FRIENDS OF MOUNT ATHOS BOOK REVIEWS
Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim. By Elder Ephraim. Florence, Arizona: St Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1999. Price $35.00 (HB), $22.00 (PB).
It is a commonplace to observe that there has been a decline in Orthodox monasticism this century, from about the time of the First World War until very recently. This is true, though only in terms of numbers. Eastern Europe has produced thousands of new martyr monks and nuns, and Greece alone has seen, among many others, St Silouan and the Elders Sophrony, Amfilohios (Patmos), Filotheos (Paros), Porfyrios (Athens), Gavriil, Pa•sios, and Joseph (the Hesychast) on the Holy Mountain. Among the disciples of the latter is Elder Ephraim Mora•tis.
Elder Ephraim was born in 1927 in Volos, Greece, originally with the name John, and the boy spent his childhood in poverty, helping his father at his work, but always following the pious example of his mother. At the age of 14 he began to yearn for monasticism, but it was not until he was 19 that his spiritual father gave him a blessing to go to Mount Athos.
On his arrival there, he went straight to Elder Joseph, who accepted him into his brotherhood, and tonsured him nine months later, in 1948, with the name Ephraim. Out of obedience to his elder, Fr Ephraim was ordained a deacon and subsequently a priest. After Elder JosephÕs repose in 1959, people aspiring to strict monasticism began gathering around Elder Ephraim, who himself was acquiring a reputation as a discerning spiritual guide. As his community grew, they moved to Provata, where there was a larger building, but this also soon proved too small. Then, in 1973, he was asked by the Supervisors of the Holy Mountain to move his brotherhood into the Holy Monastery of Philotheou and become its abbot.
Because of his growing fame as an elder with great spiritual discernment, Philotheou became so full that the Supervisors of the Holy Mountain asked him to send groups of his disciples to repopulate three other monasteries on the Mountain: Xeropotamou, Konstamonitou, and Karakallou. He was also asked to repopulate the Great Lavra, but declined.
In the second volume of his works, Life in the Spirit, Elder Aimilianos, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras, describes the monk as an apostle who must be ready, at any moment, to be told: 'Get up from here and go there. Leave this and do that.' Elder Ephraim clearly fulfils this ideal, for in 1979 he made a brief visit to Canada and the United States, where he realized that it was God's will for him to return. Since then he has made annual trips to the North America and most of his time is spent travelling to Greek Orthodox Churches in various cities across the two countries. His spiritual children now number tens of thousands: lay people, monastics, and priests.
He continued to be the spiritual father of his monasteries on Mount Athos and eight women's monasteries throughout Greece, but since it became impractical to continue as Abbot of Philotheou because of his extended absences in North America, he resigned in 1990 and left a disciple of his to assume the monastery's responsibilities.
Writing in The Times of 6 December 1999, William Rees-Mogg observed to his chagrin that: 'Our modern prophets are entertainers, such as the Spice Girls, sportsmen, scientists--who are worshipped in England--or entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson.' Not all, thank God. Like St John the Baptist, the model for monastics, Elder Ephraim has gone out into the spiritual wilderness, the desert of modern Western society. With the blessing of Archbishops Iakovos and Spyridon and at the urging of the Orthodox faithful in the United States and Canada, the Elder was prompted to begin the work of establishing monastic communities in North America. And, amazingly, in the last nine years, he has founded no fewer than sixteen monasteries in the United States and Canada under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of America and Canada. His work is recognized by the Church, including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who recently visited two of these monasteries. All these monasteries continue to flourish and are growing in size and numbers of monastics, by the grace of God. Even more astonishingly, many of those who are becoming monks and nuns are converts. And what is the message that is so attracting them? Put simply: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'
It is this message that we find in this present volume, translated by St AnthonyÕs Monastery in Arizona from an original which has been very popular in Greece for a number of years. After a beautiful opening chapter on Paradise, the Elder takes us along the traditional Orthodox path, illuminating familiar landmarks with his own perception. This is not a book of personal experiences, but a distillation of the Orthodox hesychastic experience. For the Byzantines, in whom this work has its roots, theology was not an academic discipline or a speculative philosophy. It was a practical 'science'. If, in the chemistry laboratory, you follow the same steps in an experiment as your teacher, you will achieve the same result. Start out along the 'Orthodox Way' with an experienced guide, follow his footsteps, and you will arrive at the same end-point. Of course, a note of caution needs to be sounded here, one which the Elder himself, we may be sure from his chapter on obedience, would want to have made. These counsels were given at various times and places to particular people. Although they are admirably instructive for all Christians, they need to be applied with discernment and discretion under the supervision of oneÕs own spiritual father. We must not go blundering along the path in the dark, without a guide, however good a map we have.
One of the many attractive features of this book is that, although it deals with very sobering and chastening matters, it is not at all depressing. This is because, underlying the 'technical' points on how to deal with the passions, on spiritual warfare, pride, temptations, and so on, the Elder insists on the redemption available to all of us through the incarnation of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, whose name is invoked on almost every page. Many years ago Fr (now Bishop) Kallistos Ware told a young couple newly converted to Orthodoxy, 'Be joyful Christians', and the same message runs throughout Elder EphraimÕs counsels. It is also underlined by the arrangement of the chapters. The book can be read with profit by dipping into it at will, but it would perhaps be better to approach it as a journey, starting at the beginning and gradually progressing. Thus, the first chapters are, in a sense, the darkest, but after a while we begin to emerge into lighter areas (the chapters on prayer and contemplation) until we finally emerge into the brilliance of the final chapters on GodÕs love, the Divine Liturgy, and the Departed.
But the most profound impression is made by the ElderÕs immense faith, best expressed in the very powerful chapter on Faith, Hope, and Patience. It is this 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.
This book is a treasure, to be hoarded and pored over by all those who love the beauty of Orthodox spirituality, and we must be grateful to the Holy Monastery of St Anthony for making it available to us.
W. J. LILLIE