- an interview with Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi -
On the 19th of May this year, a meeting occurred between students of Moscow theological schools and Abbot of Athonite monastery Vatopedi, Archimandrite Ephraim. The Vice Dean for Education, Abbot Bassian (Zmejev) received and greeted this respected guest.
This was not the first meeting of this kind, since Abbot Ephraim had already noticed immense interest of Russian people for Athonite spiritual experience.
THE EPOCH OF ORTHODOXY
Today we live in really hard times; man is trying to exist in extremely boisterous atmosphere – in obscure and meaningless atmosphere. Modern Europe has nothing much to do with Christianity, since European people received fake Christianity. The Europeans refuse to believe in God preached by their parents, and their souls find no rest. They are trying to find something deeper. In other words, they are trying to find Orthodoxy. They can learn Orthodoxy from those who properly worship God. The main task of semminaries and theological academies is to witness Orthodoxy that people are searching for. Studying theological schools, we have to express gratitude to our Lord, because He made us worth of finding the school with rich spiritual Tradition; He made us worth of living in Orthodox milieu; He made us worth of having joy in outer freedom, and what is even more important – in inner freedom, i.e. freedom of the heart.
THEOTOKOS – PATRONESS OF MONKS AND ASCETICS
Meeting with Father Ephraim occurred on the feast day of St. Micah, pupil of St. Sergius of Radonezh. It is well-known that St. Micah was witness of St. Sergius’ vision of the Most Holy Theotokos. That vision expresses Her special care for monks. On Mount Athos, numberless and very frequent are events when She teaches, comforts, supports and brings brothers to reason. The Most Holly Theotokos is respected as Patroness of all Athonites and all monks in general. That is why St. Gregory Palamas called Her the first nun after Her Son, who is unceasingly praying for us. It is not by accidence, that She, having recognized the fullness of divine grace, prayed for Mount Athos to become Her Garden. She rejoices to see monks and their spiritual prosperity. The Most Holy Theotokos rejoices to see people labouring for their salvation. Studying of theology calls upon very cautious attitude toward one’s life, so that we can gain Her protection.
A VIEW OF SPIRITUAL LIFE
As for spiritual life, it is of extreme importance to keep chastity and sobriety, so that our mind can constantly be with God. Only in that way we can keep His commandments through which our Lord Jesus Christ is being revealed. When we keep His Commandments, the sin is being cast aside and replaced with our thirst for God. When man yearns for God, he is constantly trying to keep the Commandments and to pray. His mind is enlightened with godpleasing prayer; he is starting to see his own sinfulness. Being in that state, mind does not fall into despair and does not lose its courage, but starts to repent and eradicate sin. Repentance brings grief, which is not melancholy, but rejoiceful sorrow. Man than starts to cry. Those tears are gift of Holy Spirit. When one has such tears, he avoids committing sins by deed, and then by words or thought. Through contemplation, his mind turns to God. Not only does he see his own sinful life, but he clearly sees the influence of Divine Providence. That is the state when man turns from the beginning degree of faith to the degree of visible faith. Everyone who follows that path will feel the fulfillment of Christ’s promises.
The Orthodox Church is not a Church of some ideology, thinking or philosophy. It is the Church of spiritual experience. When a man dedicates himself to God, he yearns only for His Kingdom and His justice, and other will be added.
QUESTIONS OF STUDENTS AND FATHER EPHRAIM’S ANSWERS
About elder Joseph of Vatopedi – pupil of elder Joseph the Hesychast
Elder Joseph of Vatopedi is man of God. His mind is so fortified in God that he does not speak about anything which is of this world. Having enormous love towards God, he longs to die.
What is the difference between monk – abbot and student – professor relationship in seminaries and theological schools?
In theological schools there can not be so much obedience, as in monasticism. The dean of a school is not elder (spiritual father). But students have to respect him and to fulfill his commandments. Unlike monks, student can not have obedience according to his heart. Furthermore, obedience to one’s authority must not be hypocritical; one must not reproach authority in his heart.
On Russian spiritual chant
Contemporary Russian chant is not ancient. Old unison Russian chant is more prayerful. Byzantine chant is more pleasant and spiritual. But, chant is of secondary importance; the most important is – a clean heart.
On the Jesus Prayer loudly uttered
Such practice is being kept on the Mount Athos and in the monastery Vatopedi as well. Elder Joseph the Hesychast used to say that in that way mind can easier accept its meaning. It helps monk to keep his attention. Uttering of this prayer reduces or completely removes inquietude: “lips simply move your mind”. Then comes the moment when man can not say the prayer with his lips, since it transforms in more perfect form – prayer of the heart.
On conflicts between Greek and Russian monks on Mount Athos
Because of man’s infirmity, some conflicts really did occur. There are some silly Greeks, and silly Russians. As Father Ephraim said, that kind of people collide, but there is love among Russian, Serbian, Greek people and all inhabitants of Mount Athos. There is real life in Christ also.
What Athonite monks say about Last Times?
Well, nowadays it is modern to speak about antichrist. Demon attacks from the left and from the right: he advises man either not to take care of the end of the history, or he tries to convince him that the end of time comes tomorrow. People apt to think about Last Times are afraid of everything, and that can bring only spiritual harm. Great number of such advices is not godpleasing. A true Christian has to take care about the moment of his death – our death is our Last day. Be devoted to our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Church that keeps the Tradition, will inform us about the antichrist, and She is the One that will tell us what to do.
What are characteristics of a modern priest?
Well, his love towards Christ must be endless. Elder Paisios used to say: “If a priest is truly pious and not avaricious, he has eighty percent chance to be successful; but if he loves God, than his chances are one hundred percent guaranteed.”
How can one actuate children to love Christ?
That can be achieved by condescension, patience and prayer. Elder Porphyrios used to say: “Let us not speak much about God to our children. They can not stand many words. The point is to tell God about our children.” Our youth will have much use from modern monasticism. Regardless of whether one will become monk or not, in a true monastery atmosphere, young people turn to God for a pretty short period of time. They simply think about many things.
On the spiritual life in the world
Neither marriage nor monasticism is our purpose; theosis is our purpose. There is no so called monastic or worldless spirituality. Patristic teaching is one and refers to all. The only difference between the two is physical relationship that exists in marriage. Everything else is the same. Everyone must face (ascetic) struggle. Everyone knows for prayer, services, liturgy, confession and Holy Communion. Asceticism is common for the whole Church. There are families that pray together. They read the Lives of the Saints in their dinning rooms, children seek blessing from their parents, and they kiss their hands. In a word, such families live like monks.
On the novitiate on the Mount Athos
Divine Providence calls someone to become a monk. For that reason novices are being separated, so they can overcome their trails. If monasticism is their way, they stay. Sometimes enthusiasm and outer feelings can induce man to become a novice, but those can not endure the monastic way of life. Spiritual elder is the one who helps that inward and spiritual progress in a person.
On the Holy Communion and prayers before the Holy Communion
There are some monks that confess every day. Monks receive the Communion four times a week – on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On other days, there is a strict fast – food is prepared without oil; and on Saturdays food is prepared with oil. In our monastery, sometimes even ten liturgies are served every day and every monk knows when he can receive the Holy Communion. In Greece, the Holy Communion has nothing to do with the Holy Confession. If a man did not commit death sins that can not be absolved, then he can receive the Holy Communion. The Holy Communion comes from love of the heart; it is straining of one’s heart. A prayer before the Holy Communion is a CANON before the Holy Communion. Indeed, canons do exist, but their fulfillment must not be taken as a law. As for the preparation before the Holy Communion, there must be no constraint. The same can be said for the fast. A man is obliged to fast according to the fasting period prescribed by the Church; there is no special fasting rule for the receiving the Holy Communion.
On miracles nowadays on Mount Athos
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. Some time ago a miracle has occurred in a Bulgarian monastery Zograf. Namely, an icon was miraculously taken by St. Martyr George to one of the monastery churches. But the greatest miracle is – the Church with Her Holy Mysteries.
On Russian saints who are venerated on Mount Athos
Well, there are many of them that are venerated on Mount Athos: St. Paisios Velichovsky, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Silouan the Athonite, St. Maximus the Greek (who lived in Vatopedi), St. Luke of Simferopol, Righteous John of Kronstadt. On Mount Athos there are numerous relics and icons of Russian saints.
On iconography – monastic or laic work
Generally speaking, iconography is monastic occupation; according to condescension, laics can also be iconographers. An iconographer must fast, must pray and keep vigil. Of course, iconography is not forbidden for pious lay people. There are many lay persons who work in Vatopedi; for example, they do the wood carving. All in all, there is one thing that is important; and that is – to have the fear of God.
About Archimandrite Sophronius Saharov
Father Sophronius is absolutely a man of God. Some Athonite monks like to call him ”new Gregory Palamas”. As for Father Sophronius, my personal experience witnesses that he was a blessed man, full of divine grace.
On St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
In monastery Vatopedi, the works of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov are read. St. Ignatius is a man of prayer, soberness; in a word, he is a ”complete Athonite monk”. We can say that, because Mount Athos is not a place; that is a way of life. Therefore, everyone can be called “Athonite monk”.
Translation into English:
Monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos Three Handed