"Orthodox Monasticism is Not a Cult"

 FATHER THEOLOGOS Pantanizopoulos RESPONDS

 An interview and website-- written by Orthodox lay friends of monasticism--  in response to unfair criticisms of traditional monasticism and Elder Ephraim's monasteries

 Introduction

     One of the most important developments in modern Orthodox Christianity has been the renewal of Athonite monasticism.

     This occurred first on Mount Athos itself in the mid-20th century, largely through the work of Elder Joseph the Hesychast and his spiritual children, and then more recently in North America, through the monastic foundations of Elder Ephraim, one of Elder Joseph's spiritual children.

     The renewal of Athonite monasticism, based on the institution of the elder and the practice of hesychastic prayer, is the direct continuation of a centuries-old tradition, as Father Theologos discusses in the interview below.

     This renewed tradition, now growing in America, has been a source of blessings to many in the modern West seeking a more fulfilling life and a more meaningful Christianity.

     However, this tradition is also in many ways at odds with modern secular life in America, and is unfamiliar even to some who are culturally of Orthodox background but living modern lives in this country. As such, it has also engendered some controversy, and was unfairly connected with recent past arguments among Greek Americans over church government in the U.S.

     On the Internet this controversy has focused on the experience of one young man who has become a monk at one of Elder Ephraim's monasteries in the United States.

     This interview is an effort to let him tell his own story, by those who are not monastics or clergy, but who know him and respect his work as a monk, which is a blessing to many. This website is not an official or unofficial production of any monastic establishment.

     May those who read it take it in this spirit and let the voice of this pious Orthodox man be heard, as it is presented below.

     The story of the controversy is an old one, largely engendered by parents at odds with monastic tradition, and indeed Christian tradition itself in its call to each person to spiritually grow beyond (but still respect) ties of the flesh.

     Similar cases of disgruntled parents of monks and nuns are reported in old accounts of monasticism, such in the Life of St. John Kalayvites of the Egyptian desert. But the continuing prominence given to this particular case on the Web seems to merit a response here, because it may unnecessarily turn away seekers for truth from Orthodox monasticism.

     First, however, some further but brief historical background is in order.

     Since 1989, Elder Ephraim has founded 16 men and womenís monasteries in North America, which are Greek Orthodox and ultimately under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch. These have been funded and supported with gratitude by Americans blessed by the renewal of such traditional monasticism on Mount Athos. Before this, there was very little Athonite monastic activity in the Western Hemisphere, despite the growth and prosperity of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada during the past century.

     Monasticism has been a central part of Orthodox Christianity, by which is meant traditional Christianity, since at least the fourth century A.D. and the time of St. Anthony and the desert fathers. And central to that monastic tradition is the institution of the elder, or the starets, as the figure is known in Russia.

     The Russian Orthodox novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky gave the world its best-known image of the elder system in the figure of Elder Zosima in the book The Brothers Karamazov, which many consider to be the greatest or among the greatest novels ever written. Even modern non-Christians such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud have cited it as a monumentally influential book, largely due to its depiction of spirituality and psychology from an Eastern Christian perspective.

     In that book, written in the 19th century, Dostoevsky notes that the elder system had been in existence for more than a thousand years. He also notes the controversy it has engendered. Yet in the figure of Elder Zosima he created one of the most memorable characters in world literature based in part on the life of the real-life Elder Ambrose of Optina Monastery in Russia. St. Ambrose of Optina in many ways exemplified the institution of the elder, who is chosen by a monk or layperson as a spiritual guide, and to whom obedience is due in the context of a spiritual life, within the traditions of the church and the gospels.

     Elder Ephraim is firmly within such tradition. For many years he was abbot of the historic Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, the traditional center of Orthodox monasticism and eldership. Traveling to America for health reasons and then to see his spiritual children here, he in 1991 briefly became associated with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which had had a more active record of establishing monasteries in America than the Greek Orthodox church, in a tradition traced back to Russian Alaska. Traditional Orthodox monasticism, it should be noted, is pan-Orthodox, and not exclusive to any one jurisdiction, although Athonite-style monasticism in the 19th and 20th centuries was especially associated with both Greek and Russian jurisdictions.

     However, having been called to bring the practice of this tradition to America on a larger scale, and having been requested to return to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Elder Ephraim and his monastic work have for the decade since been fully supported by the Greek Archdiocese and the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

     Elder Ephraim's work is firmly part of the Athonite tradition, of the age-old institution of eldership in Orthodox Christianity, and of canonical jurisdiction. His monasteries have been visited and supported by canonical clergy, bishops, and by the patriarch-- who have never visited non-canonical institutions. At the same time, however, this work has been in effect called a cult by material primarily on two websites that focus on the supposedly unethical recruitment of the monk who speaks out below.

     The material about this case on the Web, which implies the eldership and monasticism of Father Ephraim is a modern cult, was circulated on the Internet originally largely as a result of controversy over episcopal leadership styles within the Greek Archdiocese a few years ago. In that controversy, Athonite monasticism in America became a peripheral but still unfair target for those calling for a more modern and American-style approach to church government.

     While Elder Ephraim's work needs no defense, to call it a cult is to demean and disrespect the Athonite monastic tradition, and ultimately important traditions of Orthodox Christianity itself, stretching back beyond Dostoevskyís era to the earliest days of the church. It is one thing to agree, as Father Theologos himself does below, that there have been "growing pains" associated with the rapid growth of Athonite monasticism in America in recent years, with problems sometimes created by over-zealous supporters. But problems also come from over-zealous critics who in essence attack the tradition itself in their criticisms.

     The parents of the monk who speaks below, for example, have called for Western-style changes in Athonite tradition in America, including in effect making parish priests and family members the gatekeepers for deciding whether a person should become a monk, and essentially placing monasteries under the control of a parish-centered church structure.

     This ignores the healthy balance in Orthodox tradition between monasticism and the parish, under the canonical structures followed by Elder Ephraim and his monasteries.

     It also ignores the spiritual, moral and legal rights of a 20-year-old man to decide on a spiritual career as a monk, in monasteries under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the guidelines of centuries-old traditions.

     Such a heritage and tradition, tested by generations of experience, are the antithesis of a cult. And they are a blessing as an alternative to the too-often-fatal nihilism that troubles many young adult Americans--whom our consumer society would keep away from their own real experience of spiritual life until it is too late.

       

Father Theologos' responses below come from transcripts of several interviews at his monastery, in which he agreed to participate in response to request from lay pilgrims and friends (with the blessing but not the participation of his spiritual father and abbot) in order to set straight accounts published by his parents on the Internet that deal with both his life as a monk and Elder Ephraim's monasteries.

 

Q. Tell us how you decided to become a monk.

 A. First I would like to say that it is not normal for a monk to publish his life story in this way. But my parents have not acted in a normal way by posting incorrect reports about it for all the world to see. I saw this exposing of my past life as necessary for the sake of setting right the story and for seekers or inquirers into monasticism, so they donít get the kind of impression that my parents want to get across.

 It was God's hand guiding me from the way that I was that led me to monasticism. If you could have seen me then... I didn't always let my parents know everything I was doing. One time they knew I got drunk. I got drunk several times they didn't know about. Cigarettes and drugs. You can call that regular childhood. But the direction I was consciously going into was nowhere near the Church. My art teacher from middle school told me, "You are a kickback to the '60s." I was a hippie. I don't know how I ended up here from there. For one, if you had asked me 10 years ago about being a monk, I would have thought that was just a Catholic thing!

 I was baptized Orthodox as a child, with the name Niko; my Dad, John Pantanizopoulos is from Greece, my mom Jo Ann is American-born and wasn't raised Orthodox. We went to church fairly regularly on Sundays but werenít really active Orthodox.

 I had to find Orthodoxy for myself. And my decision to become a monk really goes back  to when I really found Orthodoxy for myself. Back in my freshman year of high school. At that time in my life I was going on what could be called the wide and easy path of drugs, rock and roll, and bad stuff. At that time Father Demetrios Carellas was the parish priest at our church, a jewel of a man, very pious, very well read in the fathers of the church, and under the spiritual guidance of Elder Ephraim. I had never heard of Elder Ephraim. But in freshman year of high school I met Father Demetri's son Peter Carellas and we bonded. Through Peter I started to learn a little more about joining the church.

 He noticed that I wasn't really living an active Orthodox Christian life. I had never heard of fasting before. I thought monasteries were a Catholic thing. Confession, that was a Catholic thing too. I only knew about maybe fasting in the morning on Sunday before communion, I had never heard much more about spiritual life than that.

 By the by I got involved with the Greek Orthodox Youth of America, so that finally in my life I began making friends with people in the church. My first confession was at a GOYA "lock-in" at the church during Great Lent. By getting involved in the church a little more I started noticing how... I knew that Christian life was a good thing, and saw I wasn't living it fully. And so making friends with people from church, talking to them, I heard about, how a couple times Father Carellas would take people up to the convent at Saxonburg [Pa.] as a retreat, Nativity of the Theotokos Convent, and it was my junior or senior year in high school that I first visited the convent up there. During spring break, my parents were thrilled that I was doing that instead of going down to Daytona or Palm Beach and getting drunk out of my mind, not that they ever supported that! (He laughs.)

 I went with my friends J. and P., the three of us, this was after Father Demetrios had relocated there. Father Demetrios was made chaplain of that convent, and the bishop of Pittsburgh put him there-- Elder Ephraim had nothing to do with that. And let me explain that, contrary to what my parents' postings seems to suggest, Father Demetrios as the chaplain of the monastery has no authority at the convent but only performs the sacraments. Before he became chaplain there, occasionally Father Demetrios might mention something at our parish in his sermon about monastic saints and monasticism and the convent in Saxonburg and maybe some traditions. Father Carellas in his sermons and at our GOYA talks wouldn't talk so much about monks and monasteries as he would about the dedicated, pure Christian life: Fasting, prayer, confession, putting away of worldly things, devotion to God. When he spoke about things he would use monks, in other words monastic saints, desert fathers, when he wanted to use living examples he would use Elder Ephraim and Abbes Taxiarhia of blessed memory. My parents might say this is a form of indoctrination but actually this is an established practice according to St. John of Climacus: "Angels are a light for monks (an example, in other words) and the monastic life is a light for all men." An interesting fact is that three-quarters of all the Churchís saints are monastics or they were at some point in their lives.

 

Q. And so did Father Carellas exercise undue influence over you to become a monk, interfering in parish affairs in the process, as your parents have accused him of doing on the Internet?

 A. It was the visits to the convent and experiencing the lifestyle there, after Father Carellas had already left the parish and gone there as chaplain, as well as my interaction with my friends my own age, that were the biggest human influences outside of God's answer to my prayers. I love and respect Father Demetrios deeply, he was an important influence on my spiritual life that is true, and I donít want to belittle his role in the whole process, but my parents have blown it completely out of proportion!

 Sometimes Peter Carellas and I would be outside and talk, and Iíd talk about how I wanted to just become a hermit in order to overcome my sinful life involving girls, careers, money and greed! It was when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, before visiting the convent, that I'd talk like that. Itís true that by nature, and for a long time before I knew about Orthodox monasticism, I was an idealist and dreamed of utopia. Since the time I started studying the Greek philosophers in junior high, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I read those guys in junior year of high school and loved them. Thoreau at Walden Pond-- he was almost living like a hermit, and I appreciated that sort of philosophical life as monasticism was called earlier in the Church.

 It was junior year in high school the first time I visited Saxonburg Convent with my friends, Father Carellas had been chaplain there for six months or a year,  and we saw the eremitic life they led there. I visited with J. and P., we were called the three musketeers because we were always together. If it wasnít for those two I wouldnít have become a monk, I would have dissolved spiritually. My parents didnít know this, but after we visited there we became a little more sober. Well, we were still goofy, but here's what happened. After we started to visit there and we really enjoyed it, I took a couple spiritual books from the convent bookstore... and the three of us friends used to sleep over at each otherís houses and hold prayer vigils, spend three or four hours and write down names of people weíd pray for and read the lives of certain saints, and recite prayers and chant.

 No one ever told us to do those vigils, no one ever paired us up, but when we told our spiritual father -- Father Demetri, he was the spiritual father of all of us-- that we were praying together, he said, ďOh, that's good, keep each other in line!Ē It's like what St. Paul says about brother to brother, holding up each other. My parents didnít know about these things because when Iíd talk to them about Orthodoxy in general they didnít seem to want to hear about it.

 Before I became a monastic I visited Saxonburg a total of five times. In 1994 I visited the first time. I was 16 then. J.'s father and his stepmother were driving us up there. Both my friends J. and P. were converts. Those converts are always getting us cradle Orthodox in trouble!

 I visited the convent five times before I became a novice, I stayed there for two months before going to Arizona. It was really the convent that opened my eyes to what monasticism is and that it wasn't really just something that happened in the bygone days. I worked there while visiting, we made candles, granted I was goofing around and scandalizing the nun there and Father Demetri too, he was probably disappointed in me, I worked there and went to the services and saw the spiritual devotion that these people had. They were saying the Jesus Prayer, practicing humility, and the chanting was beautiful, they were doing the full services. It was just something else. Later on I learned that there is a special type of grace that is at any Orthodox monastery and it's not because of the people but because God chose that land for a special kind of service of a life devoted to Christ. And the hospitality there. It was just something special there.

 It just made me want to go back there again. After the first visit I went there again during the following Fifteen Days of August, for a week or so of it before the Feast of the Dormition, and that was real nice and I really hated leaving because I just felt so spiritually at ease and so much spiritual rest, so to speak, that I didn't want to leave. I'd work at whatever jobs they asked me to do, do some shopping for them, whatever. I really felt 'at home.'.

 It was somewhere around that time that I started asking God in my private prayers, because I was nearing the end of high school and thinking about college, about direction for my life.

 There were several different careers I considered: to be an English Major, because I loved reading literature, and always got good grades in that subject, to be a physical therapist, a priest and a monk. This wasn't once or twice I asked God, but frequently, as I did my prayer rule that I received from Father Demetri. I asked God show me Your will, I can't decide on my own, I don't want to do something that You don't want me to do. You'll have to show me, because I canít figure out Your will on my own, I'm just an idiot!

 

Q. Your parents suggest in their Web postings that you were vulnerable to being brainwashed because of your sister's serious illness, which they described on the Internet.

 A.  I found out about my sisters's sickness in sophomore year of high school, and I came to terms with that as I was building up my faith in God. When my sister was diagnosed with a serious illness she started beginning to get involved in church again, and my parents saw Father Demetri for spiritual guidance several times, and he supported them very much because people were afraid of getting the disease through holy communion and he spoke to the church in support of her and them. A number of his spiritual children made a point of taking communion after her in church the first Sunday after it was announced, to show their support. He helped us through the initial shock. At that time I was involved in the church, and also I realized it was God's will... and I thought may it be blessed, it's in God's hands, whenever God will take her He will take her, glory be to God in all things. My decision later to become a monk had absolutely nothing to do with that.

 Q. Tell us more about the process of how you made that decision. Your parents charge on the Web that ultimately that it was personal influence by Elder Ephraim that pulled you into monasticism.

 A. Starting near the end of high school I asked God about guidance almost every time I prayed. I made a point of trying to pray every night about that in my evening prayers when I wasn't doing vigil with my friends. So that was my foundation before I made that decision.

It was some time between senior year in high school and freshman year in college that I really wanted to seek spiritual guidance about becoming a priest or a monk, so one day I was talking to my spiritual father, Father Demetri, on the phone, and said, I've been thinking about becoming a priest or a monk, and he said to me, "Son I donít have that kind of spiritual discernment to say whether or not this for you." He said, you need to ask a monastic with an hesychastic spiritual life.

 And so that's when I figured I needed to ask Elder Ephraim, and I knew that Elder Ephraim visited the convent sometimes and heard peopleís confessions. I got my name on the list with the nuns to see Elder Ephraim next time that he came. So I was also looking into seminaries, to become a priest. About Holy Cross, contrary to what my parents claim, no one ever said to me that the devil lives there or that they're full of Satan! Father Demetri had known of some biblical interpretations that he had heard of that were given at the seminary that seemed not fully traditional-- such as one instructor saying that Moses was a literary figure, not a real person. Obviously not patristic. There were really valuable courses and things to learn there, but one thing Father Demetri said to me was that if you really want to go there you have to keep your spiritual father really up to date on what theyíre teaching so that you donít stray from what the holy fathers taught.

 From materials at the library at my college I had heard of St. Tikhon's Monastery at South Canaan Pennsylvania. And also Holy Trinity Monastery at Jourdanville, New York. So I sent off for information on both those seminaries. I never really made a decision.

 It was during Great Lent of 1996, the second semester of my freshman year in college, that I met Elder Ephraim when he visited the convent. I was 18. I went into confession with him but it wasnít really confession in that I really didn't confess, in fact the only counsel I got was from this one question I had: I told him I was thinking about becoming a monk or priest, I wanted to serve the church in some manner. I told him that I felt a strong draw to that, that that was how I wanted to lead my life.

 And it was really quick, the response It wasn't a half hour indoctrination or brainwashing or anything like that. What he said was, "the only way you'll know is to go to Arizona and try it out." Let me emphasize, "try it out." Try it out doesn't mean we're going to put the shackles on you. He made clear from the beginning that it was a choice.

 Try it out, and see how the monastic life fits you, and that's how you know. I asked about being a priest, he said, you can be a priest at the monastery possibly. But that of course is a special calling too. From that point I decided, OK, next summer I'm going to go to Arizona to try it out. When I asked him about becoming a monastic he asked me if my parents were Orthodox and how my parents would receive this and I said, yeah, theyíre Orthodox, Iím not real sure how they'd receive it, we weren't a very active Orthodox family. That was basically it.

 Then I told Father Demetri, he said thatís good, that's wonderful, but make sure you get your parentsí blessing. When I came back home from the convent Sunday after lunch everyone except my oldest sister was at the table, and I told everybody about my decision to go try it out. My mother was crying. But they did give me their blessing to go try it out. I made clear at the beginning that I was going to try it out. Iím not going for the sole purpose of joining the monastery. That I might come back and I might not. There was crying and a short discussion. And then, OK, if thatís what you want to do.

 My friend J. and I, two of our Three Musketeers group, did not make our decisions together to become monks, although we joined St. Anthony's at the same time, we originally had made the decision independently and then spoke to each other.

 I know it may seem like I was in a rush, but I didn't want to meet God on Judgment Day and be asked ďwhy didn't you heed My call?Ē I had to try it out for the sake of my peace of mind and obedience to Godís holy will.

 During my visit to Elder Ephraim a letter was given from J. to Elder Ephraim and Elder Ephraim said the same thing to J. Then I got the blessing of the abbess of the monastery, Taxiarchia, to stay for two months before leaving for Arizona. I left the house the end of May 1996 and drove up with my sister to the convent and she took the car back to Tennessee. I saw Elder Ephraim only twice before going to Arizona, the second time was while I was at the convent that summer before going to Arizona, I went up to Canada to see him when I heard he was hearing confessions there. He talked briefly about when I was going to Arizona and said he wanted to be there when I was there, for spiritual guidance.

 Q. How old were you when you entered the monastery as a novice, to "try it out"?

 A. I was 18 years old, almost 19.

 Q. How old were you when you were tonsured as a monk?

 A. I was 20 years old.

 Q. Your parents say that is too young to make such a decision.

 A. I don't think it is at all too young. It's the proper age to make the decision, in fact, not too young and not too old. Someone who is 18 at least in America is at that point where they need to make a decision of where their life is going to be, to choose their career, going to college and leaving home, to find some direction in life, and thatís around the time I got my calling. It needs to be pointed out also that when someone is 18 in America and most countries they are old enough to join the army. Some of the points my parents bring up about cults, you find the same things practiced in the army--indoctrination, physical hardship, strict obedience. Itís all there. And here I'm physically safe. If I get sick, I get a doctor, I can eat to satiety, here I have all the comforts, central heating and cooling. In the army any day you can get sent off to kill or be killed. That's not going to save your soul though. I donít know how much spiritual benefit anyone can get from joining the army. It's a big life choice. If it's legal to join the army at 18 itís definitely OK to join Christ's army. If someone says a young adult is too young at 18 they are also criticizing American law that says a young adult at 18 years is old enough to make their own life choices.

Q. Traditionally in older and other cultures you could be even younger when choosing life paths.

 A. Yes, I think in Jewish law at 12 a child is old enough to speak for him/herself.

 Q. American culture has been criticized sometimes for keeping young people in a state of dependence longer than is healthy psychologically and socially...

 A. I had Swiss friends and in Switzerland at 16 you choose whether to go on vocational or professional life tracks. In Greece they have mandatory two-year service in the Army I think at age 18...

 Q. Once you were at St. Anthony's, your parents suggest that you were pressured in a cult-like way to stay. Did people there tell you that you must become a monk?

 A. No, it was generally known by the monks there and the other novices there and especially the abbot that a novice is exactly that: a novice, going there to make a decision whether or not to stay. I know that during my stay there, there were not a few novices who left. They decided the monastic life was not for them. It was encouraged that we pray about that decision. But while I was there I tried as much as possible to live a monastic life. I followed the same exact discipline as the monks.

 

Q. Was there a particular time during your stay there as a novice when you decided to become a monk?

 A. I went to the monastery and saw the daily regimen, confession, vigils, and through personal prayer and all that, it fit me like a glove. As you can see from my earlier story I had a lot of zeal and desire, I wanted to live a spiritual life, but I was never quite satisfied.  I had a really deep thirst for living the full Orthodox Christian spiritual life, and the only place it was really satisfied was the monastery, living the monastic life with the other monks. So there wasn't really a decision made, it just felt so good to be there I didn't want to leave, I didn't even think about leaving. It was suggested several times by my parents, and by the devil in my thoughts, but I knew this was the place. It wasn't really a moment where I said, Oh, I'll stay here.  And there wasnít anyone who told me, no, youíre not going to leave. There's no point in going back. That was never said. In fact it was made known to me that if you think to leave then youíre free to go, none of us is holding you here.

 

Q. Your parents suggest that the institution of eldership and the giving of confession are used to keep "recruits" to monasticism in the monastery.

 A. This point they bring up makes especially evident that they don't know what traditional or normal Orthodox spiritual life consist of. Central to normal Orthodox spiritual life is confession. Confession and relation to your spiritual father is central. Without that you donít get the guidance needed. Very few examples exist of people who were "taught by God"-- there is St. Anthony the Great, St. Mary of Egypt, and a very few others. We are not to guide ourselves. This is a very well-established practice in the Orthodox church. One example of the Fathers of the Church who speaks about this is St. John of Sinai in his "Ladder of Divine Ascent" in the sixth century, whose life and writings are widely accepted in the Orthodox world as a model. In that book he expounds masterfully on that relationship, and says that central to this relationship is the confession of sins and thoughts. And that's natural. In my confessions to the abbot of the monastery I was not or never have been led to feel "powerless" or "in need of the monastery's goodness" in a bad way as my parents suggest. I know that a monk's place is in the monastery. But during my novitiate I wasn't made to feel like that, I knew the opportunity was open to me to leave, and the fact that I saw novices leave while I was there, that showed to me that I was free to leave at any time without any sense of penalty. In my confessions I confessed my sins and thoughts, the abbot would comfort me, he would encourage me in saying the Jesus Prayer, give me spiritual guidance in encouraging repentance and avoiding sins-- in general building up a spiritual life.

 

Ladder of Divine Ascent

Q. To what extent was Elder Ephraim himself involved in influencing your decision?

 A Directly not a lot. I would read my confessions to the abbot of the monastery, not the elder. Of course that opportunity was open to me, but he wasnít very involved at all in a direct way. But I know that the abbot if anything serious was going on in my spiritual life, that he thought the elder needed to know about, he would talk with him.

 

Q. Your parents suggest that there was a bad element of personal charisma at work in reverence for Elder Ephraim, but that's not what you experienced?

 A. I came here to serve Christ. I still intend to do that, in fact Elder Ephraim encouraged that in us when he said in a homily, to paraphrase, "I am a technicality in the process... you came here to serve Christ, if you came here to serve me youíre here for the wrong reason." We all knew he was the elder of the monastery and to him was due obedience, but again the whole theology of the spiritual father and the elder can be traced back and found fully in books like St. John's "Ladder" from the sixth century. But one example from scripture is that of Christ in Gethsemane when He was saying His prayer before His passion, He asked God the Father, Father if this cup can be taken away from Me so be it, but not My will but Yours. In other words He was saying if people could be saved by any other way... but He was obedient unto death to His Father, just like the apostles were obedient to death to Christ, in that all but one died martyrs' deaths. Why? Because Christ told them to go out and preach the gospel. And they did it unto death. If that's wrong, if this obedience of the apostles was bad, why do we have them as saints? If that's a cult, then I want to be a cultist! "If loving You is wrong I donít want to be right."

 

Q. Your parents propose a monastic model of their own, in which a monk should be able to do good works out in the world, outside the monastery.

 A. To me as far as I know there's no documented evidence of an Orthodox monk coming and going as he pleases and still being a monk. Our doors are open for all who want to come and visit, of course, and that's where the monks' charity comes into play. We offer hospitality to pilgrims who can get their spiritual batteries recharged and go out into the world strengthened, and according to the Fathers, the prayers of the monks for those living in the world is also a form of charity.

 

Q. Your parents also say that your novitiate by tradition should have been three years long. Wasn't it short?

 A. According to Canon Five of the First-Second Council, a monk's novitiate should last no less than three years, however it can be reduced to as short as six months if he had led a pious spiritual life in the world, and if he is not just trying to escape from problems such as a life-threatening illness. My novitiate was one year and nine months, as my parents noted with exactitude.

 

Q. Was it enough time for you to make a decision? Were you old enough at 20 to be tonsured?

 A. If someone stays that long they're there for a reason. A couple months after I was there, I was there body and soul. The life fit me so well.

 

Q. Before you became a monk or during your novitiate did your parents express prejudice against monasticism?

 A. While I was a novice they visited me for the first time in Arizona and we had a long discussion with yelling, crying, they obviously didn't want me to be there. They brought their own arguments and I tried to explain to them about the spiritual and patristic basis for monasticism and how I felt that I liked it there, that like I said it fit me like a glove. I knew they didn't want me there but I was well over 18 years old!

 

Q. And it was time for a life choice for you?

 A. Yes. I wanted to live and die in a monastery. As much as they didnít like that, they need to accept that.

 

Q. I've heard from others about a case of someone from your hometown who entered a monastery of Elder Ephraim's, made a permanent commitment to monasticism, and has stayed in close contact with family members. But they in that case had supported the decision. Your parents, however, say that you were isolated from your family.

 A. We're never told to hate our parents or any of our relatives. But when people act like my parents do, they become an obstacle to our salvation. Because as Christ said in the Gospel of Matthew 18:15-17, once if your brother has a disagreement with you, take him one on one and try to explain it to him. And then if he doesn't listen to you, get two or three witnesses and let every word be established by their testimony. If he still doesn't listen, take your problems to the church. And if he doesn't listen to the church, count him as a heathen and a publican. Iíve explained monasticism and Elder Ephraim's monasteries and my decision several times to my parents. They've written to several bishops. The bishops agreed with me. We've spoken, my parents and I, before several bishops and the patriarch of Constantinople, and the bishops supported me. The patriarch asked, "How old is he?" They responded, "20." And the patriarch said, "Well, he's old enough to decide for himself." The patriarch gave me a blessing to go back with my parents to see their doctor as they wanted. But now, this is the second time I've stopped talking with them for a period of time. It's a headache and pain to hear them at this point, when they still tell me I'm part of a cult, and are in touch with Rick Ross, a non-Orthodox "cult deprogrammer," and the media, and the world through the continued postings on the Internet, about my life choice. Even if we talk about other things, I feel like our relationship is fakery. To know that they would like to have a superficial relationship like that, it's embittering. On the surface we'll talk about my family relationships, the chickens and dog I care for here, but behind that they are thinking I'm in a cult.

 

Q.  Why didn't you go back with them for a physical exam when the patriarch gave his blessing?

 A They have written on the Internet that I have a "horrible" illness, GERD, with stomach pains and cough, they blew it well out of proportion. This is what I have, gastro-esophageal reflux disease. I also have IBS, irritable bowel syndrome. I also have some allergies. The acid reflux and the IBS are very common problems. My gastroenterologist that I saw, one of the best in the area, said that the reflux is mildly hereditary and very common among people. IBS affects one in five people. Most of those people can deal with it through diet and stress management. I've got a very mild case of both of those two, controllable. I also have a little cough caused by non-seasonal allergies. They've blown this out of proportion, as if I'm a paralytic and on life-support machines! At the time we spoke to the patriarch I was already feeling better, I had managed to control my problems and was satisfied with my diagnosis from the doctor I saw. Why would I travel across the country to get a second opinion, unless my parents thought the doctor I saw, who was in no way connected with the monastery, was under some kind of mind control too from Elder Ephraim, in their view? Let me make clear the patriarch was not against my being in the monastery, the other bishops were yelling at my parents, let him make his choice and lead his life. But they agreed with the patriarch, let him see the doctor if he wants to.

 

Q. Do those physical problems run in your family.

 A. Yes, my mother has GERD too.

Q. Does having all this information and argument about you posted on the Internet for years aid your stress management?

 A. No

 

Q. You're laughing at this. But your parents say that you lost your sense of humor when you became an Athonite monastic.

 A. Yes. Also they've written that I look like a bent-over old man. During our "discussions," it was depressing to speak with them because I felt they were trying to test my faith, with their blasphemous questions, and all their whining and crying, when I would explain the same thing several times. It was depressing. Of course I'd hang my head and not laugh. When I would give examples from Scripture supporting monasticism and what we were doing, my dad would say, "How do we know that Christ actually said that?" So he was doubting Holy Scripture. Then he said something about how he had studied Scripture now that he is retired and has come to the conclusion that he doesn't know if he should believe in the Christian God, that he believes in a Supreme Being... how can we verify all this information? It just really hurt me to hear him say things like that.

 

Q. What about their suggestion that you as a novice were psychologically depressed and taking St. Johnís Wort for that purpose?

 A. They mentioned that in one of their postings, that the monks were giving me St. John's Wort. The way they phrased that in their article was also suggestive that I was not taking medicine prescribed by a doctor. I was. But on Mount.Athos St. Johnís Wort grows wild, and on Mount Athos they have a home remedy where the herb sits in oil and then you drink that with the herbís specific powers in the oil. And you drink that oil of St. John's Wort whenever you have an upset stomach to calm down the stomach and coat the stomach. That's why I was taking that. Not to treat depression. I was never depressed there, I was happy, although St. John's Wort is used by some people to treat depression.

 

Q. Your parents also said sleep deprivation and diet are used to control novices.

 A. Let's talk about the daily regimen I follow. I wake at midnight, that's when our personal prayer vigil starts, in which we do our canon that our spiritual father the abbot gave us. The vigil centers around, in this vigil we perform our canon and personal prayers, and it centers around the Jesus Prayer. This lasts until 3:30 a.m. when we go to church and have our morning services, which consist of the Midnight Office, Orthros, the First Hour, and Divine Liturgy. After that we go have breakfast, then we sleep for 2 Ĺ hours, and then we go to work for the day, our assigned chores from the abbot. Around 1 oíclock we have lunch and go back to work until itís time for vespers at 5 p.m.

 After Vespers we go straight to dinner, and after dinner we go back to church for Small Compline, and then we go back to our rooms at 8 p.m. to rest again until midnight. My parents write about sleep deprivation. We get a total of 6 Ĺ hours of sleep, enough for most people, but this may be adjusted by the abbot to each individual's needs. Central to Christianity, although much-ignored though based well on Scripture, is some self-denial and suffering. Christ did it, the apostles did it of course, and the least we can do is suffer a little bit. Itís not at all foreign to an Orthodox Christian monastic's spiritual life because what we do is on a very small scale compared to the monastic saints of the Orthodox Church and, of course, the martyrs. Personal suffering is good, but not to the point where you get sick and it taxes your faith. The abbot and spiritual father won't let that happen.

 

Q. The abbot and spiritual father in the system as you describe it are accountable to traditions detailed by the writings of the church fathers, to canonical church jurisdictions, and also to God for their treatment of their spiritual children and their monastic charges, is that true?

 A. Thatís very true. That's part of the theology of the spiritual father, the fact that an obedient disciple will not have to be accountable on Judgment Day if he performed all of his obediences. The spiritual father is accountable for the obediences that he gave. And thatís well-documented in the lives of the saints and in the writings of the Fathers. And that is why a spiritual father would take care when dealing with his disciple.

 

Q. And that's a difference between traditional Christianity and so-called cults of the New Age today, with which your parents seem so concerned?

 A. In which Jim Jones didnít think himself accountable for the hundreds whom he tricked into committing suicide with him. He deceived them into killing themselves so he wouldn't have to give an account to the authorities. But he will have to, of course.

 My parents also try to say "spiritual dependence" upon a spiritual father is unique to Elder Ephraimís monasteries. But this is all of Orthodox Christianity. It's often the distance that "ethnic Orthodox" have in America from roots in Orthodox Christian spirituality that causes this kind of misperception..

 Let me give some examples from the Holy Fathers. For instance, St. John of Sinai in Chapter Four of the "Ladder of Divine Ascent" writes: "Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment." He also says, "Blessed obedience in the  Fathers' judgment is confession of faith, without which no one subject to passions will see the Lord." He also in that chapter describes several individuals who obtained sanctity through their obedience, such as St. Akakios, a thief who repented, Saints Isidore, Laurence and Abbacyrus, and the steward of the monastery.

 St. Symeon the New Theologian also wrote, in his "Hymns of Divine Love," Hymn Four, "Listen only to the advice of your spiritual father, answer him with humility and, as to God, tell Him your thoughts, even to a simple temptation, without hiding anything, do nothing without his advice, neither sleeping nor drinking nor eating." Then in his "Discourse on Penitence," St. Symeon says, "Without complaining be subject to [your] superior and to all [your] brethren until death, as to Christ Himself, so that [you] do not at all disobey them." He also writes, in his discourse on the example of his spiritual father St. Symeon the Pious, "For this reason, therefore, I say and will not cease to say that those who have failed to imitate Christ's sufferings through penitence and obedience and who have not become partakers of his death, as we have explained above in detail, will neither become partakers of His spiritual resurrection nor receive the Holy Spirit."

 Christ Himself says in Luke 14:26, "If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." And in Luke 18:28-30, "Then Peter said, Lo we have left all and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you there is no man that hath left house or parents or brethren or wife or children for the kingdom of Godís sake who shall not receive manifold more in this present time and in the world to come life everlasting."

 

Q. Your parents refer to a column by a Father George in a Greek-American church publication that refers to growing pains of monasticism in America, inasmuch as Athonite monasticism has in many ways been absent from the American church scene until Elder Ephraimís foundations of the past decade. Do you agree with that point at all?

 

A,. Yeah, itís true, that article that Father George wrote is very good in that it says that it's not necessarily the monasteries themselves that are causing these problems that people allege in their parishes, but it's often the over-zealous supporters of the monasteries. It's a misunderstanding of the primary relationship between monasteries and parishes. I know of no non-canonical practices of the Elder in relationship with the parishes. All of his monasteries have been established with the local bishop's blessing, and if he and his priests go to perform a sacrament anywhere but the monastery they go to get the local bishopís blessing which is canonically required. The fact that the bishops themselves support the monasteries shows that the monasteries themselves have pleased the local bishops, and consequently the synod. And again, organized-cenobitic monasticism has been part of the Church since the third century at least. Celibate living, male and female, has been around since the time of the apostles, as it is mentioned in the "Acts of the Apostles."

 

Q. Aren't many of these criticisms by your parents more related to a perspective based in secular American culture than to abuses of monasticism as they charge?

 A: Their criticisms emerge from a secular humanistic point of view where there is no true religion and the human is the center of a moral and ethical philosophy. Secular American culture, as termed by scholars of U.S. history, is characterized by "rugged individualism"-- the image of the rugged pioneer man "making his way the only way he knows how" characterizes it. The founders of the United States were very much Christian, not just posing. As one account of a meeting before writing the Constitution goes, they prayed for three hours, sang some hymns, prayed some more, then began formulating the Constitution. But this "rugged individualism" compounded with a general cooling of Christian piety, American society accepted a moral/ethical system of secular humanism. With a separation of Church and State, what's the other option? Secular humanism in a nutshell encourages brotherly love, mutual tolerance, abortion and birth control, tolerance of sexual orientation, atheism, and ultimately global unity. Their "church" is the Unitarian-Universalist amalgam. They don't see being a Christian, Jew, as being bad, but believing your religion is true shows a lack of brotherly love or mutual tolerance. From what has been stated earlier, it can easily be concluded that monasticism and ultimately Orthodox Christianity are diametrically opposed to secular humanism.

 

Q. Is that the kind of moral or ethical standpoint that you received while you were growing up?

 A. Let me make clear that I had a great childhood as far as family relations are concerned. My parents encouraged love among the siblings, and we all loved each other deeply and showed concern for each other. We were a really tight-knit family. My father for example always taught me to stand up for my little sister when neighborhood kids were giving her a rough time. There was a genuine concern for each other .I didn't always see that sort of relationship in my friends' families. I noticed I had something special in my family and I valued that. But once I started getting involved in the church, growing spiritually, and got to know other families in our parish, I noticed something special in their families too, the fact that it was Christ-centered and not just family-centered. I studied philosophy more and learned more about secular humanism and realized that was the prevailing ethical system in America, and that's where my family is. We attended church and learned Christianity is good, our religion, but we never fasted, we didn't have a deep Orthodox spiritual life. The most we did was to go to Sunday School, that was something special to do that. We did have an icon corner at home.

 

Q. How often did your parents take you to church?

 A. Maybe every other Sunday. My dad often wouldn't go with us, heíd say that he had been to church enough when he was a child.

 

Q. Confession?

 A. I think I was the first person in my family to go to confession, my mother did after that, after I came back and told about how I went to confession and felt so good. She afterward told me that she had. But my dad was concerned that she would be telling things about him in confession so she never went again.

 

Q. Is the basic controversy here between a Christ-centered and a family-centered view of life?

 A. Secular humanism basically sees no religion as 100 percent true and religion as divisive in families and in the world, an obstacle to global unity.

 

Q. Your parents mentioned how much they liked your involvement in Greek dancing, presumably at social events at your church. So they liked that kind of involvement on your part, but nothing too serious on the spiritual side?

 A. They saw church as valuable as a moral and ethical thing to do, but when I started getting seriously involved and learning what Orthodoxy really is, what really being a Christian demands from a person, it's a real responsibility. When they saw me really getting involved with that they saw it as dangerous and fanatical, something that would cause division in the family and personally self-destructive. No one else was doing this except my little sister and they may have viewed me as a bad influence on her.

 

Q. They mention regretfully that you took down your rock n' roll posters and sold your comic book collection when you started getting serious about traditional Orthodoxy.

 A. It was the year before I joined the university... my friends and I thought of Byzantine chant as much more relaxing and spiritual than rock music. My comic book collection had nothing to do with my spiritual life! I made a couple bucks by selling it, and my rock and roll posters didnít have anything to do with God. Actually, I remember earlier on my dad criticizing my interest in rock n roll music and comic books. It was only after I traded those in for Orthodoxy, so to speak, that my parents seemed to get nostalgic about them!

 The feeling I got from my parents was that Christianity is a good thing but don't get too involved. Thatís why I held back from telling them everything about my spiritual life. Every time I brought up Orthodox Christianity and my zeal for that I'd get yelled at. So I didn't bring it up. That's what they were teaching me-- that the spiritual life wasn't to be discussed. When I knew that I wanted to really be an Orthodox Christian, my heart told me this was true, they were telling me this was obnoxious. I decided not to listen to them because I know that God ultimately is much more important than my parents. And that's why it seemed like a surprise to them when I became interested in monasticism.

 

Q. Some of these Internet postings appear to have popped up in the context over controversy during the late 1990s among Greek Americans over the degree of tradition appropriate in church government in America. Did that dispute prompt the circulation of your parentsí views?

 A. I'm not sure what at all involvement they had in that controversy.

 

Q. Your parents did, by their own admission on the Internet, lobby for including Elder Ephraim's monasteries on a list of potential cult sites maintained on the Web by a cult deprogrammer, Rick Ross. The monasteries were included on that list, but only after a campaign orchestrated by your parents. He is not even of Christian religious background. Is it canonical for your parents as Orthodox Christians to be engaging in that kind of a campaign?

 A. It obviously shows that they are not very active Orthodox Christians or they would know that the Elderís monasteries are very Orthodox and they reach out from Mount Athos. Theyíre letting their emotions guide them rather than really researching. And, as yet, I have not read of the Orthodox Church ever enlisting the help of a heretic or heterodox to set aright a 1,700-year-old tradition

 

Q. Your parents in their Web postings offer a plan for what they in effect promote as a kind of moderate or "healthy" monasticism, a kind of middle-American monasticism if you will. What do you think of their ideas for reform?

 A. It seems odd to me and almost an injustice to the Orthodox Church that from the comfort of their chair, behind a computer, and without a thorough grounding in Orthodox spirituality or a firm faith, they present themselves as some kind of authorities to judge what is Orthodox monasticism and what is not. All monks are not idiots like me, on Mount Athos and some other of Elder Ephraim's monasteries they have doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals who have received the calling at some point in their career. The monastery is not limited to either 'unfortunate ones' or theologians as my parents  suggest. My dad has even told me in conversations between us that he feels that monasteries harbor homosexuals. This shows a lot of prejudice against ancient Christian teaching about celibacy and a lack of even the effort to understand monastic tradition. What needs to be understood is how preposterous the idea is that the church has let something like the "cult of monasticism" continue for 1,700 years. How much more then, from the perspective of our faith, that the Holy Spirit which guides our Orthodox Church, in guiding us away from so many heresies, why has it allowed this to continue where no other heresies have continued over such time? It seems to me that this is about as possible as for the universe to suddenly start spinning in the other direction.

 

Q. Your parents say that since becoming a monk you use loaded cult-like language and only seem to communicate in black-and-white terms, and that this expresses in effect how you have been brainwashed. What is your response?

 A. They call my saying "if its God's will" and those sorts of Christian expressions cult-like. As for seeing things in black and white, as Christians we believe that there is a God and a devil, a heaven and a hell. Anything we do ultimately leads to here or there, and as a Christian we need to see all of our actions as that, to ask, to whom am I showing my allegiance?

 

Q. It sounds like your parents would have had less difficulty with you becoming a rock musician than your becoming an Orthodox monk.

 A. That's a very accurate observation!

 

Q. What efforts have you made to reach out to your parents since becoming a monk?

 A. I've tried to explain to them in letters, not as many as they wished I had written, but I've also spoken to them at visits and on the phone, and usually the subject of my association with this cult comes up and I try to explain it to them using examples from Scriptures and the Fathers but they don't listen. So for a while, for about two years, I didn't speak to them. Around the end of 1998 I stopped speaking to them, and then in the summer of 2000 they gave me the impression that they were going to make an effort to change and stop writing garbage on the Internet. Wonderful. They even visited and we built a grape arbor together. Seven months of peaceful communication later, I ask if those things are still circulating on the Internet, can you please take them off, because even if they are not newly posted, they are in effect continually publishing-- each time someone clicks them on. They said no, we canít take them off, we're not convinced that you're not still in a cult. So I broke off relations with them again because of what Christ says in Matthew 18. It's just embittering for me to still be in touch with them, when they continue in a very public way to do what they do and thus really to express hate for what I stand for and for my spiritual father.

 I was very surprised when I found out that they had done these Internet postings, and then again when I realized that they were maintaining them even after saying that they wanted us to be reconciled. I mean, my parents are very nice people, but in this they are not acting like themselves.

 

Q. As already mentioned I think, I know of someone who became a monastic in one of Elder Ephraim's monasteries, from your hometown, who is still in touch in a positive way with family members. But there they ultimately supported an adult childís decision on a life path. Here, it seems to me that your parents are alleging that you are isolated in a cult-- but from a human standpoint they are adding to your isolation by refusing your ability as an adult to choose a life path, and by not seeming to try to understand the tradition in which you are living, and that it is ancient and part of the religious heritage of your own family's ancestors! What is more isolating and ultimately self-destructing than our secular consumer culture? And yet you have chosen another way, within the ancient paths of the Holy Christian Church. And though they say their goal in these Internet postings is to "get you back," they have had the opposite effect.

 

A. I don't blame them, I know that what they've done is of course out of love and the pain of separation from their only son. I more than forgive them. I can understand that that would involve some kind of "separation anxiety." But in all this garbage that they say I know it isn't them speaking because it's so ridiculous all the arguments they reach for, all the details about our family they have made public, and discussion of others such as Elder Ephraim and even Father Demetri's family life in very unfair and inaccurate terms. Look at it like this, Adam and Eve and the apple: Whoís to blame for our exile from Paradise? Adam, Eve, the apple? If they hadn't spoken with the devil, Lucifer the serpent, it wouldn't have happened. He should be the center of all our hatred and all our negative energy should be directed towards him because without him we'd be in Paradise. Vain criticism and idle talk, it means nothing-- we are told to love one another. If I didnít still love them, how could I possibly call myself a Christian, much less a monk! From the world's standpoint, tomorrow we may be gone, and then what comes of such controversy? I don't blame them at all. But one thing I'm sure is that they need to change, for the sake of their souls. And I agreed to speak here only to set the record straight for others who could be misled about Athonite monasticism by inaccuracies in my parentsí accounts. Slander is one thing, but to perpetuate slander and thereby deceive thousands, possibly millions, is a thousand times more wicked.

 

A final message written by Father Theologos after the completion of the interviews:

 To the pious reader: With this interview I have attempted to accomplish at least one thing, to cast a shadow of a doubt on the plethora of slander against Elder Ephraim's monasteries and traditional Orthodoxy present on the Internet and mass media. Remember: The search for truth is a matter of life or death.

 My parents are wonderful people, they are the nicest, friendliest and most caring people that I have ever met. If you'd ever meet them you wouldn't believe that they would be capable of perpetrating this kind of public controversy and slander regarding Orthodox tradtion. I never thought they would be.

 A final thought with which I would like to leave you regarding my parents' criticism of  "spiritual dependence" on the spiritual father is this: They write that such dependence inhibits the ability of a person to make their own decisions based on the "trained conscience." But how does one obtain this "trained conscience"? As much of our culture today hates to admit it, the secular American culture's morals and ethics are based on Judaeo-Christian laws and commandments. A lot of the practices in the American justice system are based in the Old Testament. And the morals that we hold today are based on Judaeo-Christian morals. But this has evolved in popular culture to the point where God is seen as not being in the picture and people are the center of attention, an impossible contradiction with the very basis of our morals, a contradiction that makes unclear any basis for moral decisions in society at large.

 What my parents in this criticism of the system of the spiritual father are saying is, in effect, that to make spiritual decisions you need a "trained conscience" based in that fragmented, godless moral system of modern life. But the only "trained conscience" from an Orthodox perspective is a conscience trained by the Fathers and Canons of the Church. The conscience of the Church is expressed through those clergy and lay people who have reached illumination and deification. It is they who perpetuate Holy Tradition and also create Holy Tradition, according to Metropolitan Hierotheos.

 To my parents: Momma and Daddy, I hope you read this interview this far.

"E-mail comments and questions about Father Theologos' interview are welcome, but will be responded to in future only on the website and periodically, so that all may benefit from the discussion but without taking up too much time from other duties. If you wish to  send a response but do not wish your name to be used in the posted 
correspondence, please specify this, because otherwise it will be used. Preference may be given to e-mail messages where names or at least initials can be used. Not all correspondence will be answered if similar issues are covered by different notes. God bless!"
Please send comments, suggestions and questions to athos@athosinamerica.org.