An Answer to an Answer about Monastacism and the Business of Monasteries

Author: Fr. Evagoras Constantinides
Date Published: 02/04/2004

A letter was received by Mrs. Fanny Pappas from a lady who follows the Ephraimite monasteries but does not understand Monasticism, in answer to the letter which Mrs. Fanny Pappas sent to His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios and their Eminences, all the Metropolitans of our Church in America. It was published in the Greek Star on October 30, 2003, about her plight with her daughter and the monastery of St. John Chrysostom in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

I find most of the statements in this letter ludicrous, naive, even insulting to the clergy. She states: “Why should we pour millions of dollars into these monasteries? Because they are there to serve me, and the rest of the people. I have spent days in various monasteries when I needed the solitude to reflect and ‘recharge’ which is something I could not do in a regular parish community.”

How sad that the lady cannot find a parish community church, or any church for that matter, in which to pray and “recharge” and she needs a 10 million dollar monastery to do it! Perhaps reading Matthew 5, 6 might give her a better solution. Also, is that really the reason why the famous monasteries on Mt. Athos and the rest of the world were established? The reason monks went there is to get away from the world, not to attract the world to them. This may be the case with the Ephraimite monasteries in America, but this was not, and is not, the purpose of the monasteries.

Monasticism, much as the priesthood, is a calling, a spontaneous longing to devote one’s self completely to God through abstinence, prayer, fasting, renunciation of the world, poverty, profound humility and service, not the result of recruiting impressionable and unsuspecting teenagers or disillusioned life sojourners, as the Ephraim monasteries are doing in America, in order to man their monasteries. Nor should the monks and nuns lose their individual will and freedom upon entering. Obedience yes, slavery, no! Nor should they go to the monasteries to become recluses or incommunicado and to sever all relations with the outside world.

And the lady goes on to insult the clergy by stating, “some clergy are openly critical of our monasteries, and it mystifies me. As a teacher I can only explain it to the fact that their training was inadequate or maybe they skipped class and didn’t study church history.”

Actually, not “some clergy” but most clergy are openly critical of the Ephraim monasteries. Not because they didn’t study Church history or don’t believe in monasticism, but because they see true monasticism flagrantly trampled on in the luxurious and auspicious “palace in the desert” and the “palace in the prairie”.

What follows will tell you what true monasticism is.

Here is what the Orthodox Ethical and Religious Encyclopedia writes: “The first form of the monastic life was that of the anchorite, born in Egypt during the persecution of Decius (249-251 AD). During the days of St. Anthony five thousand anchorites flooded the desert of Nitria and surroundings who, despising the harshness of the desert and the penance, and life of the burning sand with just water and dry bread, became the propagators of this practice of the Church. They live in isolation, and only on Sundays or other great holidays, did they go to the nearest church to pray with others and receive communion. And when they were in need of counsel, they visited St. Anthony or any other Elder. They managed by themselves for prayer, shelter, raiment, food and work. They submitted themselves to all kinds of hardships and deprivations and gave themselves to uninterrupted prayer and the strictest of fasts; they truly lived an angelic life. But it was impossible for these extremes not to end in superstitions, falsehoods and spiritual ailments. We find many examples of anchorites who, in their effort to attain the ultimate Christian perfection, many times arrived at entirely opposite results. St. John Chrysostom mentions in his books to Stageirios, a monk who, thinking that he was motivated by the devil, committed suicide. Other anrchorites went insane, and others went into lengthy periods of sleep in order to combat their carnal desires. In the life of St. Pachomios, and St. Neilos, among other aberrations of the monastic life are mentioned cases where monks threw themselves on the rocks while in ecstasy or, driven by internal temptations and unable to overcome them, stabbed themselves in the chest or in the abdomen or, threw themselves down from the high rocks, convinced that, in this way, they were dying the death of martyrdom.

This form of the hermetic life was not destined to last for long, as long as it was not under the strict control of the Church. The anchorite life should be replaced as soon as possible because, not only did it not cover all the demands of the Christian message, but was also hard, since it demanded from the very beginning that the monk (or the nun nowdays) arrives at the ideal of monastic perfection, without any previous training. “Thus came about the cenobitic life for all monks or nuns to live together in one building, introduced by St. Pachomios in Egypt, in the 4th century AD and fully developed by St. Basil, 378 AD.

“The deeper purpose of the development of the cenobitic life was to bring the monk in contact with his fellow monks, and his fellow man, so that he might become a factor in philanthropic activity. This initiated the understanding that ‘neighbor’, one’s fellow man, constitutes the foundation of the salvation of the monk…..

“Characteristic was the philanthropic activity of the monks in the ancient Church. The monks contributed greatly to the social action of the ancient Church, especially from the 4th century AD, onwards when, through the massive conversions to Christianity, the needs of the Christians increased greatly. All the monastic centers constituted hearths of philanthropic radiance, and the local monasteries were oases of hospitality and assistance to the poor and weak…..

“In accordance with the teaching of St. Basil the Great, the monks should come down from the mountains and out of the deserts to the cities, in order to set up philanthropic centers there. The direction of these establishments would be in the hands of the monks who were called, “fathers of the orphans”. St. John Chrysostom also mentions that in every monastery there were poor and sick people who received brotherly affection and care from the monks…..

“Without overlooking the theoria (intellectual apprehension) to which the Christian philology and piety owes so much, it is important to stress the element of social activity. Indeed, the monks are occupied with theoria and struggle for the redemption of their souls but, in parallel, they seek the spiritual and physical salvation of the neighbor. As St. Anthony writes in The Life of St. Athanasios, the monks must constitute not only the “scene which is filled with divine choruses of those chanting, fasting, praying and rejoicing in the hope of future blessings”, but also “the scene of the scholarly, those working works of charity, with love, understanding and mutual agreement”.

“Ascetic writings should be produced. By this term we mean the writings in which the ascetic life is praised, defined and regulated, or those containing biographies and collections of the sayings of great ascetics”.

How much of the above do you see in the 16 Ephraimite monasteries? Instead of being centers of monastic devotion, help and assistance to their fellow man, “in the world, but out of the world”, they have become big businesses manufacturing everything you can possibly imagine, and endlessly asking the people to give in order to build unneeded expensive buildings, and cemeteries to impress the visitors and satisfy their ego.

And what can one say about the cultic teachings of Elder Ephraim and his followers about marriage, the afterlife, confession, etc.

Should people donate to these monasteries? It is their individual right, and it should depend on the purpose for which these monasteries exist. What service do they render? How do they effect their lives? Should Miss Pappas have taken all her furniture, belongings and money to the monastery with her? That’s her right, but we must remember that the great ascetics and hermits and Fathers who went to the desert gave everything to the poor first, before doing so, they took nothing with them. And that’s exactly what our Lord always told His followers, “give everything to the poor and follow me”.

To donate money to the Ephraim monasteries so that he can build “palaces in the desert or in the prairie”, and not donate to one’s own church, or the IOCC or the OCMC or any other charity with established record of philanthropy, is nothing short of scandalous. Yet, the choice is up to each and every one of us.