2007-04-18 / Front Page
Middletown monk keeps ancient rituals alive
New Greek Orthodox bishop feels apocalypse is near but has no fear
BY KAREN E. BOWES
Except it's a monastery.
Since 1979, three Greek Orthodox monks have lived and prayed at the little house on David Court, officially known as the Hellenic Orthodox Monastery of St. Barbara. One of those monks, the Rev. Archimandrite Ephraem, was just named the new bishop, or metropolitan, of New Jersey. He was recently consecrated in Athens, Greece, by the church hierarchy.
Last week, on a damp and sunless Wednesday afternoon, the 63-year-old Ephraem answered his front door with excitement, proclaiming clearly and loudly, "Christ is risen!" It's how he always greets his guests, he explained. It's also how he answers the telephone.
"For 40 days after the resurrection, we don't say hello or how are you," said the new bishop. "We say, 'Christ is risen.' We want to share with everyone the joy of the resurrection."
Dressed in a long black robe and a square-cut hat, Ephraem and his fellow Greek Orthodox monks dress in traditional garb at all times. Their life is one of constant prayer, he explained, both day and night, interrupted only by brief naps, light meals and acts of goodwill, such as delivering food to the needy or serving as a hospital chaplain. Having taken vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and constancy and to never leave the monastic life, the monks rely on donations for survival.
"A monastic can be a man or a woman," Ephraem said. "The only real requirement is to repent for their sins and to strive for salvation. Not just our own salvation. We're praying for the salvation of the world."
The monastery is decorated modestly with furniture from the 1970s. With the exception of a few candles, it is kept dark at all times. This is to keep the temptations of the secular world at bay, Ephraem explained. As he led the way through a cramped and smoky basement, the air thick with incense, Ephraem talked about what daily life is like for a modern day monk.
He rises each day at 4:30 a.m. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he fasts - on Wednesday because it is the day Jesus was betrayed, and on Friday because it is the day Jesus was crucified. After praying in his room and having a light snack, he may head out for a short time, usually to buy and/or deliver food to the needy. Usually, though, he stays home and prays.
"To repent means to change," Ephraem said. "In a secular world, it's very difficult. That's why monks leave the secular world."
At the back of the house, the sunroom has been transformed into a tiny but fully functional chapel. Since most members of the Greek Orthodox community celebrate Mass at their local church, the chapel is used primarily by the monks for their daily prayer services.
"We pray in the name of the church and not in our own names," Ephraem said. "We don't practice extemporaneous prayer. Everything is taken directly from Scripture."
The men pray at least seven times each day, at 7 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., 11 p.m. and once in the middle of the night. Ephraem said those late prayers have to do with the story of the seven virgins. According to the Bible, the virgins were waiting for Jesus to arrive one night when they ran out of oil for their lamps. As a consequence, they missed Jesus.
"We keep watch at night because we don't know when Jesus will come again," Ephraem said. "We want to be ready."
Since they wake up each day at 4:30 a.m., they must find time to nap in between, he said.
"Whenever there's an idle moment, we take a cat nap," he said.
How does he feel about his new role as bishop? At first, he didn't want the job.
"I respectfully declined," he said. "It would mean endless work."
Soon he found out he had no choice.
"They said we're telling you, not asking you," Ephraem said. "So get your ticket and come over here. Of course, I am under obedience. It's not like I have a choice."
His official duties won't begin until after Pentecost Sunday, celebrated this year on May 27. Under the Julian calendar, which is used by the Greek Orthodox, the date is May 14.
He admits, it can get confusing. He also worries that many Westernized Greek Orthodox followers are becoming turned off by Mass because it is celebrated in a language they cannot understand.
"It's not in modern Greek," he said. "It's in ancient Greek."
"They say the monastery is the barometer of the church," he continued. "When the monastery flourishes, the church flourishes. When the monastery wanes, the church wanes. I think we're in the last days. I think Jesus is coming."
"We know not the day," Ephraem responded. But "all the signs and the prophecies are becoming true. War, disease, drought, this menace that's attacking Christianity. Political upheaval. You just listen to the news and you can tell the world is upside down."
Ephraem believes there is only one prophecy left to be fulfilled.
"The rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem," he said. "That's the last one. It hasn't been rebuilt. But if Jesus were to come back today, the temple could be built overnight."
Of course, the anti-Christ would have to come first, Ephraem explained. Only then will Christ return.
"It's an exciting time," Ephraem said. "It's exciting because the purpose of our lives is to be reunited with Christ. If it were to happen in our lifetime, wouldn't that be wonderful?"