In 1995, when I was a college sophomore (in more ways than one), I drove from New Jersey to California with a med school dropout named Becky, in pursuit of some derivative of Jack Kerouac’s open-road fantasia. Rebelling against the Christianity that was far too normative for our adventurous tastes, our goal was to make it to an ashram in California. Eastern spirituality, we assumed, held some kind of answer. Along the way we reveled in the beauty of the Southwestern desert, allowing it to serve as a template on which we projected our dogmatically vague spirituality. We were textbook cases of Generation X, grazing on the warmed-over countercultural leftovers the previous generation hadn’t yet entirely consumed.
Somewhere outside Amarillo, Becky even half-heartedly burned her bra. Santa Fe, Flagstaff—I hurried onward to Haight-Ashbury with great expectations, only to find it colonized by Ben & Jerry’s. At the ashram, Becky decided she was going to stay. The guru quoted Origen in defense of reincarnation, but the teachings didn’t grab me. After a meal at a vegan restaurant, Becky and I said our good-byes, and in December I set off, hitchhiking back across the country.
In the same year an elderly monk from Mount Athos also drove through the desert, looking to establish an American base for a very different kind of Eastern spirituality, one more remote (in many ways) from the American religious imagination than ashrams and gurus. He was scouting a site for the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Anthony in the Sonoran desert. For all I know, Becky and I drove right past him.
I recently paid a visit to St. Anthony’s Monastery, this time seeking the more disciplined Christian spirituality that I’ve come to see the wisdom of. I wanted to meet a different kind of guru, Elder Ephraim—the man who founded St. Anthony’s Monastery, and one of Greece’s most revered spiritual leaders. I had heard much about the elder, both good and bad. Ephraim is a looming figure, a man who, in the past decade and a half, has founded no less than sixteen additional monasteries on this continent alone. I hoped to experience this yet-to-be-written chapter of American Church history firsthand.
The monastery blends nicely into the desert just outside the small town of Florence, Arizona. As one approaches the monastery grounds—a place of primordial peace, carefully patrolled by black-robed monks—the trappings of everyday civilization fall away. A confidently domed, bright-red church presides over dormitories, wayside chapels, and a refectory. Beckoning icons, each with a suspended votive lamp ticking like a grandfather clock, punctuate spaces inside and out. Were it not for the howls of quarrelling coyotes and the cactus-punctuated horizon, it could be Greece.
Late for dinner, I was ushered into the massive dining hall to eat my evening meal. It was typical monastic fasting fare, capable of impressing even the most discriminating Greenwich Village vegan. I ate in silence, listening to the kitchen crew make the Kyrie Eleison a mighty work song to clean by. After eating—content, at first, to be left to myself—I walked the grounds as the sun descended. Warbled cactuses, each one as distinctive as the monks themselves, appeared to silently sing their own desert liturgy. As sunset gave way to twilight blue, I enjoyed some final moments of desert quiet gently broken by bell peals and then made my way to my guest room for the night.
It seemed as though I had just gone to sleep when I heard a hasty rap on the door. The evening liturgy had begun, a mandatory service that stretches from 1 to 4 A.M. The Greek Church fences its altars with rigor, and non-Orthodox (I am one) are asked to remain in the narthex. A sign on the door into the main church reads, in Greek and English: “Holy Communion is truly the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as it becomes for those prepared provision for eternal life, it may very well become ‘fire burning the unworthy’ for those who are not.” No easy-going, inclusive sentimentality here.
There is a tradition in Orthodox thought that because the darkened church is an image of the cosmos, the candles represent the stars of the sky. I watched as a mother and her young daughter, both in head shawls, lit an assembly of candles before the icons in front of us. The mother’s candles were aligned symmetrically, in three neat rows; the daughter’s were anything but ordered. As the mother attempted to straighten her daughter’s unruly arrangement, I stepped outside. Unaccustomed to the desert, I was staggered by the glittering, star-smeared sky. The daughter got it right.
Mount Athos is a peninsular monastic enclave whose dramatic peak has replaced the nearby Mount Olympus as the focal point for religious life in Greece. Indeed, since monks first came to Mount Athos in the fourth century, this remarkable network of communities and hermits has served even more widely as the spiritual center for Orthodox Christianity. Legend says that the Virgin Mary, sailing to Cyprus to visit Lazarus, was blown off course and landed on what is now the Athonite peninsula. Overwhelmed by its beauty, she implored her son for the land’s consecration. In turn a voice promised it would be her garden, “a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.” It has often, but not always, so functioned. Like any monastic community, the twenty monasteries that comprise the Holy Mountain have had their ups and downs. The first half of the twentieth century, to put it mildly, was one of the downs, a period of numerical and spiritual decline.
The light fades, but it does not fail. One elder, Joseph the Hesychast, was formed in an earlier era of ascetic rigor and spiritual vitality. In the 1940s he revived hesychasm, an ancient Christian practice involving rhythmic, mystical repetition of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It was at that time that a nineteen-year-old from the Greek town of Volos went to the Holy Mountain to become a monk, and he sought out Elder Joseph. When the young man arrived, Elder Joseph said that he had been expecting him. The young man was tonsured in 1948 and given the monastic name of Ephraim.
Ephraim and several others lived under the guidance of Elder Joseph until his death, in 1959. It was a sort of spiritual Marine Corps. One or two words uttered during a prescribed time of silence meant two hundred prostrations. Ephraim was rarely addressed by name; he was summoned, instead, with insults accompanied by what he recalls as “appropriate adjectives.” Fasting and all-night vigils were prescribed to conquer spiritual pride.
It was a ragtag band of spiritual warriors, but Elder Joseph prophesied that they would soon conquer Mount Athos, and they did. After Elder Joseph’s death, his spiritual children revived six of the twenty Athonite monasteries, as well as many other smaller hermitages and cells. According to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Elder Joseph’s disciples “have perhaps contributed more than any other single group to the contemporary transformation of the Athonite scene.”
This revitalization did not limit itself to Athonite monasticism. Monasteries on the Greek mainland were similarly revived. Nor did the renewal stop at the borders of Greece. As the story is told, Father Ephraim was driving through the desert just outside Florence, Arizona, when he heard heavenly bells. There, he knew, was the place for St. Anthony’s, a kernel of Mount Athos planted in the American Southwest.
I stayed at St. Anthony’s for several days. All the while I tried to see Elder Ephraim, waiting with an anxious crowd for several hours each time. Some people are drawn by stories of his alarming perspicacity, even miraculous disclosures. Others are his spiritual children, simply seeking confession. Some are novice nuns or monks, hoping for full initiation. One does not see Elder Ephraim by making an appointment or taking a number, however. The octogenarian monk is told who wishes to see him, and he simply decides yea or nay.
After a few afternoons of waiting, Elder Ephraim’s secretary realized I probably was not going to be able to see the Elder. He took pity on me and indulged me in theological conversation. He was the sort of monk one encounters frequently in Orthodox monasteries: militantly cheerful, disarmingly intelligent, humble above all. When he learned I was eating alone, he was disappointed and invited me into the main meals. He also invited me beyond the narthex into the main church for the next liturgy.
I was, in fact, able to steal only a brief glance at Fr. Ephraim. But the secretary arranged a visit with the current abbot of the monastery. I entered the room, and the abbot gave me a tired look (which can be forgiven a busy abbot). He asked if I had any questions. “Is holiness possible outside the Orthodox Church?” I inquired. He responded with tired eyes: “A measure of virtue perhaps, but holiness is not possible.” The Orthodoxy on offer at St. Anthony’s does not mince words.
The tone of St. Anthony’s Monastery toward other Christians is well conveyed in the introduction to one volume of Elder Ephraim’s writings. An Orthodox priest writes with confidence about Orthodoxy’s role in American life, where
great disillusionment with the rationalistic and sensualistic atmosphere prevails, and on the other hand, a search for authentic life is being observed. A search that extends beyond Vaticanized ecclesiology, academic and intellectualistic theology, Protestantizing sociology and ethicology [sic], spiritual void and deluded meditation, atheistic social activism, etc.
From this perspective, Protestantism and Catholicism amount to mere window dressing on the American abyss—a criticism that would be sharply offensive were it not sometimes true.
But American Orthodoxy, of course, has its share of failures as well. Elder Ephraim has even been caught up in them. He left one branch of American Orthodoxy (to which he has since returned) for another after he did not receive adequate support for his monastic movement. These political difficulties are partly responsible for the distrust that some Orthodox Americans have of Elder Ephraim; they perceive him as too rigorous or as dispensing outdated spiritual advice. To be sure, much of the criticism leveled at St. Anthony’s Monastery has been unfair. Some of the complaints come from parents who, understandably, grieve that their sons have become monks and do not seem to comprehend that fasting and monastic hierarchy are not “cult indicators” but normative aspects of the ascetic vocation. Other criticisms from within American Orthodoxy may have traction, however, and, in any event, the partitions within Orthodoxy are unlikely to be bridged any time soon.
Perhaps American Orthodoxy’s own intractable divisions are a gift providentially withheld. Unity among the Orthodox in the United States might heighten their already formidable allergy to ecumenism. In any event, their current travails, like those of Western Christianity, remind us of the need for an even greater Christian unity. “We need one another to be fully who we are,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus in a 2008 article for First Things called “Reconciling East and West.” The fact of Elder Ephraim in our midst, and the fact of the many monasteries he has founded here, promise to turn the exotic into the extraordinary, perhaps leavening the mixed-up, diffuse lump of Christianity in America.
As is often the case, images tend to crystallize these half-formed ecclesial thoughts. While I was in Arizona, I attended Mass at the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson. In the back of the dramatic mission church, known as the “White Dove of the Desert,” is an altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the miraculous image revealed in December 1531 to the “Mexican Moses,” Juan Diego. A radiant, soft-faced Mary, with downcast eyes and hands clasped, stands on a crescent moon upheld by an angel. I searched in vain for an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Anthony’s Monastery. That outpost of the East does not have that most Western of images. But the monastery does have its own, different vision of the Virgin in America: the imposing icon Panagia Arizonítissa—the Virgin of Arizona. It’s equally beautiful in its hieratic, Byzantine style. A gentle yet imperial Mary, enthroned, holds a boyish Christ who tends a globe and offers his blessing. Like the famous Axion Estin icon of Mt. Athos, this image is graced with a splendid silver revetment and is decked with votive gifts—rings, necklaces, watches—given in thanks for answered prayers. Although Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Arizona are profoundly different, there is, of course, but one Mary to whom they both refer.
Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University.