Holy Transfiguration Monastery Experience
The following letter was prepared for Greta Larson in early January, 2000, after seeing mention of Holy Transfiguration Monastery on Pokrov. Its contents express solely the author’s own experiences, opinions and conclusions. The facts and opinions expressed herein are solely the author’s, and not necessarily those Pokrov.
Editors note — WARNING: Some parts of this testimony are very explicit. Please be aware that they may be triggering to abuse survivors and upsetting to others.
What follows is my effort at describing my experiences at Holy Transfiguration Monastery (HTM) which I believe are pertinent to your efforts. I have felt that it would be best if I also included certain personal information, although that is far more difficult for me. However, if there ever comes a time of confrontation regarding your exposure of HTM, I do not want you to discover any ”surprises” about my background and life if my statements come into question. It may very well be that, after reading this, you will decide that I am not the sort of person with whom you would wish to deal at all. However, I am willing to take the chance, if for no other reason than I know what I am about to say is absolutely true, no matter how much Fr. Panteleimon or those with him may wish to deny it. I admit that I am a ”notorious sinner” like some of those who have already pled their case and thus, according to the canons as HTM interprets them, are unqualified as witnesses. Nonetheless, whatever my personal sins, the experiences which I record here occurred precisely as I describe them: I know this, Fr. Panteleimon knows it, and God knows it.
Very briefly, I had since the age of 12 been drawn toward the religious life. As a Roman Catholic, I hoped to enter the priesthood. Over time, however, including during a brief stint in a Jesuit seminary after high school, I had become interested in Orthodoxy. I had been in long correspondence with Fr. Vladimir and (then) Archm. Lavr at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY and they had sent me vast amounts of literature. When I left the seminary, I immediately began efforts to formally convert to Orthodoxy and gain entrance to the monastic life at Holy Trinity. This is the basis for my finally ending up at Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
However, I think you should also be aware of my personal state of mind at the time as well. I had spent most of my early childhood with my grandparents, until the age of 7. They were strict but very loving farm people. One night my father and mother showed up at the door, and within hours I was taken off with them to Alaska. I had never had a close relationship with either of them and considered, as a child does, that my grandparents were my real family. In short, the next ten years were extremely unpleasant for me. Both of my parents had problems with alcohol abuse, especially my mother. In addition, their concept of family life was to scream and fight over the most trivial of issues, often coming to blows and temporary separations. Frankly, I lived in terror of the pair of them until I moved out the day after my high school graduation and went to the seminary. Thus, in retrospect, I suppose that I was very susceptible to anyone who offered me affection and love, a paternal figure that I had not actually experienced but of which I had heard others speak. I think that this is important in light of my feelings toward Fr. Panteleimon when we first met, and may explain in part why it was so easy for me to comply with his every word and action.
Following my decision to leave the Jesuit seminary in 1968, I redoubled my efforts to go to Holy Trinity and was accepted in the late spring of 1969. By early summer, I had earned enough money for the bus fare and expenses, and left Alaska for New York. On arriving at Holy Trinity, I spoke with Fr. Vladimir (through a translator, Fr. John), and when I expressed my desire for Orthodox Baptism and Chrismation, he thought it would be best if I went to Holy Transfiguration for this and then return. (Apparently, there was some problem regarding the re-baptism of Roman Catholics at Holy Trinity, whereas Holy Transfiguration did such as a matter of course.) Thus, I went to Holy Transfiguration.
I spent a few weeks there, and was treated with immense kindness and affection, particularly by Fr. Panteleimon. Indeed, I had never experienced such an outpouring of warmth and welcome. For the first time in a very long time, I felt ”special” and very much loved. It was, in a word, ”heavenly.” I really did not wish to leave. However, I had told Fr. Vladimir that I would come back to Holy Trinity and I felt obliged to keep my word. It was a very tearful parting: Fr. Panteleimon gave me a very long and emotional blessing, mostly in Greek which I didn’t understand. I felt terrible about leaving, but also I felt obliged to keep my promise.
I went back to Holy Trinity, but after a few days of anguish — not helped by the fact that I didn’t speak a word of Russian — Ab. Averky gave me a blessing to return to Holy Transfiguration. Logically, it made very good sense, and to me it would be a return to ”paradise” where people really loved me and cared for me.
To return for a moment to my original stay at HTM, Fr. Panteleimon required (naturally) that I make a full confession prior to Baptism. As part of this, he presented me with a number of questions: “Have you ever had sexual relations with a woman?” No. “Have you ever had sexual relations with a man.” Yes. “What did you do?” We decided that I really hadn’t done too much of great moment, except for an occasion of oral sex which Father told me was “the communion of the Devil.” In any event, the Elder knew from the outset that I was “damaged goods” as well as the intimate nature of the “damage.” In later years, I rather wonder if this — compounded with my naiveté and emotional immaturity — did not make me an easy object for his desires. I base this in part on a statement the Elder once made to me, while fondling and kissing me, “You know, I could never do this with the other Fathers.”
In any event, shortly after my return to HTM for what I assumed would be a lifetime commitment, the Elder began what was to become a “surfeit of affection.”
Each night, following the Liturgy (about 2:30 a.m.), the Elder would come to my room, often bringing a cookie or other treat. He let me know how much I was loved by all the Fathers and especially by him. Indeed, I was his “Benjamin,” his special son who would “close [his] eyes and mouth when [he] died.” He also told me how I must trust him in all things, since it was the special gift of God to a spiritual father to know what was best for his spiritual children. He taught me that God speaks to monks through their Elder and not through their own wills (which they must deny) nor their own judgments (which are proud and open to prelest sown by the Devil). Obedience is the crown of all virtues. At first, he would only kiss me, which I took for simple affection, albeit a bit “Greek.” I was a bit annoyed, but not disgusted — rather like when a particularly slobbery aunt “licks” your cheek, as it were. Later, he explained some biblical verse about swearing by placing one’s hand “in the thigh.” He proceeded to show me what this meant. I was uncomfortable, but didn’t dare to say anything. He knew what was best. He, essentially, could do no wrong. How could I risk losing the love I had finally found by refusing his advances? I was now convinced that God spoke and acted through the Elder and that to even doubt him would be the eternal damnation of my soul. Thus, it transpired that almost every night from shortly after my return to HTM until a few weeks before my departure, the Elder would visit me.
We would sit on the floor of my room and he would unzip my pants, sometimes without any ado whatsoever, and begin to fondle my penis. He would almost invariably kiss my head, my face, my neck and my mouth. I soon found this alone to be very unpleasant, but submitted to it, as an “obedience.” When he spoke he would speak often of obedience and its example among the saints, and always of his great and godly love for me. In passing, I found his breath extremely offensive. He seemed to realise this on one occasion and remarked, “My breath [or ‘my mouth’ — I forget the exact word] stinks of fasting.” On one occasion, shortly before the “visits” ceased just before I left the monastery, his kissing became very aggressive and I greatly feared that something even more intrusive was about to happen. It did not. But thereafter I was in complete terror of the nightly visits and I think it showed.
I must say that the Elder never forced me to touch him (which I never did), nor did he show his genitals to me; likewise, he only used his hands on my genitals and never proceeded beyond that. Once, however, when he was beginning to realise that I was not happy with the situation, he told me, with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, that, if I thought he was acting out of passion, I could touch his penis and see that there was no “movement” (that is, he was not having an erection). I did not take him up on this offer.
In an effort to provide you with as much as I can honestly remember, what follows are some of the statements the Elder made to me. These are only statements of which I am absolutely certain — they have never left my mind. The work which you are doing would suffer, I believe, from half-memories or “reconstructed” memories, and I am only saying what I absolutely recall. These things are, as they have always been, vivid in my mind.
On one occasion, the Elder was kissing my face and nose and he said, “We should bite off your nose and then you wouldn’t be so pretty.” [In retrospect, he often referred to himself as “we” during these moments.] On many occasions, he would say how horrible the world was and how I could only find peace and salvation in the monastic life, where I was loved and could not come to “grief.” One phrase I have never forgotten, “If it were not heresy, I would say that there is no salvation outside the monastery.” Further, he said that a monk should obey his spiritual father, even if it was in something sinful, because the spiritual father took the sin upon himself and God looked with favour upon a monk who was obedient in all things. On another occasion, the Elder stated that he would like it if I slept on the floor next to his cot, but that it would scandalise some of the other Fathers. (I was relieved.) The Elder always impressed upon me that “a Father can do what others may not;” nor, should I ever try to demonstrate my affection for any of the other Fathers in the way in which the Elder showed me his affection. (I confess that on one occasion I did, in a very brief and clumsy fashion, but at the price of a huge sense of shame, guilt and remorse. I prostrated myself in front the Elder and begged for forgiveness with tears. I felt horrible. I still feel very ashamed.)
Not shortly after all this began, I started to pray that, if it was God’s will, the Elder would stop making his nightly visits. Later, I began to pray asking that, since God tells the spiritual father all that is needful with regard to his spiritual children, please tell Fr. Panteleimon that this is making me miserable. I begged and pleaded with God to make it all stop, and I lived in anguish, dreading the time after Liturgy when the Elder would walk into my room and start to show his “love” for me. The prayers didn’t seem to work for a long time — but maybe they did in a left-handed sort of way, a few months later.
On one occasion, during his fondling, I expressed (by pulling away and turning my head, albeit ever so slightly) my discomfort. The Elder then said that I was uncomfortable because I was having a “small movement” (that is, I was experiencing a partial erection). Not by way of excuse, but it should be said that I was 20 years old at the time and had been in the Monastery for several months. (In retrospect, I rather wonder why I hadn’t had any “small movements” prior to then!) However, as the Elder expressed it, the “movement” was my fault, because I was not pure and innocent enough to avoid it. It had been sent to me as a minor chastisement from God — that is, God had allowed the Devil to “work in my flesh” briefly so that I might be humbled. As I already knew, the Elder did not have “movements” during his periods of fondling so, obviously, his love was pure.
At last, the constant nightly stimulation and the dread of its source became so intense that, toward the end of my stay at the Monastery, I could think of almost nothing except sex and how to relieve these physical urges. I confess that what I wanted, without consciously realising it at the time, was to hold someone I loved, kiss someone I loved, and make genuine love with someone whom I loved as much as that person loved me; I was sick to death of a one-sided “affair” with a man whose very touch was repugnant to me. I was convinced, however, that this was all because of my immeasurable sinfulness, my failure to be truly humble and obedient, and because I was simply a “bad novice” and an extremely evil person. Eventually, however, I could bear the strain no longer. I told the Elder that I had to leave the Monastery and, despite his assurances that I would only find “grief” in the world, I left with his blessing. One of his last words to me, however, has stayed with me and haunted me like a curse: “You will not be judged for leaving the Monastery, but you will be judged for offending love.”
For several years afterward I maintained my desire toward the religious life and went through a number of “adventures” which do not enter into this narrative at all. I was feeling very badly about my self — my spiritual state, the fact that I had “offended love,” and so on. However, I could not bring myself to go back to HTM.
In any event, in the late ’70s I came to San Francisco and, given my sinful nature and inclinations, eventually met and fell deeply in love with a wonderful young man, just a couple of years younger than myself. We led, for several years, a very happy life together and eventually David became honestly interested in Orthodoxy. We would go to church together, visit the Ft. Ross and the monastery in Platina (David, on his own initiative brought them several bags of groceries and a gallon of olive oil on one occasion), and so on. Then, to my everlasting regret, I decided to make a trip back to HTM for a visit and to discuss my situation with David. Also, I had not received Holy Communion for many, many years and I wanted to “straighten myself out” as much as might be possible.
The Elder was far cooler toward me than he had ever been before (though by no means unfriendly). However, he told me to make my confession to Fr. Isaac (who by then had become a priest). When I confessed, I described David’s and my relationship, and the fact that David was drawing near to Orthodoxy. The response was that, if we started to live like brothers then David would definitely come to the Church. In the meantime, I was forbidden to approach the Sacraments for two years, provided of course that “nothing happened” in the meantime.
When I returned home, I told David about what happened. He was, surprisingly, not surprised. “I knew they would say that.” His interest in Orthodoxy seemed to wane considerably, and our relationship became quite strained. Not very long afterward, we split up, because of my sanctimonious prattle and insistence on following the commands of the Holy Fathers of HTM. I have not been able to track David down since shortly after our separation and regardless of what any other person may think, I believe that the genuine love I offended when I told David our relationship was over is the greatest sin for which I will be judged. Where might we both be now if, rather than listening to and obeying to the letter HTM and its “spiritual advisors,” I had followed my own deepest instincts and allowed God to resolve matters in His own time according to His own plan? I cannot help but think of my actions as curing the disease by killing the patient.
Not long after this fiasco — for which I take the full blame — I became furious with myself, furious with God, and furious with the Orthodox Church. I truly battled against God, thinking Him my worst enemy. But, in time, God Who is truly Love, having let me throw my temper tantrums until I had totally worn myself out, led me back to Him. Albeit, still as “damaged goods,” just as I came seeking Him the first time.
You or others may wonder why I have waited 30 years to “spill the beans.” Partially, you know the reasons — a perhaps incorrect understanding of forgiveness is one. Another, is the lingering, chronic guilt I still feel whenever I or anyone else thinks or says something which runs contrary to the “True” Orthodoxy of HTM and Fr. Panteleimon. The constant fear is always there: “Maybe they were right.” The indoctrination I received when I was a very susceptible young adult has left indelible marks, rather a mockery of the “indelible mark” of Baptism, when you think about it. However, let us simply agree that I was and remain gullible, overly trusting and lacking in self-assurance — in short, still basically an immature “young” adult — and be done with that. The most important reason I have for speaking now is that I probably shall not live too much longer. On the Friday before Thanksgiving 1999, I had a massive heart attack. Had it not been for the quick action of one of my co-workers in rushing me to the emergency room, that would have been the end of the matter. As it was, according to the hospital staff, I was brought in just in time. It required the maximum number of electric shocks to get my heart functioning properly and, as they told my co-worker, “It’s a miracle, but we pulled him through.” I understand from my physician that it is only a matter of time before I have another heart attack, and that one will probably not result in recovery. Thus, although all the other “accusers” may be disregarded because they are “sinners” and “thieves” and “envious,” I, in the likelihood of seeing my Judge far sooner than either they or Fr. Panteleimon, record here Fr. Panteleimon’s true activities and, in some cases, his exact words — and these events occurred in 1969-70, long before the events alleged by the “six accusers.” Furthermore, I did not leave after years and years, but after only a few months. I didn’t discover “suddenly” that homosexuality was a “sin;” I knew it from the beginning. What I discovered was that I could no longer allow a person with whom I was not in love to fondle and caress and kiss me every night of my life; that, I am afraid, was a feeling I have only felt for one person in my life and that person is now gone. So, I write this in part for myself — my peace of mind, and also and most especially for David, who truly loved me and trusted me and shared his life with me until I, in my last gesture as a “True Believer” in Holy Transfiguration Monastery, cast him aside, possibly to his own enduring grief and certainly to my own. This is for you, David. Forgive me.
the former novice, Elias