Apostle to America, Elder Ephraim of Arizona - Excellent Russian Documentary (Transcript, Subtitles)

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"America, which was seeking a way out of the dead end of the consumer culture and slavery to material values through various social movements and Eastern religions, discovered true unadulterated Christianity - Orthodoxy."

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This excellent documentary follows the life of Elder Ephraim, who developed a reputation of being a grace-filled confessor, a true Athonite elder with thousands of spiritual children around the world, including monastics, clergy, and laity. A full transcript of the documentary is included below.

He is considered to be the first to establish an authentic Athonite monastery on American soil. In his life, Elder Ephraim founded nineteen monasteries in the United States and Canada for women and men alike, as well as a nursing home.

As was said by Fr. Anthony, a priest in Tucson, Arizona:

We American bishops and priests, for seven or seven years, have wanted to attract people to the Church by holding festivals. That is, we held festivals and festivities, treating people to drinks, food, and entertainment. We forgot about prayer, confession, fasting, the rosary-all the things that make up the Tradition of our Church. We even discouraged the creation of monasteries because we thought they were unnecessary and had nothing to offer our Church. And then a tiny man, without worldly education or theological diplomas, without innovative and daring ideas (which we had in abundance), came and reminded us of the most important thing - our Orthodox Tradition. He did not call us to dancing and entertainment, but to fasting and participating in hours of vigil. And people responded to his call, came to the elder and supported him. The number of those who came to Father Ephraim is beyond description. America, which was seeking a way out of the dead end of the consumer culture and slavery to material values through various social movements (such as the hippies) and Eastern religions, discovered true unadulterated Christianity - Orthodoxy.


"Russian Culture" TV Channel

Neofit Studio presents

Arizona, USA. A desert, green in the winter, dry and brown in the summer, on the border with Mexico, three thousand kilometers from the nation's capital. An ideal place for prisons. There's nowhere to run.

Alexey (Russian Orthodox): "A juvenile detention center is on one side. There's a prison, one of many, there are immigration detention centers, there are soldiers who returned from Iran and Afghanistan."

Here, cacti grow higher than a person, and coyotes howl at night. Twenty years ago, an Orthodox monastery was started in this desert wilderness, named in honor of St. Anthony, the first monk and desert-dweller in the history of Christianity.

The monastery is located between Phoenix, the biggest and main city of the state, and Tucson - about 75 miles from Tucson and 75 from Phoenix. The fact that here, in the Arizona wilderness – as Americans say, "in the middle of nowhere" - there is a monastery, seems so incredible, that even now it often seems to tourists as if it were a mirage in the desert.

And yet, today, it is the second most commonly visited attraction in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.

Tourists: "It is so beautiful!" I couldn't have imagined that someone could build such beauty in the desert. We recognized the monastery by the tall palm trees – they can be seen from far off. It took a lot of work for them to build something like this. It's amazing! When you walk here, you feel such tranquility!

Artemisia: I am a pilgrim. I come from Australia. Previously, I had no idea that in America there are Orthodox monasteries. But now I've come here several times, and it feels like I'm on Mt. Athos – the only difference is that women are allowed here.

This monastery and another eighteen Greek Orthodox monasteries in the USA and Canada were established by one single man – a monk from the Holy Mountain of Athos, Elder Ephraim of Philotheou.

He still lives within these walls, and every day he receives people who come to him. Now, many are already calling him "Elder Ephraim of Arizona",  and pilgrims and monastic aspirants come to this extraordinary elder from all over the world.

Elder Ephraim of Arizona

Elder Ephraim left the world when he was still a young man, at the age of 19, and immediately became a disciple of one of the most rigorous ascetics and hermits on Mt. Athos, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, who is venerated today as a saint.

In his book, “My Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Cave-Dweller”, Fr. Ephraim described vividly and in detail how his teacher “fashioned him as with an axe”. Ephraim worked every day to the point of exhaustion, and spent every night under the open sky in prayer. He suffered from hunger and cold, and endured reproach from the elder and kept complete silence.

Monk Hilarion: Fr. Ephraim had a very strong spiritual father, a saint, the Elder Joseph. He slept in a cave and prayed for six hours at a time, he could say the Jesus Prayer all night long, and he also taught his novices to do this.

Monk Ilia (Elijah): I met Fr. Ephraim on Mt. Athos. At that time, he slept on the floor, right by the door of his elder, and at night, if someone knocked, he would go out and say, "Wait, the Elder is praying, or resting." Now you no longer see things like this.

Fr. Ephraim might have spent his whole life on holy Mount Athos, raising, in his turn, a new generation of monastics. But at the end of the 70s, it turned out that he had to travel to America, due to worldly necessity.

Papa Ephraim, priest-monk: It so happened, that on the recommendation of his doctors, he traveled to America, so that he could have an operation on his injured foot. And while he was in New York, many people came to speak with this Athonite monk, went to him for confession, and came to love Fr. Ephraim very much for his extraordinary warmth and wisdom.

Orthodox people from all over America began to invite Elder Ephraim to visit them, and he started traveling to different cities in the US and Canada, preaching and holding discussions. 

One of these meetings, which was held in Pittsburgh in 1992, has been recorded. 

Elder Ephraim: We must guard ourselves from sin. You yourself have to cut off the passions, and unnecessary conversations, in order to protect yourself from sin. Once, I saw that a bus driver in Greece had put this sign in the rear window of his bus: “Stay as far away from this bus as you do from your mother-in-law”. In this way, Christians should keep as far away from sin as they can.

Papa Ephraim: He very quickly became popular, as a person with enormous spiritual experience, and people began inviting him to America every year. And the Elder saw that many people had a great need for spiritual direction, but had nowhere they could find it.

George Hondropoulos was a member of the community of Greek-Americans who, in the 1990s, asked Elder Ephraim to found a monastery in the US, and who even collected the money necessary to purchase the land. We asked him to open a monastery here; we really needed this. 

Our Greek Orthodox Church at this time had fallen into decline, and had drawn closer to Protestantism, or Catholicism. But when we talked about a monastery, I never dreamed of such a monastery! I thought there would be a little house, and we would come and drink tea with Elder Ephraim.

When Elder Ephraim, together with the local bishop, was choosing the land, they immediately realized that this place was the most suitable. When they were looking at this site, Fr. Anthony suddenly heard the sound of bells, right here, although around them there was only desert. He turned and said, "Elder Ephraim, I hear bells."

And the Elder replied, "Yes, I can hear them too. But do not say anything, so that the real estate agent will not think that we are too interested in the site."

Elder Ephraim’s cell attendant is called Papa Ephraim, in the Greek way. It is a custom they took from Mt. Athos, although the attendant himself is half American, and half Indian. Papa Ephraim was one of six monks who came here twenty years ago, to live in the parched Arizona desert.

We began with four prefabricated houses. Later, we built the church, the trapeza, houses for pilgrims, and a few more churches. The hardest thing was to adapt to the desert climate. In summer there are extremely high temperatures!

Monk Deacon Seraphim: Arizona is a very hot state, in the summer it can be 110-115 degrees in the shade, and for the fathers who came from Mt. Athos, though it can also be warm there, it was a shock, that it is possible to live here at all, as the climate is so hot. There were only cacti growing here, so we’ve planted all these trees with our own hands. 

Elder Ephraim himself also participated in the planting – he wore a big sun hat, and went around with a can of paint, and marked crosses on the ground, wherever a tree should be planted. And when he went to the city to buy the trees, he would say, "We’ll take twenty of these, and twenty of those, and these, they are very nice, and fifty of these trees, and ten of those, and look, we’ll take these flowers, they are very pretty!" Then he brought it all here, and showed us where to plant it.

Eugenia Franz used to receive Elder Ephraim in her home in Ohio. Later, she also joined the community being built around the monastery. We decided to look for water, we had experts come here, and they studied the area and said, “You should drill here.” But Fr. Ephraim said, “No, you should drill there.” They said, "No, there is no water there."

Fr. Ephraim answered, “Drill there. I will be responsible.” They drilled 800 feet down, but there was no water. Fr. Ephraim told them to drill even deeper, and they drilled more and more, and eventually they came to a flowing underground river!

The monastery in the desert grew quickly, and more and more Orthodox from all over America came, and soon Elder Ephraim realized 

that one monastery was too little. He then founded, one after the other, eighteen more monasteries in the US and Canada - in New York, Texas, Florida, Washington, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Michigan, Montreal, and Toronto. 

Elder Ephraim appointed his disciples as the heads of these monasteries. He saw that he could not manage it all himself, and that thousands of people were in need of spiritual support. He knew that his disciples could provide this help to people, so he opened monasteries all over America, and now everyone can find a nearby monastery, where they can get advice, or go to confession. Now there are Orthodox monasteries everywhere, in every part of America.

Once, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the spiritual father of Elder Ephraim, appeared to him and called, “Kuchiko!” That was his nickname, which means “very small”.  Elder Joseph poured 20 oranges into his lap, and said: "As many oranges as I have brought you, you must establish so many monasteries in the US and Canada."

This means that it turns out that only one is missing. So we say to him, “Don’t rush!” We just want Elder Ephraim to be with us always.

Hieromonk Philaretos: This country was spiritually starving, and God sent us Elder Ephraim, well, in order to give people hope and bring them together for prayer and contemplation.

Pilgrims, of course, still come primarily to Arizona, the biggest Orthodox monastery in the US. Just as the first hermit, St. Anthony, did in Egypt in the third century, so today, monks struggle ascetically in the monastery that bears his name.

At night, monks come out of their comfortable cells into the desert, in order to spend some hours in solitude with God. This custom was instituted with them while still on Mt. Athos, with Elder Joseph, a nightly prayer rule many hours long, which they fulfilled partly in their cells, and partly in the open air. They prayed aloud, to make it easier to struggle against sleep. And in this monastery, Elder Ephraim called us to do the same from the very beginning. 

It is very pleasant to pray here at night in the midst of nature! You feel a distinct contrast here. The monastery is here, with completely modern facilities, electricity, potable water, showers, all provided for the pilgrims and monks. But if you go just thirty steps beyond the borders of the monastery, all around you is a wild desert, like it was a thousand years ago when the holy fathers lived, and this is very helpful for prayer, the quiet, the peace, tranquility, and the pure air.

Among the daily trials of the Arizona monks, there is not only the scorching sun and the heat, but also grave danger that threatens them at every step. Every night, you can hear the jackals howl, and in the warm season, from April to October, there are rattlesnakes and scorpions. They don’t approach us in the monastery very often. You just need to be careful. Don’t walk where you can’t see, don’t set your hand or foot where you can’t see what is there, and use a flashlight at night.

There are already 50 monks struggling here now, and this garden of paradise continues to grow in the desert. This is our citrus plantation, oranges. Here I can give you an orange, here you are. These are the lemons. We only have oranges and lemons and grapefruit. We eat them ourselves in the trapeza and give them to pilgrims. This is our olive plantation. These young trees were planted around 2006. We also have a vineyard, and a small winery.

But the main thing is that, since the monastery’s founding, and even now, Elder Ephraim lives here. Tales of his extraordinary gift of prayer have reached even to other continents. And the spiritual children of the elder, those who are in constant contact with him, speak about him exclusively as of a living saint.

George Sioris: I work in a hospital. Once, one of the novices in the monastery was working with a saw, and seriously injured his fingers, and he was taken into surgery. Then a miracle happened, and the whole hospital talked about it. One of his fingers had already turned black, and the doctor set a day and time when it would be amputated. 

The next morning, on the day of the operation, Elder Ephraim and Fr. Paisius, the abbot of the monastery, came to the hospital together and prayed. After this, the surgeon came to the patient in the ward and examined him – and canceled the operation. The hand was completely healthy.

Once, Elder Ephraim and I flew to California, to open a new monastery, and while we were being driven in a car he sang the Akathist to the Theotokos. So, he was just chanting (singing in Greek), you knowwith a little melody, and halfway through, I thought, “Poor old man, he’s almost 70 years old, and he has to travel from town to town; it’s very tiring. I should pray for him.” I opened my prayer book, and began to pray, “Jesus Christ, have mercy on him,” in English. “Jesus Christ, have mercy on Thy servant.” I wanted to read the whole prayer rule. But when I had said this only once, quietly to myself, Elder Ephraim immediately stopped singing. And he started to pronounce in English, with a heavy Greek accent, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.” And he knew only a few words in English.

I was so shocked, and at first I was scared - 'he knows everything I do!' I was caught. But then I calmed down - I wasn’t doing anything bad. Later, the next day, I asked him, as if nothing had happened, “Elder, when someone is praying for you, do you know about it?” And he said, “Yes, my child, I always know this and am thankful for it.”

In New York, one young man got in an accident, and was in intensive care. The parents spent day and night at the hospital. One day they came to see their son, and saw that he was completely well. They were so amazed! And their son said, “Fr. Ephraim was here all night; he sat on the bed and prayed for me.” The parents thought he was crazy, since no one was allowed into the room. They asked the nurse, and she confirmed that a priest had been there at night. The parents showed her pictures of Fr. Ephraim, and she said, "Yes, that was him." Even though, of course, he had never left the monastery.

Konstantina: When I came for confession, he said to me, "Take care of your stomach. You have a sensitive stomach." How could he know that I had problems with my stomach? And recently before confession, I had gone to the bookstore and bought a brochure: How to Study the BibleAt the time I was leaving Elder Ephraim, he suddenly said, “It is very good to begin to study the Bible!” How could he read my thoughts? Oh my!

Monk Hilarion: This is why we came to this monastery, to see the fruits brought by Elder Ephraim. Wherever he goes, he touches people, and many miracles surround his life. He is one of those people who have God’s grace and holiness. The things we read in the Gospels and the lives of the saints become alive when we are with Elder Ephraim.

Seraphim Larsen: He is for America what St. Sergius of Radonezh is for Russia. After all, St. Sergius founded many monasteries, the lavra, and through his many spiritual children, he strengthened monasticism and Orthodoxy throughout Russia. And Elder Ephraim is doing the same here. 

An IT specialist, an Intel employee, Sean Larsen became Orthodox at the end of the 1980s. He received a new name at baptism - Seraphim - and he changed his name legally.

I remember when I was baptized, that it was hard to find Orthodox literature. The Lives of the Saints by St. Dimitri of Rostov, for example, had not been translated into English. Now everything has changed. You can read the lives of the saints. You can also come to the monastery and learn about Orthodoxy there.

Seraphim has a Russian wife, eight children, and a small farm with goats and chickens. Thirteen years ago, the Larsen family came and enlarged the community of those who moved to Arizona to live near the monastery.

At first we were afraid of rattlesnakes and scorpions. But our friends moved here and settled down comfortably. And a few years after they did, in 2002, we also moved here. 

What Fr. Ephraim brought here - monasteries with an authentic Athonite tradition - has made a real change in the monastic situation in the US, and people now have a place to go to see true, deep Orthodoxy. The oasis in the desert has already brought dozens of residents here - mainly Orthodox Greeks.

Photini: Panos lives here, an Orthodox Greek, Russian families live there - Alexei, Evgenia at the end of the street, Alexandra lives there, and also several other Orthodox families. We love being near the monastery, and we want our children to grow up in an Orthodox environment, which is why we moved here.

Joanna and her son used to have their own restaurant in New York. They decided to move to Arizona, to be under the wing of their spiritual father, Elder Ephraim, after September 11, 2001.

For him, human souls are like different flowers, each of which needs its own special care. And he loves all his spiritual children, and really the whole world. This is more than amazing: such love, such attention and sympathy. Just an amazing guy, an amazing guy.

Many people come to us in our restaurant and say, “Oh, you are Greeks. Your monastery gave us food," or "The monastery helped us pay our rent…" There are a lot of poor people in the city, and the monks help them.

Most Americans who live in this area are retirees of modest means. So for them, the monastery has become a place of support. These friends, Fay and Chris, come here twice a month for free groceries.

They help us with food, and generally with anything that we need, and also when we have emotional problems.

When my mother died, I came here, and the monks prayed with me. They really supported me at that time. Here, they don’t turn anyone away. 

The monks are very friendly, and you always feel grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Every morning, after prayer, Elder Ephraim himself leaves his cell, gets in the car, and travels to the nearest city - "hunting". He is very sympathetic to poor people, because in his youth, he himself lived in poverty. They didn’t even have enough money for food. 

And now, every day he goes “hunting” for the poor - he takes groceries, money, and then he goes. Some days he returns and says, “Today I fed thirty people. I’m happy!” Other days, he returns, “Oh, I only met two people on my whole trip. I can’t believe it!” He really loves helping other people like that. 

But the most important way in which Elder Ephraim helps people is this - at 86, he receives pilgrims every day, confesses them, gives wise advice, and shares with them the spiritual peace which he obtained after decades of unceasing prayer - in Greece on Mount Athos, and in the American desert.

I remember, a couple left him, and the husband said, “This is a miracle! We went to a psychotherapist, and looked at many other places, and no one could solve our problem. We came here, and Elder Ephraim solved everything in an hour!”

He is like a magnet that draws people to itself, monks of different characters, with different passions. Perhaps in a different situation it would be difficult to create a brotherhood like this, of different fathers from different countries, with their different customs, different upbringings. It’s possible, I think, that there wouldn’t be such a monastery without Elder Ephraim. But he's like a magnet; he draws people to him by his fatherly love, kind words, and advice.

And so, even though he has no experience of family life, he knows about the inner struggle waged by each Christian - it doesn’t matter whether this is in the monastery or in the world. He helps people in their spiritual struggles. And when their faith becomes stronger, it becomes easier for people to solve any problems they have.

The United States of America is a country which has become a consumer society, where the cult of success prospers, and Elder Ephraim has filled this place with springs of pure Christianity, which are now available to all who are tormented by spiritual thirst. 

The Monastery of St. Anthony has already gained fame as a second Athos, and Elder Ephraim of Arizona has received the unofficial title of "Apostle to America".

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