The following paper was written for the class “America and Orthodoxy” in the Master of Divinity program at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in the spring of 2010. The assignment was to write about a living or historical figure within Orthodoxy in America, discussing his biography, teachings and work, his strengths, and any weaknesses or struggles faced.
January 17/30 the holy Orthodox Church celebrates St. Anthony the Great, known as the father of monasticism. Innumerable souls have been inspired and set ablaze by his memory and example and his continuing prayers for the faithful, and especially on Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain which is entirely dedicated to Orthodox monasticism. From the Holy Mountain to America has come one such soul, inspired by St. Anthony. Elder Ephraim received the unbroken monastic tradition from his spiritual father, the great Elder Joseph the Hesychast, and has brought it to North America in the form of the seventeen monasteries he has founded throughout America and Canada, including the main monastery in Florence, AZ, dedicated to St. Anthony the Great, where Elder Ephraim lives and serves as spiritual guide to all who come thirsting for spiritual guidance.
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In American Orthodoxy, rife with controversy as it is, one of the most controversial personalities is Elder Ephraim, former abbot of Philotheou Monastery, who currently lives at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, AZ. The mere mention of his name evokes strong emotions—people tend to either love or revile him. It is not uncommon to hear him referred to as the holiest man alive, or conversely as a fanatical cult-leading guru. Either way, his establishment of seventeen monasteries in North America in a decade is certainly an impressive feat. It is said that the state of monasticism in a local Church is a microcosm of the state of that entire local Church, and thus America is undoubtedly in need of strong monasteries that can provide clear, Patristic guidance. Elder Ephraim came to America in response to the pleas of the faithful to provide this guidance, but in doing so many questions have been raised concerning the nature of Orthodox monasticism and teachings. To assess his role and importance for American Orthodoxy it is helpful to investigate his life and spiritual development, which will provide insight into him whom Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos says “received fire, and ... has imparted this fire ... to the Church in America that has great need of it.”
On September 26, 1947 John boarded a boat to the dock of St. Anne’s on the Holy Mountain where he was met by Geronda Arsenios who announced that “The Honorable Forerunner appeared to Elder Joseph last night and said to him, ‘I am bringing you a little lamb. Put it in your sheepfold.’” While such news would lead to pride in most people, Elder Ephraim humbly writes that he was simply grateful for this care of St. John towards him. The rest of John’s life was mapped out that night in a small chapel of St. John the Baptist where he did a metanoia of obedience to Elder Joseph the Hesychast from whose side he would learn for the next twelve years until the venerable Elder’s repose in 1959. John was tonsured as a monk with the name Ephraim nine months later, and under obedience was soon ordained to the diaconate and subsequently the priesthood.
Of Elder Joseph, Elder Ephraim writes, “It was impossible for a person to come and stay with him and not be cured of his passions ... as long as he was obedient to him,” and it was in this atmosphere that he struggled for twelve years. Although Elder Ephraim does not write it of himself, as can be seen in his own writings, he himself is one who overcame his own passions by the guidance of Elder Joseph. As he describes it, his spiritual regimen included the practice of Christ-like obedience, fasting, all-night vigils, the extensive practice of the Jesus Prayer, silence, and the endurance of verbal abuse. While Elder Joseph allowed a little laxity concerning fasting, he was quite strict in every other aspect—for speaking two or three words on a trip Elder Ephraim received a first penance of two hundred prostrations, and he relates to Constantine Cavarnos that six or seven continuous hours of the Jesus Prayer replaced Matins, and in the afternoon it also replaced Compline.
Elder Ephraim’s spiritual state and popularity seem to have grown rapidly. There was much talk of him at least in Athens while his own elder was still alive, as Cavarnos reports, and Elder Joseph would even send people to see his disciple for spiritual nourishment. After Elder Joseph’s repose, Elder Ephraim became the head of a group of eight young monks, which grew to forty in less than a decade. In need of more space, he moved with twenty disciples to the abandoned Russian kelli of St. Artemios at Provata, a dependency of the Great Lavra. In 1973, he was petitioned by the Council of the Holy Mountain to move his brotherhood to Philotheou Monastery where he became abbot and quickly revived the spiritual life. Seeing his spiritual discernment and success, the Council also asked him to repopulate the Xeropotamou, Konstamonitou, and Karakallou monasteries. He was also asked to repopulate the Great Lavra, but declined. He remains the spiritual guide of these Athonite monasteries, as well as eight women’s communities throughout Greece.
In 1979, he made a brief trip to North America where he met many Orthodox Christians who were hungry for spiritual counsel, and flooded him with pleas to return, and so he began to make annual trips to guide his growing flock here. Due to these extended absences, he resigned as abbot of Philotheou in 1990 and moved to America where he quickly founded seventeen thriving monasteries by the invitation of the local Greek Orthodox hierarchs and the fervent pleas of the faithful. Today he labors as the spiritual father of thousands around the globe at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, AZ which was founded by six Athonite monks in 1995.
With this brief biographical information, it seems Elder Ephraim’s life could be straight out of the Synaxarion. The success of his communities and the Patristic ethos of his writings show him to be a well-rounded master of the spiritual life in our time. Of his words in Counsels From the Holy Mountain, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos writes that they are “an outcome and a fruit of obedience and noetic hesychia, a result of divine ascents, and they are certainly words coming from a paternal heart, words that help a person be healed in the atmosphere of spiritual love ... His words arouse the heart to prayer, precisely because they proceed from prayer.” Constantine Cavarnos asks, “What accounts for Ephraim’s extraordinary success in attracting so many men to monasticism, at a time when there are numerous anti-monastic forces operating in the world?” and he answers, “It is, above all, his purity and holiness. And this he owes in large measure to his elder Joseph.” If these accolades be trusted, Elder Ephraim has innumerable gifts to offer to American Orthodoxy. To Americans, obsessed with monetary success and “intellectual” pursuits, he offers the true theology of a purified intellect—“not gained in universities, but rather by despising the world and by living in a quiet and peaceful place far from the world’s noise and turmoil, with a program of prayer and ascesis.” He offers immense faith—faith “that has taken him, a frail, elderly little provincial, to sophisticated, postmodern North America, there to perform mighty works for the Lord he loves so much.”
America’s generally Protestant inheritance has given us a severely weakened and increasingly secularized church experience. Those who profess faith in Christ are often driven by material and sensual desires and in no way stand apart from the popular culture. Faith is pushed further and further into the closet, and our proud tradition of “rugged individualism” has made us blind to the virtue of obedience. We are constantly on the move, uncomfortable with any down time or silence. These factors have led to a nation that is morally and psychologically sick. Elder Ephraim offers us an experience that is wholly other from American culture. He brings the unquenchable fountain of Athonite spiritual wisdom which is so vital for the life of the Church.
As seen, his faith is anything but material, sensual, or secularized, and far from the closet, his faith is his life. Where we value innovation, Elder Ephraim calls us to enter the unchanging stream of Tradition. Where we fill our lives with noise, Elder Ephraim calls us to silent devotion to the name of Jesus. Where we are sick, he calls us to purity and healing. What Elder Ephraim offers to America now is exactly what he offered to Mount Athos fifty years ago. Of a conversation with the elder in 1965, Constantine Cavarnos writes, that he especially stressed the “need of a spiritual guide, and the value of praying mentally and heeding one’s conscience.” This is precisely the “fire” of which Metropolitan Hierotheos writes, and Elder Ephraim has come to spread such zeal to America.
To attain to such spiritual heights is a struggle against one’s fallen will and the fallen world. Without the luxury of a detailed biography it is hard to determine what specific weaknesses Elder Ephraim has overcome on his path to sanctity, but, as aforementioned, he does state that he received penances from his elder, and “in those twelve years that I lived with [Elder Joseph], rarely did I hear him call me by name. To call me or address me, he used all kinds of insults and appropriate adjectives.” Thus he assures the reader that he had to struggle to align his will with God’s. The strictness of his life on Mount Athos could be endured only by unceasingly seeking the grace of God, and his spiritual warfare has surely reaped great reward. His most obvious “weakness” in the American context is his ignorance of the English language. Thousands flock to St. Anthony’s Monastery, but those who do not speak Greek can have but limited conversation with him. As the success of his monasteries attests, this has not prevented him from nourishing Orthodoxy in America, but he could perhaps have an even greater impact if he were able to speak in-depth with more seekers.
Beyond the issue of language, concerns have been raised about Elder Ephraim and his monasteries among some of the faithful, causing many to be wary of his counsels and of anyone associated with him. The internet is filled with accusations that he is anti-Semitic, anti-marriage, anti-parish, a cultish guru (expecting unhealthy obedience from his disciples), and a Gnostic (he teaches the aerial toll-houses). The websites “Pseudo-Prophet” and “Greek Orthodox Monasteries Founded by Elder Ephraim” both contain several pages that lay these and other accusations against him. There is even the Greek Orthodox Christians of Chicago for Truth and Reform, which has as its mission statement:
We Greek Orthodox Christians of the Metropolis of Chicago will no longer accept the conditions that have spread and caused irreparable harm to our Faith. We are of the opinion that our current Hierarchs of the Metropolis of Chicago are complicit in allowing a cancerous cult to permeate the theology of our church. Therefore, we will focus the efforts and attention of our members to expose inappropriate teachings, practices and customs as they concern our Faith.
Its website also features articles entitled “What is an ‘Ephraimite’?” and “Learn to Speak ‘Ephraimitese’.” Most alarming is the link entitled “Report Ephraimite Activity” in which the organization encourages the faithful to provide: “Names of any Greek Orthodox Priest who has presided over or participated in any sacrament at a monastery,” “Dates and Places of fundraising events held for the monasteries,” “Names and ages of monks, nuns or priests located at the monastery and ages when they entered the monasteries,” “Circumstances of spiritual abuse during confession,” and “Facts of excessive punishments attributed during confession,” among other things. Such alarming tactics are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes and serve only to illegitimize any valid concerns the group may have.
There is also concern about the source of funds for his monasteries. Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif states, “If you look at a person like Billy Graham, where his reputation is sterling, there's full, open and public disclosure of his funds and we should expect no less from the Orthodox church ... I would encourage the bishop to be the bishop, stand up for the gospel, at all costs, and, if necessary, if they refuse to follow the gospel, they should do their duty and excommunicate them.” With all these charges laid against him, the typical response would be for Elder Ephraim to speak out in his own defense, or even to malign those who malign him, but even in the midst of such controversy, Elder Ephraim has a lesson for us. In a newscast for Fox News KVOA TV 4 in Tucson which aired on February 9, 2006, reporter Kristi Tedesco asks, “Why can’t Father Ephraim speak on his own behalf?” and Fr. Anthony of the Greek parish in Tucson answers, “Because he is Father Ephraim. He’s not going to play those games, that people, they like to play.”
 While it is possible that there are legitimate concerns about the actions of someone, somewhere affiliated with Elder Ephraim, they are unfortunately overshadowed by the obviously uninformed and biased accusations that abound, and most importantly, by the Elder’s evident sanctity and devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Church.
Elder Ephraim offers an imperative message to the Church in America—the pure, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ as preserved in the Orthodox Church, and especially in the spiritual deserts of Mount Athos. He reveals a life beyond “Vaticanized ecclesiology, academic and intellectualistic theology, Protestantizing sociology and ethicology, spiritually void and deluded meditation, atheistic social activism, etc,” a life of joy that leads to eternal blessedness:
Theosis in the heavens, my child! There the Lord our God will remove every tear from our eyes, and do away with all sorrow and pain and sighing, for there the angelic way of life reigns, and the only work is to chant hymns and spiritual odes! An eternal Sabbath is prepared for us where we shall live in joy with our Father, God, Who is waiting for us to be ready so that He may call us to Him forever! There every saved soul will live in an ocean of love, sweetness, joy, amazement, and wonder!
He offers us a message of hope, but also of urgency as we journey through these latter times. He further teaches us by word and example how to be ready for the call of the Father—through obedience to an experienced spiritual guide, hesychia, and maintaining a pure conscience, as he emphasized to Constantine Cavarnos forty-five years ago. Elder Ephraim is a missionary to the American people, calling us away from our ailing culture and ever further into the saving enclosure of the Orthodox Church. Elder Ephraim has “received fire.” Elder Ephraim is a spiritual fire. By the grace of God may America too catch a fire.