Unpublished Anecdotes

About St. Joseph the Hesychast

As explained in Part 1 of these articles, the following stories were not included in Elder Ephraim’s biography of St. Joseph in any language.

Greek submarine Papanikolis. Photo: wikipedia Greek submarine Papanikolis. Photo: wikipedia     

During World War II, an international philanthropic organization sent several tons of canned food to Greece in order to help those who were homeless and starving because of the war. These supplies were not intended for ascetics who had put their trust in God and the Panagia. Nevertheless, it was decided locally that all the monasteries on Mount Athos would also receive some, and thus each brotherhood in Katounakia received a large hamper with 75 pounds of canned foods. When Elder Nikiphoros heard about this, he was delighted and said to his disciple, St. Ephraim of Katounakia: “Go and get a hamper of canned foods for us, too!” But as soon as Elder Ephraim went and lifted it, he perceived that all his strength was drained—not his physical strength but his spiritual vigor. He felt in his soul a depletion of the divine wealth that he had accumulated.

Afterwards he went to St. Joseph and said: “As soon as I picked up that hamper, I felt empty. And now I feel as if I am just a biological mass of flesh and blood with no soul, like a brute beast.”

St. Joseph replied: “My child, do you know that I didn’t go and get a hamper? I had also heard about it, but I didn’t send any of my disciples to get one. I want to be fed by the sweat of my brow, by carving wooden crosses, not by things I didn’t earn. Besides, didn’t you realize that those alms were for people who had lost their homes in the war and were suffering? God took grace away from you because you took those alms without first asking Him in prayer to be enlightened whether or not you should take them. How could you go and take them?”

St. Ephraim of Katounakia St. Ephraim of Katounakia “But I’m under obedience!” objected St. Ephraim of Katounakia.

“I agree,” replied St. Joseph. “I’m not denouncing you. You had no choice. But your elder does not have such precise criteria. Nevertheless, God’s providence has allowed you to suffer this loss of grace, so that tomorrow you could teach your spiritual children that such actions are sinful. For God is always the same; He does not change His laws in different times. Human laws change in time. But the laws of God are steady and everlasting. As it says in the Bible: God is the same yesterday and today and forever (cf. Heb. 13:8).”

Another similar incident happened during World War II. The Greek submarine Papanikolis had torpedoed a Nazi ship full of hospital beds and supplies. The ship was so badly damaged that its crew had abandoned it. Nevertheless, the ship did remain afloat, and the waves brought it just two miles off the Holy Mountain. When the fathers at St. Anne’s Skete saw the red crosses on the ship and realized that it had been abandoned, they were delighted because they knew it would be full of useful supplies. So they announced the good news to everyone in the skete so that they could go with their rowboats and take whatever they wanted.   

Since St. Joseph was living near St. Anne’s Skete at the time, he was also informed of the ship, but he refused to send anyone to take supplies from it. Everyone else in St. Anne’s Skete went and ransacked the ship, filling their rowboats with clean sheets, mattresses, medicines, surgical tools, etc.

Vasily Nesterenko (1967, Russia, Pavlograd). St. Anne's Skete on Mount Athos. Oil on canvas, 1997 Vasily Nesterenko (1967, Russia, Pavlograd). St. Anne's Skete on Mount Athos. Oil on canvas, 1997     

That evening, St. Joseph saw a fearsome vision. He saw an angel of the Lord passing by all the huts of the skete, holding a paper with the following title: “THOSE WHO STOLE HOSPITAL SUPPLIES FROM THE SHIP.” The angel was writing on the paper all the names of the monks who had taken supplies from the ship. When the angel came to the hut of St. Joseph, he asked him with frowning eyes but a subtle smile: “Did you also take supplies from the ship?” St. Joseph exclaimed, “No! No, I didn’t, my dear angel!” Then the angel sweetly smiled at him, knowing all along that St. Joseph had not taken anything. It was clear to St. Joseph that everyone whose name was written would some day be accountable to God for what they had done.

Perhaps one could object that the monks who had taken supplies were not stealing anything from anyone. The point, however, is that monastics are called to higher standards of perfection, and they strive not to take anything they don’t deserve. This does not mean, however, that they cannot receive alms. After all, St. Joseph did accept alms when it did not entail taking something without permission. For during the Nazi occupation of Greece and Mount Athos, the Nazis decided to send boatloads of wheat to Mount Athos in order to help the starving monks. In this case, St. Joseph did accept to receive his much-needed fair share of the wheat.

When Fr. Athanasios Kampanaos was unsure if he should stay with St. Joseph, he asked him: “Is it God’s will for me to stay here with you?”

St. Joseph replied: “Do you want to know the will of God or the will of a man of God?”

Fr. Athanasios, being wise in spiritual matters, answered: “I want to know the will of a man of God.” He understood the spiritual danger of knowing God’s will and failing to execute it. Whereas if he fails to execute the will of a man of God, his spiritual responsibility is not so severe. He was aware that the devil would do everything possible to try to make him not execute God’s will if he knew it.

Then St. Joseph replied: “Since you want to hear the will of a man of God, I am advising you to return to your monastery because you have grown accustomed to a less ascetical lifestyle, and you won’t be able to manage here. Besides, in your monastery you will be able to serve the brethren with your medical knowledge, and that is sufficient for you.”

St. Joseph later confided in St. Ephraim of Katounakia: “In those days when Fr. Athanasios was asking for the will of God, I had such boldness in prayer that I could have asked God, and He would have informed me what His will was on any matter.”

Once when St. Joseph was living at the Small Skete of St. Anne, St. Ephraim of Katounakia noticed that they were using a lot of water to wash something that was not particularly important. So he said to St. Joseph: “Be careful, Geronda; it hasn’t rained for months, and your tank might run out of water.”

When St. Joseph heard this, he was grieved and gave St. Ephraim of Katounakia a look of deep disappointment and replied: “I have never uncovered the tank to see how much water is left. I leave this in the hands of the Honorable Forerunner.” St. Joseph was so disappointed in St. Ephraim because St. Joseph considered his rational approach to demonstrate a lack of faith in the care that the Forerunner had for them. What faith he had!

Part 3
Part 4

Hieromonk Ephraim, St. Nilus Skete, Alaska


Ioan11/21/2019 11:27 pm
As to JJ’s point, one need look no further than the man who called himself in life “archimandrite” Panteleimon (Boston, MA). He billed himself as the last disciple of St. Joseph. He demanded blind obedience from his followers las St. Joseph did, but he was worse than unworthy because he used the so-called obedience of his disciples to indulge in perversity and blasphemy i.e. “What is done to please me, pleases the the Lord.” All of this has been attested by his former victims. Our Lord spoke the words that should protect us from such predations: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” In other words: God first.
JJ11/21/2019 12:58 pm
Submission to the judgment / guidance of an elder is and has been the hallmark of many sectarian movements - the Children of God, many pentecostal sects, the so-called eldership movement originally adhered to by Derek Prince, the Mormons etc etc. The submission to authority has also been the hallmark of movements such as fascism and communism. The RC church, an authoritarian movement, historically demanded complete adherence to it directives and teachings. The psychological damage rendered by all these movements has been immense. It is very dangerous to cede your free will to anyone. Human beings are supposed to preserve the integrity of their selves. Pseudo-spiritual / mystical movements such as yoga, and various existential / pseudo-spiritual based psycho-therapies also break down (read Seraphim Rose on this) the integrity of the soul. In my opinion Orthodoxy preserves freedom / strengthens the integrity of the person - though there may be, as in any movement, those who take away one's freedom; impinge the integrity of the soul. Archmandrite Tikhon Shevkunov's stories in "Everyday Saints" illustrates the freedom the monastics had.
Michael Capsilis11/18/2019 9:00 pm
Dear Ioan: The canned goods were for those who became homeless during the war, while the wheat was specifically for the Holy Mountain. Also, the Holy Mountain fed not only itself, but also pilgrims and others. How do you know they did not give alms to the starving population of Greece? Had the Holy Mountain not accepted the wheat from Hitler it may have gone to feed Axis soldiers and not to the starving people of Greece. As for Elders, my human mind cannot answer your question. Each person should find a good one for himself and listen to him. If the elder is wrong, God will forgive the person and punish the elder (possibly).
Ioan11/15/2019 6:32 pm
The point that I have tried to make is the same one that Archimandrite Ephraim tried to make: “The point, however, is that monastics are called to higher standards of perfection, and they strive not to take anything they don’t deserve.” Especially from starving children.
Ioan11/15/2019 3:58 pm
BTW, the canned goods were aid allowed by the Nazis after negotiations with the international aid agencies. The wheat may have come from the Nazi plundering of which led to 300,000 deaths by starvation or it might have come as a result the international aid agencies (AGAIN, cf. the canned goods) who negotiated with the Nazis for wheat from neutral Turkey to relieve the famine. All in all, the patronage of Der Fuhrer must have made such aid easier to obtain for the Athonites than for the starving lay Greek populace.
Ioan11/15/2019 2:06 pm
Aleksandra et al., you did not answer my question. There are hundreds of gerontas on Mount Athos. What if my geronta told me to support and recognize the Ukraine schismatics and your geronta told you to reject them in defense of integrity of the Whole Church? Which geronta is leading us to climb up the Ladder of Divine Ascent? My critique is not on these anecdotes in general but on the specific ones which touted St. Joseph’s theoria in judging those fathers who took needed supplies from the ship as being thieves and judging St Ephraim for taking food from the Nazis that he had not worked for...yet somehow extolling his own theoria for taking his “fair-share” of the “alms” of grain given by the Nazis. The sad fact remains that the asking and receiving of the protection and patronage of the chief of the Nazis, Hitler, was not a high point (or a step up The Ladder) in the life of the Holy Mountain. Though such an act came with some material benefits such as the case of food that St Ephraim mis-took and the grain that St Joseph sonehow, mysteriously received rightly, it came at a cost (cf. Step 1 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent “On Renunciation of the World”). If Father Ephraim is going to keep sharing these types of anecdotes, he must provide us more context in how they reveal the theoria from God instead of just tossing them out “as is” expecting us to marvel at them. That’s not edifying,
JJ11/15/2019 1:58 pm
This article raises many issues. Particularly why was it wrong to plunder the Nazi hospital ship, wrong to receive the hamper of canned goods offered, but correct to take wheat given by the Nazis while the Greek population were starving. Maybe the plundering of the hospital shop was more about avarice - there was delight in acquiring something for nothing. Acquiring something for nothing is not good for anyone - it weakens the soul (gambling is about getting something for nothing). Stealing is always wrong "Men do not despise a thief, if he steal To satisfy his soul when he is hungry; But if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; He shall give all the substance of his house." (Proverbs) In former times I remember that the poor were ashamed to be forced to receive charity / handouts - nowadays many consider handouts their "human right". The early Christians were instructed to provide for their own needs, to support their own households and to give alms "And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing." As for receiving wheat from the Nazi administration - it shouldn't be forgotten that Paul instructed the early Christians to submit to the government and all authority (and the government of the time was idolatrous, corrupt). Human based ethics (look at the conundrums secular ethics have landed society in) don't always accord with those of our faith. There is another realm: “Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer Than this world dreams of: Wherefore, let thy voice, Rise like a fountain for me night and day.” ― Alfred Tennyson, Idylls of the King
Aleksandra11/15/2019 8:24 am
Dear Ioan, forgive me, but your words are based on human logic, that is very different from God's logic. This is what clearly separates us from saints, since we base our understanding of the world and its' affairs on our (fallen) human logic. That kind of thinking is very much part of today's liberals, and we can clearly see the world they are building, and where it is heading. Very dangerous path to walk is that one; It leads to the darkness of abyss where human can imagine to love and care for other human more than God himself. I am so thankful to father Ephraim and these anecdotes, who are of great help to bring us closer to true path of climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD."
Ioan11/14/2019 11:47 pm
God first. Or as the Holy Scripture say (and we hymn): “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” Is it so hard to not see the connection between the 1941 deal with the Nazis and the current weakened and split state of Agion Oros with so many supporting the Ukraine schismatics? 1941 was not so long ago. Actions have consequences. Before the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the holy monk Gennadius posted a note on the door of his kelli which stated “O unhappy Romans, why have you forsaken the truth? Why do you not trust in God, instead of in the Italians? In losing your faith you will lose your city.” What did Agion Oros lose after putting their trust in the Nazis? Also, there are many who claim to be Elders. A recent academic paper states that there are currently approximately 250-300 Gerontas on Mount Athos. Which one(s) to obey? Which ones deserve tyfli ypakoi (blind obedience)? Does St. Joseph tell us how to discern amongst so many Elders?
J. K. Ahonen11/14/2019 9:43 pm
Thank you so much for sharing these unpublished anecdotes. This is what Orthodox life should be like. Absolute trust in God and your Elder. So uplifting and enlightening to read this. Glory to God!
Ioan11/14/2019 4:34 pm
Not edifying at all. I understand now why this anecdote was not published in the first place.
Ioan11/14/2019 4:32 pm
Definition of “alms”: 1 : something (such as money or food) given freely to relieve the poor, distributing alms to the needy 2 archaic : CHARITY. The Nazis did not give “alms” to Elder Joseph or any of the monks of Mount Athos. They gave the bread that they literally took out of the mouths of starving children. This was not charity but a satanic-charis from their patron and protector, Adolph Hitler.
Ioan11/13/2019 8:19 pm
“....during the Nazi occupation of Greece and Mount Athos, the Nazis decided to send boatloads of wheat to Mount Athos in order to help the starving monks. In this case, St. Joseph did accept to receive his much-needed fair share of the wheat.” Meanwhile an estimated 300,000 people died in the Nazi-caused Great Famine (Greece) in 1941-1944. On April 13, 1941, The Epistasia, the four-member executive committee appointed annually by the Holy Community, asked Hitler to place Mount Athos under his personal protection and care, and he agreed. I shudder in awful fear and incomprehension at the kind of discernment that was required to make the decision to receive aid and protection from Hitler.
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