Blogs
Fire from the Holy Mountain: Elder Ephraim and St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona
Next Post

Press {{ keys }} + D to make this page bookmarked.

Close

Fire from the Holy Mountain: Elder Ephraim and St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona

6462

There’s an oasis in the middle of the Arizona desert. It’s a physical oasis, but more importantly—a spiritual oasis. It’s a place of prayer and repentance—the defining qualities of true Christianity—and the grace that abounds there is impossible to overstate.

St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, situated outside Florence, Arizona, is a place of pilgrimage every year for thousands of people from throughout America and even the entire world. All who are suffering and struggling and in need of spiritual consolation or simply a chance to intensify their prayer life for a time are welcome at the holy habitation, where they can get a taste of Paradise if their hearts are ready to experience it.

St. Anthony's Monastery

St. Anthony’s is the “home base” for a network of twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries throughout America and Canada. There lives Elder Ephraim, the spiritual father for thousands, if not millions of Orthodox faithful throughout the world and a number of monasteries in Greece in addition to the twenty he founded in America.

Elder Ephraim with his spiritual father, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, and the rest of the brotherhood. Elder Ephraim is on the far right

An “elder” or “eldress” in the Orthodox Tradition is someone who is spiritually advanced—not necessarily someone elderly, though the two often go together, as spiritual wisdom takes time to acquire. The less there is of us inside, the more room there is for Christ, and for most of us, it takes time to clear ourselves away. Of course, Christianity does not have an ideal of emptiness—what needs to be cleared away is the sinful filth within us, that our true selves can shine through in union with Christ our God.

Elder Ephraim is undoubtedly a man who has cleared himself away, who is overflowing with the grace of God. This is why people visit him in Arizona from throughout the entire world. This is why he was able to build twenty monasteries in as many years. And his monasteries, some for men, some for women, are thriving. St. Anthony’s is the largest Orthodox monastery in America, with perhaps about 75 monks.

Holy men and woman have been “produced” in these monasteries, which is no surprise given the miraculous founding of St. Anthony’s. First, Elder Ephraim himself, it is said, was sent to America to found the monasteries and minister to the Greeks there by the Theotokos herself. “Theotokos” is a Greek term meaning “God-bearer”—thus the term refers to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The Mother of God and other saints have appeared to people countless times as recorded in Orthodox Tradition. The saints are alive in Christ and the spiritual world is very real, and the Orthodox spiritual life puts us in contact with them.

Elder Ephraim

Elder Ephraim had labored in ascetic obedience for many years on Mt. Athos also known as the Holy Mountain, which is a semi-autonomous monastic republic in Greece, inhabited by thousands of Orthodox monks. Apart from Jerusalem, it is the spiritual center of the Orthodox Church. To be frank, it is impossible to explain Mt. Athos—it is a place so overflowing with grace and the miraculous presence of God that it simply cannot be accurately described. Elder Ephraim was spiritually educated there by the great Elder Joseph the Hesychast (one who practices inner silence) and under his tutelage he mastered the fine art of salvation. Thus, it was he that the Virgin Mary chose to minister in America.

Further, while looking for land in the Arizona desert, the spot of the future monastery was chosen when Elder Ephraim and those with him suddenly heard the ringing of church bells—a sign from God. And the beautiful landscaping at St. Anthony’s, with its palm trees and fountains and lush orchards, is said to be based on the Elder’s visions of Paradise itself. Of course, no earthly reality in our fallen world can accurately portray Paradise, but it can hint at it and point us towards ot. Just as the saints appear to people, and this is nothing outlandish, wonderful though it be, for Orthodox Christians, neither do we balk at saints experiencing Paradise. This is the point of the Orthodox life, after all. The Church is, in a sense, Paradise, as the life of Christ is the life of Paradise.

St. Anthony's Monastery

The strength of St. Anthony’s is that Elder Ephraim brought to America with him only one thing—the desire to know Christ and nothing else; the desire to become like Christ and nothing else. While the ascetic life at the monastery is not the same as the Elder’s previous life on Mt. Athos under strict obedience to his Elder out of love for Christ, the life of obedience and the beautiful liturgical services there bring the same grace of God.

St. Anthony’s and Elder Ephraim are centers of pure Orthodoxy, unadulterated by the world. Elder Ephraim has innumerable gifts to offer to American Orthodoxy. To Americans, obsessed with monetary success and “intellectual” pursuits, he offers the true theology of a purified intellect—“not gained in universities, but rather by despising the world and by living in a quiet and peaceful place far from the world’s noise and turmoil, with a program of prayer and ascesis.”[1] He offers immense faith—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.”[2]

America’s generally Protestant inheritance has given us a severely weakened and increasingly secularized church experience. Those who profess faith in Christ are often driven by material and sensual desires and in no way stand apart from the popular culture. Faith is pushed further and further into the closet, and our proud tradition of “rugged individualism” has made us blind to the virtue of obedience. We are constantly on the move, uncomfortable with any down time or silence. These factors have led to a nation that is morally and psychologically sick. Elder Ephraim offers us an experience that is wholly other from American culture. He brings the unquenchable fountain of Athonite spiritual wisdom which is so vital for the life of the Church, and which can be summed up in the never-ending pursuit of the holiness of Christ—never-ending repentance—turning away from everything within us that comes short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

Elder Ephraim’s faith is anything but material, sensual, or secularized, and far from the closet, his faith is his life. Where we value innovation, Elder Ephraim calls us to enter the unchanging stream of Orthodox Church Tradition, which is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Where we fill our lives with noise, Elder Ephraim calls us to silent devotion to the name of Jesus. Where we are sick, he calls us to purity and healing. What Elder Ephraim offers to America now is exactly what he offered to Mount Athos fifty years ago. Of a conversation with the Elder in 1965, Orthodox author Constantine Cavarnos writes that he especially stressed the “need of a spiritual guide, and the value of praying mentally and heeding one’s conscience.”[3] 

This is precisely why Elder Ephraim was sent to America by the Mother of God—to bring this fire of grace to a land that is desperately in need of it. St. Anthony’s is a place founded on this fire and zeal, and it is palpable for those who visit and have a heart that is open to perceiving it.

Go to St. Anthony’s. Attend the services, enjoy the Heavenly environment, and let the depths of Orthodox spirituality speak to your heart and give you rest from all the woes of modern American life!

 

[1] Elder Ephraim. Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim. Florence, AZ: St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1999. p. 79.

[2] Lillie, W. J. Rev. of Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim, by Elder Ephraim. Friends of Mount Athos Book Reviews, 1999. Bates College. 25 April 2010. <http://www.abacus.bates.edu/~rallison/friends/reviews1999reviews/counsels_lillie1999.htm>

[3] Cavarnos, Constantine. Anchored in God: Life, Art, and Thought on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Athens: Astir Publishing Company, 1959. 207-208.

Author: Jesse Dominick