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August 2, 2021

The Theological Concerns of Father Ephraim, Abbot of Vatopaidi Monastery

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Vatopaidi on the Holy Mountain, Archimandrite Fr. Ephraim, recently emerged from a major ordeal with the coronavirus, having escaped the jaws of death and is now in the process of recovery.

We glorify God for this development, because with prayer and medical science he will be kept alive to continue his work and his ministry in the Church.

We did not have a special communication with Fr. Ephraim of Vatopaidi from the beginning, but finally we met through Orthodox theology and specifically the theology of the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers.

This shows how there can be differences between mentalities, characters, events, yet communication and communion can exist through authentic Orthodox theology.

The rapprochement between us began with him and seems to have brought us in contact through the theology of our Church, as expressed through the written and oral teachings of Saint Sophrony the Athonite and Fr. John Romanides.

Fr. John Romanides himself loved the texts very much of the writings of Saint Silouan, the book "The Way of a Pilgrim", and of course the letters of Saint Joseph the Hesychast.

In fact, Fr. John Romanides himself taught that all the saints have a common experience, combined with uncreated utterances, but they may differ in the formulation of this experience, with the created utterances, meanings and images. What is important is the common empirical knowledge of God. And when the deified saints meet, then they are identified in the created utterances, that is, in terminology.

This is what Archimandrite Ephraim of Vatopaidi saw and was interested in the articles and books I wrote. As soon as he received a book, he "spent the night", as he told me, reading it, despite the burden of his work. Because he kept the book in his cell for a long time, his monks asked me to send more books so that they could study them as well. Thus, while upon every publication of a book I would send one copy to each monastery of Mount Athos, at Vatopaidi Monastery I sent 2-3 books, so that the monks could have the opportunity to study them.

The important thing is that Archimandrite Fr. Ephraim sometimes called me at the most inopportune times according to my schedule, that is, after 12 o'clock at night, in the middle of their own sacred services, vigils, etc., to express some of his opinions and enthusiasm about a book he was reading. I remember one such occasion, the celebration of Christmas with their own calendar, when he called me at about 1 o'clock at night, after midnight, to express his joy for a Christological text he had just read.

This love of Orthodox theology, however, did not remain on a theoretical level, but proceeded to a practical one. He wanted with all his heart for the Orthodox theology of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, as expressed in the Ecumenical Synods, to be passed on to the people, even to the Theological Schools. In this perspective, he made me various proposals from time to time.

First of all, he proposed to me to finance the newspaper of our Holy Metropolis "Ekklesiastiki Paremvasis" in its entirety, because he considered it very important for the promotion of Orthodox theology, as it is expressed from a pastoral perspective. I did not show much interest in his proposal and so from time to time he only sent his assistance.

Then, he urged me to create an Orthodox Theological Academy in Nafpaktos, in which there would be a place to study Orthodox theology, which would be covered entirely at the expense of the Vatopaidi Monastery. In this Theological Academy I would have the supervision and do the teaching, inviting by my absolute preference Theologians, Clergy and laity to speak, who express the theology of the Holy Fathers, as it is recorded by Fr. John Romanides.

I studied the proposal which I considered really interesting and hopeful, but I realized that this great work could not be done in my small Metropolis, and for that I finally was reserved for its implementation, even though I saw it was needed. Instead of this work, theological conferences were organized at the beginning of October each year. So far, six theological conferences have been organized.

In our time there is a deviation from Patristic theology, because there are influences from other anti-patristic movements, which alter the lex credendi and the lex orandi of the Orthodox Church. In fact, he considers that the theology expressed by Fr. John Romanides is "the whole" of the Patristic Tradition. That is to say, various theologians today express a part of the Orthodox Tradition and sometimes even this is altered, while Fr. John Romanides expressed the "whole" of Orthodox theology with the historical context in which it was formulated.

Characteristic is a passage from the "Hagiorite Tome" written by Saint Gregory Palamas, in which this "whole" of Orthodox theology is expressed, following Saint Maximus the Confessor: "Every virtue and imitation of God on our part indeed prepares those who practice them for divine union, but the mysterious union itself is effected by grace. It is through grace that the entire Divinity comes to dwell in fullness in those deemed worthy, and all the saints in their entire being dwell in God, receiving God in His wholeness, and gaining no other reward for their ascent to Him than God Himself. He is conjoined to them as a soul is to its body, to its own limbs; judging it right to dwell in believers by the authentic adoption, according to the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit." 

Fr. Ephraim, because he saw my reluctance to accept this proposal for the establishment and operation of a Theological Academy in Nafpaktos, with full financial coverage from the Sacred Monastery of Vatopaidi, proceeded to materialize another plan, which shows his theological concerns.

In 2015 he invited me to visit the Monastery of Vatopaidi for a week, to talk and discuss with his monks theological and spiritual issues. I was surprised by his proposal, which usually does not take place in other Sacred Monasteries. That is, it is very difficult for a leader, and in fact of the Holy Mountain, to invite a Metropolitan to speak to his monks and to discuss with them theological and monastic issues. This proposal created a great surprise for me, but I finally accepted it after the perseverance of Fr. Ephraim.

He sent me the issues that needed to be worked out and I started off in September 2015 for the Monastery of Vatopaidi. I then stayed for a week in the Sacred Monastery. This was repeated in the following years, until 2019 when it stopped with the invasion of the new pandemic.

During these days that I was in the Monastery, there were two Meetings a day with all the monks, two hours in the morning 10-12, and two hours in the evening 8-10. In each Synaxis I developed one by one the subject that had been given to me and then for one more hour discussions took place with the monks of the Sacred Monastery.

The topics that were developed for these meetings were the following:

1. The Anthropological Background of Noetic Prayer

2. Rational and Noetic Prayer

3. The Divine Scriptures and Noetic Prayer

4. Free Discussion on Monastic and Theological Matters

5. The Stages of Perfection: Purification, Illumination and Theosis, and the Coming, Removal and the New Coming of the Grace of God

6. The Teaching of Elder Sophrony About the Person 

7. Discussion on the Priesthood and the Hesychast Tradition 

8. Fr. John Romanides, the Theologian and Prophet of the Nation, and My Acquaintance 

9. Priesthood and Legacy

10. The Hesychast Gregory of Sinai 

11. The Darkening of the Nous in Monastic and Secular Life 

12. Saint Eudokimos and the Angelic Life 

13. Discussion on the Issue of Monastic Life 

14. Theology, Church and History 

15. Activism and Hesychasm in Society and Orthodox Monasticism

16. The Panagia as a Model of Monastic Life 

17. Is the Sense of Divine Grace an Indication of Advancement in the Spiritual Life? 

18. Are Passions Deadened, Uprooted, Hidden or Transformed? 

19. The Monk as a Prophet and Theologian

20. The Identity of Experiences and Theology Between Prophets, Apostles and Fathers

21. The Divine Liturgy as a Precondition for the Deification of Man

At the same time, in the Refectory, morning and night, he urged me to comment theologically on the readings of that day, which were texts of various Fathers, without knowing them in advance.

I remember with special emotion these Theological Meetings, in the presence of the Abbot of the Sacred Monastery, Archimandrite Fr. Ephraim. He made an introduction, then developed the topics orally, and there followed an interesting discussion with questions posed by the monks and hieromonks of the Sacred Monastery. Other questions referred to the subject that had been developed and some had other content.

I observed with great interest the theological interests of Fr. Ephraim, his love for the Orthodox theology of the Church, the abundance of his character, his freedom with which he guided his monks, and his desire to educate his monks on theological criteria. He sat next to me, listened to the lectures carefully as a student, and left his monks completely free to ask various questions that concerned them, and intervened discreetly when needed.

I also saw the interest of the monks of the Sacred Monastery in the theology that supports the monastic life and state, I admired the questions they asked freely, but also the fertilization that took place in their souls, after the end. I remember that a young monk said to me: "All the days you are in our Monastery I stay awake all night", due to what he heard.

This work surprised me as well. I felt that the teaching of the Church Fathers documented the hesychast life that they inherited from Saint Joseph the Hesychast, through their Elder. Also, I was very moved, because I had started my monastic life fifty years ago, but also my writing activity by going to Mount Athos and asking the hesychast monks, and now fifty years later I was going to Mount Athos to distribute spiritual "nourishment" that I received from there, and to speak theologically to their descendants.

Archimandrite Fr. Ephraim was not content with this alone, but urged me to publish these speeches and discussions. Because all the speeches were considered oral, except for a few notes I kept, he sent me the tapes which he recorded, we made some corrections to the oral speech and they were published and distributed in a book titled "Holy Knowledge" with the subtitle of "The Beauties of the Inner Life" and described as "Speeches and Discussions with Monks of the Sacred Great Monastery of Vatopaidi on the Theology of Monasticism".

This is a thick volume, about a thousand large pages with a preface by Fr. Ephraim, which he wrote shortly before he was admitted to the Evangelismos Hospital, and was printed and published these days of his sickness. He himself was very happy for the studied edition of these speeches.

The theological concerns of Archimandrite Fr. Ephraim did not end there. He saw that the students of the Theological Schools, when they wanted to advance in their academic development, received scholarships to study abroad, mainly in Roman Catholic and Protestant Schools, and after graduating from these they go on for post-graduate and doctoral degrees, without having come to know the empirical theology of the contemporary Fathers that have lived, labored in asceticism and ended their lives on the Holy Mountain.

Thus he created a Program of Theological Studies, which he called "Fellowship Program of Eugenios Voulgaris", which was organized by the Institute of Saint Maxim the Greek with the support of the Sacred Great Monastery of Vatopaidi, in honor of the noble Voulgaris (1716-1806), who served as Headmaster of the Athoniada School, which was founded by the Sacred Monastery of Vatopaidi.

This program is for Orthodox theologians up to 40 years of age who hold doctoral degrees and are doctoral candidates, who remain in the Monastery of Vatopaidi for a year, participating in the liturgical program of the Monastery, having discussions with monks to understand the "life" of the Holy Mountain, are taught courses by University Professors, Hierarchs, Abbots, Spiritual Fathers, they prepare monthly assignments from the rich library of the Sacred Monastery, and after the end of the Program they prepare a study that is selected by the individual and is graded by the Professors.

The core of this program is the study of patristic literature with guidance from contemporary fathers and hesychasts, such as Saint Silouan, St. Sophrony, St. Joseph the Hesychast, St. Paisios, St. Amphilochios Makris, Saint Iakovos Tsalikis, Elder Philotheos Zervakos, Elder Cleopas Ilie, etc.

Scholarships in the amount of 800 euros per month are granted to the students of the Program with full hospitality in the Monastery of Vatopaidi, in single rooms and special places for study. In fact, it is foreseen that the Scholarship for the excellent candidates can be extended for an additional year, with further research in other Sacred Monasteries of Mount Athos and in international scientific centers.

Among the Professors, I was invited to teach these candidates the topic "The Identity of Experiences and Theology Between Prophets, Apostles and Fathers Until Today".

All these show the theological concerns of Archimandrite Ephraim the Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Vatopaidi, as well as an empirical theology, as it was expressed by contemporary Saints of the Holy Mountain. He understood that the problem of modern theology is great, and that the way in which theology is taught today affects the whole ecclesiastical, but also monastic life, and he wanted to work in this field.

I appreciate him for these theological concerns, which I rarely encounter in my life, I thank him very much for his abundant and sincere love for my person, and I pray to God to give him complete health and inspiration to continue his theological work for the glory of God and the good reputation of the Church and monasticism.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.