A follower of Fr. Ephraim discusses monasticism
One of the greatest miracles of our time, our spiritually turbulent and impoverished time, is the establishment of Orthodox monasteries throughout this land. There are a number of monasteries in our American Orthodox jurisdiction, and this is a great gift for our sinful generation. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, we are now being blessed through the efforts and grace of Geronta Fr. Ephraim, whose prayers have been heard by our Father in heaven. There are now at least seven monasteries under the spiritual expertise of Geronta Fr. Ephraim, and hundreds of thirsty souls run to these spiritual gold mines to find their lost and alluring treasure, the health of their soul.
St. Gregory of Nyssa says imagine that someone who loves gold runs across some sketches or writings regarding the location of a treasure. But the location of the treasure is underneath the earth, and it requires great toil and pain from those who are eager to possess it. Would these people, would these persons, walk away from the treasure because of the work, or would they ask for help wherever they could get it? Wouldn’t they get their friends involved in order to find the gold? Those of us who desire the pure gold will make use of all the elements of our Church to possess it. The treasure will be shown to us and each one of us will possess it.
By far the richest, the virtual gold mine of our Church, full of treasure, is the area of monasticism. Many of our Orthodox lack some basic understanding of the place, value, and purpose of monasticism in the Church of Christ. We hope to be helpful in this regard by answering some general concerns about the place and origin of monasticism in the realm of our Church.
Monasticism is an element of our Holy Church. It is an integral part of the Orthodox Church. The lack of understanding of the very nature of monasticism has been the cause of unfounded criticism about the most noble of causes. In this very limited study, we will attempt to enhance our understanding about the place of monasticism in the Orthodox spirituality. We will simply provide some brief comments, keeping in mind always that we can never exhaust any one of these subjects.
Several years ago, I was speaking to a non-Orthodox and I brought up monasticism was a great dimension of our Church. And the response was, of course the Bible does not talk about that. And this person was correct, in the sense that the Holy Scriptures do not specifically mention the words monk or nun or even monastery. But even in an Orthodox environment, during a discussion, I made the comment that monasticism is the upper echelon, the nucleus of our Church, the heart of our Church. Needless to say my comments were heavily refuted by some visiting clergy, to my great surprise and disappointment.
Once again we will be borrowing the thoughts of Father Athanasios Mytilineos to help us with this study. He describes monasticism as the most noble cause in our Church. Monasticism is not a dimension or a movement outside of our Church, but it is the upper echelon, the elite, the aristocracy of our Church — the upper crust. It is simply the way by which a member of the Church would want to dedicate himself to God. This is a dynamic dedication, a give and take sort of thing, an exchange, where a person gives something to God but he expects the knowledge of God in return.
When St. Anthony, for example, heard the verse of the Gospel during a Church service, when he heard “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me,” he did exactly that. The Lord said this to the young rich man, who was a nobleman of good intentions, he wanted to become a Godly person, he wanted to come close to God. But the Lord asked the young man to make the ultimate commitment, to consider fully dedicating his entire life, and follow Christ. The young man could not do this, for he was very wealthy, and this commitment would require the sale and abandonment of his wealth. So the young man abandoned the idea of discipleship — he left. Now when St. Anthony heard the same words during a reading of the Gospel, he did the opposite. He sold his belongings, gave them to the poor, and became a monastic. He wanted to follow the Lord one hundred percent.
So we have a dedication, and consequently a knowledge of God, and this knowledge will be received as a reward, as a payment. The person who will dedicate himself to God will receive a reward. God will give back to us when we give. In Revelations 22:12, Christ says, “Behold I am coming soon and my reward is with Me.” What is this reward? This is not the reward that He will give to the people. Firstly, this is the reward that He will receive — Christ. This is the reward that He wants, the reward of Christ and the reward of the faithful. So the reward of Christ lies in the fact that He was sacrificed and became man to acquire His reward, being the faithful. So the reward of Christ is the faithful. Christ says, “I won you from the hands of the devil. You are my payment, my reward.”
Now where is the reward of the faithful? The reward of the faithful is Christ. Because our payment, our reward, is that we gain victory with Christ. We won Christ. So the reward for Christ is the faithful, and for the faithful the reward is Christ. So here we have this give and take relationship, and to a much higher degree in the area of monasticism. So we stated that monasticism is the very best that the Church could possibly offer — the very best.
Interestingly enough, the roots of monasticism can be seen as far back as the Old Testament. When we say roots, we mean just that, and not the various forms which can change over a period of time. For instance, if we have monasteries or not, if we use this dress code or that, this is not so meaningful. Shapes and forms can change from time to time. What is significant is that Prophet Elijah in the Old Testament was unmarried. He’s the only prophet to that point that lived in celibacy. Moses, Aaron, Joshua, they were all married; they had families. So Prophet Elijah is unmarried; in other words, he’s practicing celibacy. He’s under complete obedience to God. He’s an organ of God, a servant of God. And he lives in complete poverty. He has no need to own property. He owns nothing. Apparently he lives under the three basic rules of monasticism — obedience, virginity and poverty. When Prophet Elijah called Elisha to follow him Eisha had property. He had farms, oxen, and he was plowing his fields when Prophet Elijah told him, “Come with me, follow me.” Elisha instantly used the yolks and the plows to light a fire. He killed all the oxen. He cooked the meat, he distributed it to the poor, and left with Prophet Elijah. Elisha was also unmarried, and he became the successor of Prophet Elijah. As time went on, the two prophets instituted the schools of prophets. When Prophet Elijah ascended into the heavens, there were two to three hundred eyewitnesses who were members of the schools of the prophets, instituted by Prophet Elijah and Elisha. They were also called the sons of the prophets, as we find them in the scriptures, I believe second Kings or fourth Kings. The sons of the prophets were celibate, had no property, and they gave sermons to the people, and they also served as the historians for their nation. And something else — they are responsible for recording some of the books of the Holy Scriptures, and yes, these are the sons of the prophets.
It is worthy to bring up one incident. At some point they asked Prophet Elijah to go and live in a wooded area that’s beyond or East of the Jordan River, and he gave his blessing. And their intention was to go there and cut down some trees and possibly build some cabins. They were planning to stay there for a while, and live in those cabins, and one them while cutting a tree down, he left his hatchet fly, and it actually flew out of his hand by accident, and the hatchet fell in the Jordan River. He started to shout and scream, “Now what am I going to do? This hatchet was not even mine.” So what we see here is a synobitic community , where they share everything. There is no personal property; they live as one family. About the lost hatchet, Prophet Elijah prayed, and the law of gravity was put on hold for a while, in other words the hatchet left the bottom of the river and floated all the way to top to be claimed back by the person who lost it. So here we plainly see some of the roots of our modern day monasticism.
But the last, holiest, and greatest branch of the Old Testament, with the most sanctified form, is St. John the Forerunner, St. John the Baptist. It is not coincidental that the Gospels provide us with accurate descriptions of his diet, his dress code, and his way of life. Now who could possibly criticize the virtue of St. John? Probably the same type of people that criticize monasticism today, the type of people that always look for the wrong in every situation. They even found wrong with Christ. Christ Himself talks about this. The Son of Man came eating and drinking. In other words, Christ was living in the world. He did not live in the desert. He’d have to be like that. So when he was invited to a house, he would eat, and if they would offer him wine, he would drink. The Lord never got drunk. And no, he did not dance at the wedding of Cana, where some people would like to think, in their attempt to justify their own passions towards dancing. So our Lord ate and drank like a normal human being. So the Son of Man came, and you are saying, “Is this supposed to be the Messiah, all he does is eat and drink?” John the Baptist came, neither eating bread, nor drinking wine and you say he has a demon. The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say he is a glutton and a drunkard. Why did they actually say that John had a demon? Because they could not even begin to comprehend the lifestyle of a man who decided to venture outside of the so-called natural or normal way of life.
For example, someone may ask a young man, “Why aren’t you getting married? Isn’t it natural to be married? Didn’t God bless the married life?” And who told you that God, who blessed this Sacrament, did so out of His perfect or primary will? This is the secondary will of God. There would be no marriage if Adam and Eve would not sin, which would cause their death. A proof of this is that in the Kingdom of God, the institution of marriage will not exist. Our Lord says this very, very clearly. So marriage is not the perfect will of God; celibacy is the perfect will of God. This is why the person who does not marry and dedicates himself to God runs ahead to try and taste the Kingdom of God before it reveals itself. And it will be revealed, of course, at the second coming of Christ. So virginity is not something unnatural. Marriage is unnatural, if you will, because man was created with God having in mind the fall. And yes, Adam and Eve were totally responsible for their fall because they were created with free will. So the natural state of man was the state before the fall. And before the fall, marriage was not necessary. So much for those people that may think that monasticism is something totally unnatural and celibacy is unnatural. No, our life is unnatural if we see it under the scope of the dogmatics of our faith. And when I say our life, I mean for those of us that are married.
So when did monasticism actually appear in our Church? It seems to have appeared around the third century, about the time of the legalization of Christianity. St. Constantine at 313 AD put an end to Christian persecution. So before this time, the Christians would flee to the desert to avoid persecution. Now if you would ask, “Why did monasticism did not appear long before that?” Because the Christians already lived their martyrdom of their persecutions. But monasticism essentially is a form of martyrdom. So martyrdom already existed in the Church, so there was no need to add martyrdom on top of persecutions. However, when the persecutions were finished, and the Church was enjoying a time of peace, and it was not very costly to be Christians, then things changed. Let’s not forget that people would be baptized in the morning, and by nighttime it was possible to be put to death for their faith.
But now just about anyone could be a Christian. Idolaters, that have political clout, they were using their influence to be baptized by the thousands and the quality of the Church began to suffer. The spiritual temperature began to fall. When the sincere Christians saw this phenomenon, they left for the desert to continue to live in the life of Gospel that they had been living in the past. They desired to live the Gospel in its full intensity, the way that had been accustomed all these years. This massive Christianization of the pagans, once again, reduced the zeal of the church. In Russia for instance, people were being baptized by the thousands, and that’s wonderful. The only problem was that most of these people were never taught the faith. There was virtually no catechism. Up to this point, the Christians underwent catechism for one year, two years, three years, at times, and they were fully tested, and based on their progress they were baptized. This stopped after the persecutions. Catechism was virtually inexistent. And immediately the Church showed signs of reduced zeal. The intensity was lowered significantly and, if you will, the Church began to experience a spiritual decline. At this crucial time, monasticism quickly gets established, to preserve the true spirit of the Gospel and eliminate the decline of the Church.
So monasticism is not worthless, as some uninformed some Christians would like to think, but it is a sign of a healthy and progressive Church, a sign of an alive Church. This is why a Church that has no monasticism is in danger of being lost and being reduced to nothing but a secular institution. We see this in the protestant world. The protestants did not have convents or monasteries and they observed that there’s a great need from monasteries. Because their Christians in the world are becoming more and more secular, hour after hour, year after year, and all through the centuries. Recently, some protestant denominations, the Episcopalians for example, are establishing monasteries. Now they are quite different of course, based on their understanding, but the fact is that they realize the value of the monastic life, which shows that monasticism is a sign of progress in the Church.
In the area of Egypt, in the deserts of Thivaietha, monasticism grew in vast numbers. Thousands of people would turn the desert into small monastic towns. And here we have some of the most beautiful chapters of Christian civilization — this specialized way of life which we are ever-grateful to have available to read the Gerondika, or the stories of the monastic elders. These feats of faith will continue to be written and lived until Christ comes back, until the end of history. What can we say about their great contributions? Didn’t we know that the monks would sniff out any new wave of heresy and they would come to the cities and help the Church to eradicate and uproot these evil weeds? Didn’t we know that the monastics would be –or the monasteries rather — would be centers of first aid in times of disease or hunger or natural catastrophe? St. Anthony, who saw no man for 20 years, at some point left his beloved solitude to go fight Arius, the heretic. He left again for the city to help people that were dying from a communicable disease, most likely the black plague. St. Anthony went to help. Didn’t we know that the greatest contributions of dogmatics, hymnography, and lives of the saints, happen to be the work of the monks? All the hymonography of our Church is accredited to the monasteries — at least ninety-nine percent of it — the work of the hands of the monks. Didn’t we know that our Byzantize music was introduced and perfected by the monks? Didn’t we know that the libraries of Europe and the museums are full of books that were copied and preserved from the hands of the monks — anything from the Holy Bible to lives of the saints — and the writings of the fathers, and even the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers, they were copied and preserved by our monastics — Homer and many others. In the peace of the monastery the monks were constantly copying book after book. Some of these copies are precious, irreplaceable, just about everything that was saved did so through the foresight of the monks. This fact alone should be enough for all people to feel forever grateful for our monasteries.
What can be said about their citizenry, their way of life, their mannerisms, their works, their civilization of God’s love, their purity? Should we mention a small example? An example that shows the struggle against selfishness, because in our world today, our Christian world, we are very selfish, materialistic, egotistical. People kill and stop for a wallet or a pair of sneakers. Let’s listen to this small example. Some day an ascetic was offered a bunch of grapes, first thing in the morning, fresh, ripe, juicy, right off the grape vine. What a treat, especially in the heat of the desert. He took one look at the grapes and he said, “Why should I eat it, isn’t it better to send it to my neighbor (another ascetic who lived nearby)? Let him eat it.” This new recipient of the grapes had the same thought, and sent it to a third monk. At some point that evening, after circulating through the desert, the bunch of grapes returned to the first ascetic, and when he saw this he was in awe, and he praised God for revealing to him that the brothers had love, a community of love. Then he made his cross, and ate the grapes. Could anything like this happen in the jungle that we live in, in our days? Again monasticism is the jewel of the Church, especially when the monks are true to their cause and they continue in their quest for perfection. God is glorified and the Church is strengthened with the existence of pious monasticism.
By the grace of God and the expert leadership of Elder Fr. Ephraim, we are now witnessing the establishment of a number of monastic communities in our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. We realize that this may be something new for our American-born Orthodox brothers and sisters, so we will try to answer some common concerns and point out some key points about monasticism. In doing this we will use the wisdom of Fr. Athanasios Mytilineos who has done several talks on this subject.
It is true that some people are under the impression that monks look for an easy way out. They try to escape the difficulties of the world and they seem to be concerning themselves with their own salvation only. It would seem that if monks would stay in the world they would be able to help their fellow man much better. So, initially, we have a contradiction here. If a monk stayed in the world, he would not be called a monk. The very nature of monasticism, the Greek word “monachos,” suggests isolation, departure — to depart from the world. So how can a true monk stay in the world and help? He wouldn’t be a monk. And why doesn’t the community, why doesn’t society, help those that live in the society? So a monastic by definition is someone who cannot be in the world, in society. But the obvious question here is, is it natural for a human being to depart from the established organized community, to leave the city? Is this something normal, or is it abnormal?
First we need to understand a few things about the very substance of monasticism, and we must understand that every faithful needs to live the spirit of monasticism. Monasticism is not an entity found on the outskirts of the church. It is not some sort of an attachment connected to the church. Monasticism is the heart of the church, the Gospel of the cross, the very thing that Christ said, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him pick up his cross, deny himself and everything else, and then come and follow me.” One of the reasons of this action, this action of monasticism, not the main one however, is the denial of the world. The denial of a world that insists not to live in communion with Christ — a world that denies to be embodied in the church, a world that refuses to grow and live as members of the body of Christ. The church grows from inside out, just like any living organism, a fruit for instance, growth takes place from inside out. Now if the Church is looking to grow by accepting the world without having the means to Christianize each new individual, the result is the secularization of the Church, simply a mixture of the Church and the world, a terrible phenomenon of our times. This is by far the worst enemy of the church today — secularization.
Example: Many people ask, why can’t we modernize our churches? Why don’t we use some different music in our churches? Let’s use organs, guitars, drums, pop music. Many of our parishes have tried these things, by the way, and the motive? To bring people in. To bring in numbers. But what are we to do with these numbers? Are these people going to become Christians? Are they going to live the Gospel? What attracted them in the first place? What attracted them was the music. The music can be used as a means, but we cannot change someone to a Christian by giving them music. It is not possible. But it seems today that the bottom line in our congregations is to attract people — bring the people in — whatever it takes: guitars, violins, organs, female soloists, protestant Christian carols, classical pieces, bring it all in, to please the crowds. This is what a secularized Church is all about. Naturally, we don’t end up with a spiritual improvement for all those people, but what we have in the end result, what we end up with, is a much weaker and subdued church. The quality is going.
The Church always increased from inner to outward, from inside out. A new convert would be taught at length for years. He was tested, and then he was baptized. This is how the Church embodied new members. Until all these steps were completed, taking on new members would be inconceivable for the early Church. So we could say that monasticism is a form of a protest towards the Church since the Church neglected to properly Christianize and embody the world. A protest because as a Church we failed to improve the world to make the people of the world genuine, genuine children of the Church. So the monastics decide to leave the world to preserve and exercise their own lifestyle, the type of lifestyle that preserves the true Gospel. And this is one point of view. Again this is not the main or central theme of monasticism, but it is significant, because someone could live in the world, and live the life of the Gospel. Someone could live as a monastic without having to go far away.
But there is something else, and we must pay attention to this. As you know, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his baptism, was led by the Spirit to go to the desert, to be tempted by the devil. Why did our Lord go to the desert for forty days? He went to meet the devil, to subdue him, to do battle with the devil, to win against him. We know that the devil is virtually everywhere. As a spirit, he can move about very, very quickly. But more than any other place he can be found in the desert. This should not surprise us. Someone could ask, isn’t the devil in the cities as well?
Well, we will mention a story from the wisdom of the fathers. Once upon a time a pious man was traveling on foot, and he came across the fortress of a city and its surrounding walls, and on top of the castle he saw a spirit, a demon, who was half asleep. He continued to walk, and after a while he came across an ascetic, a monastic, who was fighting against a multitude, a great number of demons. And this pious man was amazed. He couldn’t understand, so he asked a demon, who was nearby, “Tell me something — I just passed through an entire city, and I found one demon overlooking the city, and he was half asleep, and here I see only one man, and there’s a great number of you fighting this man. What’s going on?” The demon, forced by the grace of God mentioned, “You see it’s simple. That city already belongs to us, so there’s no need for us to keep any more forces there. This monk does not belong to us, and we are in battle with him.”
If we read the life of St. Anthony, we will see that the greatest temptations he found in the desert, and not in the city. He was even physically beaten by the demons in the desert. By the way, let’s not be afraid of this sort of thing. For the demons to beat someone he must be in the top ranks of asceticism. This is allowed by God for the greatest of ascetics. We have no idea what it means to be an ascetic. So the battlefield is not in the city necessarily, but in the desert. Man has to do battle mainly with the passions of his soul. This is a dreadful battle. As far as the passions of the flesh go, some quite ignorant of this warfare say, “I want you to stay here and fight the flesh. Do not run away.” This is foolish, because St. Paul in First Corinthians specifically says, “Flee from immorality.” Flee means just that — turn your back and start running. But isn’t this considered a defeat? Don’t we call people cowards when they run away from a battle? Not in this case. This is the only category of sins that we must turn and run. This is the only way to win. If we stay we will lose.
Again we’ll be reminded of Joseph in Egypt. When his master’s wife was going after him, time after time, to pollute him, Joseph jumped from the window and fled. He would never escape her fangs if he did not flee. So it is not wise to stay and fight these passions in the world. The result will be my definite defeat, one hundred percent. For this reason I change direction and I leave. This changing of direction does not always mean that I have to run from the city. I can change direction of my life even in the city. Let’s say that I’m passing from a street where they advertise the different movies, and they show some provocative, filthy pictures. And this is mainly a problem in the large cities. Now, if we have the strength we will pass or drive from there, and we will glue our eyes on the street, on the sidewalk, without seeing anything. However, if we don’t have the strength, we will not pass from that street, we will bypass that place to avoid these traps that will cause our defeat. This is precisely the method of fleeing. And this fleeing is very valuable. This is precisely the method that we use for epidemics. Let’s say a flu epidemic. Doesn’t the school district close some schools in the case of epidemic of influenza? In the case of a dangerous strain of influenza, we close the movie theaters, we close the schools. Now, would I be doing a smart thing if I went and stick my nose in an area where a great number of people were sick? Wouldn’t this be stupidity on my part? Wouldn’t it be smart for me to avoid all these crowds to keep from catching this disease?
This seems to be a trap of the devil, who wants us to stay in the world, to break our backs, to become easy prey for him. No, my friends, sometimes we can leave from the world altogether. This does not mean that we must leave physically. Not all of us can become monks. We can stay in the world, we can stay in the city. However, our lifestyle will depart from that of the world. We can desert the world without running to the desert. It is inconceivable to be called a Christian if we do not flee from the ways of this world. If we do not deny the ways of the world, then we will become part of the world. As we know very well, the prince of this world is the devil, and the worldly Christian cannot be saved.
So let’s forget the idea that monks should stay in the world, to serve and so on. No, our monks and nuns are not social workers. They are not Red Cross agents. The par excellent social work of the monks is not only that they pray for the entire world, but something else. The true monk makes a statement. He presents the image of genuine Christianity. The world failed to live the true spirit of the Gospel, and where the world has fallen short, monasticism comes to show that where the world has failed, monasticism has succeeded. And then something amazing takes place, the same thing that took place during the life of St. John the Baptist. Who could possibly try to copy the life of St. John, his clothing, his food habits, eating honey and roots? God did not ask for this. God did not ask for this type of thing from the world, from the people of the world. However, the world ran towards him. St. John Chrysostom says that the cities would be deserted because the people ran to the deserts.
Why do the people of the city run to the monasteries to find rest? Why? Because the monastery has something different. The monastery of the desert has the type of thing that would be lacking if it were in the city. So the monasteries belong outside of the city, outside of the noise, but this does not lessen the service, or the social work of monasticism. We need to know that up there in the mountains there are some people that live a much Godlier life than those who live in the city. And it is necessary for these people to be far away. Just like we place our icons in a high place in order to venerate them, we don’t throw our icons on the floor, but we position them high on our walls. Along the same lines we position the forerunners of our faith, the stars of our faith, at a higher place. We need to be able to watch them and follow their example. If we bring them down to our level, we will be stepping along with them and they will stop being something
Editor’s Note: In response to the letter from Maria Bernal requesting more information on Fr. Ephraim and his monasteries, we are pleased to provide the above transcript of an audiotape of a follower of Fr. Ephraim discussing monasticism. Orthodox News obtained and transcribed the audiotape on October 16, 1999.