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Τετάρτη, 23 Μαΐου 2018

A TRUE PRIEST OF GOD: ELDER EPIPHANIOS (+1989)





A TRUE PRIEST OF GOD: ELDER EPIPHANIOS (+1989)




Source: “Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, ” by H. Middleton, Protection Veil Press (2003), pp. 63-71.    


On December 27,1930, in the small town of Vournazion in the southwestern Peloponnese, the blessed Elder Epiphanios (Theodoropoulos) was born into the world. His pious parents John and Georgia gave the name Eteoklis to this their first of six children. Despite all the attention he received as the first-born child, Eteoklis spurned worldly attention from an early age. He focused his attention on Christ, following the pious example of his mother and particularly of his aunt. (His aunt, Alexandra, had an especially important influence on his life, a fact that Fr. Epiphanios referred to many times. In addition to playing an important role in his early education and upbringing, she also helped him during his years as an archimandrite (in Athens).


As a child of two he would tell people of his desire to become a priest, and donning a sheet, would play priest. From the tender age of five he attended all the services of the local church, fasting and preparing for Holy Communion in the same way as the Church prescribes for adults. One Sunday, in fact, concerned for the boy’s health (he was particularly thin at the time), his aunt tried to get him to drink a glass of milk before leaving for the liturgy. The boy was visibly upset and responded, “Shall we go to church with a full stomach? How will we pray? How will we take antidoron  Are we going just to listen to the service?”


Eteoklis would arrive early for church, often before the priest. Early one Sunday morning, the village priest went to prepare things for the liturgy. On arriving at the church, he could just make out a pair of eyes looking at him in the darkness from the doorway of the church. Afraid that the person might be dangerous, he went to Eteoklis’ house to see if he had left for church yet. On hearing the story his aunt Alexandra laughed, “Ah! My dear father, what are you afraid of?! It’s Eteoklis waiting for you with lit charcoal for the censer.”


One evening, on learning that his aunts would be going to an early morning liturgy in one of the many chapels that dot the countryside, Eteoklis begged them to take him with them. Despite their assurances that they would wake him, the young Eteoklis sensed that they would not follow through on their word, as they had done in the past. In his zeal for the Church’s services, he decided to hide his aunts’ shoes so that they would be forced to wake him, and take him with them!


When he was old enough, Eteoklis was sent to the school in the nearest large town, Kalamata. He was a good student and enjoyed his studies, except for mathematics. His remark to his aunt is characteristic: “What do I need math for? Am I going to become a merchant? I’m going to become a priest!” From early on in his academic career he distinguished himself by his love for study and his fine character. Both his fellow students as well as his teachers recognized this, and he was thus sought after to serve in various positions of authority and responsibility.


Eteoklis did not spend his time and energies in many of the normal pursuits of young people, but rather in reading Holy Scripture as well as the works of the Fathers. He began his theological training on his own while he was in junior high school and thus developed his belief, oft-repeated, that it is not the university that creates the scholar, but rather one’s commitment to a “study-chair,” that is to say, his personal study. In addition to his academic studies, Eteoklis did not neglect his spiritual development and thus spent a great deal of time not only in the Church’s services, but also visiting what he called the “aristocracy” of Orthodoxy, the monasteries. In particular he would often visit the Voulcanou Monastery, located near Kalamata.


In 1949 Eteoklis moved to Athens, having successfully com-pleted his studies in Kalamata. He enrolled at the Theological School of the University of Athens, but, having a great appetite for knowledge, he didn’t limit himself to the study of theology. Following the example of the Cappadocian Fathers and other great Fathers of the Church, Eteoklis threw himself into the study of Greek and foreign authors, philosophers, poets, historians, scholars, and apologists from ancient times to the present. In addition to his personal study, he would also attend lectures at the Schools of Law, Philosophy and Medicine, among others, so as to broaden his knowledge.


 Many of his professors, recognizing his intellectual gifts, encouraged him to continue his studies abroad so as to return and follow the path of university teaching. Eteoklis refused however, unwilling to sacrifice the grandeur of the priesthood for the lower path of scholarship. Instead of going abroad for graduate studies, he preferred to specialize in the “science” of the spiritual life at the “university” of the monastery. He believed that it is necessary for each candidate to the priesthood (and especially celibate priests) to spend time in monasteries so as to better prepare spiritually for pastoral service. During his years in Athens, Eteoklis frequently visited the Monastery of Longovarda on the island of Paros. The abbot of the monastery there, the blessed Elder Philotheos (Zervakos), was his spiritual father until his repose in 1980.


In the sphere of academics Eteoklis’ greatest love was the study of Holy Scripture. He would study the whole of the Old and New Testament from the ancient text, three times each year. He referred to Scripture frequently, using it as his main source in speaking and writing. When asked what he would have studied had theological studies not been an option, he replied, medicine or law: medicine, as it is the most philanthropic science, and law, as the lawyer has the possibility of greatly affecting society by championing the cause of the good and by protecting the innocent.


In November 1956, Eteoklis’ childhood dream was realized when he was ordained to the diaconate by Metropolitan Ierotheos of Aitolia and Akarnania, and was given the new name Epiphanios. That same year he also published his first book, Holy Scripture and the Evil Spirits. The years of his diaconate were spent mostly in Kalamata where he had the opportunity to continue his study of the Fathers as well as to spend time with important ecclesiastical personalities of his day.


Elder Epiphanios had patiently waited until after his twenty- fifth birthday to be ordained to the diaconate, so as to remain faithful to the precision of the Church’s canons regarding the age at which men may be ordained deacon. Though he never disregarded the need and use of Economy as regards the canons, and made use of it in his pastoral service, when it came to himself, he was very strict and insisted on keeping them precisely. He was accused, at various times, of having a pharisaical attachment to the holy canons. His answer, however, was that many people in the Church today, by seeking ways to reject them, are in fact rejecting gifts which the Holy Spirit has given the Church. His insistence on the keeping of the canons was inspired by his reverence and obedience toward the Holy Spirit Who inspired them and the Holy Fathers who wrote them.

In 1961 Elder Epiphanios was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Ambrose of Eleftheroupolis. The Elder followed the example of the Apostle Paul in serving the Church without pay or benefits. In order to survive, he worked as an editor of the publications of the Astir publishing house. One of his spiritual children once suggested that he get on the Church’s payroll, not to earn money, but to ensure insurance and pension. He refused, insisting that God, as a good and faithful “Employer” does not leave His “employees” without pay.


Elder Epiphanios’ desire was to serve the Church in a quiet and invisible way. He was granted his wish with a position as priest of the little chapel of the Three Great Hierarchs, in downtown Athens. It was here that he zealously served the suffering people of God as confessor. Despite the strictness of his approach to spiritual counsel, crowds of people from all walks of life flocked to him for guidance and spiritual comfort. Although he suffered along with those who came to him, at the same time his work brought him the greatest peace.
In addition to his work as priest and confessor, he also served the Church through the twenty-two books and many articles he authored. His opinion was sought after by bishops, priests, monks and laymen, to help them answer many of the complex theological and ethical problems of the contemporary world. Because of the great respect the faithful had for him, he was asked many times to become bishop, an honor that he refused.


Although Elder Epiphanios lived most of his life in the heart of Athens, he managed to keep a strict rule of prayer. First thing in the morning, having said morning prayers, he would read the service of Matins along with the canons from the Menaion and from the Paraklitiki. When his morning rule of prayer had ended he would spend time in study or writing and then begin his pastoral work, receiving guests, or visiting people, according to the needs of the day. 


His work would barely stop for lunch, during which he would meet with people or speak with them on the telephone. At about five o’clock in the afternoon he would begin the evening services with Vespers followed by a Supplicatory Canon. He would then leave for the chapel of the Three Great Hierarchs, where he would receive people for confession, after which he would visit the sick and suffering in the hospitals. On his return home there would usually be people waiting for him or telephone calls to receive. He would have a late dinner, read Small Compline and the Akathist to the Mother of God, and then attempt to sleep, as he suffered from insomnia.

The Elder’s insomnia eventually grew so bad that he prayed for divine assistance. During one such sleepless night, he picked up the New Testament and looked for some understanding of his struggle. His eyes immediately fell upon St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, verse 12:7, “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Elder Epiphanios was grateful for God’s answer to his prayer, that at least he knew his suffering was allowed by God. On two other occasions, having reached the limits of his strength, he asked God for His assistance and, opening the New Testament, immediately received the same response. Not so bold as to ask the same thing a fourth time, he simply suffered on.

In 1976, at the urging and with the help of his spiritual children, Elder Epiphanios founded the Holy Hesychasterion of the Keharitomeni (“Most Graceful”) Mother of God in Trizina, in the Peloponnese, a few hours from Athens. His hope of providing a place of monastic struggle for those of his spiritual sons who sought the monastic life was thus realized. He continued his service in the world as well, however, dividing his time between Athens and his monastery.


Not long after the foundation of the monastery, the Elder’s health began to deteriorate. His demanding regime had taken its toll, and in December 1982 he was operated on in Athens. He had been suffering from stomach ailments and was diagnosed with gastrorrhagia (severe stomach ulcers), which in his case had the danger of developing into cancer. The operation was very taxing on him and the surgeon ended up removing three-quarters of his stomach. The Elder’s health continued to plague him and eventually left him in such a state that he was completely confined to his bed, unable to sit up. Having arranged for his funeral and burial he prepared himself spiritually for his repose. At four o’clock on November 10,1989, at the age of 58, he gave his soul into the hands of God.

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