Glinsk elders. As opposed to other ascetic laborers of that remarkable spiritual school who strove to remain unnoticed and hold in everything to the golden mean, he chose the sorrowful and lofty path of foolishness-for-Christ. Unfortunately, very little is known about Elder Ephraim. Schema-Archimandrite Gabriel (Starodub) of blessed memory saw a manuscript of the elder’s Life, but he was unable later to find it. The following text is a compilation made based on these sources: Archpriest Vasily Serebrennikov, Spiritual Meetings//A Candle to God. Moscow Elder Archpriest Vasily Serebrennikov (Moscow:1999); Sisters (Moscow: Novospassky Monastery, 2001).
It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
1 Cor. 1:21
Fr. Ephraim’s mother died when he was a child. His stepmother was very tough with him, and in his childhood he would often climb into the attic and pray for a long time. After graduating from the agricultural technical school, he became a fool-for-Christ for the next twenty years.
Fr. Ephraim lived in the Crimea, working outside of his profession, and went often to church. Once he had a portentous dream that people were carrying icons out of the church. Soon that church was closed.
Fr. Ephraim labored ascetically for some time in Taganrog. Then he came to Glinsk Hermitage, where he received the monastic tonsure and was ordained a hierodeacon. His obedience was night guard. He studied the holy fathers and progressed spiritually.
In Glinsk Fr. Ephraim became known for his gifts from God. He was clairvoyant and had grace-filled, ceaseless prayer; moreover the righteous man always prayed with tears and compunction. At the same time, the elder never ceased to be a fool-for-Christ.
In order to test the brothers’ inward preparedness for concelebrating the Liturgy, Fr. Ephraim came up with the most unpredictable challenges. If he observed a negative reaction from the fathers he would refuse to serve the Liturgy with them; but to the contrary if he did not see the least perturbation, the Liturgy would be served, and it would be served with such grace and consolation that it seemed to be taking place not on earth but in heaven! The whole church would be filled with grace.
Fr. Vasily Serebrennikov recalled, “Once through the slightly opened door of his cell I chanced to see Fr. Ephraim kneeling in prayer. A spirit-bearing warmth radiated from him, and I felt his union with God. One of the Glinsk monks confirmed the strength of his prayer.
“We were convinced of this also during Fr. Ephraim’s visits to Moscow. My matushka Margarita Vasilieva and her friend were at a Moscow apartment where Fr. Ephraim was staying, and they witnessed his prayer after his talk with them. Fr. Ephraim prayed with the words, “O Lord, give me at least a half of a tear for repentance!” He pronounced these words with such faith and deep contrition that the women were seized with repentance of their sins and wept along with him.
“Fr. Ephraim was not liked in Glinsk Hermitage because of his foolishness, which he showed even during church services. One day Fr. Seraphim (Romantsov) told me, ‘Today Fr. Ephraim really hit me where it hurts.’ When I told this to Fr. Ephraim, he replied, ‘That’s what I needed; I was testing him.’
“Once Olga Seraphimovna Defendova brought Fr. Ephraim some boots. He returned them indifferently with the words, ‘Take them back, I don’t need them.’ She humbly took the boots, after which Fr. Ephraim said, ‘I’ll take them… I was testing you’.”
Archpriest Vasily Serebrennikov, himself a pastor of ascetic life and lofty spiritual gifts, left a unique testimony about Fr. Ephraim—a conversation with the Glinsk fool-for-Christ. Here the mask is removed, and Fr. Ephraim appears as a sensitive scholar of patristic writing and an experienced spiritual father and ascetic laborer. Here are a few fragments from this conversation between two elders.
“Olga Seraphimovna asked Fr. Vasily, ‘Do you want to see Fr. Ephraim?’ Batiushka barely managed to say, ‘I’m afraid!’ when Fr. Ephraim ran through the doorway, as if someone had summoned him. He was very glad that Olga Seraphimovna had come, and he exclaimed, ‘Oh, Olga Seraphimovna!’ Olga Seraphimovna introduced Fr. Ephraim to Fr. Vasily…
“I asked, ‘How can we deflect thoughts—by opposing them and warring with them?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Mainly by prayer to God; people on the second step of spiritual life can deflect them [thoughts] and war with them through the help of grace’ (I don’t know what he meant by the ‘second step’).
“’I can’t endure sorrows, and I’m completely exhausted by them. Can I ask for reprieve from this state of paralysis and fear?’
“’Yes, you should; you mustn’t give in to this fear from the spirit of evil. You have to ask for God’s help to make it easier for you to endure sorrows. Thus when the prophet David, when he fell into pride, neglected the Lord’s word and for this, God allowed him to fall into two serious sins. And although he brought forth great repentance and the Lord forgave him, the Lord also revealed his sins to the whole world and said, To the end of your days, the sword shall not depart from your house.
“’The Lord forgives, forgives you,’ Fr. Ephraim repeated several times, raising his arms and as if covering me with them. ‘But sorrows will not leave you to the end of your days…
“He said that humble prayer is needed, reading of Sts. Ephraim the Syrian, John of Kronstadt, Anthony the Great, Seraphim of Sarov, John Climacus, Barsanuphius and John—about sufferings. The Kingdom of Heaven is acquired by humility.
“’So what is necessary for me?’ I asked. ‘Read St. Ephraim the Syrian, his Psalter. It will teach you to see your sins and to have repentance. Also St. Theophan the Recluse.’
“’Why don’t I like them?’
“’Because you have very much of the spirit of the world in you. St. Ephraim the Syrian is a very great saint. His humility is great… Bishop Theophan is not a theoretician like you think. He experienced everything in practice, just as well as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. And the book, The Ladder, and Questions and Answers by Sts. Barsanuphius and John were written by the Holy Spirit!’
“’There is a big difference between sanctity and passionlessness. A passionless person is in an unshakeable state of virtue, and changes in them occur only in the degree of concentration (more or less activity). The saints, and so much more so we sinners, always incline away from truth to sin (in thought, feeling, word, and deed), and after this immediately happens a distancing from God (the wall between God and man is sin!). In spiritual life, everything is much subtler than in material life; a departure even a by a hair’s breadth will make itself known, and has significance. Thus does life go on: at times departure, at times correction and return.’
“I asked, could anyone become St. Seraphim of Sarov if he fulfills the saint’s ascetic labors?
“’Every person has his own measure,’ answered Fr. Ephraim. ‘Even if someone fulfills all the ascetic labors of St. Seraphim of Sarov, he still won’t have it [the grace of St. Seraphim], because he can’t contain such gifts of the Holy Spirit without harm to himself. They are destructive if they are received before their time and not according to their own measure. The whole secret to salvation is humility, but few understand it. It takes very much work to understand it: understanding that you are a sinner, and desiring only repentance and mercy.’
“’Why does the Lord only give it to the few?’
“’Because then who would do good works in the world? Everyone would be praying, stuffed away into their own corners… Usually what people think is grace-filled prayer of the heart is really just pronouncing the words with attention (with the mind) in the heart, and this is a subtle flattery of the demons.’ Here he showed me how the voice even changes depending on the place where the attention is placed: He placed his finger on his forehead, then to his throat, and then to his heart, and each time there was a particular sound of his voice when saying, ‘Fr. Vasily’. ‘Here your name is also, as if in my heart’, he said. So your praying nun is in subtle state of prelest’.
“I then told him about the conviction of the majority of people that mercy is given by God for good works, but the further I go in life, the more I am convinced that a person is saved not by his works but by his faith.
“’Although a person may have many good works’, Fr. Ephraim replied, ‘then, if at times such a person does receive grace, it afterwards turns away from him—grace is not given for good deeds alone. No, this person doesn’t perish utterly, but he is in prelest. From his good deeds there can be a subtle vainglory. The dark powers act with extreme subtlety’.”
Possibly Fr. Ephraim had a significant influence on another Glinsk fool-for-Christ, Fr. Vitaly (Sidorenko). Fr. Vitaly, who had the obedience in Glinsk along with Fr. Ephraim of night guard, respected him as an elder of lofty spiritual life and told his spiritual children about him.
Six years before the Glinsk monastery was closed, Fr. Ephraim increased his foolishness and left the hermitage. The authorities put him in a mental hospital that was located on the territory of the Vysha Dormition Monastery. Here at one time one of Fr. Ephraim’s favorite theologians, St. Theophan the Recluse, labored in asceticism. Because of the lack of financing and the unsuitable buildings the patients’ living conditions were extremely bad. Most of the patients could not take care of themselves, and aside from being sick they suffered from cold and hunger.
In this hospital, many righteous men who had been sent there by the authorities for their confession of faith were secretly and openly laboring in asceticism. The podvig of these people was extraordinarily difficult. Living among the mentally ill, many of these ascetics took holy foolishness upon themselves and bore it to the end of their lives in obscurity and far from the world. The well-known ascetical Petrina sisters often said, “Before, Vysha was a monastery, and now Vysha is higher than a monastery [vyshe monasterya—higher than a monastery”].
In 1967, Fr. Ephraim was imprisoned in the ward for violent patients, although his behavior had nothing in common with theirs. To the contrary, his meek and humble temperament astonished everyone. The food sent to him by people he knew in Taganrog he distributed to the sick. Once Fr. Ephraim cut a round of cheese sent to him into several parts, one of which was clearly larger than the rest. When one girl who worked on the hospital staff asked who the larger piece was for, Fr. Ephraim gave the surname of one patient: “This is for Sukhanov, he hit me yesterday.”
There were times when the doctors would spend up to a half a day in conversation alone with Fr. Ephraim, amazed at the righteous man’s profound reasoning and clairvoyance. Fr. Ephraim’s words produced such an indelible impression on them that many of the directors were astonished when talking with him. “Would that we had such a mind!” The righteous one spent his entire nights in prayer. Knowing the Holy Gospels by heart, he read them when he was alone, and streams of tears would flow from his eyes.
Just as he did in the monastery, so also in the hospital Fr. Ephraim told many people their future. One day as he was strolling around the hospital grounds, he called over one believer and said that now the Law of God is held in contempt, but the time will come when it will be taught in schools.
The elder reminded many people of God, of their forgotten faith in Him, and many of the patients and medical personnel started wearing their baptismal crosses. Fr. Ephraim was taken away from the Vysha hospital. The reason for this was his beneficial influence on the doctors and patients, as well as the behavior of his spiritual children, who would come to him from various localities. They would stand for hours under the window of the room where he lived, singing and praying regardless of the weather or how much the authorities forbade them. The righteous one was taken during the 1970s to some place near Ryazan, where he finished his life’s path. According to one version, it was to the village of Chuchkovo or Golenischevo. There people close to him visited him, and priests gave him Christ’s Holy Mysteries. They say that before Communion, during confession he always wept profusely.
St Anthony the Great is my patron saint by the way.