Ephraim Goes “PR”
Monastics like to say that they are in this world, but not of this world. But lo and behold, a key Orthodox Christian monk in the United States, the Elder Ephraim, has just taken a very worldly step. He is the star in a public relations video extolling the monasteries he founded in America.
The Russian-made film, with English sub-titles, was recently posted by the web-site, We Are Orthodox, a site, along with others, that has been critical toward the Ephraim movement. The critics, over some years now, have seen the movement as not truly monastic and as usurping the role of Greek Orthodox parishes. A narrator in the film speaks of the Greek Orthodox Church in America being in decline and becoming close to Catholicism and Protestantism. Ephraim, who got his start at the famous Mt. Athos Monastery in Greece, received the word, we are told, to take “true” Orthodoxy to America.
But, it hasn’t all been smooth-sailing. Theodore Kalmoukos, religion writer for The National Herald, the main Greek-American paper in the U.S., reported in 1998 that Ephraim “first joined the Russian synod in exile, after receiving a ‘directive’ from God as he proclaimed at the time. However, when he was threatened by the Ecumenical Patriarch that he would be defrocked, he received another ‘directive’ from God and abandoned the Russians.”
Fast-forward to 2014, writing on what the Greek Orthodox Clergy-Laity Congress should do, Kalmoukos advocated this: “The Monasteries…should be dealt with immediately. Actually, the discussion is long overdue. This cultish fundamental Monasticism has already become ‘anti-Church’, which is ruining many parishes, makes some priests fanatic ‘Ephraimites’ and brings confusion to young people. This needs to be dealt with now, before more damage is done.”
Was his advice taken? Not as far as we know.
Most of the video scenes are of Ephraim’s headquarters monastery, St. Anthony’s in Florence, Arizona, which is located in fairly remote desert land about half-way between Phoenix and Tucson. He has developed some 20 other monasteries in the U.S. the narration informs us. But, how he has financed them, we are not told. Financing is one of the main concerns of critics. (A typical response by monks, when asked about finances, is to say “God provides.”)
The Elder Ephraim is portrayed in the video as a Christ-like person who restores the sick to health and even has time to go out and give food to the poor. Bus-loads of people are shown visiting St. Anthony’s, some of whom apparently use this monastery, and others, as their local parish, for Confession and other Sacraments.
In short, the 26-minute video conveys the view that a wonderful, Godly phenomenon has taken place in the Orthodox life of America, namely the arrival and work of one Elder Ephraim.
While the film can be seen as surprising, its timing is not. For, even though criticism of the Ephraim movement has been present for over a decade, more recent developments have apparently awakened this PR response.
What are some of these developments? Let’s cite some, briefly.
# Even though no action may have been taken at the 2014 Clergy-Laity Congress, the top layman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Michael Jaharis, used very strong words regarding the monasteries. He started off with, “Finally, a serious issue of concern, a regrettable and most distasteful subject i.e. the current status of monasteries in their relationship with the U.S. Church.”
He went on to say that the Patriarch issued regulations governing this relationship, but monasteries have not abided by their obligations. He told of the Archdiocese setting up a special committee to examine the situation, but there has been a “lack of cooperation” that has “made it almost impossible for the Committee to further act…”
(Whether something is accomplished by this committee remains to be seen. Sadly, there has been a scandalous lack of leadership on this matter by the Metropolitans and the laity at the Archdiocesan level thus far.)
# In a more recent development, possible legal actions may also have prompted this video by the Ephraim forces. It has been revealed that certain for-profit and non-profit foundations have been created and that money, passed among them, may be benefitting the Ephraim movement. This may sound benign, but it is understood that government agencies have been investigating the matter for possible money-laundering, for instance.
The Wall Street Journal, in a front page article, in 2014, told of complex dealings in this regard. Amazingly, the lead of this article was: “The meeting that started the trouble took place at a monastery in Florence, Ariz.” Wait, there’s more: in a separate finding, it has been shown that the keeper of the books for some of these foundations is located, believe it or not, in Florence, Arizona. Is this just coincidence? As the expression goes: you can’t make this stuff up.
It would appear that the Ephraim forces have decided that this PR effort is advisable because trouble may be getting too close, legally and otherwise.
In the meantime, this video can be taken for what it is: a public relations effort that does not give a complete picture of the Ephraim monastery situation.