Testimonies and Experiences
Conversations with Greek and Cypriot friends
Presbyter George C. Evthimiou
Research Assistant at the Theological School of the University of Athens(B.D.,B.Phil)
K.I.: Elder Porphyrios as you well know, Father George, happened to be one of the most radiant personalities of contemporary Orthodoxy. You lived by the Elder for many years, and the fact that you are with us today to talk about this holy man of our times gives us great pleasure.
Fr. G.E.: I thank you very much Mr. loannides for giving me this opportunity to talk about Elder Porphyrios, who for many years I was made worthy to have as spiritual father and guide during a decisive period in my life.
The Elder truly played an important role in the development of my personality. I owe much of what I have today to him. Because of that I keep him as a guide in my pastoral ministry which God has made me fortunate to practice for the past five years.
Elder Porphyrios was a genuine human being created in the image of God. As we know from what he himself told us, burning with the love of God, he secretly left his home in Evia and went to Mt. Athos to the area of Kavsokalyvia. There he became the disciple of two elders, to whom, as he himself told us, he gave absolute obedience. He really was very obedient; whatever the fathers told him to do, he immediately hurried to fulfill the request.
His obedience was an act of freedom, an exceptionally powerful act, that actually frees a man from the passions, faults and weaknesses that dominate him. Through this he was in Christ and lived the freedom of God's children. You could see concentrated in Elder Porphyrios all the personality characteristics which we see in the saints of our Church; love, humility, simplicity and discernment (diakrisis).
Precisely because of his complete devotion to God, he was made worthy to receive great spiritual gifts, such as foresight and discernment. As a result of this, he became an outstanding spiritual father, who literally guided the lives of many.
Even in the twilight of his life, in pain, in bed, and suffering from various illnesses, even then, he continued his pastoral duties by phone. Day and night, literally twenty-four hours a day, thousands of people, from the length and breadth of the planet, phoned him for his help, advice and prayers.
Elder Porphyrios had all those features, that made him lovable, desirable and able to attract people like a magnet. This didn't happen in a magical way, but because he had all those characteristics that everyone longs for. He had all those reminders of our divinely created image and of the ourpose for which we were created.
Let us recall here the teaching of our Church. God, out of His love, and only out of His love, created man for one sole purpose; to make him a partaker of his own happiness. God creates man to make him happy, whole and to live in the fullness of the communion of God.
Elder Porphyrios, like the whole of humanity, received a calling from God. Everyone is called to salvation since this is the very purpose of our existence. The distinguishing mark of the Elder, as with all the saints of the Church, was that he responded to this calling. He made his choice early on and said, "I want to be with Christ and to live according to Christ." Then he followed Christ; as the Lord says, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself take up his cross and follow Me." (Mark 8:34) He denied the old man who is subjected to passion and sins, in the dominion of the devil, and he took up his cross and followed Christ for life.
His life was full of turmoil and upset, like all the saints of the Church, in the words of the Lord, "Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way" (Matt.7:14) that leads to the kingdom of God. Elder Porphyrios also had a life full of ups and downs, with many trials, temptations and thorns in the flesh. He went through the furnace of suffering and sorrow, by which Man is purified of all the passions within him and is offered to God clean and whole.
Elder Porphyrios battled throughout his whole life against that evil serpent the devil, who is "like a roaring lion seeking his prey." (I.Peter 5:8) He also struggled against that other enemy, the old Adam and the world subject to sin. His weapons were vigil, fasting and prayer, through which he was deemed worthy of heavenly gifts.
He was also made a spiritual father by the Metropolitan of Karystia, Panteleimon, at the very young age of twenty-one. Large numbers of people flocked to the monastery of St. Charalambos in Evia, where he was then living. They sought release from their sins, unburdening them upon him. They told him their problems and received answers and solutions to them
K.I.: How were these special characteristics of Elder Porphyrios expressed?
Fr.G.E.: We see in Elder Porphyrios' life all the characteristics of a saint of the Church. At the same time we can see certain distinct characteristics, which bring to mind the consistent teaching of our Church, that the grace of God overshadows Man, enlightens him and directs him, but it does not overwhelm him. That is to say, each saint of the Church retains the unique characteristics of his personality.
I can attest to the love that Elder Porphyrios had, both towards God and towards people, from my own personal experience. His love towards God was wholehearted. He loved Him with all his being and he truly devoted his whole life to him.
This love of his towards God, a love that had wounded his heart, sprang forth towards his fellow man. I often witnessed this touching love of his. I remember with how much love and affection he understood and sympathized with our problems when we were in difficult situations. He took these problems upon himself, prayed considerably and struggled alongside us to find the solution.
I will never forget some of the typical phone calls that he made during really critical and difficult moments for me. As I already mentioned, he carried out his pastoral work by phone. He would phone me up at the most unusual hours -once it was six in the morning! I hadn't even told him my trouble, and yet, he would ask me about that particular problem and give me meaningful advice. His words were truly like soothing balm, but at the same time acted as a catalyst for the solution of my particular problem.
Another attribute of Elder Porphyrios was his extreme humility. So, although he had that wisdom which comes from above, he would always say to us, "You have diplomas, you know things. I am illiterate."
He was both self-abasing and self-reproachful, characteristics of a humble man. Something which we come across in the saints of our Church.
Yet another attribute of Elder Porphyrios, of which one was always aware, was his simplicity. He lived extremely frugally in humble surroundings. He was very simple in his dealings with people. He received everyone and refused no one. This was an attribute of his that truly broke the ice and created just the right atmosphere so that people could get close to him, could confess their sins, could tell him their problems and receive answers to them.
Another of his main attributes was his discernment, which according to the Fathers is "the greatest of all virtues." Discernment is connected to the principle of individualization. Thus, for Elder Porphyrios, each person as a child of God had absolute worth. He saw each individual as a unique and unrepeatable personality. He confronted each problem of theirs, with its own particular characteristics.
That is why, Elder Porphyrios said different things to different people
who may have appeared, at first sight, to have had the same problem.
There were different presuppositions in each case, and each person
needed different medicine to overcome his problem. It was for this
reason that he often said to us "Don't tell other people what I am now
telling you. This is suitable medicine for you, for your situation.
Another person, even if his external symptoms are the same, won't get
the same beneficial results. I was often amazed, despite his heavenly
wisdom, at the answers of unmarried Elder Porphyrios on matters of
marriage, marital relations and childbearing etc. His answers weren't 'cliche/
inflexible, harsh, rigid and 'objective.' They were answers full of
truth, love, affection and discernment, corresponding to the situation,
the need and the receptiveness of each person, at that particular time.
Looking to people's salvation, he didn't try to put them into a single
mold to create identical individuals. As a man full of the Holy Spirit
he guided each person according to the will of Christ, giving to "each
according to his measure." (Eph. 4:7) for the welfare of the soul.
At this point I would like to mention an incident which testifies to both the discerning and individual way in which Elder Porphyrios did his pastoral work and the freedom and breadth of his spirit. One day, when he was living at St. Nicholas', Kallisia, he had gone for a walk in the adjoining forest with one of his spiritual children. In the meantime, a young couple wearing shorts had entered the church to pray. When the Elder returned from the forest he met them just as they were leaving by the metal courtyard door. He greeted them and stood there for a long while, talking lovingly and affectionately with them. I didn't hear what he said to them, but the respectful way in which they kissed his hand was a persuasive testimony of the impact he had on them with his words and his demeanor.
K.I.: You referred, at some point in our conversation, to the Elder's gift of discernment. Fr. George, may we have your testimony about this gift of his, which you have naturally already mentioned when talking about certain telephone calls he made?
Fr.G.E.: This gift of his was very apparent. You could see it with the
naked eye. Elder Porphyrios always surprised us telling us things even
before we had a chance to confess them.
In order to avoid misunderstanding I would like to point out the following. Elder Porphyrios, like all the saints of the Church, was rendered worthy of these gifts by God. Our saints are not illumined in themselves but reflect divine light. God possesses everything and it is God who adorns and favors his elected servants with these gifts. These gifts are revocable and at the same time a cross. The retention of these spiritual gifts requires a life of permanent vigilance and intense spiritual struggle, with lots of trials and temptations. There is always a danger of falling from favor, falling because of arrogance and pride.
Elder Porphyrios never used all those gifts that God gave him to impress people or to draw particular benefits from them. On the contrary, he used them with discrimination and according to the particular circumstances. He only had one end in mind, people's salvation and the glory of God.
Elder Porphyrios, as a genuine man of God, was an Orthodox Christian, ^and bore no relationship to the well-known Manichaeism* of the materialists, or to dissolute spiritualists. He was a man who lived the truth of the Church. He clearly knew that a human is a psychosomatic being with both spiritual and material needs. He always helped people in this way - neither underestimating one thing nor the other.
This fact has great significance because it is an area where most people have conflict. If many so-called "spiritual" people don't fall into the trap of materialism, it is because it is visible to the naked eye and easily avoided. Many however fall into the trap of dissolute spiritualism, a kind of Manichaeism (Religious system, originally of the third to fith centuries AD. Dualist theory that there are two principles governing the World, Good and Evil. Thus, representing Satan as in everlasting conflict with God),a teaching that has no connection with the teaching of the Church. Therefore, they devalue an individual's material or bodily needs, resulting in terrifying problems for the entire person.
We know that all people are composed of both body and soul. We know of the mutual influence, that they have on one another and we know that bodily problems affect the soul and vice-versa. Thus, Elder Porphyrios, with characteristic discernment, confronted the entire person and his problems. He devalued no one but gave appropriate advice to everyone.
K.I.: Could you give us, Fr. George, some of the typical examples about him that you describe so well?
Fr.G.E.: Well, he would advise us, for example, where to build our house, in which direction it should face, so that it would have sunlight all day, how to regulate the heating etc. He also advised us on diet and nutrition. Extremely characteristic was the way in which he dealt with people who suffered from various illnesses and sought his help. At first, he would "X-ray" them with his gift of discernment. After making the diagnosis, he would advise them accordingly. To others he would say, "Eh, you've got nothing physically wrong, its psychological." and recommended the spiritual regimen needed to heal the problem. When he diagnosed physical health problems he usually directed that person to the proper doctors. Finally, in the interests of the sufferer, he would make them well, as often as it was necessary, with his gift of healing.
K.I.: As you told us, you had Elder Porphyrios as a spiritual father and guide for many years.
Fr.G.E.: This was really the area in which he shined. Primarily, with his simplicity and with his affability, he created a climate of ease and trust for each person that approached him. This is indispensable for the sacrament of Repentance and Confession.
Here I must mention that many people who found it difficult to confess certain sins to other priests felt at ease in the presence of the Elder and confessed.
Elder Porphyrios listened very carefully to what each person said to him, as he was gifted with pastoral attentiveness. He listened to people carefully first, and spoke afterwards. His words were always few and to the point, based, as we said, on the principle of individualization. Each individual who met the Elder was for him, a unique and unrepeatable personality, of boundless worth.
He confronted the problems that were put to him with particular care, with a feeling of responsibility and plenty of prayer. It was usual to see him silent during confession and you felt that he was praying and seeking enlightenment from God.
It was also quite usual for him not to give quick answers in order to form some more impressions. Sometimes he said to us, "I don't have any information at the moment, I can't answer you now." We would return a second and a third time for the same problem.
He prayed day and night for people and for the solution to their problems. All the people who were honored to have contact with him and to become his spiritual children, acknowledge the fruits of his prayer, which really solved their problems.
The astounding thing was that during our confessions with the late Elder, what he often underlined as the root of the problem was quite irrelevant to the problem. He very often said that the root of our problems was egotism, which he considered to be the basis of all sin and of Man's various problems. There are many things which we could say relating to this. What I would like to mention as indicative of this, is some pieces of advice that the Elder gave, and the methods he used to confront various problems that have a general validity and meaning for people.
K.I.: We would very much like to hear about it, Fr. George?
Fr. G.E.: We often spoke to him about our children and the problems they face. He answered us in his characteristic way, "You become saints and your children will turn out well." That was something that he constantly repeated.
Concerning the subject of raising children he stressed that we should not pressure them; that is to say, that their upbringing should not be oppressive, as that brings the opposite results. This advice was priceless and helped many parents to change their course, and many children who were literally being mistreated by the oppressive good intentions of their parents, calmed down and found their way in life.
Something which when I heard it made a moving impression on me, was regarding the subject of fasting.
It concerns a couple of newlyweds. The husband was used to keeping the fasts. The wife on the other hand, didn't keep the fasts, as that was the way she was brought up. She didn't object to fasting, it's just that she wasn't used to it.
When they put their problem to Elder Porphyrios he advised the husband as follows, "You shall fast as you always have, but you won't talk about fasting to your wife. During times of fasting you'll always keep your refrigerator full of food. Let your wife eat; you can keep your fasts."
Truly the time came, as the couple themselves later admitted, that through following the advice of the Elder, the wife also started to fast. It seems she was a well-intentioned woman and wanted to agree and go along with her husband on the issue of fasting.
He often mentioned and advised people about so called "compulsion": the psychological condition where a person compels himself to do different things which he does not believe in and that do not represent him. This is a strange condition, a great inner muddle, which makes a person find himself disturbed inside and in terrible disarray.
Elder Porphyrios helped those people who had this problem to admit it. He then told them how to overcome it, by dedication to God, prayer, and life according to God's will.
There is something else that I would like to say, because it has great importance and concerns everyone, especially Christians. It is the subject of confronting naughty thoughts.
We all know about the war the devil makes on us through our thoughts. Personally, I know from my own experience as a spiritual father, which God has made me worthy to become, how many people are confused and really troubled at this point.
When we asked Elder Porphyrios about this problem, he said, "You're continuing along your way. When the devil comes along and tugs at your shirt sleeve to put you off course, don't turn around to start a conversation or dispute with him. You continue on your way. He'll tug at your shirt sleeve, but you continue on your way and somewhere he'll get fed up and he'll leave you alone." Although, "time would fail me" (Heb. 11:32), I wish to refer to something which has to do with teachers. It concerns advice the Elder gave to a high-school teacher who had just been appointed and was about to take up her position. He told her, "When you're on your way to school say the prayer 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' When you go into the classroom feel as if you're entering a church. Face the children with love and firmness. They'll feel your love and understand your strictness. And if a particular child presents certain problems and creates unpleasant situations, give his name to the priest to remember him during the proskomide."
K.I.: You know so many things about Elder Porphyrios, Fr. George. What a
blessing it is for us to have you tell us them!
Fr. G.E.: I tried to the best of my ability to describe this great figure who truly was a gift from God to the twentieth-century, an exceptional blessing.
The Elder had received in the eyes of the world very little education. However he was truly the wise man, who has wisdom from on high. Correspondingly he had a natural love of learning; that's why he always read knowledgeably. He asked for and read books on all subjects, apart from theology, which he naturally studied. He read medical books, books on physics, astronomy, etc..
He spoke with scientists and academics. With each one he spoke at a high level about the specific areas of their subject. I will mention just two incidents and then end my talk.
The first incident concerns an astronomy professor of international fame, who visited the Elder and discussed subjects of astronomy with him. This professor told me, "The thing that made an impression on me during my discussions with Elder Porphyrios, was that he really knew what he was talking about. He never, but never, made a mistake."
I was present at the second incident. We were with a surgeon, a director of a large hospital in Athens, and Elder Porphyrios started to describe to him how a particular operation is done. The surgeon, amazed at what the Elder said, simply agreed with him.
K.I.: We thank you warmly Fr. George, for all of the testimony you have given us. It has helped us visualize yet another side of divine reality, as expressed by Elder Porphyrios.
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Article published in English on: 22-1-2009.
Last Update: 22-1-2009.