The following is the first lecture of a seven-part lecture series entitled “Contemporary Orthodox Elders,” offered by Patristic Nectar Publications. This series by Fr. Josiah Trenham seeks to unfold the nature of spiritual direction and eldership in the Church, and examines the lives of influential elders who have served Christ and who are either still living or who have reposed in the Lord in the last fifty years. Each of the seven presentations surveys the life and teaching of one particular elder. The elders include Fr. Epiphanios of Athens, St. Porphyrios of Attica, Fr. Sophrony of Essex, Fr. Cleopa of Sihastria, Fr. Aimilianos of Simonopetra, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos, and Fr. Ephraim of Arizona. These great elders from Romania, Greece, England and America, are majestic love gifts from the reigning Christ to His flock on earth and their radiant witness serves as a clear guide for all who wish to enter into the Kingdom of God.
The audio for this lecture, and the entire series can be found at Patristic Nectar Publications.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is our first installment in the new series “Contemporary Orthodox Elders.” I think you’ll find it absolutely fascinating, and I want to make a few preliminary comments before we jump into our first example of glorious recent elders, Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos of Athens. The reason that I’ve chosen to do this series, which is dedicated to surveying the lives of seven elders, is that these elders have lived and reposed in the last fifty years. The reason they’re so important is that they answer the question we have as we struggle in our fallen world, which is, “Is it really possible to be faithful to God now? Things are so bad and the temptations are so great and the world is so pressing. I know it was done in the past—we have so many saints in the past who lived and found their way to the Kingdom of God in this wilderness, but they didn’t live with what we’re living with.” This is the thought. The reason the contemporary elders and saints are so important is that they provide a definitive “Yes.” They tell us that the resources that God has provided for His people—the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Mysteries of the Church, the power of Christian fellowship—are sufficient to enable us, as they have enabled our brothers and sisters in generations before us, to live a life that is holy and come into the Kingdom of God. This is the great value of the contemporary saints.
Transformation is possible for us and Pentecost is relevant now, right here. I have maybe fifteen contemporary men and women who mean a lot to me and upon whom I rely for hope and an example, but I have chosen seven. These real personas are affecting me still and I’m always learning. When I came home a few weeks ago from the country of Georgia I had a strange postcard in my bag. I was in the big cathedral, and a woman came up to me, and without saying a word she seemed to realize I was a foreigner, and gave me this postcard of some monk and walked away. I looked at him and he was so beautiful. I had no idea who it was, but I brought it home and now it’s on my keyboard, looking at me for the past month. This week I found out who it was. I sent the picture to some Georgian friends and found out he’s an incredible recent elder who suffered terribly under the communists and who was a Fool-for-Christ and recently glorified as a saint. His name is Elder Gabriel. That’s just one example of how the contemporary saints are not a static reality. New saints are constantly being made all the time. Just this past year Elder Paisios was glorified as a saint, and more are coming, which is incredible. We discover them and share them with each other and people from other countries visit and tell us about them. I’m always learning new things.
He was a celibate priest, living his whole life in the world. He didn’t retreat to Mt. Athos which he loved dearly, but lived in the city of Athens and became a professor of life for believers and teacher of dogmas for us. He was born on December 27, 1930 in Vornazion in the southern Peloponnese in Greece. He was named Etioklis and he was the oldest of six kids. His parents John and Georgia were pious, and he had an aunt who was crippled a little bit in her feet named Alexandra to whom he was absolutely dedicated, and vice versa. She was a great God-lover, and many times he said that whatever he was in life he owed to God and Aunt Alexandra. He absolutely praised and loved his aunt, and also his grandmother. He said the two of them taught him to love Paradise. When he was young and squirmy Aunt Alexandra used to put him on a stool in the kitchen and told him that if he learned to sit still then Jesus would give him Paradise. Sometimes he would grow restless and start to squirm and he would ask her, “Do you think I’ve lost Paradise?” and she would say “If you move a little more you will.” Through those little interactions she taught him to evaluate everything he did in relationship to Paradise. She expected a lot from him. This is important for us to hear, in a time when we expect almost nothing from children and we’re taught to spoil them.
He wanted to be a priest from the age of two and became very faithful to the fasts and services of the Church by the age of five. Sometimes his aunt would suggest that he have a little milk, because he was so young to be fasting so strictly, and he was so incensed for even suggesting drinking milk on a Sunday morning before Liturgy, when he was five! He used to give her little sermons about she needed to trust God and that it’s very important to listen to the Church because it’s the voice of Christ in the world. When he was six or seven he would beat the priests to the church and would be waiting for them by the locked church in the shadows. Many times he even scared his priest, making him think he was some burglar standing in the darkness by the locked doors. From childhood he read Small Compline every night and he later encouraged his spiritual children to read Compline. Sometimes he even read it by the light of the moon during the Nazi Occupation, when many Greeks were without electricity. He also had to become very wise in order to offset his aunt’s condescension to him. In humility she didn’t want to push him too hard. When she would get up early to go to some church or chapel for a feast day, she would leave him sleeping and sometimes he would wake up, and she’d be gone, and for him that was horrible. From the time he couldn’t stand it anymore, he would steal her shoes before he went to bed and hide them in bed with him so that she had to wake him up and not leave without him.
When he was in elementary school he served as the altar boy in the school chapel and would take home prosphora from the liturgies and took a little bit every day to stay connected with the previous Liturgy and to prepare for the next Liturgy. He lived Liturgy to Liturgy. He used to reenact the entire Liturgy once or twice a week with his family in the living room. That’s a very common type—St. Athanasius the Great reenacted the Baptism service over his friend as a young boy. The patriarch of Alexandria saw it and said it was perfect and accepted it. This is how Elder Epiphanios lived. For him, even as a small child, the Liturgy was his greatest happiness.
He was very manly in his courage. His aunt recalls that when he was young, after he made a mistake he would immediately take credit for it. He wanted everyone to know it was his mistake because he couldn’t bear the thought that someone else would be blamed for his mistake.
He went to school in Kalamata. He was very academic, although he hated math. He was especially dedicated to reading Holy Scripture. He developed the practice for the rest of his life of reading the Old and New Testaments in the ancient languages three times each year. He wanted to regularly hear the voice of his beloved, which is the why people are so serious about reading the Scriptures every day. This is a common theme for holy people—think of St. Seraphim who read the New Testament every week. Once his aunt caught him reading some very secular material and was very offended. She didn’t understand why this pious young man would read such things, and he chastised her saying, “I am going to become a worker of the Gospel and I have to read all the things the other people have read. I have to know these things and be able to converse with them and be able to answer them.”
He used to say the university does not make the scholar, but rather the chair makes the scholar, referring to enduring the discomfort on your gluteus maximus and back and eyes from sitting in your chair, reading and studying. The willingness to endure is what produces scholarship and knowledge, which he applied to his spiritual life as well. In high school he stopped eating meat for the rest of his life. He honored the Lord’s Day very seriously and never studied on Sundays. He visited monasteries a lot as young man. He called the monks and nuns the “aristocracy of the Church,” meaning they had the wealth of prayer and the wealth of piety—real treasures, and he wanted to be with them.
He loved the poor and he would often turn his friends’ views of the poor upside down. His dad owned several fields and thieves were often caught stealing the harvest. As a young man he became responsible for the fields, and once a thief was caught. When Fr. Epiphanios heard the thief’s story, not only did he not punish the thief, but he told those holding him that this man had endured far more than his family, and decided that from then on they would set aside a portion of their fields for the thief every harvest, to take care of himself and his family. He didn’t want the man to have to look for other fields to steal from. He now had his own land to work, harvest, and sell.
In 1949 he moved to Athens at about twenty-two years of age and enrolled in the spiritual school and studied both sacred and secular literature very broadly, on the model of the Cappadocian Fathers. St. Gregory and St. Basil had studied the great secular works of the Greek Empire as well as the Holy Fathers and Scriptures in Athens. He often visited the monastery of Logovardo on the island of Paros, the home of the very famous Elder Philotheos Zervakos, who served as his spiritual father until his own death in 1980. He said if he wasn’t a priest he would have studied either medicine or law, because medicine is the most philanthropic of the sciences, and law enables one to champion the cause of the good and the just and to protect the innocent.
He was a great zealot for the canons, including the local canons and those of the holy fathers which were ratified by Ecumenical Councils. Many contemporary Churchmen accused him of having a pharisaical attachment to the canons, but he said that to reject the canons and not listen to them was to reject the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Someone said to him: “Father, with your attachment to the sacred canons you will end up a legalist,” and he answered “No, my child. In an age, though, when many invent various excuses to throw these fruits of the Holy Spirit in the wastebasket, I insist on standing with absolute respect before these canons and the God-bearing fathers who instituted their beckonings.” He was not even close to being a Pharisee; he was just faithful—faithful to stand before the fathers and give them their due. We are in great need of that same spirit now.
As a deacon he spent five years peacefully studying, reading and writing for five years without being bothered. What a nice life! He looked back on that period as a treasure. In 1961he was ordained a priest by Metropolitan Ambrose of Eleutheropolis, who deeply loved him. Fr. Epiphanios loved the priesthood. He used to marvel at archimandrites who were dissatisfied with being simply priests and wanted to become bishops. He had absolutely no idea what their problem was, and he mentioned it often—it’s like someone with the richest fare and they’re just not satisfied. He loved being a priest and serving the Holy Mysteries. He even loved not having to be a bishop and he refused the request of the Church to become a bishop more times than anyone can count. He was offered many offices but rejected them because he loved just serving, praying, hearing confessions, and writing and reading. He loved his cassock. Aunt Alexandra said if she hadn’t been there at the birth and known otherwise she would have been sworn that the man was born wearing a cassock. Once someone asked him what he would do if the Church of Greece banned cassocks. He said “I would live in seclusion.”
He served his entire ministry in a little chapel in downtown Athens dedicated to the Three Holy Hierarchs, and refused to receive a single penny in payment. He made a deal with God that he would keep his pockets empty through charity if He would keep his pockets full. He ended up building churches and a beautiful monastery, helping students go through university, and taking care of the poor. He was a machine of almsgiving because he stayed true to his promise to God. He edited publications for the austere publishing house of the Papademetriou Brothers which brought him income for food, but he remained unpaid and uninsured his entire life.
He had a very serious personal Typicon. He woke up and prayed and served the services from 4-9, studied from 9-12, and then opened his confessional from 12-5 or 6, nonstop every day. After Vespers he went to the hospitals and visited the sick, and then he went to bed. That was the basic cycle of his life: prayer, study, confession, services, hospital, sleep.
In addition to refusing to become bishop, he sacrificed a full professorship, the offer to become the chief secretary of the Synod of Bishops of the Church of Greece, to be the rector in a magnificent large church, and to be the director of a missionary brotherhood. He just wanted to live peacefully with his stole that he could put on people’s heads and reconcile them with God through Confession. Confession was his greatest happiness. It was his own personal crucifixion with Christ to accept this many sins and he wrote, “There is no greater satisfaction for me than to remain for many hours on the seat of the confessional and to reconcile man with God.” Once he said to a spiritual child who had behavioral problems, causing himself and others great grief, “Now I can explain why you are acting like this. I have not placed you particularly in my prayers, but from today, this evening, I will do it.” He saw the person’s behavior and blamed himself—because he had been given to him by God as a spiritual child but he hadn’t particularly prayed for him. So he decided to start that night.
He had terrible insomnia, and three times in his life it was so bad that he begged God to deliver him from it. Each time, when he couldn’t bear to go on, he let the New Testament fall open, and each time it fell open to 2 Cor. 12 where the Lord said to St. Paul that He had given him a thorn in the flesh so that he might not boast of the revelations he was able to see, that he could become strong in his weakness. After the third time he never complained or asked God again, recognizing that it was from God, that he could depend on God in weakness.
In 1976, he founded a monastery of the Mother of God, "Full of Grace," in Trizina, in the Peloponnese near his birthplace. From then on he split his time between his Three Holy Hierarchs chapel and the monastery, where he provided spiritual direction. He was absolutely devoted to the Holy Mountain and the monastic way though he himself chose to serve God in the city. Once a nun came to him asking very complex spiritual advice about the Jesus Prayer, and with the humility which distinguished him he told her, “I am a man who lives in the world. I am on the one hand a celibate clergyman, but in the end, I live in the world. I will tell you a few technical simple things, but you would do well to seek the counsel of an agiorite father.” He told her of a particular monk who especially practiced and taught hesychasm. The sister answered him, “But elder, he is the one who sent me to you.”
In December of 1982 he developed cancer of the stomach and had surgery. He was barely fifty. Three quarters of his stomach were removed and in 1988 he had a second operation and he reposed on November 10, 1989 at fifty-eight. Before he died he wrote out the instructions for his funeral—where to be buried, what to write on his tombstone, etc. He lay in state at his Three Holy Hierarchs chapel, then was moved to a very beautiful church that he loved near the chapel, then to his monastery in the Peloponnese, which is where he was buried. On his tomb, which is white marble, he had 1 Tim. 1:15 written: This is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief. That’s his life—an absolutely beautiful man.
In the remaining few minutes I want to share a number of his teachings which I think you’ll find inspiring. He used to say that love, which is the primary characteristic proving an authentic Christian faith, is self-multiplying, just like a candle lights another candle without diminishing. There’s no diminishing when you share love. He was also very tough. In the city a lot of people wanted to find ways to justify themselves. A woman brought her young pregnant but unmarried daughter to Fr. Epiphanios, thinking she could convince him to bless am abortion. He listened to the woman explaining about how they have no money and the father isn’t around and this would ruin her life and the obvious course was to have an abortion, and so on. He looked at the woman, took off his stole and hung it on the wall, and leaned over to her and said “Can you do me a favor,and look at my forehead? Do you see the word ‘IDIOT’ written on my forehead?” She said no and he said, “Get out of my chapel before I scorch you with the holy canons for the rest of your life.” How appropriate. He had the love of Christ and also the courage and prophetic nature of Christ, to do such a thing. What a man.
He loved kids and often gave parenting advice, saying that they needed to talk to God more about their kids than to their kids about God, which St Porphyrios used to say too. He said that when someone is free he has rights and responsibilities, but when he gets married he has few rights and very many responsibilities. Then when he has children he has no rights and only responsibilities. How true. He also said that married Christians need to go to church early on Sunday mornings, because we pray Orthros for the faithful, not for the chairs. One time a woman came to him, and in her Confession she talked all about her daughter-in-law’s sin, who she was very upset with. It kept going and going, so he took off his stole, without reading the prayer of forgiveness. She asked him whether he was going to read it, and he said, “Absolutely, just send me your daughter-in-law and I’ll read it right away.”
He was once asked about how to find a holy spiritual father. This is a very relevant teaching today because many Orthodox in America somehow think that you can’t be saved without a God-bearing elder. A theologian told the elder that he was having difficulty finding a suitable spiritual elder, and he said, “My beloved, you don’t have a problem with an elder, you have a problem with yourself. If you had a problem with an elder you would go out on the street, turn right, walk a hundred meters, turn left, walk another fifty meters, and stop and wait there until the first spiritual father walked by. You would do undiscerning obedience and have neither a problem with an elder nor with your own salvation. It is not holy fathers that we are in need of, as much as holy obedience. Did all the great saints of the Church have a particular holy elder? No. What they did have was holy humility and holy obedience and for this reason also they became holy.” It’s a beautiful word to us about what we really need.
Once a woman who had confessed to Elder Epiphanios for the very first time told him she would have preferred to have confessed to a spiritual father who was elderly and blind. So he said to her, “And he if were deaf it would be even better!”
Once someone asked him if he felt inferior when people younger and with less qualifications became bishops and he said, “Oh, child, why should I feel like that? What am I lacking? The crown on my head? I was never jealous of these things, nor do they suit me. I’m not lacking anything. I’m a priest and I perform the Sacraments. I bless the bread and wine and they become the Body and Blood of Christ. I read the prayer of forgiveness over the believer and his sins are wiped out. I join a couple in common life. I do everything. They only thing I don’t do is ordain. However that is an advantage, not a disadvantage. If you only knew what a responsibility the bishops have, that they will give an account before Christ for the ordinations they perform.”
He was once asked if he ever saw a vision, and he said, “Oh, my child, no, nor do I ever wish to see one. The only thing I want to see are my sins.” He was also asked if he’d seen miracles. “Miracles? Nothing but. The greatest miracle which I have seen is that God came down to earth to save me, the most sinful of people.”
He was many times seen burdened by his labor of love, pastoring, and someone said to him, “Elder I see that today you are distressed,” and he answered to him, “And what day am I not? The problems of the Church and of my spiritual children are my won. My heart only has entrances. It has no exists. My worst hell is to realize that i have saddened a beloved person.” Wow! Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos. What a man, what a gift from God in His great love to us! God bless you for listening and being saturated with this wonderful man.
Question: Is there a reason he chose to remain celibate? Was he actually a monk?
He was a monk-priest, and he said he never thought of anything else since he was little. But you see what an authentic monk he is. You can’t be an authentic monk unless you love marriage. He loved marriage and he loved family life so much, and that proved that his monasticism was not a deprecation of marriage, but a deep appreciation and a love offering of his whole energy to God, and that’s what makes a true monk. The fathers of the Church say that if you’re a monk because you think something’s wrong with marriage, you are no monk; you’re a heretic. If marriage is not holy and blessed, then what you’re doing is not an offering to God, but it’s a must, because there’s no other way to live. But it’s not. Marriage is blessed by God, which means that giving up the great happiness of marriage so that you can completely dedicate yourself to God’s service, which is what he did, as a true monk, is the harder path.