A True Test for True Monasteries

By dogcatcher on June 7th, 2018

 

I personally don’t believe in biography. I’m not interested in any charismatic personage or cult of personality. I only believe in whether or not the message is valid. Even so, for the prurient mind, I’ve been described by others as a very conservative, married Orthodox Christian who is a dedicated supporter of our Orthodox Monasteries. My dedication and personal experience of monasticism stems from my living in Thessaloniki and being able to visit the Holy Mountain Athos on a monthly basis. From there, my influence and mentor became Father Paisios who is now revealed to the world as Saint Paisios. He is the one who advised me repeatedly and gave me his blessing to set me on my path (all of which must be irrelevant to the topic).

Honestly, I have only questions, and I begin with questions. My purpose here is not to take any side or claim, but to objectively express a healthy concern. I am not writing about any issue with our monasteries in America as an issue of “fundamentalism within Orthodoxy.” Seriously, our Orthodox Faith is fundamental, is evangelical, is eucharistic. Isn’t it? We don’t have “Orthodox-lite” and “Orthodox-heavy.” I would suggest everyone stay away from the trap of that argument.

When I was young and the “evangelical Orthodox” movement tried to emerge in America in the 1980’s, with Father Peter Gilquist and his entourage, I well remember my own father making the observation, “How can we have a group within a group? That is antithetical to our faith which is already evangelical.” Point well-taken. Anybody striving to “reinvent the wheel” needs to stop.

With the next emergence of “monasticism in America,” through the example of Father Ephraim and his monastic communities. I get asked about the topic—to which I always give my same, simple response: “What is your favorite quotation from the Bible?” I enjoy this question because, almost every single time, 99% of respondents hesitate and stammer: they always seem so surprised by the question, unable to think of a favorite quote, or don’t have one, or simply haven’t actually ever read the Bible. So, I offer my favorite quotation from the Bible, which is found in two Gospel sections, both describing when Jesus Christ says (to paraphrase his words), “The tree is known by the fruit it bears.”

I strive to measure my life by this quote. I learn quiet discernment by this quote. And this leads me to my response concerning the issue of the Father Ephraim monasteries, with two simple questions:

Who do the monasteries commemorate in their Divine Liturgies?
At what time do the monasteries conduct their Divine Liturgy services?

The answers to these two, simple questions automatically give the simplest of solutions:

Attend any monastery service. If any monastery does not commemorate their respective Metropolis’ Hierarch, then that monastery is not in accordance with its own mandates of monastic practice. That monastery is not a monastery, and should be avoided like the plague.

Secondly, if any monastery begins the Divine Liturgy at, say, 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so as to “accommodate” any laity-visitors, that monastery is not a monastery, and should be avoided like the plague. A monastery is meant to be a monastery, not a parish.

What I’ve found most helpful is in following our Archdiocese’s Rules and Regulations governing monasteries. It is a fair, balanced, and clarifying document.

Article 4, concerning the “Rights and Duties of the Metropolitan” states:

a) As a member of the local Eucharistic Community, each Monastery functions under the canonical and ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the local Metropolitan of the Metropolis to which it belongs. b) Paternally and in a protective way, the local Metropolitan exercises the highest oversight of the Monasteries in his Metropolis, ensuring their regular operation in accordance with the Divine and Holy Canons, the Charter and the Regulations of the Archdiocese, and the current civil law. c) In particular, the rights and duties of the local Metropolitan include: 1) The commemoration of his name during all services and ceremonies that take place in the Monastery, in accordance with established ecclesiastical tradition and canonical order.

Therefore, the Monastery Abbot/Elder is subservient to the local Metropolitan, and is not independent.

I’ve had three interactions with several of the “Father Ephraim” monasteries, and I was cognizant of the quote that “the tree is known by the fruit it bears.”

My first experience with an Ephraimite monastery in Florida was personal and subjective; the nun was just plain rude, which took me by surprise. When the monastics and elders and their monk-assistants from Greece visited our local parishes, I also attended and interacted with them. But then, I read an observation that I found helpful to me: some desert father said (again, in paraphrase), “If you find a monk outside of his monastery, flee from him quickly.”

Regarding “all services and ceremonies that take place in the Monastery, in accordance with established ecclesiastical tradition and canonical order,” my second experience was when a group from my home parish visited one of the monasteries. In the monastery bookstore, I completely understood the selling of religious articles and spiritual books. I was just a little taken aback at the wide array of secular items for promotion and sale (the baked goods, the wedding dresses, etc.), to the point of the bookstore being almost more of a distasteful merchant’s den. Yes, I understand raising money, but there’s a line of distaste not to be crossed.

But what deeply concerned me was when a nun told our group that they were going to change the time of their Vespers service to earlier—so our group “could get on the road home faster.” I was shocked by this declaration disguised as trying to “convenience” our group. To me, that was like my going to Mount Athos and telling the Abbot, “I want to sleep in, so you need to start your services when it’s convenient for me.” I found the nun’s offer scandalous. When a number of us protested and asked them not to change anything for our sake, our request was refused; they held their Vespers service early and our church group left, with me having a personal bad-taste in my mouth from the poor experience. To me, it didn’t matter how well-intentioned that gesture was; you simply don’t change Orthodoxy to accommodate fashion, schedule, or any other thing. I would never expect or even want Mount Athos to change anything to accommodate me. I’m there to follow and participate in their sense of order, not my own.

During that service I attended, did the Priest commemorate the local hierarch in the petitions? Honestly, I was so perturbed by the whole service that I didn’t get to notice closely enough. But it’s a still-valid question to ask, to visit a service and listen for.

Aligned with this topic of timely services, my third experience with an Ephraimite monastery was when I had occasion to speak on the phone with the head priest of the monastery. When I thought to visit there and called, I simply asked Father what time the church services would begin on a Sunday. His response was that they would begin at 9:00 a.m., so as to accommodate lay visitors. Crushed, I thanked him, concluded my call—and never went.

Every time I lived on Mount Athos, I followed their services. I was woken by the Symandron at 2:30 a.m. I was in the Church by 3:00 a.m. The Divine Liturgy was over by 6:30 a.m., after which we assembled into the dining hall for breakfast in silence and Scriptural readings heard. Those are the hours I learned from the monasteries of Athos. Not a single monastery ever changed their hours by which to attract customers. Not a single shop in Athos’ Kareas or Dafni ever sold the items I saw sold in that first monastery’s store.

I personally would like our Holy Archdiocese to amend their monastery regulations to specify that the monasteries be held to serving their Divine Liturgies at the properly-established times of the night and day, especially the Sunday Services. If pilgrims wish to attend the monastery’s Sunday services at 3 a.m. and completing by 6:30 a.m., that’s fine. What I strongly object to is any monastery allowing Sunday Divine Liturgies to be held at 9 a.m., for example, so as to “accommodate” visitors. Again, it’s a monastery, not a parish. It is this concern that the monastery acts as a parish, to the detriment of all neighboring parishes.

In the Bible, I’ve heard Jesus Christ say (paraphrasing) that there is one sin that will not be forgiven—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

In the Bible, I’ve heard Jesus Christ say (paraphrasing) that there is one sin that will not be forgiven—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

ARTICLE 9
CHAPLAIN/SPIRITUAL FATHER

a) In the Monasteries for women (i.e. Convents) the Chaplain is selected by the Metropolitan, after a proposal by the Hegumenal Council. He must be a priest of mature age and must live and reside outside the Monastery out of respect for the rule of non‑entry (abaton) of the Monastery. b) In the Monasteries for men, the Abbot is by virtue of his office the Spiritual Father of the Monastics as well, laboring diligently for their spiritual progress and hearing their confessions regularly and attentively.

Further, Article 10, Section D states: d) The ordination of a Monk as a Deacon or Priest is celebrated by the local Metropolitan after a proposal by the Hegumenal Council of the Monastery, and upon receipt of permission from the Eparchial Synod. The ordained Monk exclusively serves the liturgical needs of the Monastery.

This regulation text certainly does not include any liturgical/sacramental needs of laity who visit the monastery. Nowhere in the regulations does it say the Abbot (or spiritual father, or any other priest-monks) hears confessions of lay people who are visiting the monastery. “The ordained Monk exclusively serves the liturgical needs of the Monastery.”

My understanding from our Church is that, in growing, we laypeople are to develop a spiritual father/spiritual child relationship with a priest to whom we counsel, be advised by (perhaps throughout our lives, ideally), receive the Holy Sacraments from, and are in regular contact with. My concern is with such laity who never seem to go to Holy Confession to their local parish priest but run to confession with a monastic in a monastery. I can’t help but wonder: doesn’t such a setup response circumvent laity from developing a nurturing, ongoing spiritual relationship with their local parish priest? Confession is not supposed to be a “hit and run” event according to “spiritual popularity.” Confession is not “more holy” because it’s given to a “Yeronda.” Confession is not “less holy” because it’s given to a local parish priest. My fear is that such a practice actually constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Another regulations article that I find helpful says:

ARTICLE 16
MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS

d) The Monastery Sanctuary is not a parish church. As such, the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage is fully prohibited in the Monasteries of the Archdiocese, according to the instructions of the Holy and Sacred Canons. In special cases, the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation may be conducted in the Monasteries, provided there is a compelling reason that is deemed acceptable by the local Metropolitan, who grants the prerequisite episcopal permission for the celebration of the Sacrament and issues the proper certificate. In any case, the registration of such a Baptism and/or Holy Chrismation shall be done in the official books of the parish to which the one baptized or chrismated (anointed) belongs.

I don’t know what to think about circulating reports that area monasteries have conducted Holy Sacraments (baptisms, wedding) and funerals on site. Has this been done? I’d want to objectively hear from any families who have done so. Why would any want to do so? Again, I’m sure the Holy Spirit is not “more holy” in a monastery and I’m sure that the Holy Sacraments of Baptism or Marriage, and the non-sacrament of funerals, are equally valid in parishes. Conducting such services in a monastery is contradictory to the purposes of that monastery.

My last interaction with an Ephraimite monastery was when a friend committed suicide and the burial was going to be at the monastery, long hours away from the decedent’s small children who would never then be able to visit their parent. Yes, I understand compassion regarding suicide, but I thought monasteries were more canonical with such cases. I was personally shocked when I found out how much the family was being charged for the burial on the monastery grounds. Delicate questions were asked and, suddenly, the burial site was changed by the monastery and the family informed me their loved one would now be buried locally to our home and parish, so their children could visit their parent on a regular basis.

Again, this situation brought up the question of laity being buried in monastery grounds intended for monastics. On this topic, I am perhaps more ignorant of regulations, but the question seems valid.

The only other interactive experience I have had with the monasteries is when I had a personal conversation with a fellow Orthodox family whose child wanted to get married, yet the family was not members of any parish anywhere in the area. Instead of developing a spiritual relationship with their local parish priest, and receiving proper pre-marital counseling for their child, the family said they are church members of the Ephraim monastery, their spiritual father was the Monastery Abbot, and their financial, emotional, and spiritual support goes there. Thus, their intent then was to essentially “rent” a parish and a priest for their wedding.

To me, this family I spoke with is only illustrative of a deeper issue. My response was to think that the tree is known by the fruit it bears, and that the area-monasteries are effectively enabling parishioners to leave their parishes, to no longer be stewardship members of their parish and, thus, these monastery practices are working to the detriment of area-parishes and against our Archdiocese, under which they operate. I clearly see monastics in monasteries taking advantage of the spiritually-naive.

As for the current observations about monastery monk-administrators counseling converts to become “re-baptized,” as has been testified to: I can only return to the point of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Even our Creed says we recognize “one baptism for the remission of sins.”

I understand the current discussion of transparency and regulation. But, for me, it’s not an issue of who gets whose money. It’s an issue of spiritual maturity, understanding the difference between a monastery and a parish. I would hope any monastic elder would spiritually advise all his “visitors” to remain in their parishes as contributing members, to go there for Holy Confession and develop a spiritual relationship with their parish priest, to not denigrate the Holy Spirit, and stop the cult of personality.

The only other stereotypical observation I can make is that every single laity monastery follower I have interacted with has displayed a common trait of harsh judgement, written and verbalized, against the way a parish priest has ministered to his parish or the way a parish operates. I have never once felt any sense of love from an Ephraim monastery follower. To me, I return to the question of what fruit is this tree bearing?

You’re welcome to find your own answer. I’ve found mine and, right now, I slowly save up to return in pilgrimage back to Mount Athos whose monasteries are monasteries.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Since the inception of this website we have received many emails from Orthodox Christians worldwide. Generally, we do not reply or contact them. Based on this individual’s educational background and a reputation known to us, we made an exception. We understood this person to be an experienced, concerned citizen of Orthodox Christianity. The author is someone with an intense love of monasticism but has concerns. Their fears, questions and observations are now memorialized. From our Editor’s perspective if someone like this is concerned, shouldn’t we all be?