In 97 when I visited Mount Athos several monasteries pulled me aside to ask what I knew of Fr. Ephraim. Some even felt like police interrogations. These very traditional monastics were concerned by the young men who were showing up from America who had been influenced by the Ephraimite Monasteries. At least three different monasteries on Mount Athos told me to stay away from his monasteries in America because they were not healthy.
That is interesting, as it runs counter to all I have heard from others who have visited monasteries on Mt. Athos, the Holy Land, etc. Elder Ephraim is still the spiritual father of 5 monasteries on Mt. Athos (and some monasteries in Greece), and monks from Athos and elsewhere regularly come to the monastery in Arizona seeking guidance from him. A few years ago a friend of mine visited monasteries on Mt. Athos and in the Holy Land and he was constantly asked by monks in these places whether he had visited the monastery in Arizona or knew Elder Ephraim. Everyone he encountered spoke with great esteem about the Elder and the monasteries he has established.
The greatly esteemed and eminent author Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, who himself spent some years as a monk on Mt. Athos and is well acquainted with the Fathers and with Athonite life, wrote the following in the Prologue to Elder Ephraim’s “Counsels from the Holy Mountain”:
“Later I met [Elder Ephraim] again on the Holy Mountain when he was
the abbot of the Holy Monastery of Philotheou. I visited him with a
group of young people, and again I experienced the same sensation.
His words were very compunctious, sweet, penetrating, revealing,
clairvoyant, renewing, healing, and extracted from patristic wisdom.
He was exactly the same person whom one meets in the book Counsels
from the Holy Mountain, for it contains words full of grace, words of
a spiritual father to his spiritual children….
“Father Ephraim, as I remember him very well from my youth and as one
encounters him in this book, is a genuine teacher of the spiritual
life and a reliable guide for the Christian’s journey towards rebirth,
since he himself has experienced and learned the divine, which is why
his words are ‘full of grace and truth.’ And in this case the saying
of St. John of Sinai, the author of the Ladder, applies: ‘A genuine
teacher is he who has received the spiritual tablet of knowledge from
God inscribed by His finger – that is, by the operation of
illumination – and who has no need of other books.’”
“It is significant that the spiritual words contained in this book,
which emanate from the vigils and stillness of the Holy Mountain, are
presented to America where, on the one hand, a 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,
spiritually void and deluded meditation, atheistic social activism,
etc. And I believe that this book will be of great help to those who
seek to taste in their personal life – in proportion to their
struggle, of course – the true scriptural and patristic food that
gives meaning to the life of man and constitutes the true bread of
“Papa-Ephraim (as we call him here in Greece), in the words of St.
Symeon the New Theologian, ‘received fire,’ and he has imparted this
fire to many monks of the Holy Mountain and in turn to the Church in
America that has great need of it. Now, with the English edition of
this book, he will spread this fire to all who seek genuine Orthodox
Constantine Cavarnos, one of the most significant traditional Orthodox authors who have lived in this country, a frequenter of Mt. Athos, and a man who had the blessing to be acquainted with many of the holy elders of the 20th century, both in Greece and on Mt. Athos, chose to live out the last years of his earthly life as a monk at St. Anthony’s of all places:http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/03/constantine-cavarnos-schemamonk-and.html
Fr. Theodore Zisis, Patristics Professor of the University of Thessaloniki visited the monastery in Arizona as well and spoke very highly of his experience there:http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/03/fr-theodore-zisis-orthodoxy-in-america.html
Here is an account of a profitable pilgrimage to the Arizona monastery by a pilgrim from Greece, which is representative of the accounts I have heard from others who have visited:http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/07/greek-pilgrim-visits-st-anthonys.html
Over the years I (as a married man and father) have visited and confessed at several monasteries under Elder Ephraim and have been very blessed by my experiences with them. I consider them to be great havens and a blessing for Orthodoxy in this country. I have known others who have lived as monks at St. Anthony’s before going to other monasteries, and who were novices there for a time and then left, but all of these whom I have known hold St. Anthony’s and the Elder in the highest regard. Some people I have known, while expressing great esteem and reverence for St. Anthony’s and the Elder, do criticize some of the lay people who frequent the monasteries as being overly cultish and fanatical. A lot of the concern that has been expressed regarding the monasteries results not from Elder Ephraim or the monks themselves, but from overzealous, groupie types among the laity who think their association with such a traditional expression of Orthodoxy, or their association with Elder Ephraim, gives them the license to go around denouncing their clergy and fellow laity while proclaiming Elder Ephraim as a “living saint”. This kind of behavior is regularly criticized and spoken against by the monasteries, but people do not listen and so proceed with their very embarrassing behavior. Having witnessed such foolish behavior myself, I am then not surprised when people who have no personal experience of the monasteries think that they are cults based on the obnoxious and misguided words and behavior of some of the laity who claim association with the monasteries.
Aside from those who criticize the monasteries because of the foolish words and conduct of overzealous and misguided laity who appoint themselves as representatives of the monasteries, the other criticisms typically come from those who do not understand Orthodox monasticism. From such people, as they elaborate on their objections to Elder Ephraim and his monasteries, it becomes clear that it is traditional Orthodoxy in general, and traditional Orthodox monasticism in particularly, that they fiercely oppose.
The only critics of the monasteries that I have known who would identify themselves as “traditional Orthodox” are Old Calendarists who believe that Elder Ephraim is wrong because he is on the New Calendar and under Patriarch Bartholomew whom they consider a heretic. The Old Calendarists believe that faithfulness to Orthodox tradition requires that you break communion with all of the Orthodox patriarchates who have either adopted the New Calendar or are in communion with those who use the New Calendar. Since the monasteries are very traditional and yet do not support the creation of schisms in the name of Holy Tradition, many Old Calendarists see the monasteries as their enemies, or at least competitors for the souls of those who have a great love for Holy Tradition. I have unfortunately seen some Old Calendarists spread erroneous information about supposed “false prophecies” of Elder Ephraim with the hope of tarnishing his reputation, having no interest in trying to verify whether such “false prophecies” were ever uttered by him.
Sadly, I have also seen that some monastics and abbots of other monasteries resent the fact that Elder Ephraim has been able to establish so many monasteries here and attract so many to monasticism in such a brief period of time. Monastics are people too, and when one labors for decades to establish one monastery, barely attracts a handful of monks, and struggles to keep the few monks fed; it is unfortunate but understandable that some jealousy can result when a monk from another land appears and quickly establishes 17 lively monasteries, some having 20-50 monks in residence, many of which are constantly building and never seem to run out of money.
Regarding Fr. Ephraim himself, I have never met him, but those who have known him over the years tell me that he is like a little child, very humble and unassuming.
So, for what it is worth, this is what I know from my own experience and from those who I have known who are experienced with the monasteries and with Elder Ephraim. If others have more direct or extensive experience with St. Anthony’s or other monasteries, I would be interested in what they have to say. Unfortunately, this is a subject where hearsay, speculation, and misinformation tend to dominate.