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Friday, 10 November 2017

“A frightful but also beneficial incident…”

by Elder Ephraim of Arizona
“Deliver me from the hands of demons, for many dogs have surrounded me.”
— Canon for the Departure of the Soul

When our brotherhood was first established, there was a frightful but also beneficial incident with an elder of the skete; the older fathers certainly would remember this. This elder, who was sick with a heart condition, called me one day to go and confess him. Indeed, we had confession, but the tempter intervened and convinced the elder to hide certain faults. Perhaps these faults occurred when he was still living in the world.15 When his heart condition became serious and he realized that the time of his departure was approaching, he sent his brother to ask me to return again for confession. His brother, who was also a monk, told me that the elder was impatient and asked me to find out what was happening and to try to calm him down a little before he lost his soul. I was surprised with this because I knew that monks are somewhat patient with temptations and illness, and they do not easily become impatient due to some pain.

When we went there and I saw the elder, I realized that it was not impatience, but instead, something new was happening to him, something relevant to his soul. I told his brother to leave us and that I would talk to the elder alone. I sat next to him and understood that he was surrounded by demons.

“Geronda,16 are you surrounded by evil spirits?” I said to him.

“Yes, holy father.”

I saw that he was agitated, looking to his left and right as if he was trying to protect himself from mad dogs that had surrounded him and were attacking him. I also saw that he was very attentive, carried away by something the demons were telling him. Trying to help him, I changed the tone of my voice a little and said to him:

“Geronda, what are the demons telling you?”

“Oh! I can’t say what they are telling me.”

“No, no, pay very close attention because they know our sins better than we can remember them.”

He started little by little to tell me what the demons were telling him. They were accusing him of various faults that he had not confessed, and they were exposing them to him in his despair. I was getting all the information through him, hoping that God would have mercy on this man in this difficult hour of his despair. I kept telling him to confess his sins to me as he was hearing them from the demons, which he did. However, when I saw that he continued to be in a miserable state, agitated, restless, and despairing, I said to him:

“Elder, I am going out for a little while, but I will come back.”

“No, my dear spiritual father, stay next to me!”

“It’s all right, I will only be gone for two or three minutes; it is not a big deal, I will be back.”

I left and went to the fathers in our brotherhood and said to them:

“Fathers, the elder is in a difficult situation. Let us do a prayer rope for him.” We all did a prayer rope and when I returned to the elder, I found him in a peaceful state.

“What is going on, Geronda? Where are they?” I said to him.

“Here. The dogs are still around.”

“But are they saying anything to you?”

“They are quiet now.”


At night when I entered my cell for my personal vigil and started the prayer,17 I sensed that the demons which were at the elder’s place earlier were now in my own cell, causing me trouble. In all my years, this certainly was the first time that I encountered so many demons fighting me, so close, so perceptibly. I turned on the light to read, but I could not read. The demons were everywhere, left and right. However, I was not afraid at all because I knew that they were there to scare me out of going back to help the elder. I told them to do their job and I would do mine. Later I went to the Divine Liturgy, but they did not appear there. After the Divine Liturgy I went back to the ill and nearly dead man with another spiritual father with whom I performed the mysteries of holy unction and confession. I asked the elder a specific question:

“Well, were the demons the only ones that came? Where is your guardian angel?”

“He is here also.”

“But why doesn’t he take you?”

“He is waiting for an order from above.”

“Well, you see your guardian angel, but do you also see our guardian angels?”

“I see them. And your angels are wearing a kind of crown on their head. Furthermore, they have something special on them which indicate that they guard spiritual fathers.”

He continued to tell me that there would be a festival on Monday— it was Friday then—which certain people, who were presently absent, would attend. Of course, he meant his funeral, and these people were indeed there on Monday.

During his last days, the demons wanted to undermine him with something serious, because he had confessed everything else. Because they had lost on all the other issues, they were enraged and were trying to at least catch him in something at the end. The day before the elder’s death I had sent Father Joseph to keep vigil, pray on the prayer rope for him, and help him. When I went in the morning, the elder said to me in the presence of others who were there:

“My good confessor, let me tell you how the demons almost caught me, and how I would have completely lost my soul.”

“What is it, Geronda?”

“Last night the demons were telling me that I would get well and everything would go away if I would drink this whole jug of water. Of course, I understood they meant that if I drank it I would burst and die, and I was overtaken by the thought of doing it to end my torment. And as I was asking a father to give me the jug of water, my brother prevented it by telling him that if I drank it I would burst. Thus, they didn’t give it to me and I was saved.”

In short, after the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, I visited the elder again and found him very peaceful, sitting in an armchair. I said to him:

“How are you, Geronda?”

“I am very well, my dear confessor. May God reward you for what you did.”

“I am going to lie down for an hour,” I told him, “because I was in vigil last night, and I will come again afterwards to see you.”

“Yes, go rest, Geronda.”

Finally, I left. When I woke up after an hour, the fathers told me that the bells had rung half an hour earlier. Ah, I said, he must have departed from this world. And indeed, the elder had expired.

The above case reveals a man who was not well prepared for his exit from this world. Now I will tell you the case of a well-prepared spiritual man so that you can see the difference in these two cases.

marina beating a demon sketch 

The well-prepared man was my Elder, Joseph the Hesychast. When he was sitting in prayer, at some point he used to think through the events of his day to figure out which passion was still alive, which weakness still disturbed him, and he would make a new decision to fight them and obliterate them. This work took place every night during his prayers. So, all this labor had prepared him as perfectly as is humanly possible. I can say this because he used to tell me, “My child, the difficulty is how to cross the bridge of death. After that, by the grace of God, everything is taken care of.” Those were the words of a well-prepared man.

I have never seen such a brave man facing with so much courage that which every man fears. This was confirmed by various states preceding his death. One of those states was that he was weeping continuously out of great love for Christ and our dear Panagia. He had no regrets. He was awaiting death as a festival, as deliverance from the burdens of the world. He was waiting for this hour in order to see God’s face, to enjoy and be filled with its beauty. He was waiting to enter the angelic order with which he continuously lived. This is why a little before his death he began to worry and say, “But why am I not leaving? The revelation from God was perfect and definite. God has made His decision; why then am I delayed?” I told him then that we would pray for his departure. Indeed, twenty minutes later while he was talking to the fathers, he looked up to the heavens and saw something that only he could see and could not find words to describe it to us. Then he bowed his head and said, “I am leaving, I am departing. Bless; all is finished.” He closed his eyes, received the sleep of a blessed man, and departed for the other world.

We must struggle to attain this precious salvation. The struggle is not a game. We did not come here simply to exist and live as it fell to our lot. The matter is more serious than anyone can imagine. God lives and therefore the salvation of man is something that is beyond seriousness, because if we lose our soul the misfortune is eternal. We must not take this matter lightly and let it escape us. The seriousness will become apparent to us in all its extent when we approach the hour of death. Then our mind grasps this reality and things become serious. Childish thinking is put aside. At that time, a man sees that everything he heard about death, everything he read, and everything he was admonished about is coming true. Most of all, of course, he now has the sense of death, and he realizes that he is leaving. The mind begins to contemplate and question: “What is going to happen now? Where am I going?” The conscience becomes an eloquent mechanism that works unceasingly: “This happened, and that, and the other thing.” It seems to him that he is hearing all this for the first time: “But when did all this take place and yet never bothered me?” Of course, negligence and indolence and the darkening of the mind had covered all like an obscuring veil. And now the wind of the approaching death blows and things come to light. The soul, seeing the reality of what is happening, begins to lose courage: “Now what is going to happen? Can I go back?”

“No,” says the conscience, “now you will proceed towards the truth.”

The man sees the evil demons approaching. They continuously and invisibly follow the various signs. From experience they understand when the hour of death is approaching, and they anticipate it by getting a front-row seat. They want to be first to come and shock and mortify the soul with their terrible appearance. They present the documents containing the soul’s sins in order to create despair and hopelessness. The soul trembles and sighs, and when it sees the guardian angel—or more angels—it turns its eyes in supplication and pleads for help. But the angels help according to the person’s deeds. Afterwards the soul turns its eyes towards relatives, friends, and brothers; it raises its hands asking for help, but receives no assistance from the others. And then it turns its only hope to God’s mercy.

All these things that we said are the reality and the truth. We have seen many people leave this life. We have heard many accounts of the various events which occur at the hour of death. All these correspond to what we read in the Patristic Tradition. These things will also happen to us, and for this reason we must keep them in mind and take the appropriate course of action. The memory of death must restrain us continuously and keep us above all worldly things that we see down here. Our thought must always revolve around death, the departure, the ascent towards God’s court of justice, and the conditions in Paradise versus Hades. Our prayer must be as continuous as possible. We must struggle because the prayer of the soul that struggles is heard by God. It has boldness, especially during the hour of death, and it will face the situation differently.

Let us think about all these things continuously. It is the Patristic truth. It is from life. It is from the revelation of God. And may we be inspired to struggle accordingly in order to attain eternal salvation.18


15 The monastic term “living in the world” here denotes the elder’s life before he became a monk on the Holy Mountain of Athos.

16 The word “Geronda” is the Greek term for an elder or a spiritual father and can also be used as a term of respect for any elderly monk.

17”The   prayer”   refers   to   the   single-phrased  Jesus   prayer,   most   commonly formulated as: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

18 From spoken homilies delivered to Elder Ephraim’s brotherhood on January 6, 1977 and April 5, 1978 at Philotheou Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece. For remarkably similar narrations, see the account below of Stephen the Hermit from St. John Klimakos’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 169; the account of Chrysaorios from St. Gregory, Pope of Rome’s Dialogues, p. 161; and St. Tarasios’s own experience from the Life of St, Tarasios, Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 368.

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