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ON CONFESSION AND THE

POWER TO

REMIT SINS ACCORDING TO

ST SYMEON THE NEW

THEOLOGIAN

S.SymeonNewTheologian

By George S. Gabriel

(Complete with the Homily of our Holy

Father, St Symeon the New Theologian

translated from the Greek

By George S. Gabriel).

I. 

INTRODUCTION TO THE EPISTLE ON

CONFESSION BY OUR FATHER AMONG THE

SAINTS, SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN.

The holy Catholic and Apostolic Church honours only three saints with the Godbearing title of Theologian: the angelic John the Theologian and Evangelist; the godspeaking Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus; and St Symeon the New Theologian. St Symeon speaks to us from the heart of the apostolic and patristic tradition free of the juridical and scholastic notions about sin and forgiveness, the priesthood, and the Church, which have accrued to us from the Latins and the post-reformation West in general. He is the crowning peak at the end of the Church’s first millennium, embodying in himself the fullness and indivisible oneness of Orthodox spiritual and theological attainment.

 But today, a millennium later, the mind of the Orthodox finds itself deeply permeated by the western system of thought i.e., by scholasticism and rationalism. In truth the holy Apostle said: “The mystery of iniquity doth already work” (2 Thes. 2:7), because these systems cultivated the ground for over four centuries, and without them Ecumenism could never have taken root among the Orthodox.

But there is another, more insidious and deadlier ecumenism, the one that is working secretly in our hearts and minds even as we stand staunchly against formal and official Ecumenism.’ It is the co-existence of truth with cacodoxy — cacodoxy under the form of legalism, clericalism, rationalism, organizational ecclesiology, and other humanistic ideas, which derail us from the true path of Orthodox theology and practice. Some Orthodox today will be put off by this Epistle because St Symeon the New Theologian leaves none of our secret idols standing.

 + + + + +

The saintly abbot Symeon was approached by certain monks who asked him if it was proper to confess sins to monks if the latter are not also priests. This Epistle is his clear and affirmative reply. The monks added that they were told the power to bind and to loose sins is given only to priests. The Saint addresses this point and clarifies it once and for all.

 The Gospel teaches that forgiveness of sins is not a result of a change in God toward us but rather a change of our attitude toward God. This is the essential teaching of St Symeon and, indeed of the whole patristic literature. God is changeless in nature and does not desire the destruction of sinners. He is forever disposed to us and never turns away from us but awaits our free response to His unceasing love, and our return to the Truth so He may heal our souls and restore within us our heavenly legacy. The Saviour tells us that, at the first impulse of a soul’s response, of a prodigal’s return, to God, He hastens to embrace, nurture, and sustain him: “When he was yet afar off, his Father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Lk. 15:20) In His ever-present, unfaltering love, the Knower of Hearts (Cardiognostis) is already there in a man’s heart and soul, healing, easing the way, warming, sustaining, bracing and embracing His child.

 When the Fathers, the Scriptures, and our Saviour Himself seem to use legal sounding and anthropomorphic terms, such as justice, justification, payment, debts, law, judgment, transgressions, and others, they use them with very different meaning and purpose than our worldly lexicon can grasp. First, such terms have the purpose of rousing us from our lethargy. Our spiritual understanding (Gr. epignosis) is a function of the spiritual nous which is seated in the heart, not the brain. But in our spiritual backsliding and lethargy, we function only on the level of our cerebral and worldly mind. The rationalistic meaning of penalty, judgment, etc. moved carnal minds to carnal fear. But even this can be a beginning toward the true fear of God, which consists not of terror but of spiritual sorrow. However, such terms are never meant to be theological, that is, to describe God and His energies in the way that they came to be used as theology in the West. The word “justice,” for example, was never understood by the West except according to worldly, legalistic definitions. Using these the West formulated its pagan theology of redemption which teaches that salvation equals a legal acquittal of man’s sins especially the “original sin” of Adam; and that the legal guilt of “original sin” is inherited by every man who comes into the world. And that God devised death as the capital punishment of man. And that “forgiveness” came about by a change in God’s attitude toward us because His demand for a blood satisfaction of divine justice was filled by the death of Christ. Without this satisfaction, it is taught by the West, there could be no salvation, no acquittal of sins or end to God’s killing us as punishment. Salvation, therefore, would mean that man is at last saved from…God!

 However, Christ and the Church baptized human vocabulary and uses these old terms in a new way. Language is reborn and charged with new power and meaning. It becomes like new wineskins for new wine.

 Through the Holy Spirit, our sacred writers understood “justice” to mean the “just” destruction of the power of death and the devil (who is the real “mankiller”) by the Person of the Incarnate Word, and the “just” healing of mankind by God’s Flesh. “For God created not death. He created man to be immortal, and made him an image of His own eternity• Nevertheless, through the envy of the devil death came into the world.” (Wis. 1:13; 2:23-24) Sin cast God out from us. And in losing the grace of the Holy Spirit we lost our Life, physically and spiritually. The Fathers say, “A few drops of Blood recreate the whole world.” (St Gregory the Theologian, 2nd Oration on Pascha, 29) “Our diseased nature needed a healer. Man in his fall needed someone to set him upright. He lost the gift of life and stood in need of a lifegiver.” (St Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism) “At last, he needed a stronger remedy, for his diseases were growing worse…the Word came to His own image [which is man] and took on Him flesh…purifying like by like…that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal.” (St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on the Birth of Christ, 13) Holy Tradition teaches that salvation means being saved from eternal bondage to the devil and death. And forgiveness of sins is their healing or remission in our hearts and the process of our inner restoration to divine sonship, by grace. “Confess your sins to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed.” (Js. 5:16)

 Migne’s Patrologia Graeca includes the Epistle on Confession among the works of St John of Damascus. Today, it is generally attributed to St Symeon the New Theologian. Readers of these great Fathers in the original Greek would agree. In addition to stylistic differences, internal evidence in the content of the Epistle, e.g. references to the saint’s spiritual father, St Symeon the Devout, distinguishes the Epistle’s author from the Damascene.

 A Synopsis of the Epistle follows this introduction. The English translation of the complete text follows my Synopsis and was made from the original Greek text in the collection, The Works of St Symeon the New Theologian. Vol. III published by “Orthodoxos Kipseli,” Thessaloniki, 1990.

II. 

SYNOPSIS OF THE EPISTLE.

Confession to plain monks has existed for, as long as there have been monks. In order to be reconciled to God, one who has been drawn away from God by sin must first repent and cease his evil acts. He also needs a person who is a true friend of God, one who knows God. Such a person would intercede for the sinner and restore him to contact with God and be the sinner’s advisor in his return to God. He would be a wise and experienced physician of souls capable of prescribing the appropriate medicine for each spiritual affliction. And as an intermediary before God in the sinner’s behalf, he would draw upon the great divine mercy by the power of his prayer because he is close to God and converses with Him face to face, and not because he may happen to be a priest.

 But it is very difficult to find a holy person of this kind. Rather, there is a danger of falling into the hands of a spiritual guide who is a slave to his own belly or to vainglory and to titles such as “teacher” and “father” and to men*s esteem. In fact, such a person is an enemy of the sinner, an evil guide and a murderer. For the sinner trusts in his spiritual medicine and therapy and in his healing prayers, but instead of being restored to life, he remains unhealed and is plunged into eternal death. The grace of the intermediary before God, which is needed for the remission of sins and the healing of our soul, is related not to holy orders but directly to holiness. Remission of sins is nothing else but the healing of the soul and the indwelling of God within us. This is why the one who is going to help us in our return to God must himself be a vessel of the Holy Spirit, as were the Apostles and those whom they chose as their immediate successors. Confessors who are not vessels of the Holy Spirit cannot make judgments about people or heal them, and may even come under the Judgment of the Lord Who will say: “Who made thee rulers and judges over my people” (Ex.2:14)? “Physician, heal thyself” (Lk. 4:23). “Who art Thou that judges another man’s servant, it is by his own master that he standeth or falleth” (Rm.14:4). St Symeon confirms and describes for us a continuous decline in faith and holiness among Christians and a parallel loss of grace, both among those who have holy orders and those who do not. With the passing of time, the ordained and the non-ordained became increasingly involved with the world and with people of a worldly or secular mind. The ordination of bishops and priests by the Apostles never had any magical meaning or content. Nor did the ordination bestow a certain power of authority to remit sins that was independent of the purity of their Christian faith and life.

 The Apostles ordained men whom they knew to be true vessels of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they commissioned them to continue the apostolic work with the same powers the Apostles themselves had. But gradually things began to change and Christian criteria and qualifications regarding ordination and apostolic succession declined and were almost lost entirely. Other alien and unchristian criteria came to prevail regarding ordinations and priesthood. Priests and patriarchs alike who lacked the faith and holiness to fight for the truth and for good came to predominate in the Church. They covered up one another’s sins and evils and rationalized away their corruptness under the appearance of unity and peace in the Church. But this false unity and peace is the cause of far greater disorder and destruction than any outright hatred against the Church. The efficacy of divine liturgical offices is not dependent on the personal holiness of the clergy. They may serve these offices, but priests and patriarchs cannot remit sins, because the remission of sins is directly dependent upon the confessor’s personal relationship with God and, therefore, his personal capacity as a vessel of the Holy Spirit and his ability to know the specific will of God for the sinner and, consequently, how to guide him and apply healing grace. So, more and more, the ordained priesthood came to represent a formality that was becoming progressively empty of grace and apostolicity. That is why men in holy orders were succeeded by the people, unordained though they were, and not by all but by those who were called out from the chosen among them, that is to say, from the monks in the early centuries of monasticism. These monks as well as the remnant of worthy clergy gave remission of sins and guided souls to God.

 The guiding and assisting of sinners in their return to God is not something that is the right of men who merely have holy orders. This is rather one of the divine gifts, the ability by grace, given personally to the true disciples of Christ, with or without holy orders. In other words, the power to bind and loose belongs to those who are like the Apostles in the purity of their faith and life, who have the virtues and holiness of the Apostles, and in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. “Those who have become the partakers of the Holy Spirit have been counted as among the Apostles and this is why they are the light of the world. I know that to such people, my son, the power to bind and loose is given by God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit — to those who have received the adoption as sons and servants of God. I was a pupil of such a father [St. Symeon the Devout] who did not have ordination by man… So the power to remit sins was given neither to those who have the monastic schema, nor to those who are ordained to the ranks of priesthood, nor to those who have been honoured by the office of the episcopacy by virtue of their ordination alone. Banish such thoughts! Rather, it is given only to those who are counted among the hosts of the disciples of Christ because of their purity”. No others can guide us and unite us to God but His own adopted sons, people in whom God dwells and who can say, just as the Saviour said, “Thy sins are remitted.” They have found God and they behold Him and live in His light and His light abides in them. Amen.

III.

EPISTLE ON CONFESSION.

By our Holy Father Symeon the New

Theologian.

You have asked our worthlessness to tell you, father and brother, “if it is proper to confess our sins to monks who do not have holy orders”, adding this also, “because we have heard that the power to bind or loose was given only to the priests”. These then are the words and soul-benefitting inquiries of your Godloving soul and its burning desire and fear. We acknowledged your good disposition since you seek to learn about divine and sacred things, but we wished to be silent because we are not of the loftiness of some who are able to distinguish among such matters and write about them. For the work of “interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people” (1 Cor.2:13) belongs to those who are free of passions and are holy men, from whom we are very far as regards our life and words and virtues.

However, it is written, “The Lord is near to those who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 144:18). And because I, the unworthy one, have called upon Him in truth, I shall tell you the following things, not in my words but in those of the divinely inspired Scripture. So rather than teach, I will simply bring to you the witness of the Scripture, reading the things you have inquired of me. Because, through the grace of God, I must guard myself, as well as those who hear me, from both precipices, that is, from the precipice of burying the talent (Mt.25:18,24), and from the precipice of teaching the divine doctrines unworthily in vainglory, or rather, in darkness.

Therefore, where should we begin our commentary if not from the beginningless cause of all things? For this is best in order to be certain about the things that will be said, because we were neither created by the angels nor taught by men but by the wisdom from above, that is mystically, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And because we are always being taught, in every hour, and we have invoked that grace, now we shall speak first of the manner of confession and later of its power.

Confession is nothing other than the admission of our debts and, therefore, a deep awareness of our falls, that is, a decrial of our poverty and foolishness. The Lord spoke in parables in the Gospels about “… two debtors: the one owed five-hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay [the creditor], he forgave them both” (Lk. 7:41,42). So each one of the faithful is a debtor before his Master and God. For whatever each received from Him, the same shall be asked of him at the fearful and dread judgment seat, when we, both the poor and kings, shall all stand before it naked and exposed. Listen now to what it is that we have received from Him. There are many other things, of course, and no man is capable of enumerating them. But for the present time the best and most complete are deliverance from condemnation, sanctification from defilement, advancement from darkness to His ineffable light, the possibility of becoming His children and sons and inheritors through divine baptism and to be clothed with God Himself, and to become His members and to receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, which is a royal seal that the Lord uses for marking His own sheep. But what am I describing as “many” things? It is simply this: that He makes us like Himself and crafts us into His brethren and co-inheritors. To those who are being baptized, all these things are given directly by baptism, which are called by the divine Apostle “divine riches and inheritance” (Col. 1:12; Eph. 3:8; 2 Cor. 4:7).

The commandments of the Master were given as guardians of these ineffable graces and gifts and they encircle the believer all about like a wall, creating a safe haven for the treasure hidden in his soul. And they sustain it and make it inaccessible to all enemies and thieves. However, we think that it is we ourselves who labour under the burden of keeping the commandments of a man-loving God; but we are unaware of the fact that it is we, rather, who are guarded by them. For he who keeps the commandments of God does not sustain and guard them but guards himself from visible and invisible enemies, the innumerable entities which the Apostle Paul spoke of: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spirits of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12), in other words, which are found in the air and are always invisibly arrayed against us.

Therefore, he who keeps the commandments is himself protected by them and cannot lose the riches, which God has entrusted in him. But he who disdains the commandments stands exposed before the enemies and is easily defeated by them. And having lost all these riches, he is in debt to the King and Master for all the things we spoke of which are impossible for man to pay back or even to find. For these are heavenly and He came from heaven. And He comes every day and brings them and distributes them to the faithful. Where could those who had once received them but also lost them possibly find them again? Truly nowhere. Just as neither Adam, nor any of his sons, was able to restore himself or remake his relatives, it would have been impossible had not God, Who is above all being, become Adam’s son according to the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, and come and raised up both him and us from our fall by His divine power- Let him, who with regard to the commandments, only chooses to keep some of them and to forsake some of them, be aware that if he neglects to keep even one of the commandments, he will lose all of the riches. Imagine that the commandments are twelve armed men encircling you all around, and you are standing naked in the middle of them and they are guarding you. Imagine also other warriors who are your opponents and they come and surround you seeking to seize and kill you immediately. Therefore, if One of the twelve falls away by your own choice and neglects to protect you and gives up his post like an open gate to the enemy, of what benefit are then the remaining eleven men if even one of the enemies is able to enter into the centre and mercilessly cut you to pieces while the other eleven cannot turn around to help you? For even if they chose to turn around to help you they too will be slain by the enemy. So the same thing will happen to you if you do not keep the commandments. Because if you should fall from a single blow of your enemy, all of the commandments leave you and, little by little, your strength is drained from you. Or to put it another way, a vessel filled with wine or oil does not need to be punctured all around to lose all its contents. A single hole opened up in one place is sufficient for all that was within to be slowly lost. Likewise, if you neglect just one commandment, you will slowly fall away from all the others, as Christ said: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him who hath not shall be taken away that which he hath” (Mt.25:29). And again, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments,” and by his transgression, “teach men to do so shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt.5:19). And Paul said, “For of whom a man overcome, to the same is he in bondage” [This passage belongs to 2Pet.2:19]. And again, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor.l5:56). Now he did not say this or that sin, but every sin is the sting of death. And he calls sin the sting of death because whosoever is stung by it dies. For every sin is unto death because even if someone sinned but once, Paul says he has already died, being under indictment for debt and sin and left lying on the road by the thieves.

What, then, does a dead man long for but to be raised up? And what does one who is unable to pay his debt long for but to receive the remission of his debt and avoid being thrown in prison until it can be repaid, something which he can never do since he has nothing with which to pay his debt, and thus will never come out of eternal prison, that is, the eternal darkness? Therefore, he who has been wounded by the spiritual thieves asks for a compatible and compassionate physician to come to him. For he does not have within him fear of God that is fervent enough that he would be able to go to a physician since his soul is faint from neglect, and he lies there a terrible and wretched sight to those who are able to see well, that is, who spiritually see the falls of the soul. So through sin one becomes a servant of the devil: “Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves as servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death or of obedience unto righteousness” (Rm.6:16), and he is a mockery of the Father and God, and is trampled upon by the enemies who apostatized from God.

Such a one has become naked of the royal purple and has been left blackened. Instead of a child of God, he became a child of the devil. What can he do in order to acquire again the things he fell away from? What else other than to ask for a mediator and a friend of God who has the power to restore him to his previous condition and reconcile him to God his Father? For he who was joined to Christ by grace and became His member and was adopted by Him, and like the dog that “turned to his own vomit again” (2 Pet.2:22) and joined himself to a harlot or to some other body, is condemned the same as the unbelievers since he has dishonoured and blasphemed Christ Himself. Because according to the divine Apostle “we are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:27). Therefore, he who joins himself to a harlot makes the members of Christ members of fornication (1 Cor.6:15). So one who has done such a thing and angered his Master and God cannot be reconciled to God except by the mediation of a man who is holy and a friend and servant of Christ, and by abstaining from evil.

For this reason we must first depart from sin. However, if it happens that we are pierced by the dart of sin, let us not delay and allow its poison to entice us as honey. And neither ought we to repeat the same thing like a bear that has been enticed, and make the wound even greater. But rather we ought to run directly to a spiritual physician, purging ourselves of the poison of sin by confession and spitting out the poison. And swiftly we ought to receive as antidotes the epitimia [corrections] given by him for our repentance and do them always in fervent faith and struggle in the fear of God. For all who emptied out the entire riches that were entrusted to them and spent their paternal estate on harlots and publicans, and whose conscience now is so burdened by shame that they cannot look upward and are without courage before God, naturally seek after a man of God who can receive their debt. And then through him they can approach God, which is something I know, is impossible to do without sincere repentance and ongoing toils if one wishes to restore his relationship with God. But it has never been heard of or written in the divinely inspired Scriptures that one can take upon himself the sins of another and defend him if the sinner does not first undertake the toils corresponding to the sins and show proper fruits of his repentance. Because as the voice of the Forerunner of the Word said, “Bring forth proper fruits of repentance, and think not to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father” (Mt.3:8), for as the Lord Himself said to those who are so foolishly disposed, “Verily, I say unto you: And though they stand Moses and Daniel in their midst to save their sons and daughters, they shall not be saved.” (See Ez. 14:14,16,20) What then should we do, we who wish to repent, and in what manner, in order to have our debts remitted and to rise up from our fall? Since God has so given, listen that I might explain it to each of you.

If you wish, search out a mediator and a physician and a good counselor and let him show you: how as a good counselor he will apply his counsel on the ways of repentance; how as a physician, he will give you the appropriate medicine for every wound; how he will be a mediator through prayer; and how he has communication with God and will stand before Him face to face in your behalf to gain the mercy of the Divine. Therefore, if you find a flatterer or a slave of the belly do not strive to make him your counselor and ally lest he come around to your will and teach you not those things that are pleasing to God but those that you will accept, and thus you remain again the enemy of God and unreconciled with Him. Accept neither an inexperienced physician who will plunge you into despair with his great abruptness and improper incisions and cauteries, nor one who, in his excessive sympathy, will leave you ill while you think you are cured and, worst of all, what you do not expect, will surrender you to eternal hell. For this hell is brought about when, in this life, the soul’s illness is not cured but continues until it dies with us. “For not all who are of Israel are Israelites” (Rm. 9:6), but those with the name who also know the power of the name and are minds that see God. Likewise not all who are called Christians are really Christians. “Not everyone, who saith unto Me, Lord, Lord,” Christ says, “shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father Which is in heaven,” and He says, just as “many will say to Me on that day…in Thy name we cast out demons…and then I will profess to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt.7:21-23).

This is why, my brothers, all of us must be careful — the mediators on the one hand, and the sinners on the other who wish to be reconciled to God — that neither the mediators bring down wrath upon their heads instead of rewards, nor the sinners who wish to be reconciled to God rush to an enemy and a murderer and a bad counselor instead of a true mediator. For these are the king who will hear the frightful words, “who made thee rulers and judges over my people” (Ex.2:14)? And again, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the timber from your own eye, and then shalt Thou see clearly to remove the splinter from thy brother’s eye” (Mt.7:5). For the timber is a passion or desire which darkens the eye of the soul. And moreover, “Physician, heal thyself” (Lk.4:23), and again, “But to the sinner God hath said, Why dost Thou declare Mine ordinances and take up My covenant in thy mouth? Whereas Thou has hated instruction, and hast cast My words behind thee” (Ps.49:16)? And Paul says, “Who art Thou that judgest another man’s servant, for it is by his own master that he standeth or falleth?” (Rom 14:4)

Therefore, because of all these things, my brothers and fathers, I shudder and tremble. I plead with all of you, bracing myself also with this plea to you, not to be superficial about these mysteries which are divine and awesome to all, not to play with things that are not games, and not to act against your soul because of vainglory, love of honours, or commerce or insensibility. For it is possible to take up strange reasoning simply to be called “fathers” or “teachers”. I beg you, as we are simply taught by the earthly example, let us not shamelessly usurp equal honour with the Apostles. Because if one arrogantly dares to impersonate the representative of the earthly king and is caught with his colleagues and followers carrying out either secretly or openly what was entrusted by the king, he is subjected to extreme punishments in order to frighten others, and everyone laughs at him because he is a fool and senseless. What, then, awaits those who seize the office of the Apostles unworthily?

Nor should you wish to become mediators for others before you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and know, and are reconciled to the King of all, and can sense it in your soul. For neither can everyone who knows the earthly king be a mediator to him in behalf of others. Extremely few are able to do this, for they have acquired this familiarity before him because of their virtues and by their sweat and labours for him. And they do not have need of a mediator before him themselves but converse mouth to mouth with the king. Therefore, fathers and brothers, are we not going to keep the same order before God? Are we not going to honour the heavenly King even equally as we honour the earthly king? Are we going to usurp and grant ourselves the seat at His right and left before we even ask for it and receive it? Such recklessness! What shameful thing has taken hold of us? Why, even if we are called to give an account for nothing else, for this alone, that we are disdainful, we shall be disgraced and denied a seat of dignity and cast into eternal fire. Now what has been said is sufficient for the exhortation of those who wish to be careful about themselves. For this sake, our words have digressed a little beyond the subject at hand. But now, my son, we shall address what you asked to learn about.

Confession to a monk who does not have holy orders, you will find, was practised everywhere ever since monks existed and the garment of repentance and the monastic life were given by God in His legacy, as it is recorded in the divinely inspired writings of the Fathers. And if you look into them, you will find that what we are saying is true. Prior to this, as successors to the holy Apostles, only bishops received the power to bind and loose. But as the time passed, the bishops became corrupt, and this fearful undertaking passed on to priests who had a blameless life and were worthy of grace. And later, the priests as well as the bishops associated with and became just like the rest of the people. And many of them, just as now, would fall into spirits of delusion [plani; prelest] and vain, empty speech and would be lost. Then the power to bind and loose was transferred to the chosen among the people of God, that is to say, to the monks. It was not that it was removed from the priests and bishops, but that the priests and bishops estranged themselves from this grace. “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God,” as the Apostle Paul says, and “he ought, as for the people, so also for himself offer” sacrifice. (Hb. 5:1,3).

But let us go back and start this commentary from the beginning and let us see when and how and to whom this power of sacerdotal service and of binding and loosing was given. And the order in which you phrased the question will thus make the answer clear not only to you but to all other men. When our Lord and Saviour said to the man with the withered hand, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” hearing this, the Jews said, “This man speaketh blasphemies. Who can forgive sins but God alone” (See Mt.9:2-3; 12:10; Mk.2:7; Lk.5:21)? Because [ex officio] forgiveness of sins was never given by prophets or priests or by any of the patriarchs in those times. This is why the Scribes rejected Christ’s words as some new doctrine or odd preaching. And therefore the Lord did not blame them for it but He taught them something they did not know, showing Himself granting remission of sins as God and not as man. He says to them, “But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to remit sins” (Mt.9:6), and He says to the man who has the withered hand, “Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored like the other” (Mt.12:13). So by means of the visible miracle He proved the greater and invisible one. It was the same with Zacchaeos, the same with Peter who denied Him three times, the same with the paralytic whom He cured and later found and said, “Behold, thou art made whole. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee” Jn.5:14). By saying this, He showed that the man fell ill through sin and, when he was delivered from the illness, he received remission of his sins without fasting, without making the hard ground his bed, through his return and unhesitating faith, and the cutting off of evil, and through true repentance and many tears like the harlot) and like Peter who wept bitterly.

From such a beginning comes the great gift which belongs to God alone, and which He alone possesses. But when He was about to ascend to the heavens, in His place, then, He left this gift to His disciples. And how is it that He gave this authority and power to them? Let us see to whom and how many and when: to His eleven chosen disciples when He passed through the closed doors and they were gathered within. He entered and stood in their midst and blew on them saying; “Receive ye the Holy Spirit; whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (Jn.20:22-23). And He gave them no command regarding epitimia since they would be taught by the Holy Spirit (see Jn. 14:26).

Thus, as we said, the holy Apostles passed it on to those who succeeded them and ascended to their thrones, so that among the others no one could even dare to think about anything like it. And thus the disciples of the Lord guarded the authority of this power with great care. But as we said previously, with the passing of time, the worthy became mixed with the unworthy. And because the unworthy were many more, they overshadowed and corrupted the worthy and engaged them in disputations over who has higher authority, and feigned virtue in order to preside over the others. And because those who sat on the thrones of the Apostles showed themselves to be carnal, lovers of pleasure and lovers of honour, and they inclined towards heresies, divine grace abandoned men such as these and the power was removed from them. And this is why all of the qualities the performers of sacerdotal service ought to possess are put aside, and the only thing asked of those who are to be ordained is that they be Orthodox. However, I fear that in reality they do not even ask that. For one is not Orthodox merely because he brings no new doctrine into the Church of God, but because he has a life that is consistent with the correct teaching. But patriarchs and metropolitans at various times sought after this kind of candidate either unsuccessfully, or they succeeded but preferred the unworthy over him. And they required of the unworthy only a signed statement of the Symbol of Faith, and asked of him only this: that he neither be a zealot for the good, nor that he fight against something that is bad. Supposedly, they were attending to the peace of the Church in this way, but this way is worse than any hatred and is the cause of great disorder. And by this cause, the priests were corrupted and became as the people. For among them there were none, who were the salt, which the Lord spoke of, and who, by use of reproaches, could bind and check the flowing away of life. On the contrary, they agreed and covered up evil and passions for one another, and became worse than the people. And the people, in turn, became worse than them. In fact some of the people were shown to be better than the priests, because, amidst the total darkness of the priests, they appeared as a lighted coal. For, according to the words of the Lord, if in their lives the priests did “shine forth like the sun” (see Mt.5:16; 13:43), the coals would not have been seen to glow and would have appeared darkened in contrast to the more powerful light. But because among the people there remained only the form and external appearance of the priesthood, the gift of the Holy Spirit was transferred to the monks. And it was recognized by signs showing that the monks, by their works, were living the life of the Apostles. There too, then, the devil again performed his work. Seeing that the monks appeared in the world like some new disciples of Christ and shone forth by their life and miracles, he brought into their midst and mixed among them false brothers who were his own vessels. And slowly they increased, as you see, and the monks were corrupted and became monks who were completely unmonastic.

Therefore, the power to remit sins is given by God neither to those who have the monastic schema nor to those who are ordained to the ranks of priesthood, nor to those honoured by the office of episcopacy, I mean to patriarchs and metropolitans and bishops, merely because of their ordination and its office. Heaven forbid! Only the performance of services is permitted to them, and to most of them, I suspect, not even that, so they, being straw, will not be burnt up. But the power of remitting sins is given only to those from among the priests and bishops and monks who belong to the rank of the disciples of Christ because of purity.

How, then, will they, whom we spoke of, know if they are among these disciples, and how will others who seek after them accurately recognize them? For this purpose, the Lord taught us saying, “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak in new tongues, which refers to the divine and beneficial teaching of the Word; “they shall pull up snakes; and if they drink any deadly things, it will not hurt them” (Mk.16:17). And also, “My sheep hear My voice” (Jn. 10:27), and “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Mt.7:16). By which fruits? Paul enumerates the many fruits and says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22), and accompanying these are “compassion, brotherly love, charity”, and the consequences of these. And with them are “the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of healing”, and many others. “But all these worketh that one and selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:8-11). So those who have become participants in these gifts — either completely or in part according to what is profitable to them — are counted among the host of Apostles. Also counted among them are those who today become like them. And this is why they are the light of the world, as Christ Himself says: No man who lights a candle places it under a table or under a bed, but places it in a candlestick so it will give light to all that are in the house. (See Mt. 5:14,15) They are known not only by this but also by the conduct of their lives. For in this way those who seek such men, as well as the men themselves, may know if, in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ, they are without cause for shame and, like Him, have accepted rather as the greatest glory lowliness and humbleness and unhypocritical obedience to their own fathers and guides and, moreover, to their spiritual commanders; if, with all their soul, they have loved dishonour and insults and ridicule and reproaches; if they have regarded those who heap these things on them as the cause of great gifts and have prayed tearfully for them with all their soul; and if they have spat upon the glory of this world and regarded as dung the delights of this world.

 But do I need to say so much, and to say the obvious, and drag out my commentary? If a man finds that he has achieved every virtue that is heard about in the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and he has performed every good work and knows the degree of his advancement and change regarding each one of them, and he is ascending to the ‘ heights of divine glory, then let him know himself as a participant of God and in His gifts; and those who see clearly and even those with dimmest vision will recognize him. And may those who are like him say to everyone with boldness, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you through us… Be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). And all who are such as these kept the commandments of God unto death. They sold their possessions and distributed the money to the poor. They followed Christ and endured temptations. They lost their lives in this world for the love of God and found them in the eternal life. And when they found their lives they found them in noetic light. And then in that light they saw the unapproachable light, God Himself, as it is written, “In Thy light we shall see light” (Ps.35:10). But how is it possible for one to find the life, which he already has? Pay close attention. Every man’s life is a drachma, which we have each lost. For it is not God, but each of us who has steeped ourselves in the darkness of sin. But Christ the true light comes and meets face to face those who seek Him and grants that they may see Him by means He alone knows. This is what it means for one to find his life: to see God, and in that Light to become higher than all of the visible Creation, and to have God as his shepherd and teacher, from whom, if he wishes, he will learn to bind and to loose. And having learnt it accurately, he will worship Him who gave it, and he will pass it to all who have a need of it.

 I know that to such men, my son, the power to bind and loose is given by God the Father from our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, that is to those, who are his adopted sons and holy servants. And I was a disciple of such a father who did not have the ordination by men, but he made me a disciple by the hand of God, that is by the Holy Spirit. And he ordered me to receive the ordination of men, for it would be well to observe the customary form since, from my early days, the Holy Spirit was moving me toward it with great desire.

 Therefore, my brothers and fathers, first, let us pray that we become like them, able to speak to others about freedom from passions and to hear their thoughts; and let us seek such a spiritual father. Indeed, let us search with toils for such men who are true disciples of Christ. And let us beseech God with pangs of the heart and much tears for many days to uncover the eyes of our heart that they may know if and where such a man is to be found in our evil generation. And having found him, pray that we may receive   remission   of   sins   through   him, obeying   his commandments and injunctions with our whole soul, just as he obeys the commandments of Christ and became a participant in His grace and gifts, and received from Him the power to bind and loose sins and was made fire by the Holy Spirit, to Whom be every glory, honour, and worship together with the Father and the only-begotten Son unto the ages. Amen.

 IV. 

ST SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN IN THE

CONTEXT OF HOLY TRADITION ON THE HEALING/REMISSION 

OF SINS,  CONFESSION, AND REPENTANCE.

 The power to remit sins is neither juridical nor ex officio but charismatic, and it was given to the Church, the charismatic body of Christ. This is because remission of sins itself is not juridical but charismatic. It is the work of grace within the hearts where, as the Saviour said, the kingdom of heaven exists. Therefore, the Fathers tell us, it belongs not to an office or rank, but to the living saints among us, to those in the Church who behold God and live in His light and are the vessels of the Holy Spirit. In the Greek rite of confession the priest prays for the mercy and forgiveness of God and says: “…for I have no power to remit sins upon this earth…” On the other hand, the scholastic and juridical formula in which the priest says, “… I an unworthy priest… do absolve and forgive thee of thy sins,” which continues to be used in the Russian Trebnik is Roman Catholic, not only in origin, but in the totality of its theological content. It entered into the Russian rite of confession first in the Euchologion of the latinising Peter Mogila (1639) and then in the Moscow Trebnik of 1671. But the seeds of such an idea existed even in St Symeon’s time (late 10th century). He openly fought it, stating plainly that priests and bishops cannot remit sins merely by ritual.

 This view, so powerfully stated by the New Theologian (Ch. 14). arises from the depths of the true tradition of the Church. For example, the Epistle of St James provides the scriptural elucidation of both the Lord’s gift to the Church of remission of sins and the simplicity of its manner: “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16) if we repent of our sins. It is of paramount importance to our Church life, to our ability to discern Papist teachings from Orthodoxy, and to our spiritual growth, understanding and integrity that we clearly understand that St James, the Brother of the Lord, does not identify “another” as necessarily a presbyter or bishop but simply as a righteous, i.e. holy, man (person). Interestingly, just before this verse he institutes the mystery of Holy Unction to be performed by the presbyters and links bodily healing and remission of sins (5:14-15). For not only do the bodily ills need to be healed, but, as he proceeds to tell us in the next verse, sins also need to be healed, not juridically absolved. And for this purpose “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man,” of a holy saint, of one who speaks face to face with God, “availeth much”. And the brother of the Lord does not end here or leave us hanging. Rather, he makes certain that he leaves us with a striking example of the “righteous man”, who is neither an Apostle nor a priest of either the Old or New Testament. Instead St James says, “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not for three years…” (v. 17). He gives us the example of the prophet, the righteous one, the saint “who shares a community of nature with us” (St. John Chrysostom “On the Statues’) and has attained to holiness. Elias was of the Levite tribe, which supplied the priests of Israel, but he was not a priest.

 Nowhere in St Symeon’s works and the Fathers and Councils do we find the rite of confession imposed as a preparation of the people and a requirement before they may receive the Holy Eucharist. Tradition never linked the Holy Eucharist and confession liturgically. The well-known canonical injunctions which regard certain grave sins as impediments to Communion indeed require confession not for juridical purposes but for purposes of a time and process of healing guided by a confessor who has the gifts of the Holy Spirit and knows the will of God in each specific case. Quite apart from that, the idea of being made “worthy” or being “absolved” by ritual confession in order to receive Communion springs from the Latin requirement that the faithful be in “a state of grace” to receive Communion. (Heretical Latin theology of created grace neatly allows for the dispensing of grace at will by the clergy.)

 Let us see how Holy Tradition views forgiveness of sins as a change and healing in ourselves by grace rather than a change in God’s attitude toward us; and how repentance, forgiveness and healing virtually are a single indivisible process; and how the forgiveness of sins does not absolutely require a third party in addition to the repentant Christian and our Lord Who is the High Priest and Physician of souls; and how a confessor who is not a Godbearing righteous man is not a confessor, no matter how many documents of appointment he may have. The following passages are only a sampling. The fact of their existence is sufficient to expose the contradiction in our rationalistic perceptions.

 1. St Anthony the Great: God is good, dispassionate, and unchangeable. But one who regards it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change may well wonder, therefore, how He rejoices over those who are good and turns away from the wicked; and grows angry with sinners but becomes merciful to those who honour Him. To these it must be stated that God neither rejoices nor grows angry. For to rejoice or to grieve is passion. Neither is He honoured by gifts for then He would be conquered by pleasure. The Divine neither benefits nor suffers because of human affairs. Thus, He is good and beneficent only and, being always the same, never harms anyone. So if we remain good, by this likeness to God we are joined to Him. And if we become wicked, by this unlikeness to Him we are estranged from God. It is not that He grows angry, but that our sins do not permit God to shine within us, and they bind us to the demons that torment us. But if we should gain the loosing of our sins through prayer and good works, it does not mean that we have honoured God and changed His mind toward us. Rather, through these actions and our return to the Divine, we have healed our wickedness and thus are able to enjoy the goodness of God again. Therefore, to say that God turns away from the wicked is the same as saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. (Gr. Philokalia, Vol.I, Ch.150)

 2. St Thalassios: Forgiveness of sins is freedom from the passions. He who has not been freed from them by grace has not been forgiven.

 3. St Basil the Great: Rather, confession of sins is to be made to those who are able to heal…From old times, the repenters confessed to saints. (“Ascetical Works”)

 4. St Anastasios of Sinai: Whosoever sins ye remit are remitted, was said chiefly to saints.

 There are some who receive forgiveness of sins through righteous men• For the Lord does the will of those who fear Him, and thus Aaron [the priest] was forgiven through the prayers of Moses [the prophet].

 There are some who receive forgiveness of sins through righteous men, and others who are purified through bodily illness. For virtually all of us pollute the first baptism as we advance in age. But with tears as if by water and the Spirit we are cleansed again. Men have often sinned before others. And then, confessing in secret to God, they received forgiveness; and being pleasing to God, they received the Holy Spirit.

 The Lord said to His followers: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. And He said, “Whosoever sins ye remit, are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins you retain are retained”, and “Thou art the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” And the Brother of the Lord said to them, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed. For the effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” And the Apostle to the Nations adds, “Bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfil the commandments of Christ.” For it is God’s custom to work the salvation of men not only through angels but also through holy men. Of old it was through the prophets, and in the last times it was through Himself and the holy Apostles, and so forth, generation upon generation, until the end of the world. And that is why He said to His disciples, “He who receiveth thee receiveth Me, and he who rejecteth thee rejecteth Me, and he who heareth thee heareth Me.” For the saints are the servants of God and co-workers and stewards unto the salvation of those who wish to be saved, (“the Guide’)

 5. St Ambrose of Milan: It is written, “If a man sinned against God, who shall entreat for Him?” (1 Kings 2:25) The writer implies, not an ordinary man or one of the common sort, but only a man of excellent life and singular merit. It must be such a one as Moses, who both merited and obtained that for which he asked… when he offered himself for the people. Or such as Jeremiah, who, though the Lord said to him, “Pray not for this people,” yet he prayed and obtained forgiveness for them. Jerusalem meanwhile had repented of its sins and said, “Almighty Lord God of Israel, the soul in anguish and the troubled spirit crieth unto Thee… have mercy!” And the Lord bids them lay aside the garments of mourning and cease the groaning of repentance: “Put off thy mourning and affliction, and clothe thyself in beauty, the glory which God hath given thee.”

 Such intercessors, then, must be sought for after very grievous sins… Stephen prayed for his persecutors who had not been able even to listen to the name of Christ, when he said of those very men by whom he was being stoned, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” And we see the result of this prayer; Paul, who held the garments of those who were stoning Stephen, not long after, became an apostle by the grace of God, having previously been a persecutor.” (“Concerning Repentance,” Bk. 1, Ch. 910)

 6. St John Chrysostom: He said, “If thy brother shall sin against thee, go and tell his fault between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But, if he will not hear thee, then take one or two more with thee that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word be established. And if he neglects to hear them, tell it unto the Church. Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:15-20).

 In truth, it was not of those who preside in the Church that He said, “Whatsoever ye shall loose… shall be loosed…” but of him who invites to reconciliation the other who sinned against him. (Quoted by St. Anastasios of Sinai in “The Guide’)

 Why are you red faced and ashamed to tell your sins? Perhaps telling them to a man embarrasses you, or to your fellow servant brings you public ridicule? Reveal your wound to the Master, the Guardian, the Lover of Mankind and Physician. Regardless of whether you do not tell Him, is it possible that… He does not know? Is the sin becoming more burdensome because your conscience accuses you? For this reason He wants you to tell Him, not so He may damn you but forgive you. And not so He may learn about the sin, for how could this be since He already knows? But rather that you may learn how great is His forgiveness of your debt. He wants you to know the breadth of His grace. “I do not force you into the midst of everyone,” He says, “nor do I make an exhibition of you before many witnesses. Tell your sins to Me alone in private that I may heal your sores and deliver you from pain.” (4th Homily on the Rich man and Lazarus)

 I beg you and implore you to confess to God continuously, for neither do I make an exhibition of you to your fellow servants [of God], nor do I force you to reveal your sins to men; but open your conscience before God and show Him your wounds and ask medicine of Him.  Sin and repentance are two different things. Sin is the injury and repentance is the medicine. In sin there is shame, but in repentance there is courage, in repentance there is freedom, in repentance there is cleansing of sin. 

 God sends Nathan the prophet to David. The prophet comes to the prophet! For the same occurs among physicians. When a physician is ill, he has need of someone else who is a physician. He who sinned is a prophet and he who brought the medicine is a prophet. David was contrite over his sin: “I have sinned before the Lord.” And how did Nathan answer him? “The Lord has forgiven your sin.”

 And God said to Elias; “Have you seen that Ahab is mournful and grieves? My rage shall not burst out against him.” Do you see how mourning for sins wipes away sins? (2nd Homily on Repentance)

 Many times one becomes weary of him who is always lamenting and weeping, and pushes him away and leaves him. However, God does not act this way but approaches and draws him closer… And if our sins are myriad, the more do we run to God, because He invites such sinners. 

 7. St Gregory of Sinai: God immediately forgives those who ask forgiveness in humility and contrition, who ceaselessly invoke His holy name, who repent to God and unite with Him by frequent and patient prayers and by confessing sins to Him each day.

 8. St Barsanuphios: Our death and our life are in our hands. Therefore, if we do not repeat our previous sins, we shall already have forgiveness from God. (Quest 230, of “Questions and Answers of Sts. Barsanuphios and John) Even though he was not a priest, St Barsanuphios imparted remission of sins and became sought after by all the abbots of monasteries. (From prologue of “Questions and Answers…)

 9. St Isaac the Syrian: There is no unforgivable sin except the unrepented one. “Thou hast sinned? Be calm” (Gen. 4:7). That is, trouble yourself no more, neither heap more wounds upon your  sores. Be still, and come to an inner knowledge of what you have committed. And after you have this knowledge, repent of your sins. (Ascetical Homilies) …

 10. St Cyril of Alexandria: Those who believe in Him, being healed of the diseases of the soul, receive forgiveness. (Commentary on Luke)

 11. St Mark the Ascetic: If we seek forgiveness of sins from God, we are indebted to also grant it to everyone and for every sin against us that the “forgive… and they shall be forgiven” may be fulfilled.

 12. St Cyril of Jerusalem: Therefore, brethren, having many examples of those who repented and were saved, you too, then, should eagerly confess to the Lord so you may receive forgiveness of your previous sins and be made worthy of the heavenly gift and inherit the heavenly kingdom. Say not, “I have done dreadful things, and not only once but often: will He forgive? Will He grant pardon?” Hear what the Psalmist says, “How great is the multitude of Thy goodness, Ο Lord.” Your accumulated offenses do not surpass the multitude of God’s mercies. Your wounds do not exceed the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment, and say, as did David: “I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself;” and the same shall be done in your case, which he immediately says, “And Thou forgavest the ungodliness in my heart.” (Catechism I!)

 13. St Symeon the New Theologian: Look here I beg you. Do not by any chance assume the debts of others at all while you are indebted yourself in the same way. Do not dare to give remission of sins if you have not acquired in your heart Him Who lifts the sin of the world. (Moral Homily 6)

 14. Abba Isaiah: If a brother believes you to be trustworthy and confides in you and tells you his sin, you must never tell it to anyone for it would be death to you.

 15. The Gerontikon: One of the brethren asked an elder, “If tribulation come upon me and I have no one to tell it to, what shall I do?” And the elder replied, “Trust in God and He shall send you His grace to help you if you have prayed to Him in truth.”

Someone asked a saint, “How shall I know if my sins are forgiven?” The saint replied, “When you have overcome your passions you will know that you are forgiven.”

16. From the Doxology: Heal my soul for I have sinned against Thee.

 17. From the Oikos of Sunday of the Prodigal Son: Let us follow the good example of the Prodigal’s repentance… and cry out to Him, Since Thou art by nature full of love for man, accept me and make me as one of Thy hired servants.

 END.

 ~ Glory Be To God For All Things ! ~

cf. On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses of St. Symeon the New Theologian

(Volume 3)

Serve Not the Times

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