Last year a frequent contributor to our site, Olga Rozhneva, was blessed by the providence of God to visit the well-known Monastery of St. Anthony the Great in the Arizona desert, founded by Elder Ephraim (Moraitis), a disciple of the venerable Elder Joseph the Hesychast. The trip was amazing, as it occurred not without the miraculous help of Elder Ephraim.
Amongst the brethren of the monastery is the Russian Hierodeacon Seraphim, who spoke with us about his path to God, how he found himself in a monastery in the middle of the American desert, and the instructions of Elder Ephraim.
—Fr. Seraphim, the providence of God is at work in the life of every man, but sometimes it is hidden and sometimes it clearly reveals itself in some kind of sign, remarkable encounters, or words. Did you have such signs—a clear manifestation of God’s providence for you in your life?
—You know, the Lord leads every man to Himself when the most opportune moment for him comes. I was born in Moscow. In childhood, like my peers, I was an Octobrist, Pioneer, and Young Communist. I graduated from the Moscow Aviation-Technological Institute with a diploma in mechanical engineering for aircraft engines. I started to get involved in various religious currents, but didn’t arrive at Orthodoxy.
In 1995 a professor of physics from Chicago, David Chesek, came to Moscow. He was a very good Catholic and wonderful family man with eight kids. He died two years ago. We got acquainted, having similar interests in physics, and he invited me to America to study and work. He helped me with my visa.
I was twenty-three and had the opportunity to travel to another country, live and study there, and receive some life experience. The Lord allowed me to do all of it.
Several American universities cooperate with various companies where the companies pay the universities for research. The university in Alabama, where I began to study, collaborated with automotive companies. They looked for students who would do research along with their studies, so they paid for my education and gave me a salary for work in the metal casting department. This was the most ideal option for me. I rented a small house from a family, studied for seven years and received my masters and doctorate. I was offered work at General Motors.
But the Lord already had other plans for me. In America I studied and worked, worked and studied, and was deprived of those human consolations I had in my homeland: interaction with my parents and relatives and friends. People who move to other countries lose these comforts they had at home.
Any Orthodox country is a country of collective communication. You know, you can just drop by a friend’s without calling, and you’ll drink some tea in the kitchen and have a heart-to-heart… But western countries are societies of individualists: “Hello,” “Goodbye.” There’s parties, but the conversation is very superficial. And no matter how well you speak English, you always feel that you’re from another culture.
Being without these human consolations, you begin to look for them in God. My mom, learning of my interest in faith, advised me to get baptized.
When the Lord wants to bring someone to Himself, He creates such circumstances, arranges meetings through which the man can begin to recognize Him. I made some Russian friends, and they turned out to be Baptists. I was always very curious, and here I wanted to immediately know: where is truth? After all, there can’t be several truths. I started to attend the catechumen courses at the Orthodox church and learned about Church history and doctrine. I compared and analyzed, and realized that the truth is in Orthodoxy. I received Holy Baptism.
My life changed dramatically. Prestigious work at General Motors didn’t entice me anymore. I didn’t want to stay with the university department—I had developed an interest in monasticism.
—And why did you choose the Monastery of St. Anthony the Great?
—Once my spiritual father, Archpriest Alexander Fekanin, the rector of the church of St. Symeon the New Theologian in Birmingham, advised me to go to St. Anthony’s Monastery. My first time there I was twenty-six. I met the founder of the monastery, Elder Ephraim—a spiritual child of Venerable Elder Joseph the Hesychast. I said to him in broken Greek: “Father, I want to become a monk,” and he blessed me.
I came here a few more times; I liked it, but I was confused: I wasn’t sure that I was supposed to stay in this monastery. I even wanted to return to Russia and enter seminary.
I had just graduated from my university in Alabama, and after my defense and all my work I felt tired, and my spiritual father blessed me to go on vacation to the west coast. California is a huge, beautiful state: mountains, the Grand Canyon, nature, monasteries… I went to St. Anthony’s and told the fathers that soon, after my vacation, I was going to Russia, and rented a car and drove to California.
I went to the convent of the Lifegiving Spring Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, which Elder Ephraim had also founded, in 1993. There I met one mother, Schemanun Fevronia, who bore obedience in the guest house. We started talking, and I told her: “You know, I’m soon returning to Russia,” to which she replied: “You forget to add a phrase.” “What phrase, mother?” “If it’s God’s will”…
I spent three days there, and somehow Mother Fevronia, and she was a spiritually experienced person, began to talk with me about the monastic life. At the end of the conversation I felt like she wanted to tell me something, but she wasn’t saying it. It’s a sign of a spiritual person, to not enforce his point of view, but to wait until you ask. And if you ask, then he answers. That is, he speaks to those who are ready to listen.
St. John of Shanghai. His relics are in a wooden shrine under glass, and underneath there’s an opening where anyone who wants to can drop a note to the saint.
I went to San Francisco and wrote a letter to St. John of Shanghai, requesting that he pray for me. Then I went to St. Anthony’s and immediately felt sure that it was “my” monastery. That’s how I wound up here.
You see, I prayed for several years, from the time I felt the pull of monastic life, that the Lord would teach me: to go to a monastery or not, and if so, which one. I prayed that the Lord would inform me about it in such a way that no doubts would remain about the correctness of my choice, and I received my answer at the most opportune moment—when I had graduated from college, when I was free to choose my path—that is, precisely when I needed it. There are many monastic testimonies that when they had chosen the monastic path in life, they couldn’t immediately leave for the monastery—some obstacles appeared for them. The Lord revealed it to me when it was most necessary, to secure my path.
It’s worth noting that when I would come to the monastery, being unprepared, I tried to meet with Elder Ephraim every time, but he didn’t want to receive me at all. And when I was finally ready to choose my path, the elder immediately received me. And moreover, he summoned me himself and instructed me.
—Could you tell us about the elder’s instructions?
—I told him I had been baptized as an adult, and he anxiously asked if I had been baptized by full immersion. It was obvious that it’s important to him. When I answered affirmatively he began to smile and joked about me being tall: “And where did they find some a large font?”
He gave me a few pieces of advice for beginning the monastic life. Perhaps they’ll be useful for your readers, because they can be applied to monks or to laypeople. The elder stressed the importance of preserving your conscience everywhere: at work, during our obediences. He advised me to keep that initial zeal with the help of obedience to a spiritual father and unceasing prayer. He said that ascetics have three enemies: the world, the evil one, and our own selves—our passionate nature.
He emphasized that, taking care for our salvation, we mustn’t waste time doing nothing. He gave the example of one nun (I suspect he was talking about his mother, Nun Theophano). When this nun would hear the chiming on the hour, she would say to herself: “Another hour has passed, and I’m another hour closer to death.” Thus she kept the memory of death, helping her to never forget the salvation of her soul.
In September 2002 I arrived at the monastery and became a worker, working in the kitchen. After four months the elder blessed me with the novice’s cassock and gave me an obedience in the bookstore: book orders, receive pilgrims. I speak in English and Greek, so I can also answer phone calls and take care of the mail. In 2012 I received the monastic tonsure and in January 2015 I was ordained a hierodeacon. Perhaps, that’s it… I can tell a few more stories about the providence of God.
—The first is about Schemanun Evpraxia. Our elder, Fr. Ephraim, has tonsured about fifteen people into the schema just before death. Most of them were in the final stages of cancer. Mother Evpraxia joined a Greek monastery when she was eighteen. She took the monastic tonsure. The elder summoned her to America and placed her as the abbess of the Monastery of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos in Florida. Then he moved her to another monastery, in Canada.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer. The elder told her: “Come here. You will die in our monastery.” She arrived a few days before death. The elder tonsured her into the schema with the same name. Two days later she departed to the Lord.
The deceased was brought into the church. We took a picture for remembering. The Psalter was read over her body, according to tradition. When they took more pictures after forty minutes, they were amazed. A smile had appeared on her lips. The elder said: “She had great love for people, and a serious illness. She is very high in Paradise.”
The second is about Schemanun Thekla. Mother Thekla is an American from Texas, from a big family—kids, grandkids. She lived the normal life of a family woman. But before death she was deemed worthy of the schema.
Her house was by the Monastery of the Holy Archangels near San Antonia, TX. She often went to the monastery, helped with obediences, and offered her house to pilgrims when the monastery was full. She was very zealous. Elder Ephraim went to the monastery for its feast day, and, together with other pilgrims, went to see her.
He looked at her and suddenly asked: “Haven’t you thought about monasticism?” He invited her to one of the women’s communities. The elder blessed her with the tonsure into the schema three months before her death with the name Thekla.
The Nativity of Christ was drawing near, and Mother Thekla started to say: “I want to meet Nativity with Christ.” And so it happened. When the sisters changed her clothing after death, they smelled a sweet fragrance throughout the whole room. These are my stories…
—Allow me to thank you, Fr. Seraphim, for the interesting and soul-profiting conversation. What would you wish for the readers of Pravoslavie.ru?
—In Russia, especially amongst the laity, we lost the tradition of the Jesus Prayer. Even some priests look askance at laypeople who carry a prayer rope in their hands. They consider the Jesus Prayer with a prayer rope a monastic tradition, and are afraid of prelest.
Our spiritual father, Elder Ephraim, blesses laity to engage in the Jesus Prayer, to the extent, of course, that their life in the world, work and family allow them. The elder explains that there’s no danger for those praying at the beginning stages of the Jesus Prayer, when a person says it orally, when he has a small prayer rule he does at home or on the road.
Usually our spiritual fathers bless laity new in the faith with a daily rule to do at home in the morning or in the evening. It’s about 50—150 Jesus Prayers with the Sign of the Cross at each knot, and 50—150 prayers to the Mother of God, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” also with the Sign of the Cross on each knot, and 20—50 prostrations with the Jesus Prayer and Sign of the Cross at every prostration. You should fulfill this rule given by the spiritual father, and not change it arbitrarily.
The rest of the day you walk around the streets, ride on the bus, in the subway, and pray to yourself, with a small prayer rope in your hand, or without one. When there’s no one else around, it’s useful to say the prayer out loud, quietly. It helps the mind to concentrate on the words of the prayer and not get lost in dreams. The main condition is a feeling of repentance. Don’t strive for spiritual achievements, but ask for mercy and forgiveness of sins.
Elder Ephraim also strongly recommends (and for us it’s part of the monastic rule) to read the Akathist to the Mother of God every day, that she might shield us from all evil, and also when we have to go somewhere.
We had a novice here in the monastery, a Greek (he’s a monk now). During obediences and at other times he often said the Akathist to the Mother of God aloud, which he knew by heart. One night he was walking around the monastery, praying his favorite Akathist aloud. He went a little beyond the bounds of the monastery, and not noticing it in the dark, stepped on a rattle snake. Usually if a snake touches you, it bites you. But a miracle occurred here: the Mother of God covered the novice and the snake didn’t bite him, but simply slithered away. That’s the benefit of reading the Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos.