Mount Athos, Homosexuality, Addiction to Heavy Psychotropic Drugs & Suicide (Monk Michael, 2001)

NOTE: The following article, entitled They Take Psychotropic Drugs on Mount Athos, is a Free Press (ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΟΤΥΠΙΑ) Sunday insert magazine “E” (Έψιλον), Issue 524, 22/4/2001. Peter Papavasiliou interviews Monk Michael Haztiantoniou who lived as a monk in the Sinai desert for 11 years (1988-1998) and Mount Athos for 14 years (1973-1988).

Μιχαήλ, Μοναχός

After 14 years in Simonopetra Monastery, the Athonite monk raised his voice in protest about what is happening in the Athonite state. Today, Monk Michael lives alone in hesychia in the mountains of Corinth, in a cell allocated to him by some pious people. He writes his books from this cell. He has published 12 books so far and many of his accusations can be found recorded in them; he denounces “things and wonders” about the Athonite republic from homosexuality to heavy psychotropic drug addiction! http://aretimaurogianni2.blogspot.gr/2013/06/blog-post_6872.html

PP: Do the abbots in the monasteries of Mount Athos display authoritarian behavior?

MM: When they first appeared, these abbots projected themselves as charismatic personalities who had somehow received the mission from God to create a new model of monasticism.1 So, for many people these personalities were expressing hopes and dreams. They endeavoured, they created and built brotherhoods, monasteries, and were very actively involved. However, what all this activity has produced is significant. I can mention a conversation we had with Geronda Paisios on this subject. The basic question that disturbed me was: ‘Why is my generation, on the level of monks, while it presented refinement, culture, and sensitiveness—very positive signs for Geronda Paisios—did not yield spiritual fruitfulness?

Paisios-at-Kelli-Panagouda

PP: Do the abbots use special methods to persuade or to render all the monks conformable?’2

“I think that many Geronta Abbots started out differently and ended up otherwise. It was entirely different when the brotherhood numbered 6 to 7 monks and different when the same Geronda had more monks. In the beginning they organized it patristically and monastically. They had found a tradition on Mount Athos. Later, however, as the brotherhood grew, they started to ‘militarize’ it and treat it like a camp.”3

“Consistency and order had to be kept and a new element appeared which was crucial to the mentality of this organization: the showcase. They were extremely cautious in how they expressed themselves, regardless of how we lived and the things we said amongst ourselves. How will we appear? How will our showcase not be ‘scratched’? How can we ensure that our problems will not be heard about in Thessaloniki?”4

“I was present at the Assembly debate when some Abbot telephoned and said an Iveritis monk (i.e. a monk from Iveron Monastery) was found dead in Thessaloniki. This dead monk was a homosexual and had relations with two Romanians. It didn’t particularly trouble us because such incidents could occur in a large number of monks. But the Abbot whom it offended requested the Holy Community5 publish a paper which would state that this monk had no relationship with the Holy Mountain even though the victim was an Athonite monk for decades.”

“The Holy Community then discussed the matter and said: ‘How would we say this? Anyone would be able to overturn us since he hasn’t been erased from the Monastery…He is a canonical Hagiorite.’ This problem shows that that many Gerondas today have transferred their interest to the showcase.”

Iveron Monastery
Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos

PP: What are the problems behind the showcase? In your books you maintain that a fraction of monks take heavy psychotropic drugs, even by the Abbot’s orders.6

MM: This was also a very great and sad realization for me. It was a painful decision to start disclosing and writing about these things. I did it after 25 years in monasticism though my realizations had occurred many years ago. After publishing certain books that mentioned psychiatric drugs, many monks came forward and assured me that what I write is very mild compared to the realities that are in force on Mount Athos.

PP: You mentioned in one of your books that a pharmacist from Thessaloniki, who was spiritually connected with some monastery on Mount Athos, was put in a difficult position when an Abbot requested boxes of heavy psychotropic drugs from him.7

MM: We say that this monastery is the chief representative of ‘noetic’ prayer (i.e. the continuous repetition of the phrase, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ which leads to illumination); meaning it represents whatever is the most spiritual at this time to dispose Orthodoxy towards contemporary issues.

PP: Which monastery are you referring to, Fr. Michael? In what monastery did this incident with the two boxes of psychiatric drugs occur?

MM: The incident concerns Filotheou Monastery and Geronda Ephraim is the abbot who wanted the psychotropic drugs.8

Geronda Ephraim

PP: One can contradict that half of Greece takes psychiatric drugs, anxiolytics, or whatever else.

MM: I do not tolerate this situation. I wish everyone could improve their psychological and spiritual condition with effort and balance their everyday life. But even more, I cannot tolerate this (i.e. taking psychiatric drugs) from the people who came to occupy themselves with a higher way of life, consequently to overcome their human elements and weaknesses and acquire what we call the angelic life.

PP: Namely, the sober, meek and bland lifestyle of many monks on Mount Athos is due to the influence of milligrams of sedatives?

Bedouin

MM: I’ll make a comparison with the Bedouin when I lived in Sinai for 11 years. I was responsible for some hermitages many kilometers away and I watched them basking in the sun with a wonderful smile because they used hashish. They called them ‘sacred plants’ there. They used hashish in their daily lives like tomatoes. They, too, were very meek, mild, smiling and sweet. Consequently, external behaviors and conduct do not suffice for me.9

PP: Let’s return to the Holy Mountain. You’ve written in your books that the abbot, in order to exert psychosomatic control, imposes “reactionary” monks and those who doubt his words every night to take a strong dose of sedative every night. Is this true?

MM: This isn’t a canona that you described, but it does happen. I asked a monk who made a pilgrimage to Sinai, ‘How did you take a psychotropic drug for the first time?’ He answered me, ‘The epitropos (i.e. the epitropos is the abbot’s replacement) put a bottle on the table and told me, ‘You will take one pill in the morning and one in the evening. Geronda sends this and you must drink it …’ As the young monk told me, that night he did ‘obedience’ and drank the medicine. I asked this monk what percentage of the monastery took psychiatric drugs. He replied, ‘A very large percentage of the monks.’

PP: The young monk spoke to you about large percentages of monks taking psychotropic drugs. Was he referring to his monastery or the Athonite monasteries in general?

MM: He spoke to me about his monastery. Of course, I never imagined that psychiatric drugs would find an application in such a large scale. There was a doctor who had continued in Karyes and had taken it upon himself to arrange the pharmacy in a monastery. He had seen the boxes of psychiatric drugs. Later, this doctor decided to become a monk.

psychotropic

PP: Even after seeing the boxes of psychiatric drugs?

MM: Yes indeed. He even became a monk at this monastery where he arranged the pharmacy.

PP: Which monastery?

MM: It is a famous monastery which has over 50 monks in its ranks.”

PP: Can you be more specific?

MM: No, because I think it becomes more personal empathy. Namely, I know these monks. They will say that Michael attacked us personally. I do not want to but if, for some reason, the Community of Mount Athos invites me, then I will speak about the details. I can speak about these things there. I don’t want to become too specific or, perhaps, the time hasn’t come yet … However, the responsibility for these things is transferred to the Abbot and 2-3 persons of his entourage who impose. There is some responsibility and I would even say legal responsibility. One enters a monastery without taking psychotropic drugs and then after 10 or 15 years he starts taking them—and this in a large percentage. Well, then, if our community was healthy, they would not have tolerated this so simply and mildly.

PP: Are there such incidents of people entering Mount Athos healthy and coming out addicted to soothing substances and sedatives?

st_kia_f

MM: Yes, this happens quite a lot … (quietly and with a sense of shame). Recently, I spoke with a former Athonite monk who told me: ‘I want to find a channel to speak. They tested 30 psychotropic drugs on me. I lived simply and naturally for 15 years. How did I get on the list to become a guinea pig?’

PP: Did you ever see them moving boxes (i.e. of psychotropics) on Mount Athos during the years you lived there as a monk?

MM: No, I didn’t know about these things. I saw the boxes but didn’t know what they contained exactly.

PP: You thought that they were simple drugs…

MM: Yes. For example, a monk had sent me once to buy medicine when I was out. He had given me a list. At the pharmacy, the pharmacist looked me over well and good.

PP: At the pharmacy in Thessaloniki?

MM: Yes. He asked me, ‘Who do you want these drugs for?’ I told him that I wanted them for a monk. He told me, ‘Father, did you know that these drugs are very heavy and we do not dispense them without a prescription?’ Then I thought they didn’t have the drugs I sought and went to another pharmacy where they told me exactly the same things. When I asked what these drugs were that no one could give me, the pharmacist answered, ‘My Father, I cannot give you these drugs without a prescription and without knowing who they are intended because they are very heavy psychotropics.’ Well, I was very irritated with the monk who sent me.

PP: In other conversations, Fr. Michael, you have revealed to me that many Athonite monks frequently visit a psychiatrist. Is this a fact?

MM: The first is in Thessaloniki. He does therapeutic exercise. He knows the mindset of the monks very well and is very familiar with them. Many monks go to him and they always start talking about the uncreated light (i.e., the indication of the Holy Spirit’s presence that surrounds spiritual monks with brightness) and noetic prayer.”

PP: Does this psychiatrist visit Mount Athos as a family physician?

MM: Yes, he also practises on Mount Athos but the monks visit him in Thessaloniki for more comprehensive treatment. There was an incident where a monk jumped from his balcony and they pulled him out there at a seaside monastery. Fortunately, the monk lived…

PP: As long as the incident is in the past, can we disclose it?

MM: And yet it never became known.

Halkidiki_mount_athos

PP: In what monastery did this suicide attempt occur?

MM: Firstly, as the boat goes … However, some specific questions preoccupy me: 1) Why would a monk not be able to leave from a place where he reached a dead end?—because we’re talking about before authoritarianism. 2) If a monk attempted suicide, does the abbot have the right to keep him close by his side? I don’t think so. We know that we all became monks to claim a right, to give rest to our little hearts, to satisfy a spiritual longing, a thirst we have in life. How did these children reach such a tragic point and how did it not become an issue?

PP: Are there many suicide attempts on Mount Athos?10

MM: I know of an incident where a monk had set himself on fire.11

PP: What year was that?

MM: It occurred in 1994 approximately.

PP: Did this happen in a monastery or skete?

MM: In a monastery. Things are much milder in the sketes.”

PP: Who is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in Panagia’s Garden?

MM: Two sides are responsible (i.e. he means the abbots and the monks). However, I think the head is implicated more since he is able to sanitize the emergent. For the emergent comes and is delivered to him with an almost absolute confidence. I would like to see cases of some healthy personalities, open-minded, free, to operate without complex, oppression, etc. We have not seen this yet…

PP: The matter of psychotropic drugs has never been raised to the assembly of the Holy Community?

MM: From what I know, no.”

PP: Only the issue of homosexual relations was raised when and if an outbreak occurred.

Gay monk drawing

MM: Many epidemic cases—indeed, some time ago, an old Athonite monk called me UFO and he expected me to be shrewd. There were cliques in Karyes, or in whatever cell, where we met famous monks and they waited for when I would leave so they could manifest more freely. I treated them all so naturally that I confused them. And so one monk asked me, ‘Well, do you not understand anything about what is happening?’ And he continued in the same tone: ‘Did such and such a monk never suspect you? Let me tell you that there is a cassette which has recorded conversations.’ I answered: ‘But I was friends with him for so many years. When did these things happen?’ And he answered: ‘That is why I call you UFO.’ Yes, homosexual issues have been raised at the Assembly, but I no longer believe in this institution to speak honestly, frankly, at a cost. For many years, decades, I saw that the showcase is their priority and I can also say at some point their economy became their priority. Not an economy in ecclesiastical terms, but rather a ‘practical’ economy, namely, the covering up of everything.

Fr. Michael, do you want to compliment/supplement something?

MM: I would like to emphasize that the children today on Mount Athos (i.e. he means the monks) are very good kids. The love, they look at you with clean eyes. I speak for the majority because there are certainly a very small number of monks who have a pure heart. We said the heads share a large portion of the responsibility…

Elder Joseph synodia

NOTES

  1. Monk Michael is referring mainly to the disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast—Elders Ephraim, Haralambos and Joseph—who took charge of 6 of the 20 main monasteries on Mount Athos in the 60s and 70s.
  2. In the 60s and 70s, many of the Athonite monks had issue with what they viewed as young upstarts (i.e. Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s disciples) starting a new brand of monasticism. Furthermore, many of the Athonite Fathers believed Elder Joseph and his synodia were deluded. Some of the more vocal Athonite opponents of Geronda Ephraim were St. Paisios the Athonite, St. Porphyrios the the Kapsokalyvite, Monk Moses the Athonite, and Archimandrite Vasileiosof Iveron (then Abbot of the Stavronikita).
  3. Some of Geronda Ephraim’s former monastics—both in Greece and North America—have remarked that the structure and atmosphere in the monastery was very oppressive and like a boot camp. Some have expressed that it was like a prison camp without the physical torture but rather with lots of psychological and emotional abuse.
  4. This “showcase” mentality still prevails in Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries. One of the main obediences for all his monastics is: “At all costs, do not scandalize the lay people. I do not want to hear complaints from pilgrims. No matter what, always show a good representation of monasticism to the pilgrims.” This is called “front stage” behaviour; i.e. this is the behaviour they want pilgrims to see, however, it does not represent in actuality the truth of what goes on behind closed doors—“backstage behaviour.” When a pilgrim witnesses an action unbecoming of a monastic, or expresses being scandalized due to something a monastic has done or said, then there will be some very serious consequences for that monastic individual. Sometimes this can also include a serious yelling rebuke in front of the scandalized victim to shame and humiliate the monk and appease the pilgrim. No doubt the entire brotherhood/sisterhood will be summoned for a homily where this monastic will be centered out, rebuked and humiliated. This is also done as a warning to the other monastics and to instill fear. Furthermore, the individual monastic will end up in the Lity at the end of the church services confessing their sin and begging every individual leaving for forgiveness.
  5. Athos is governed by the “Holy Community” (Ιερά Κοινότητα – Iera Koinotita) which consists of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries, having as executive committee the four-membered “Holy Administration” (Ιερά Επιστασία – Iera Epistasia), with the Protos (Πρώτος) being its head. Civil authorities are represented by the Civil Governor, appointed by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose main duty is to supervise the function of the institutions and the public order. The current Civil Governor is Aristos Kasmiroglou.
  6. In St. Anthony’s Monastery, one of the monks was on anti-depressants before he entered the monastery and out of economia, Geronda Ephraim allowed him to continue. There have been unsubstantiated rumors of other monastics on psychiatric drugs, too. A monk at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY) entered the monastery taking Ritalin for his ADHD. Geronda Joseph made him stop his prescription immediately and he hasn’t taken any prescriptions for his condition since. There is a blessing for abbots/abbesses, and their second-in-commands to take things like Lorazepam (or other anxiolytics) when they suffer from severe anxiety or panic attacks—something which is frequent in their line of work. As well, on numerous occasions, Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery in Roscoe, NY, has given homilies about psychiatric and emotional problems being a direct result of a disciple’s disobedience. In these homilies, he has mentioned the fact that many Hagiorites who had been monastics for 15-25 years are suffering from mental illness as a fruit of all the disobediences they had committed. It was unknown if Fr. Germanos was also referring to himself and his own experiences, something the Athonite Fathers do many times when giving cautionary homilies.
  7. Many of Geronda Ephraim’s North American monasteries have a Greek Orthodox doctor, who is also devoted pilgrim. In some cases, a monastery may also have a monastic who is a doctor. In the early days, many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics did not have any medical insurance. Usually the superior and second-in-command would have private insurance. The monasteries bypassed expensive medical costs by having the loyal and obedient doctor write prescriptions for all their monastics without insurance in the names of those who had insurance. Also, these doctors would also put aside all the free medical samples they received from pharmaceutical companies (if they were medicines the monastics used) and “donate” them to the monasteries. Thus, most monasteries have a large medicine cabinet full of antibiotics, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs, psychotropic drugs (low doses which are said to be useful for pain), muscle relaxants, prescription pain killers, etc.
  8. Interestingly, Geronda Joseph (Ioannis) Voutsas, abbot of St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, is from Thessaloniki. He was also a pharmacist and earned his degree at the University of Thessaloniki.
  9. Though the main emphasis in Geronda Ephraim’s monastery is blind obedience and the Jesus Prayer, external behaviour and conduct also has a very serious importance. Essentially, ‘fake it until you make it.’
  10. Fr. Germanos of St. Nektarios Monastery, Rosoce, NY, has stated in homilies that there is a high suicide rate on Mount Athos. The Gerontikon and Synaxarion are filled with many cautionary tales about monastics who have become deluded or fallen into such despair that they attempted suicide. There are also many cautionary tales about those monastics who succeeded in killing themselves.
  11. To understand the psychology behind why people commit suicide via self-immolation, see: http://news.discovery.com/history/religion/self-immolation-the-macabre-mystery-140127.htm

Drinking & Gambling (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Rudder, pp. 168-171; 268. The two vices of drinking and gambling are highly censured in Orthodox Christianity. Consuming the remainder of the Holy Chalice, though many times can render a priest slightly drunk or “buzzed,” is not considered the same as getting drunk (unless of course, the priest is in the habit of using excessive amounts of wine, way more than necessary to commune the faithful, in the knowledge that there will be enough during the consummation to get a “buzz.”).

Playing cards of every sort are banned for Christians, including Solitaire which has a penance of no Communion for up to 30 days. Pokemon and similar cards are also banned for Christians as it is believed they are a gateway indoctrination to the occult.

Gambling of every form is forbidden as well (Casinos, lotteries, raffles, etc.). When the monasteries were first being established, there was apprehension about holding raffles and lotteries in case it was breaching ecclesiastical canons. However, it was discerned that it was okay for laypeople to hold raffles and lotteries for the monasteries and donate all the money afterwards (both lay people and the monasteries which the raffle is for will donate the prizes).

The 52 Demons in Playing Cards by Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos
The 52 Demons in Playing Cards by Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos

APOSTOLIC CANON XLII (42)

If any Bishop, or Priest, or Deacon wastes his time by playing dice, or getting drunk, either let him desist from this or let him be deposed. (Apostolic Canons XLIII, LIV; Canons IX, L of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; Canon XXII of the 7th Ecumenical Synod; Canons XXIV, LV of Laodicaea; Canons XLVII, LXIX of Carthage)

INTERPRETATION

Those in Holy Orders are to stand before all men as living examples as a reflection of all good order and virtue, and as promoters of the performance of good works. But inasmuch as some of them stray away from what is good and virtuous, and spend their time playing dice, (which includes playing cards and other games,) not to mention drunken carousals and merrymaking with food and drink. The present Apostolic Canon, taking cognizance of this, proclaims that any bishop, priest or deacon who occupies himself with such indecent activities shall either cease doing them or be deposed from Holy Orders.

CONCORD

Likewise Apostolic Canon XLIII ordains that those clergymen, and also laymen, who occupy themselves in drunkenness and gambling, shall either cease or be excommunicated. Not only are clergymen forbidden to get drunk, but neither are they even permitted to enter taverns at all to eat, according to Apostolic Canon LIV and Canon IX of the 6th Ecumenical Synod and Canon XLVII of Carthage and Canon XXIV of Laodicea, nor are they allowed to own a tavern shop at all, according to the same Canon IX of the 6th Ecumenical Synod.

Moreover, all clergymen and all laymen are forbidden by Canon L of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod to play dice or cards or other games. In the event that they are caught doing so, clergymen are to be deposed, and laymen are to be excommunicated. In addition to these prohibitions, Canon IV of Laodicea proclaims that they must not hold banquets by agreement or with contributions collected from a number of persons gathered together at the same time and place, whether they are in Holy Orders, that is whether they are clergymen or laymen. Canon LXIX of Carthage commands that Christians cease holding banquets and balls (or dances) and games to the memory of or as feasts to martyrs and other saints, such as those customs that are peculiar to the (pagan) Greeks and due to their deception and atheism.

But neither ought Christians eat and drink to the accompaniment of musical instruments and evil and demonic songs, according to Canon XXII of the 7th Ecumenical Synod.

Playing cards from 1829 depicting heroes of the Greek War of Independence with Ypsilantis as the King of Spades
Playing cards from 1829 depicting heroes of the Greek War of Independence with Ypsilantis as the King of Spades

The Nomicon of Photios (Title IX, Chapter 27) says that ordinance 34 of the fourth Title of Book I of the Code decrees as follows: If any bishop or clergyman plays dice or other such games, or holds communicates together with those who play them, or sits by and watches them being played, he is to be cut off from every holy liturgy, and to lose the stipend he gets from his bishopric or clerical office, until the time allowed fixed for his repentance. But in case he should persist in his vice even after the expiration of the time limit given him for repentance, he is to be driven out of the clergy with all his estate, and become a member of the legislature, or, in other words, a secular official of that political state in which he was a clergyman. Those clergymen who participate in hunting spectacles and other theatrical exhibitions share the same penalty. It is permissible, however, to a bishop when he sees the prompt repentance of any clergyman doing these things, to reduce the time of the penalty of suspension in proportion, and accordingly to give him permission sooner to officiate in his holy capacity, according to Canon XXXIX of the same (7th Ecumenical Synod), titular ordinance64 of Title I of the Novels. Justinian Novel 123, according to Armenopoulos, commands that clergymen guilty of getting drunk or of playing dice shall be excommunicated and be shut up in a monastery. See also Canon XXIV of the 6th Ecumenical Synod.

The names of the 52 demons and the card they are patrons of.
The names of the 52 demons and the card they are patrons of.

APOSTOLIC CANON XLIII (43)

Let any Subdeacon, or Readers, or Psalti, who does similar things either desist or be excommunicated. This applies to any layman. (Apostolic Canon XLIV, LIV; Canons IX, L of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; Canons XXIV, LV of Laodicaea; Canons XLVII, LXIX of Carthage.)

INTERPRETATION

This Canon, too, orders that any subdeacon, or readers, or Chanters who does similar things, such as are prohibited by the above Canon XLII, or, in other words, who plays dice or cards or any other games, or who spends time in drunkenness and eating and drinking bouts, shall either cease from such indecent acts, or failing to do so, shall be excommunicated. In the same way laymen as well, who spend time in the same way shall either cease doing so or be excommunicated from the congregation of the faithful. See also the preceding Canon XLII.

Footnote 64 on the Apostolic Canons, The Rudder,  p. 298

See also divine St. Chrysostom where he proves that anyone playing dice or other games is the cause of many evils: “Addiction to the playing of dice has often resulted in blaspheming, damage, wrath, quarrelling, and thousands of other even worse misdeeds” (page 564 of Volume VI, Discourse 15 to a Statue). Aristotle classes among thieves all those who play dice and cards, saying: “A dice-player however and a pickpocket, and a robber (or highwayman) are among the unfree. For they are profiteers” Ethics Nicom., Book 4). On this account Justinian Novel 123 strips such players in Holy Orders from every right to hold any holy service and commands that they be shut up for three years in a monastery. In an attempt to cure those who get drunk, Basil the Great says: “Let fasting cure drunkenness; let the Psalm cure any obscene or shameful melody; in all offenses, let mercy redeem you from sin”.

(Discourse against drunkards). Hence it appears that those who vomit as a result of drunkenness ought to be corrected rather by such cures as fasting and almsgiving.)

 

The occult meanings of the symbols for Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds.
The occult meanings of the symbols for Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds.

CANON L OF THE 6TH ECUMENICAL SYNOD

From now on nobody, whether a clergyman or a layman, is permitted to gamble (or play dice). In case anyone be caught doing this, if he be a clergyman, let him be deposed, but if he be a layman, let him be excommunicated. (Apostolic Canons XLII, XLIII)

INTERPRETATION

These Fathers forbid everybody to gamble, or, in other words, to play dice, or cards, or checkers and chess, or any other such games, whether he is a clergyman or a layman. Anyone that should play these games after publication of this Canon, if he is a clergyman, shall be deposed from, but if he be a layman, he shall be excommunicated. See also Apostolic Canon XLII

For the Orthodox understanding of playing cards, see Archimadrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos’ book, The 52 Demons in a Deck of Cards:

The Tragedy of an Untreated Alcoholic Monk (St. Paisios the Athonite)

NOTE: Unfortunately, in some of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, there are monastics who have substance abuse issues. There are not a few former alcoholics and drug addicts in the ranks of the monasteries. However, there is also the phenomenon of monastics who like wine too much. These monastics can go unnoticed for awhile if they don’t confess their sin. However, sometimes another monastic who sits beside them will inform the superior, other times the superior will notice. In the early years of St. Anthony’s Monastery, there was a short-lived trend of monks who would eat an overabundance of artoklasia soaked with wine, “because it had to be finished.” For some of the monks, this was an excuse that validated eating enough wine-soaked artoklasia to get drunk. Other monks felt that they were doing their duty of brotherly love and helping the ekklesiastikoi finish the bowl. Some monastics have been outright banned from drinking wine on Sundays, Feast Days, etc. Other monastics have been permitted to drink only a 1/4 cup on special occasions. In some monasteries, wine is not served to the monastics except on big Feast Days, and sometimes then, not even. There is also the other issue of hard liquor in the monasteries. Some pilgrims bring Metaxa, and other types of booze as donations to the monasteries. This can also present temptation for monastics. Some superiors have at least one glass a wine daily for reasons of “health benefits.”

Agios-Paisios-Agioreitis-8921

Once on Mount Athos there was a monk who lived in Karyes. He drank and got drunk every day and was the cause of scandal to the pilgrims. Eventually he died and this relieved some of the faithful who went on to tell Elder Paisios that they were delighted that this huge problem was finally solved.

Evangelos-Tsantalis-bei-der-ersten-Ernte-auf-Athos-1976--940x360

Father Paisios answered them that he knew about the death of the monk, after seeing the entire battalion of angels who came to collect his soul. The pilgrims were amazed and some protested and tried to explain to the Elder of whom they were talking about, thinking that the Elder did not understand.

Elder Paisios explained to them: “This particular monk was born in Asia Minor, shortly before the destruction by the Turks when they gathered all the boys. So as not to take him from their parents, they would take him with them to the reaping, and so he wouldn’t cry, they just put raki* into his milk in order for him to sleep. Therefore he grew up as an alcoholic. There he found an elder and said to him that he was an alcoholic. The elder told him to do prostrations and prayers every night and beg the Panagia to help him to reduce by one the glasses he drank.

monks-life-e1365677643834

After a year he managed with struggle and repentance to make the 20 glasses he drank into 19 glasses. The struggle continued over the years and he reached 2-3 glasses, with which he would still get drunk.”

The world for years saw an alcoholic monk who scandalized the pilgrims, but God saw a fighter who fought a long struggle to reduce his passion.

Without knowing what each one is trying to do what he wants to do, what right do we have to judge his effort?

* Raki is a Turkish unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic drink that is popular in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Serbia, and other Balkan countries as an apéritif.

Dr George Tsantalis with father Filaretos at Mount Athos

NOTE: The following is an analysis of the above story from Orthodoxy and Recovery, A blog about the direct connection between the spirituality of Orthodox Christianity and recovery from alcoholism, drug abuse, and other addictions.

Anyone who has dealt with alcoholics knows what happened here.  Basically, the monk was left as many are in the modern Church to ‘fend for himself’ when it came to his alcoholism.  You can hardly imagine in the Desert Fathers a monk being permitted to continue drinking with only his prayers to rely on.

Just for clarification, I want to make a few points:

  • Elder Paisios does not condemn the alcoholic monk.
  • He reports that the monk’s suffering in life, with no one really helping him, was met at death by God’s own army coming to bring him to heaven.  This type of ‘psychopomp’ is generally reserved for saints and ascetics, since they have repented.  In this case, the monk received the help he did not receive from men.
  • The deterioration in the monk’s condition, whereby at the end he was getting drunk with only two or three drinks, is common with end-stage alcoholism.  Over time, as the alcoholic’s body gives out, his tolerance diminishes.  He clearly drank himself to death.
  • The monk’s elder apparently had no idea what to do with him, and so simply put him in his icon corner and waited for a miracle.
  • Elder Paisios describes the physical allergy aspect of alcoholism in describing his exposure at a young age.
  • Give the time frame of the story (referencing the massacres of Greeks in Turkey in the 1920s), this monk’s experience of Mount Athos was during the ‘idiorrhythmic’ period ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Athos#Ottoman_era) when the monks lived separate lives and the common life of monasteries had not yet been reestablished.  This lasted until the 1970’s, when the renewal efforts began and the monasteries reestablished communal life.  From the Wikipedia article: “After reaching a low point of just 1,145 mainly elderly monks in 1971, the monasteries have been undergoing a steady and sustained renewal. By the year 2000, the monastic population had reached 1,610, with all 20 monasteries and their associated sketes receiving an infusion of mainly young well-educated monks. In 2009, the population stood at nearly 2000.[3]

This tragic story ends on a positive note: even the alcoholic who received no help with his disease can count on God’s mercy in the end if he desires it.  However, it also portrays how many in the Church have handled the disease of alcoholism: judgment without help.  To be fair, most ‘normies’ either inside or outside the Church have no idea how to help addicts.  Yet, the Church has always had the tools necessary to treat addiction through ascetic struggle, like what we see in the 12 Steps.

 St Paisios the Athonite

Yes, the Steps are an ascetic struggle.  Don’t be fooled.  Most people are more willing to go on a diet rather than do the Steps.  Food is easy to give up when it comes up against being honest with one’s self.  Shallow and careless people can diet, but they certainly won’t take the actions the Steps demand.

If the Holy Mountain had been a healthier place (as it is now), undoubtedly this monk would not have been permitted to go so long without any help.  Mind you, there are still plenty of Orthodox who do not understand the Tradition well enough stop themselves from demanding the alcoholic ‘try harder’ to quit.

But, in my experience of talking to Orthodox monastics, when we discuss the matter of addiction and how the Steps work, they enthusiastically agree that what they do in their monasteries is essentially the same process.  The rejuvenation of monasticism is actually happening throughout the Church in recent years, and with this renewal (Mt. Athos is now harder to get into than Harvard) will come more opportunities for people to have the benefit of proper assistance in battling addiction.

Nowhere (other than the US and Canada) in the Orthodox world have we seen monasticism embrace the 12 Steps more enthusiastically than in Romania.  Patriarch Daniel has led the Holy Synod of Romania to embrace the 12 Steps (c.f. http://www.ortodoxantidrog.ro/en/start.html) and work towards integrating the program into seminary education curricula.  Floyd Frantz (http://www.ocmc.org/missionaries/missionary_profile.aspx?MissionaryId=4&PageTitle=Recent+Articles&SearchBy=2011) has reported that the monasteries are especially excited about the Steps and getting AA into the villages.

Hopefully, fewer alcoholics in the Church will be left to struggle without help from the rest of us.

http://orthodoxyandrecovery.blogspot.ca/2012/03/tragedy-of-untreated-alcoholic-monk.html

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