sleeper. These images happen to coincide with internal desires.

Herophilus’ mixed dream, with its ready erotic exemplification, corresponded to the demonic dream in the Christian tripartite system (von Staden 1989: 310). Early ascetic theories of human nature and psychology reveal how monks understood demons to inspire erotic dreams. These accounts, presented by writers such as Evagrius and Cassian, possibly illuminate what Herophilus intended by the mixed dream. Certainly they take us deeper into the genesis of the erotic nightmare.


For Evagrius, who became a monk in Egypt around 382 CE, demons could manipulate an individual’s previously acquired, emotionally charged memories to excite the passions, and set sinful thoughts in train. Thus evil thoughts were simultaneously exogenous and endogenous; demons activated what was already there. Evagrius conceded that disturbing thoughts would inevitably occur, even in the course of monastic life – such thoughts were part of the human condition. Sin set in only if one mentally entertained a thought for too long. As he expressed it: ‘It is not up to us whether evil thoughts might trouble the soul or leave it in peace. What does depend on us is whether they linger or not, and whether they set the passions in motion or not’ (Praktikos, 6). The goal was inner stillness, which Evagrius referred to by the familiar Stoic term, apatheia (Guillaumont 1971: 98ff.).

Evagrius named eight primary demons, the model for what would become the ‘seven deadly sins’ in Western Christianity. Each of these demons normally attacked only one of the two vulnerable parts of the soul, the high-spirited or the sensual. Predictably, the demon of fornication (porneia) attacked the sensual part of the soul. According to Evagrius “it compels one to desire ‘remarkable’ bodies; it violently attacks those living in abstinence in order to cause them to quit, convinced they will amount to nothing. And, soiling the soul, it inclines it to ‘those acts’ [obscene acts]. It causes monks to speak and hear things, as if some object were visible and present” (Praktikos, 8).

As this passage shows, the battle with demons spilled over into the realm of dreams and (other) hallucinations where the power of the will to resist demons was weakest. Although demons could provoke erotic dreams and nightmares, these were normally two distinct types of dream (Praktikos, 21, 22, 54). The phenomenon of an erotic nightmare required a fusion of demonic domains that contravened the normal division. In such dreams the sensual part of the soul joined forces with the irascible to overwhelm the intellect. It was the opposite of Plato’s ideal scenario of self-mastery where the intellect and the high spirits co-operated to overpower the appetitive part. In Evagrius’ psychology the erotic nightmare was not excluded but rather given a powerful theorization. It was the exception that confirmed the rule.4 The erotic dream was a mixed dream then, not only because external demons aroused internal thoughts, but also because it simultaneously affected the two parts of the soul.


If dreams were, indeed, controllable, then anyone who experienced an erotic dream was potentially culpable. John Cassian excused nocturnal emissions if they occurred to someone with a full stomach (Cassian, Conferences, 12.2). In such cases they were a simple physical fact of the body, and he allowed that it was ‘natural’ for emissions to occur as often as every two months, although three times a year was a more acceptable frequency (Cassian, Institutions, 6.20; Conferences, 2.23).


The sinfulness of erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions continued to be a topic of debate in ascetic ‘anthropology’- as patristic theories of human nature and psychology are sometimes known – throughout the Middle Ages in both the Eastern and Western Churches (Elliott 1999; Fogen 1998). Excusable nocturnal emissions became sinful erotic dreams if one entertained them, allowed them to linger, and, most importantly, if one consented to them (Elliott 1999: 20). The way to fight the images and sensations of the mixed dream was to sever them with the knife of the will, withholding assent so that externally instigated images did not connect with bodily passions. Nocturnal emissions unaccompanied by visual imagery indicated spiritual progress (Evagrius, Praktikos, 55; Angelidi forthcoming).

From the Monastery to the World

The account developed to this point presents the views of learned texts representing the ideas and practices of elite, free men in antiquity and a narrow subsection of monks and high clerics in the early Christian period. Their practices of self-cultivation may not have been shared by very many of their contemporaries, but their influence on subsequent generations has been enormous. If the ancient Greek ethic of self-moderation was explicitly elitist, the Christian ethic became increasingly unified in conception and intended for all – men and women, young and old alike. I turn now to consider how the ascetically influenced Christian ethic of self diffused to the population at large and how the Christian laity was conditioned to view the erotic dream as dangerous and nightmarish.

Incubus, 1870
Incubus, 1870

In popular vocabulary the word incubus, as we saw, gave people a ready label for the erotic nightmare.5 In the wake of Augustine’s writings about concupiscence and original sin, the general term for demonic interference in a dream, ‘inlusio‘ (illusion), came to have automatically erotic overtones in succeeding generations (Elliott 1999: 20). Likewise, the term ‘phantasma‘, which Aristotle had used interchangeably with phantasia to mean a ‘mental perception, image, or representation’, came to mean a distorted – usually by demons – mental representation (Schmitt 1999: 278). If normal sensory perceptions were like water that flowed through a person, then memories could be likened to water that was stored and which remained clear. Phantasmata, on the other hand, were like stagnant water that had become cloudy, rank, and overgrown with algae.

How did these developments affect popular views of these matters? Certainly the laity were not expected to live up to the ascetic standards of the monks – this would have meant the extinction of Christian society – nor were they necessarily concerned by, or even able to comprehend, the high-flown arguments of theology. People in the world no doubt continued to have extra-marital sexual relations, dreams, erotic dreams, nocturnal emissions, and nightmares. But the Church did make attempts to regulate these phenomena. Early penitential books such as the Irish penitential of Cummean, composed in the seventh century after the model of Cassian’s rules for monks, represented one such effort. This penitential is notable for its comprehensive distinctions among erotic deeds and thoughts.

“He who merely desires in his mind to commit fornication, but is not able, shall do penance for one year … He who is willingly polluted during sleep, shall rise and sing nine psalms in order, kneeling … He who desires to sin during sleep, or is unintentionally polluted, fifteen psalms; he who sins but is not polluted, twenty-four” (Bieler 1963: 115;Asad 1993: 101).

Aurelius Prudentius Clemens

The dissemination of prayer formulas comprised another area for ascetic influ-ence on the development of mainstream Christianity. The expanding practice of bedtime prayers is of particular interest here (Le Goff 1988: 225). Early in the fifth century CE, Prudentius composed a hymn before sleep that included the following lines: ‘If a man’s stains of guilty conduct are few and far between, him the clear and flashing light teaches secret things; but he who has polluted and befouled his heart with sins is the sport of many a fear and sees fright-ful visions’ (Daily round 6.49). And it concluded with the following exorcistic entreaty: ‘The cross drives out every sin; before the cross darkness flees away; consecrated with this sign, the spirit cannot be unquiet. Away, away with the monstrosities of rambling dreams! Away with the deceiver and his persistent guile!’ (Daily round 6.133).

Between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, the Church’s mode of eliciting and forgiving lay sins altered. Initially, there was the brutally demanding office of penance in which the penitent was excluded from the worshipping com-munity (Asad 1993: 100). This person’s sins and their on-going punishment were socially apparent. The practice of individual, private confession to a cleric gradually replaced penance until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), when it was made mandatory for all. Later, the Protestants identified compulsory confession to lascivious clerics as a practice that increased rather than decreased general sexual excitation. In the reformed Church confession would have no place. Each individual would be responsible for his or her own actions in the face of God. This was not an easy option, but rather the beginning of an in-worldly asceticism. In Weber’s famous formulation, asceticism ‘now … strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world’ (1991 [1904-5]: 154).

Woodcut from the Malleus maleficarum

Just as the new order of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations got underway in the sixteenth century, so, too, did the witch-hunts. The judicial system became a means to contravene the new space of private conscience that the reformers had begun to stake out. Officials asserted greater power than ever to interrogate individuals about their inner thoughts, convictions, and fantasies. These witch trials frequently involved accusations that men and women attended sabbaths at which they had sex with the Devil. The witch-hunting manuals developed an elaborate picture of incubi that attacked women and succubi that copulated with men. According to the Malleus maleficarum (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 [1486]: 41 ff.), such erotic episodes occurred more frequently to women since they were more feeble, credulous, and less self-controlled than men.

These various developments continue the story of erotic dreams and self-control begun in antiquity, a contention that emerges more clearly if we closely consider the tenth-century Canon episcopi (Lea 1939: 38; Russell 1972: 292). This text urged priests to eradicate demonic sorcery from their parishes. It also alerted clerics that some women, ‘seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons (daemonumi llusionibuse t phantasmatibusse ductae), believe themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans’ (Lea 1939: 178). In such cases, priests were instructed to teach that these beliefs were false delusions of the Devil. The Canon episcopi conceded that women did undergo demonic molestation but only ‘in their spirits’ (cum solus eius spiritus). The problem, from the Church’s point of view, was the exuberant folk credulity aroused by these tales, and the laity’s apparent inability to distinguish imagined from real experiences. Thus the Canon episcopi emphasized that:

“[w]hile the spirit alone endures this [demonic manipulation], the faithless mind thinks these things happen not in the spirit, but in the body. Who is there that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal vision, and sees much when sleeping that he has never seen when waking? Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body …” (Lea 1939: 179).

The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020.
The text of the canon Episcopi in Hs. 119 (Cologne), a manuscript of Decretum Burchardi dated to ca. 1020.

Uncertainty over ‘the imaginal’6 thus lay at the centre of European witchcraft.

Renaissance theologians had to decide whether witches’ transformations, flights, and sabbaths were merely dreams, and if so, whether the individuals involved none the less merited prosecution for believing them. The issues begin to look very much like those posed by the desert Fathers. The difference between the first ascetics and the laity during the witch craze was that earlier a (male) individual had largely been left to monitor his own spiritual failures. Later (male) clerics decided this matter on behalf of (female) individuals. Torture and capital punishment replaced internally imposed humility and renewed ascetic effort as responses to erotic dreams.

The matter of the reality of witchcraft, and the responsibility for dream visions, was never uniformly decided throughout the main period of witch-hunting, that is, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Carlo Ginzburg (1983) reveals how the authorities resolutely ignored statements by Friulian villagers that they fought demons ‘in the spirit’, while their bodies were at home, asleep. The accused called themselves benandanti (good-doers) and imagined that their practices were fundamentally Christian. Under the duress of long interrogation, however, the benandanti changed their stories and confessed that they had consorted with demons ‘for real’.

The benandanti told mainly of fighting against malevolent forces in order to safeguard the community’s harvest, and it is possible that many ‘witches’ stories’ were, likewise, not particularly sexual. The inquiring authorities, however, assumed that witchcraft must involve sexual acts with the Devil and thus they pushed the stories in that direction through questioning. Judges showed a particular interest in the issue of whether the intercourse with the devil was voluntary or forced, frightening or pleasurable (Kramer & Sprenger 1970 [1486]: 114; Lancre 1982 [1613]: 200-1). Whether or not actual erotic nightmares or erotic dreams had occurred to the accused, there was a likelihood that erotic nightmare scenarios would occupy a conspicuous place in the final confession.

The nocturnal visionary tradition of the benandanti led the Roman Inquisition to accuse them of being witches, malevolent Satanists depicted in this 1508 woodcut.

Freud once rhetorically asked, ‘Why are [the witches’] confessions under torture so like the communications made by my patients in psychic treatment?’ (Ginzburg 1990: 150; Roper 1994: 245). The answer would seem to lie in the shared conviction in the importance of an underlying libidinal impulse. This sexual Urszene could be uncovered through confession, although both psychoanalysts and inquisitors faced a besetting uncertainty as to whether these received confessions were truth or fantasy (Ginzburg 1990: 151).

In this section I have retrained attention on the persistent factor of dreams, particularly demonically distorted dreams (phantasmata), at the heart of the European witchcraft phenomenon. My contention is that dreams, erotic dreams, nightmares, and erotic nightmares all occasionally figured in witch-craft cases. The effect of the threatening manuals for prosecutors, and of the prosecutions themselves, was to funnel even innocuous dreams into an erotic nightmare formulation, thereby further defining and maximally diffusing a category of experience that first arose in the context of early Christian asceticism.

  1. Greek magical papyri XVIIa; in Betz (1986: 253). For more on demons sending (erotic) dreams, see Eitrem (1991) and Faraone (1999).
  2. Found in the first-century CE author, Aetius, Placita, 5.2.3; text and translation in von Staden (1989: 386).
  3. Galen considered erotic dreams as textbook examples of the category of dreams that reflected an individual’s physical state: ‘men full of sperm will imagine that they are having sexual intercourse’ (On diagnosis from dreams, in Oberhelman 1983: 46).
  4. ‘The sin of accidie (boredom, despondency) – also known as the noonday demon – provides one example of a demonic thought that allied the irascible and sensuous parts of the soul and ‘suffocated the intellect’ (Evagrius, Praktikos, 36). Evagrius considered accidie ‘the heaviest of the demons’ (Praktikos, 12). I thank George Calofonos for his discussion of these ideas.
  5. An indication of the currency of the term may be found in Augustine’s City of God, 15.23. 17 My use of this term perhaps differs somewhat from its use in Jungian circles and elsewhere (cf. Tedlock 1987: 3).
  6. I use ‘imaginal’ to refer to a state of consciousness in which one has the impression that what one is witnessing is absolutely ‘real’ and independent of one’s mind, although one is, in fact, only imagining it. The term ‘imaginary’, by contrast, implies an awareness, even in the moment of imagining, that what one beholds is only a product of one’s imagination. Dreams, visions, hallucinations, and apparitions are, generally, experienced imaginally and then subsequently accounted for as imaginary.
  7. Succubus

Excerpts on the Virtue of Humility (Saint John of the Ladder)

NOTE: The Orthodox Fathers have an entirely different view than modern science and psychology on the subject of humiliation and its effects. Patristic texts encourage Christians to seek every opportunity to be embarrassed, humbled, shamed, derided, insulted, bullied, etc. Though research shows many of these things can lead one to various neuroses and psychopathological disorders, the Fathers teach these things to be part of the narrow path to theosis, and the only way to salvation. Geronda Ephraim said in a homily on struggling to acquire humility: “If you’re praying to God to give you humility, you are essentially asking him to humble you and you are asking to be humbled…” Geronda Ephraim places a lot of emphasis on acquiring humility, which is holiness. Blind obedience is taught as the shortcut to acquire humility. The following quotes are from the Ladder of Divine Ascent, also known as The Monastic Bible. In many monasteries, it is a tradition to read this book during Trapeza meals throughout Great Lent.


Let us pay close attention to ourselves so that we are not deceived into thinking that we are following the strait and narrow way when in actual fact we are keeping to the wide and broad way. The following will show you what the narrow way means: mortification of the stomach, all-night standing, water in moderation, short rations of bread, the purifying draught of dishonour, sneers, derision, insults, the cutting out of one’s own will, patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry; when condemned, to be humble. Blessed are they who follow the way we have just described, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (Step 2:8)

Exile means…desire for humiliation… (Step 3:1)

Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. (Step 4:3)


And there was to be seen among them an awful and angelic sight: venerable and white-haired elders of holy beauty running about in obedience like children and taking a great delight in their humiliation. There I have seen men who had spent some fifty years in obedience. And when I asked them to tell me what consolation they had gained from so great a labour, some of them replied that they had attained to deep humility with which they had permanently repelled every assault. Others said that they had obtained complete insensibility and freedom from pain in calumnies and insults. (Step 4:20)

…But knowing that Macedonius was telling him an untruth and that he sought punishment only for the sake of humility, the Saint yielded to the good wish of the ascetic… (Step 4:31)

When their physician noticed that some liked to display themselves before people of the world who were visiting the monastery, then in the presence of such visitors he subjected them to extreme insults and gave them the most humiliating task, so that they began to beat a hasty retreat, and the arrival of secular visitors proved to be their victory. (Step 4:33)


From obedience comes humility, and from humility comes dispassion … Therefore nothing prevents us from saying that from obedience comes dispassion, through which the goal of humility is attained. (Step 4:71)

I have seen a religious who used to snatch the words from his superior’s lips, but I despaired of his obedience when I saw it led to pride and not to humility. (Step 4:79)

Insults, humiliations and similar things are like the bitterness of wormwood to the soul of a novice; while praises, honours and approbation are like honey and give birth to all manner of sweetness in pleasure-lovers. But let us look at the nature of each: wormwood purifies all interior filth, while honey increases gall. (Step 4:103)


Let us trust with firm confidence those who have taken upon themselves the care of us in the Lord, even though they order something apparently contrary and opposed to our salvation. For it is then that our faith in them is tested as in a furnace of humiliation. For it is a sign of the truest faith if we obey our superiors without any hesitation, even when we see the opposite of what we had hoped for happening. (Step 4:104)

When a foolish person is accused or shouted at he is wounded by it and tries to contradict, or at once makes an apology to his accuser, not out of humility but in order to stop the accusations. But when you are being ridiculed, be silent, and receive with patience these spiritual cauterizations, or rather, purifying flames. And when the doctor has finished, then ask his forgiveness. For while he is angry perhaps he will not accept your apology. (Step 4:116)

I saw there [i.e. the Prison] some who seemed from their demeanour and their thoughts to be out of their mind. In their great disconsolateness they had become like dumb men in complete darkness, and were insensible to the whole of life. Their minds had already sunk to the very depths of humility, and had burnt up the tears in their eyes with the fire of their despondency. (Step 5:10)


Others out of unspeakable humility condemned themselves as unworthy of forgiveness, and would cry out that it was not within their power to justify themselves before God. (Step 5:11)

Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. (Step 6:8)

A vivid remembrance of death cuts down food; and when in humility food is cut, the passions are cut out too. (Step 6:12)

A characteristic of those who are still progressing in blessed mourning is temperance and silence of the lips, and of those who have made progress—freedom from anger and patient endurance of injuries; and of the perfect—humility, thirst for dishonours, voluntary craving for involuntary afflictions, non-condemnation of sinners, compassion even beyond one’s strength. The first are acceptable, the second laudable; but blessed are those who hunger for hardship and thirst for dishonour, for they shall have their fill of the food that does not cloy. (Step 7:4)


If nothing goes so well with humility as mourning, certainly nothing is so opposed to it as laughter. (Step 7:8)

Drive away with the hand of humility every transitory joy, as being unworthy of it, lest by readily admitting it you receive a wolf instead of a shepherd. (Step 7:57)

It is not he who depreciates himself who shows humility (for who will not put up with himself?) but he who maintains the same love for the very man who reproaches him. (Step 22:17)

Vainglory incites monks given to levity to anticipate the arrival of lay guests and to go out of the cloister to meet them. It makes them fall at their feet and, though full of pride, it feigns humility. (Step 22:22)


The Lord often brings the vainglorious to a state of humility through the dishonour that befalls them. (Step 22:38)

The beginning of pride is the consummation of vainglory; the middle is the humiliation of our neighbor… (Step 23:2)

It is one thing to be humble, another to strive for humility, and another to praise the humble. The first belongs to the perfect, the second to the truly obedient, and the third to all the faithful. (Step 25:19)

Humility is a divine shelter to prevent us from seeing our achievements. Humility is an abyss of self-abasement… (Step 25:26)


It is impossible for snow to burst into flame; still more difficult is it for humility to dwell in an unorthodox person. This is something which the pious and faithful achieve, and then only when they have been purified. (Step 25:32)

If the limit and rule and characteristic of extreme pride is for a man to feign such virtues as he does not possess for the sake of glory, then it follows that a sign of the deepest humility will be to cheapen ourselves by pretending to have faults that we do not possess. (Step 25:44)

We should unceasingly condemn and reproach ourselves so as to cast off involuntary sins through voluntary humiliations. Otherwise, if we do not, at our departure we shall certainly be subjected to heavy punishment. (Step 25:55)


The ever-memorable Fathers laid down that the way to humility and its foundations is bodily toil. And I would say obedience and honesty of heart, because they are naturally opposed to self-esteem. (Step 25:62)

Excerpts from the Homily to the Shepherd by St. John Climacus

Another study guide that is required reading for the abbots and abbesses of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries is St. John of Sinai’s “Homily to the Shepherd” which is found in the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Though the Ladder is required reading for monks and nuns, for some reason, there are novices and rassaphores in Geronda’s monasteries who have been  forbidden  to read this section. One was told, “it might cause warfare of thoughts against the Elder,” another was told, “It’s not necessary; this section is for Elders not disciples,” etc. This homily is missing from the English translation of Fr. Lazarus Moore, but can be found in the English translation of Holy Transfiguration Monastery (MA). Here are some excerpts:

The Monastic Bible after the Bible.
The Monastic Bible after the Bible.

#5 A genuine teacher is he who has received from God the tablet of knowledge, inscribed by His Divine finger, that is, by the in-working of illumination, and who has no need of other books. It is as unseemly for teachers to give instruction from notes taken from other men’s writings, as it is for painters to take inspiration from other men’s compositions.
#7 Let the shepherd cast the stones of reprimand at those sheep which fall behind because of slothfulness or gluttony; for this also is the sign of a good shepherd.
#20 The teacher who makes quick-witted pupils wise is not worthy of admiration, but rather he who enlightens and perfects the ignorant and obtuse. The skill of riders is manifested and praised when they achieve victory even on untrained horses, and do them no harm.

(Many “untrained horses” have left the monasteries broken and harmed. The blame is always shifted to the disciple: “They didn’t do obedience, they hid their thoughts, they became deluded.” For the broken and harmed that have stayed, and are still there, some have developed severe emotional and psychological problems, and this they blame on themselves because they did their own will and not absolute, blind obedience. These monks get more dispensation due to their issues: essentially their obedience is reduced to, “Just stay in the monastery, do your daily prayer rule, go to the services and nothing else.”)

Monks on horses
#22 I have seen physicians who did not inform their patients of the causes of their illness, and by so doing gave both themselves and their patients much toil and anguish.
#23 According to the great faith which the superior sees in his disciples and in outsiders towards himself, he must take great heed to himself in everything he does and says, understanding that all look upon him as an archetypal image, and they consider whatever he says and does as a standard and a law.
#26 Grieve the sick man for a time, lest from accursed silence his sickness be prolonged or he die; for because of the pilot’s silence, many of presumed that they were sailing fairly, until they struck a reef.
#30 If a man does not feel shame when he is rebuked privately, then he will make a rebuke before many an occasion for greater shamelessness, voluntarily disdaining his own salvation.

(This can either be in the Lity, where the monastic lies prostrate by the Church entrance and begs forgiveness of everyone who is leaving. It could also be a rebuke, sometimes with revealing private and embarrassing things from their confession, in front of all the monks or nuns).

"Forgive me brethren and fathers, I..."
“Forgive me brethren and fathers, I…”

#32 The guide ought not to tell all those who come to him that the way is straight and narrow, nor should he say to each that the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Rather, he should examine the case of each man and prescribe medicines which are suitable. To those who are weighed down by grievous sins and are prone to despair, he should administer the second as an appropriate remedy, but to those who are inclined to haughtiness and conceit, the first.
#35 A good general must know precisely the ability and rank of every man under his command, for perhaps there are with him in his troops front-line fighters, and men suited for single combat on behalf of their comrades, who ought to dwell in stillness.
#39 Often the Lord has shut the eyes of those in obedience to certain failings of the superior, but when the superior himself revealed these to them, he engendered distrust.
#47 It is not right for a lion to pasture sheep, and it is not safe for a man still subject to the passions to rule over passionate men.
#48 A fox found in the company of hens is an unseemly sight, but nothing is more unseemly than an enraged shepherd. The former agitates and destroys but hens, while the latter agitates and destroys rational souls.

βοσκοί και τα πρόβατα

#49 See that you are not an exacting investigator of trifling sins, thus showing yourself not to be an imitator of God.
#51 You and all shepherds should inquire into this also: whether, for the most part, grace has deigned to work through us, not on account of our purity, but because of the faith of those who come to us, for even many passionate men have worked miracles in this manner.
#58 A genuine son is made known in the absence of his father. The same seems true to me in respect to those in obedience. Let the superior observe and mark carefully those who contradict and withstand him, and in the presence of highly respected guests, let him rebuke them with most severe reproofs, thus instilling fear in the other brethren by this example, even though they may be exceedingly grieved by such dishonours; for to make many prudent is worth the expense of one man’s injury.
#61 Instruct those under you not to confess in detail sins relating to the body and to lust; but as for all other sins, teach them to bring them to mind in detail, both by day and night.
#67 It is a disgrace for the shepherd to fear death, because the definition of obedience is fearlessness of death.
#70 Before a man gains understanding through experience, let us not lay our hands quickly upon him (as is also the custom in the world), lest when we put some of our sheep to make vows while they are still in ignorance, they afterwards come to know our way of life, and are unable to endure its weight and burning heat, and desert us and return to the world. This will not be without danger for those who tonsure prematurely.

(“Back then it was about quantity, now it is more about quality,” an abbot about the beginnings of the monasteries. In the first years, most novices were tonsured within a year. Though only rassaphores, they were given the impression that they had the same obligation as Schema-monks: “it is for life now, you had your hair cut, if you leave you’ll lose your salvation.” Many monastics are not given the proper explanation of what exactly a rassaphore is (according to the Fathers and Canons, essentially still a novice), nor are they told that the tonsure is like an engagement, whereas the Schema is like the wedding. Thus, many rassaphores feel they have to stay in the monastery until their last breath as they’ve made a vow and will go to hell if they leave or press for a blessing to leave. By the mid-2000s, after all the problems Geronda Ephraim has seen with in his monasteries, and with the large number of tonsured rassaphores that have left, it is said that he decided to leave people as novices for longer periods before tonsuring them; especially converts).

St. Nektarios Monastery, Kursk Root Icon, Russian Clergy and monks.
St. Nektarios Monastery, Kursk Root Icon, Russian Clergy and monks.

#82 When you have descried men stout of soul, dishonour them without cause in the presence of the weak, so that by the medicine administered to one you may cure another’s inflammable and teach the lax to be resolute.
#83 At no time do we find God revealing the sins which have been confessed to Him, lest by making these public knowledge, He should impede those who would confess and so make them incurably sick.

(In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastic’s confessions are only confidential at the discretion of the Abbot/Abbess. Sometimes things are revealed in front of the fraternity, other times they’re mentioned in conversation with monastics of the monastery. It varies from monastery to monastery).

The Sacrament of Confession

#94b It is better to drive a man out of the monastery than to let him do his own will. For often the superior will thus make the man whom he has driven out more humble, and afterwards cause him to cut his will himself. However, he that shows apparent loving-kindness and condescension to such men will cause them to curse him in a piteous manner at the time of their departure, as one that led them astray rather than profiting them.

(In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this can happen in a few different ways. The individual can be kicked out; this is usually the case for novices. For tonsured rassaphores it’s a little different because the Elder has more “responsibility” for their soul and is accountable before God. Other methods to make a monastic tow the line: instruct the fraternity to ignore them, as if they don’t exist: no talking, eye contact, no food placed for them at meal time, etc. This breaks them quickly. The opposite can occur as well: continual rebukes for things the monastic did or didn’t do; being given painstaking diakonimas, continual humbling and shaming in front of the fraternity, the revealing of embarrassing sins in front of the fraternity, etc.)

Filotheou Brotherhood, Mount Athos (ca. early 1990s)
Filotheou Brotherhood, Mount Athos (ca. early 1990s)

#94d …Besides this, he appointed two of the brethren to be overseers to watch for and put a stop to idle gatherings and loitering during the day, and to report untimely waking during the night, and things unlawful to record.

(All of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries have one or two monastics who report everything they see and hear in the monastery to the Abbot or Abbess. Sometimes a monastic will be assigned to spy on another and given an obedience to report certain behaviors immediately. Other times, with problematic monastics, one or two monastics may be assigned to stay awake all night and watch the individual’s cell. As well, there is also the monitoring of phones, there is always another monastic listening with incoming or outgoing phone calls, and reports are made back to the head of the monastery).

#95 I beg you, do not instruct the simpler sort in the complexities of deceitful thoughts, but rather, if possible, make complex men simple—a marvellous thing indeed!
#98 Have no pity in overwearing and taming men young and strong of body, that in the time of their departure they may praise you. (This is where long hours of hard labor apply).


The Errors of Blind Obedience or Neo-Gerondism Part 3

Condemnation, which is sin, is one thing and discernment, which is a virtue, is another. Discernment is something that everyone should have and seek from God. Throughout the Bible, it tells how important it is for us to have judgement (in the sense of discernment and not of condemnation). Today, however, it is “fashionable” within the framework of Gerontism and Neo-Orthodoxy more generally, to confuse these two things. Discernment is presented as condemnation, i.e. as something reprehensible.

“Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the Lord God Almighty shall be with you, as ye have said, 15 We have hated evil, and loved good: and restore ye judgment in the gates; that the Lord God Almighty may have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:14-15).

“Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, and between him that serves God, and him that serves [him] not” (Malachi 3:18).

“Jesus answered and said…‘Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment’ (John 7:21, 24).

Now let’s look at some things that St. John of the ‘Ladder’1 writes about obedience, an examination of which it becomes evident how all the things we saw at the beginning are vulgar misconceptions of ecclesiastical tradition.

“Obedience is necrosis of the members of the body, while the mind is alive” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:3)
“Obedience is necrosis of the members of the body, while the mind is alive” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:3)

“Obedience is necrosis of the members of the body, while the mind is alive” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:3)
“In union with humility it is impossible that there should be any appearance of hatred, or any kind of dispute, or even a sniff of disobedience, unless perhaps faith is called in question” (St. John of Sinai, On Humility, Step 25:8)

It is a great irony that the Gerontistes claim that all their sick mental construction can be supported by the following statement made in the ‘Ladder’:

“But do not boast or rejoice when you bear insults and indignities courageously, but rather mourn that you have done something meriting your bad treatment and incensed the soul of your director against you. Do not be surprised at what I am going to say (for I have Moses to support me [cf. Ex. 32:11-14]). It is better to sin against God than against our father; for when we anger God, our director can reconcile us; but when he is incensed against us, there is no one to propitiate him for us. But it seems to me that both cases amount to the same thing” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:121).

The gurus translate this as, “Better to disobey God, than to disobey the Geronda,” or, “Better to sadden God, than to sadden the Geronda.” St. John, however, does not tell the subordinate not to “disobey” the Geronda or not to “sadden” him, i.e. if his order is contrary to the will of God, but that would be an irreparable disaster for the subordinate if the sin was something that was directed not against God (namely, the one who in reality applies), but against the Geronda. The meaning of St. John’s words are very different than what they want to pass them as! So if a Geronda tells a monk to cooperate with him for something immoral and the monk says, “No,” then he disobeys the Geronda, he saddens him, but he doesn’t sin towards God! If he says “Yes,” then he doesn’t disobey the Geronda, nor sadden him, but yet sins against God!

“When we do not want what the elder wants, we are not in essence disciples—we do not have spiritual obedience. Even if we are obedient in our actions, it is as if we were humans with a body but no soul, which is something logically unacceptable.” Geronda Ephraim of Arizona

Indiscriminate obedience requires the guidance someone receives to be in agreement with God’s will:

“Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. A corpse does not argue or reason as to what is good or what seems to be bad. For he who has devoutly put the soul of the novice to death will answer for everything. Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment.” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:3)
We read this the Bible: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17) The presupposition of complete obedience is the spiritual guidance we receive from the one we obey is correct, honest and responsible; namely, it is certainly in agreement with the Word of God. We know the will of God from the word of God.

During this sermon, St. John uses real examples to analyze how a monk must endure, without complaint if necessary, all the rigor of his Abbot (suffering, humiliation or punishment). This is what he speaks about here. He does not talk about participation in fornication, sodomy, greed, secular attitudes, heretical movements etc.

“Whoever disregards whatever he is commanded, whoever does not regard as law the things which he is advised and does not strive to apply them out of disdain, must realize that damnation will befall him!”

Also, it is worth noticing the following three statements, which hit all of this “Gerontolatry” in its heart:

“If you come to an unknown physician and hospital, behave as though you were passing by, and secretly test the life and spiritual experience of all those living there. And when you begin to feel benefit from the doctors and nurses and get relief from your sicknesses, and especially with regard to your special disease, namely, spiritual pride, then go to them and buy it with the gold of humility, and write the contract on the parchment of obedience with the letters of service and with the angels as witnesses.” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:94)
“Do not be over-eager and do not be carried away when you hear tales of the silent1 and hermit fathers. For you are marching in the army of the First Martyr (Christ, that is, who ‘became obedient unto death’ [cf. Phil. 2:8])” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:68)
“Let us judge the nature of our passions and of our obedience, and choose our spiritual father accordingly. If you are prone to lust, then do not select as your trainer a wonderworker who is ready for everyone with a welcome and a meal, but rather an ascetic who will hear of no consolation in food. If you are haughty, then let him be stern and unyielding, and not meek and kindly. Let us not seek those who have the gift of foreknowledge and foresight, but rather those who are unquestionably humble and whose character and place of residence correspond to our maladies.” (St. John of Sinai, On Obedience, Step 4:120)

 “When I met my Geronda, I decided to leave everything and to obey him in everything, and to give him rest. If I was successful, God knows…” -Geronda Ephraim of Xeropotamou concerning his Geronda, Ephraim Filotheitis (now of Arizona).
“When I met my Geronda, I decided to leave everything and to obey him in everything, and to give him rest. If I was successful, God knows…” -Geronda Ephraim of Xeropotamou concerning his Geronda, Ephraim Filotheitis (now of Arizona).

1) The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in the 6th century by St. John of Sinai, who is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on March 30th and the 4th Sunday of Great Lent. In some monasteries, it is traditionally read in the trapeze during Great Lent, in other monasteries, it is usually read at some point throughout the year. At one time, it was considered the 2nd bible for monks. In recent years, with the translations of Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Geronda Ephraim of Arizona’s books into English, these have become the new bibles after the Bible for monastics (at least within Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries). The reason for this is, “it is better to read Geronda’s books because they contain his pneuma and mindset, which is what you want to acquire. Also, some of the patristic books have a different spirit than Geronda, or some of their teachings contradict Geronda’s teachings and create confusion—especially in a new novice. Thus, it’s better to read your Geronda than other Gerondas or Fathers.” Along with these books, the biographies of Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia, Elder Arsenios the Cave-Dweller, and Papa Haralambos Dionysiatis are also recommended as they were part of Papou Joseph’s synodia. However, for some reason, Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi’s books are not really recommended (no real reason is given, though in some of Geronda Ephraim’s homilies to the monks, he mentions that Elder Joseph didn’t really have complete obedience to Papou Joseph). Again, it differs from monastery to monastery. Along with these recommended books, the monks and nuns are allowed to have various homilies uploaded onto their ipods. (It used to be that one could borrow cassettes from the cases in the hallways, now most of the monastics have ipods and can have them filled up by one of the monastics who has blessing to work on computers). Again, though the monasteries have the complete series of Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios, Demetrios Panagopoulos, Metropolitan Athansios Lemesou, Fr. Savvas Filotheitis, and numerous other contemporary monastic fathers and lay preachers, the monastics are usually given the advice that it’s better to listen to the Geronda Ephraim homily series; to better know what he expects, to understand his pneuma, and hopefully, over time and repeated listening, to begin to develop his mindset.

Thus, in a 24 hour period (minus the 6 ½ hours of sleep a monastic is allowed—sometimes more depending on the monastery), a monastic may hear Geronda Ephraim’s book read twice at meals, listen to his homilies as he/she tries to fall asleep, and read a little bit of his book during their vigil.

“The Invisible Warfare”