Here is a translation of Met. Ephrem's talk at Saint-Serge. It's a little bit loose, since it is from an extemporaneous talk. I've also realized that my French spelling is nowhere near good enough to provide a transcription of the original French... Met. Ephrem makes frequent oblique reference to Met. John (Yazigi) of Central and Western Europe, who is sitting with him during the talk.
Renewal of the Monastic Life
I would like to thank once more Fr. Nicholas and to use this occasion to thank him doubly, since he has now come and participated in several meetings with the young, with students and priests, and with all the people of our Archdiocese of Tripoli and al-Koura. Now I have been asked to talk about the monastic renewal in the Patriarchate of Antioch. It is a subject that is very difficult to discuss. I hope it will be a conversation between us with dialogue and questions. I'm going to try and give an introduction. I do not consider myself to be a monk anymore, but thanks be to God I have always had the desire to become one. It's hard to talk about monks. Our region in which the Patriarchate of Antioch is found really has a very important and precious tradition and today we are not at that level where the ancient monks lived in our region where our Lord God was born. But we must say that very early on monasticism began in the region of Syria, formerly Greater Syria, starting from the third century. One can speak, for example, to have an idea of the Orthodox Syrian monastic tradition, one can read, for example, the History of Philotheus. If you have heard of it, it is a book that was written by Theodoret of Cyr who succinctly recounted the lives of several monks who were better described as ascetics, but ascetics of a varied and particular form. It's very interesting to see how these ingenious people lived. It began in the third and fourth centuries, and continued especially through the fourth and fifth centuries up to the eighth century, when this monastic life had a spectacular boom. At least one can recall St. Symeon the Stylite, but also monks like Saint Maron as well as other monks and even women who were ascetics in Syria, which is something somewhat rare in the history of Christianity and of Christian monasticism.
Yes, it's an ancient and very precious tradition, but unfortunately it began to weaken not only in Syria but also in the whole region, in what is now Iraq, in Asia Minor, even in what is now Iran, ancient Persia. Clearly it was weakened by the Arab conquest, but it continued with many monks up to maybe the thirteenth century. Then there was a kind of decline, this movement of monks in the Middle Ages and then later in the seventeenth century. The Mamluks, then the Catholics and Protestants came to Syria and Lebanon, but nevertheless there remained a few monasteries, like for example especially the Monastery of Saydnayya where there have long been nuns and the Monastery of St. George, which are the very ancient monasteries that date to the time of Justinian and where there have especially always been nuns. In Lebanon, some monasteries have remained since ancient times.
Thus, if one wants to talk about monastic renewal, one must begin by entering into details. One must begin in the twentieth century in the forties, when there was a renewal through the appearance of the Orthodox Youth Movement. Of course this occurred after the Ottoman period, during which there was further decline in the entire situation of our Church. The Orthodox Youth Movement really gave impetus for recovering not only the monastic tradition, but the entire tradition of our Church, with regard to history, with regard to theology, with regard to liturgy, and also with regard to monasticism. Obviously, starting from zero it is difficult to arrive at a certain degree of development, a great development of monastic life, but there were two monasteries in particular which began in the forties, the Monastery of St. George at Deir el-Harf-- the abbot, Fr. Elias, unfortunately he died, he left us, about two months ago,it was mostly people from the city of Lattakia in Syria-- and the women's monastery of Saint Jacob which is in North Lebanon, which continues to prosper, currently with around thirty nuns. These are the two monasteries that continue, that exist, and which are essentially products of the Orthodox Youth Movement. Now there are other activities, other aspects as well of renewal besides the monasteries, which are results of this renewal of the young people of our Church.
This was one aspect of the beginning of the monastic renewal. Now there is another aspect, which began with the war. There was a civil war that lasted for about fifteen years in Lebanon, and it forced the students of the Theological Faculty of Balamand-- and I was studying there then-- to close that Theological Faculty on account of the war. The Church of Greece welcomed us to continue our theological studies there. It was really something that came from God, since many young people who went to Greece, men as well as some women, came into contact with the monasteries of Greece, men's monasteries and women's monasteries, and especially those of Mount Athos. I personally went with another person who was then a deacon-- I was at the time a priest-- and we met in one of these monasteries with a monk of the Monastery of Saint Paul and we stayed there. It was really a discovery for me. I was not thinking of monasticism. I was in the Youth Movement. I only wanted to serve my Church and I was thinking of working, of pastoral activity, since we were very enthusiastic young people who wanted to work... But I can tell a little story of how it happened. We were studying for two years in the Theological Faculty in Thessaloniki. At the end of the first year, I fell ill with a stomach problem and that annoyed me a lot. The dean there, who was Bishop Rhodopoulos, a Greek bishop.... yes, a canonist, he was in charge and he organized things with his assistant, Father Isaac. Father Isaac was an ascetic monk from our country who had some into contact with Mount Athos and his spiritual father, if you have heard of him, was Father Paissios. So he was practically the person in charge of us students. Bishop Rhodopoulos was only occupied with being dean of the institute. So at the time I was ill, they had organized a tour of all of Greece at the end of studies in June. Then, Father Isaac said to me, he said to me, "You're sick. You should rest. You can't make this tour. Come, I'll take you to rest on Mount Athos." It was the first time I went there. We went to a small monastery that is called the monastery of the Cross, Stavronikita, and I really spent a while there, about ten days and I rested. I discovered something that for me was really a new discovery. With God's help it was an aspiration since my childhood and it was what I was waiting to see, and little by little I had to become a monk. I spoke of it to Metropolitan Georges, who was responsible for me in Lebanon, and he got angry with me. He said, "We have need of priests..." I told him, "I want to be a monk. I do not want to be a parish priest." Then he said, "It seems there is a tradition that when one wants to be a monk, at that moment the bishop no longer has authority. He should grant liberty." At that time, my spiritual father was the then-bishop of Lattakia, who is also the spiritual father of His Eminence, who is from Lattakia. He said, "If the bishop says anything to you, tell me..." I was going to become a monk and he would not have the right to interfere.
And like that, I decided to go to Mount Athos. I spent two years and three months there and then, on the advice of the fathers there, to me and to the deacon, they advised us to go to our country and to found monasteries, monastic communities. And that is in fact what was done. Myself, I returned to Lebanon despite the war. It was the height of the civil war and it was very, very dangerous. Despite that, I returned to Lebanon. In Syria, there was no war. Metropolitan John [Mansour], he was in charge of a large women's monastery in Syria, women who had gone to Thessaloniki, also to gain experience in those years, and he could add much to my words.
In short, what I wanted to say in this introduction is that when we returned to Lebanon, God helped us to create a kind of synthesis, to bring back the tradition of our Church, the Antiochian tradition and the Athonite tradition. This is something very important, speaking of God, I do not know the opinion of His Eminence, I think we managed to take a lot of Athonite experience and to adapt ourselves to the Antiochian situation. The tradition of Mount Athos is really worth it, I think, for any Orthodox. Unfortunately, women cannot go there, speaking of tradition, but it is worth it for any Orthodox to get to know this monastic experience. I do not know how to explain this experience. You have to get to know it. You have to meet monks, real monks, and especially those who live in secret, which is to say not only those who have a reputation. We say in Greek, for those who know Greek, a kind of advice that they say on Mount Athos. They say "stin aphania", which is to say that one must live, the monk most live, in non-appearing. This prefix 'a' means that he tries in his life to not appear, which is why in the large monasteries-- I was a priest and a priest is going to appear-- one preferred to remain a monk. There were few priests. Now things have changed a little. There were many ascetics who lived alone and there were several types of monk. There are monasteries, the large cenobitic monasteries, where there are many monks, fifty or a hundred monks who live together. There are ascetics who live alone since there are what are called sketes, which is to say small families, small houses in the mountain where there is a small community. So there are several types of monks. One can even meet monks that are called in the Syrian tradition fools for Christ. You have heard how they can behave and it is very interesting to meet this kind of person. And so in our Church, with God's help His Eminence has founded communities of monks and of nuns, and I have done likewise in Lebanon. And now, to finish this little summary, there are monasteries that were in ruins or were abandoned that have been renewed once more as I said beginning with the Orthodox Youth Movement as well as by the encounter with monks who have had experience in the monasteries of Greece. There is also a monastery of monks and nuns in a village called Douma. They were helped by the experience of Father Sophrony, who you have heard of in England. There are around maybe ten living monasteries in Lebanon, where there are monks and nuns, and a few fewer in Syria.
Now, to conclude, one must say that monasteries currently face difficulties. One can't live without difficulties but there are new things and I think that these new things aren't only happening in Lebanon, but in all the Orthodox countries, and this poses a problem. I've not myself been to Russia and I've not been to Romania, but I've heard and it seems that because of contemporary life, because of contemporary life in the world, many people come to monasteries, which is to say that the visitors are becoming more and more numerous, even on Mount Athos, from year to year. The people of the Church find refuge in the monasteries as visitors, as a retreat, for spiritual advice, for confession, or at least to find a little bit of rest, with all the stress that comes in the world. And this causes problems. That is, all monasteries, are in one way obligated to help all these people. It's an obligation. From another perspective, they have to keep their program of life. It's an essential program of prayer, of personal prayer, which is called the monk's canon, personal meditation, and everything there is like fasting and also liturgical prayer since in the monastery they celebrate all the liturgical services in their entirety, which is no longer done in parishes in the world. This creates the danger that the monastery becomes a sort of visitor's center for the world. It is especially dangerous for the young monks who are always in contact with the visitors, that they might lose that spirit of asceticism that characterizes our Orthodox tradition of asceticism and of interior peace that especially comes from prayer. This is the current situation of difficulties, but one can't predict what there will be in the near future. But I think of the synthesis that there must always be of monks in the world and that there should be people who have their joy in God, who are detached. There is not this feeling of detachment from the pleasures of the world. Saint John Climacus said very openly and very frankly, he said that there are two states for a monk. The first state is that he be detached from the world, from the pleasures of the world. The second is that he be detached from his own will, which is one of the most difficult things and it is exactly done in the cenobitic life, in the common life of the monastery where before all obedience is demanded. I will end here. Perhaps His Eminence will say something to open a dialogue on this subject or maybe on another subject.