April 12, 2013

The Priesthood, Confession and the Remission of Sins

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

1. Sacred (ordained) Priesthood

My book Orthodox Psychotherapy emphasizes the great value of the Mystery of the Priesthood. Priesthood is highly prized. It is described in the writings of the holy Fathers of the Church, particularly in the teaching of St John Chrysostom, who has been rightly called an expert on the priesthood. As well as observing and analyzing the value of the priesthood, however, we need to discuss the basic requirements that anyone receiving this great gift must meet.

Spiritual priesthood is a royal gift of grace and activates the grace of holy Baptism. It is the basis and essential prerequisite for priesthood (Bishop, Presbyter, Deacon). The tradition of the Church regarded the three degrees of priesthood as corresponding to the three stages of the spiritual life: purification (Deacon), illumination (Presbyter) and theosis (Bishop). This is analyzed in detail in Orthodox Psychotherapy.

It is impossible to overlook the great dignity of the (ordained) priesthood. However, according to the teaching of St John Chrysostom, many ordinations “do not proceed from the grace of God, but are due to human ambition.” That is to say, many candidates put themselves forward, rather than being called by God or at least by the people. St Symeon the New Theologian describes as “self-ordained” those Clergy who draw near and take the grace of priesthood without first having been purified and healed. He is not referring here to those who simply pretend to be Priests, but to those who have received the Mystery of Priesthood in spite of being impure. He is speaking about Priests who do not exercise this ministry in response to a divine calling, but are motivated by passions of vainglory and pride. “They set themselves up as fathers and teachers and become self-ordained apostles, without having received the grace of the Holy Spirit as they did, or being illuminated by the light of knowledge.” This teaching is linked with the teaching of St John Chrysostom, who writes, “God does not ordain all, but He acts through all.”

The noble work of Priests is not to be underrated, but it should be emphasized, as St Symeon the New Theologian says, that there are two kinds of “laying on of hands”. One is on the human level; it comes “from men”. The other is divine and is the work of the Holy Spirit. Writing about his spiritual father, St Symeon the Pious, St Symeon the New Theologian says, “I was a disciple of such a father who had not been ordained by men, but who by the hand of God, by the Holy Spirit, enlisted me as a disciple and ordered me to accept ordination from men according to the prescribed form — I who for a long time had been moved by the Holy Spirit to long for this.” His Elder “became a partaker of His [Christ's] grace and His gifts, and received from Him the power to bind and loose sins, inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

This passage makes clear two points. The first is that there are two kinds of “laying on of hands” and the second is that St Symeon the Pious himself did not undervalue the Mystery of Ordination. That is why, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he urged his spiritual child to accept the Mystery of Ordination.

2. Spiritual Priesthood

Apart from Sacred (ordained) priesthood, there is also what is called spiritual priesthood. Orthodox Psychotherapy has a whole section analyzing this important subject. It is explained there that a person who has noetic prayer and prays for the whole world belongs to this spiritual clergy. I write:

“The faithful who have noetic prayer have spiritual priesthood, especially those who have reached such a degree of grace as to pray for the whole world. This is the spiritual liturgy on behalf of the world. The prayers of these people, who sacrifice themselves praying on behalf of all, sustain the world and heal men. Therefore by prayer they become exorcists, driving out the demons which rule in human societies. This the great work of those who pray unceasingly for the whole world.”

According to St Gregory of Sinai, noetic prayer, which is a sign that a person has reached the stage of the illumination of the nous, is “the mystical liturgy of the nous”. When the heart has the grace of the Holy Spirit within it and the nous is free from thoughts, it is a true sanctuary. He writes, “A true sanctuary, even before the future life, is a heart free from thoughts, made active by the Spirit.”

St Symeon the New Theologian also refers to the issue of spiritual priesthood in one of his letters, as set out by Venizelos Christoforidis in his doctoral thesis titled, Spiritual Fatherhood According to Symeon the New Theologian.

Someone asked St Symeon, “Is it possible for people to confess their sins to monks who are not Priests?” St Symeon, in reply to this question, begins by acknowledging that the power to remit sins belongs to Priests, but not to all of them. This power belongs to those Priests who have been called to this ministry by God and have been inwardly reborn. “The power to loose and bind and celebrate the Eucharist and teach is not given to those who were chosen and ordained only by men. ‘No man taketh this honour unto himself, says the Scripture, ‘but he that is called of God.’ It does not refer to the one who is chosen by men, but the one who is preordained and appointed by God for this purpose.” On the other hand, those who have risen to high office in the Church by means of money and other unethical means do not have the right to remit sins, because “they are thieves, stealing from men and through men, and robbers, as the Lord said.”

After this clarification, St Symeon the New Theologian goes on to say that monks who have been regenerated and have received the grace of the Holy Spirit can remit sins. Thus he accepts that, “It is possible for us to confess to a monk who is not a Priest.” This “confession” will be discussed later. However, the answer given by St Symeon the New Theologian should be examined in accordance with the question posed to him: “Is it possible for people to confess their sins to monks who are not Priests?” The Saint’s answer is positive. He asserts that we can receive remission of sins not just from Priests but from monks. “In the same way, these things are also attributed to monks. Through confession and the forgiveness of sins granted by [monks] to [penitents], they receive forgiveness."

Archbishop Basil Krivocheine observes that, “The teaching of St Symeon the New Theologian on the subject of loosing and binding, as expressed in his Letter ‘On Confession‘, is a development of his views, based on his personal experience of spiritual birth and mystical resurrection, and on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as well as on the conscious awareness of the acquisition of grace.” The same author also notes that this viewpoint, which has been forgotten in our era and may surprise and scandalize those who hear it for the first time, “was never condemned either directly or indirectly by the Church.” On the contrary, it is cultivated even today in monastic environments, so that “the ancient manuscripts do not omit the first Letter, which contains this teaching” from their list of the complete works of St Symeon. There was actually a tendency to emphasize this teaching. For that reason, when doubts were expressed about it about it, they presented the Epistle as the work of St John of Damascus. “Precisely in order to give it greater authenticity and to defend it from critics, they put it under the protection of someone whose Orthodox prestige was beyond all doubt: St John of Damascus.”

The assertion that monks who have the energy of the All-Holy Spirit within them, and so constitute the true priesthood of divine grace, can forgive sins has to be considered in the light of certain essential presuppositions.

The first presupposition is that they stay within the Church and accept all its teaching and its life. When someone consciously cuts himself off from the Church and enters the ranks of the heretics, spiritual priesthood is out of the question.

Secondly, monks who belong in this category greatly honour and respect members of the Sacred (ordained) priesthood. We see this in many contemporary monks of the Holy Mountain, who revere Priests and Bishops to the point that, even though they are Elders in age and in grace, they nevertheless prostrate themselves to the ground before them and regard it as a special favour to receive their blessing. I once visited the Holy Mountain and stayed in a Monastery for a while, and a certain Elder, who was 90 years old, did not realise that I was a Priest. Some time later, when he was told that I was a Priest not a monk, he was unbelievably upset because he had not been able to show me the respect due to the priesthood and had been deprived of the blessing of the grace of the priesthood. Monks endowed with divine grace revere all the gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on the Church.

The third presupposition is that, although they belong to this true priesthood, these monks do not celebrate the Mysteries of the Church or administer the Mystery of Confession in the way that Priests do. They do not wear a stole or read the prayer of absolution. They give people guidance and help them to understand more clearly the problems troubling them. They set their nous free and show them the way to deification. This is basically the remission that they offer.

3. Remission of Sins

The subject of the remission of sins needs to be examined here because, under the influence of Western ideas, we have a legalistic view of it. We look upon sins as moral transgressions that arouse God’s anger, and so we see the remission of sins as nothing other than the propitiation of God’s justice and wrath. This whole perception, which is borrowed from courts of law, is non-Orthodox.

In the Orthodox Church we speak about man’s healing, not about the propitiation of divine justice. God does not punish, but we punish ourselves by not accepting God’s gift and His love. We need to consider how Holy Scripture expresses God’s wrath.

According to Orthodox Tradition, sin is not just breaking the law, but man’s departure from God. Its significance is not just ethical but theological. Sin is actually the fall, deadening, darkening and captivity of the nous. This was also in essence the sin of Adam and Eve. The darkening of the nous is the loss of divine grace, the identification of the nous with the rational faculty and its subjection to the passions and the conditions in the world around it. Thus the remission of sins means first and foremost the illumination of the nous, its liberation from the domination of the rational faculty and the passions, and its illumination by divine grace. We cannot forget, of course, that when man’s nous is darkened all the passions come into action and he falls into every kind of sin. The remission of sins is, on the one hand, the illumination of the nous — its release from the rational faculty and the passions — and, on the other hand, the transformation of the passions. These two things go together, and when both are activated, in conjunction with the Mystery of Confession, we can say that sins are remitted.

A spiritual father ought to know how to heal people, in other words, he should assist in the illumination of their nous and its liberation from the power of the rational faculty and also in transforming all the passions, so that the powers of the soul act naturally instead of functioning unnaturally as they did before. Participation in divine grace is necessary. This comes about through the Mystery of Confession but also through correct Orthodox guidance, in order that the nous may be set free and illumined. There are many Christians who come regularly to the Mystery of Confession but because they are not given correct guidance, they cannot be liberated from the passions, as the working of the passions depends on the state of the nous. When the nous is illumined and free, the passions act according to nature. If, however, a person’s nous is enslaved to the rational faculty and he lives with his nous in darkness, the passions function contrary to nature.

In order to heal people, a spiritual father needs to administer the Mystery of Confession but also to be aware of the therapeutic method of the Orthodox faith. Then he will guide his spiritual children towards illumination of their darkened nous. A doctor who deals with bodily ailments can only be regarded as a medical expert if he knows three things. Firstly, he must be able to diagnose illness correctly; secondly, he must know exactly what constitutes good health, that is to say, he must know precisely where he ought to be leading the patient; and thirdly, he must be familiar with the correct therapeutic methods that lead from sickness to health.

The same applies to the spiritual physician. He must make a correct diagnosis. In other words, he must be aware of the action of each passion and be capable of recognising the darkened state of the nous. Then he must know by experience in which direction to guide people. As we know, spiritual well-being consists in the illumination of the nous, which enables a person, if God so wills, to attain to theoria of God. He also has to know the appropriate method to use to guide someone darkened by sin towards theoria of God and the experience of being in God’s likeness. In order to have this knowledge, the spiritual father must have personal experience, or at least practise and follow the method laid down in Orthodox Tradition.

There are thus three categories of healers.

Firstly, there are those spiritual fathers who hear confessions, and are also familiar with the Orthodox therapeutic method. They know how to heal people, so that they revive, are illumined and deified.

Secondly, there are spiritual fathers who administer the Mystery of Confession in a legalistic atmosphere. They feel that God is angry with sinners, so they attempt to placate divine righteousness, or at least they perform their task in a moralistic way. When a Christian tells them that he has committed theft, they are content just to explain why we ought not to steal and to urge him not to do so. They do the same with regard to all the other sins. These confessors, however, have no idea of the darkening of the nous, which leads a person to steal and to commit every sin. They also have no idea how to help Christians towards illumination of the nous and or how to lead them to deification. Thus Christians remain unhealed and make the same mistakes. They may manage to get rid of some bodily passions and become self-satisfied, as they are unaware that they ought to reach illumination of the nous; or else they become disappointed and lose hope because they are still not healed.

Thirdly, there are simple monks who are not Priests and so cannot perform the Mystery of Confession or read the prayer of absolution, but who know the therapeutic method. Because they have discernment, they can perceive the fundamental problem troubling the Christian and can guide him on the way to deification. Of course these monks send Christians to Priests for the Mystery of Confession. Spiritual guidance is not the same as sacred Confession.

In Orthodox Psychotherapy I write about this category as follows:

“When we speak of remission of sins we should understand it mainly as the curing of passions. Thus we see clearly today that ‘gifted’ monks heal us without having Sacred priesthood. Being clear-sighted, they perceive the problem which is troubling us, they give us a remedy and a method of healing, and so we are cured of what was inwardly disturbing us. The existence of such holy men is a comfort for the people.”

We see this combination of guidance from an Elder and confession to a spiritual father in many communities on the Holy Mountain, as well as in monasteries of nuns. There are communities where the Elder does not have Sacred priesthood, but bears all the responsibility for guiding the monks, as is the case in female monastic communities. The Elder or Abbess receives the thoughts of his or her spiritual children and guides them towards healing. By means of the obedience that the monks or nuns offer to their Elder or Abbess, they humble their rational faculty and thus release their nous, which was in subjection to it. Through unceasing prayer, and the complete therapeutic method that the Elder or Abbess uses, the nous that was previously in darkness is illuminated. However, when specific sins occur, the Elder or Abbess sends the Christian to the confessor, so that the appropriate prayer can be read and the Christian can receive God’s grace. The Mystery of Confession is not overlooked, nor is the guidance given by an Elder who has spiritual but not Sacred priesthood underrated.

In general, the remission of sins has a twofold meaning. It refers, firstly, to the correct therapeutic treatment that will enable the nous to be liberated from the control of the rational faculty and the passions, and then to be illumined by the grace of God, which comes about through a person endowed with divine grace, who has personal spiritual experiences. This is the absolutely fundamental task. The second meaning is the prayer of absolution bestowed on the penitent originally by the Bishop but later also by Priests whom the Bishop empowered to administer the Mystery of Confession. This prayer is the confirmation of healing and the re-admission of the Christian to the life of the Church. Therapeutic treatment precedes the prayer of absolution and also continues after confession.

This is clear from the Tradition of the Church. Someone who had committed a sin would follow the therapeutic method for years on end, and then the Bishop would read the appropriate prayer of absolution. Thus the Christian would be admitted to the Divine Eucharist and would partake of the undefiled Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. The prayer of absolution was the outcome of the healing that preceded it. It was the confirmation that the person had been healed and could therefore proceed to Holy Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. Someone who has spiritual priesthood and knows how to heal can assist in healing the passions and reviving the dead nous. Finally we can draw the following conclusions: Bishops, as successors to the holy Apostles, and Priests, as representatives of the Bishop, perform the Mystery of Confession and all the Mysteries of the Church. Even if they are unworthy, the grace of Christ still acts through them. St John Chrysostom states, “God does not ordain all, but He acts through all.”

Apart from the Priests who possess sacred (ordained) priesthood there is also a “spiritual priesthood”, particularly monks and nuns, who have attained to the illumination of the nous and pray for the whole world. They offer significant help to the people of God.

The remission of sins has many degrees and many stages. Confession is closely linked with man’s healing and is an integral part of the therapeutic method. The gravest sin is the darkening of the nous and its subjection to the rational faculty and the passions. This darkness and captivity of the nous results in transgressions of God’s commandments. The Apostle Paul says, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The remission of sins is man’s healing, which consists in the liberation and revival of the nous and communion with God.

This is achieved through Orthodox guidance and the Mystery of Confession. Such guidance can be given by a discerning monk endowed with divine grace, who has spiritual priesthood, whereas the Mystery of Confession can only be administered by a Priest invested with the grace of the Sacred priesthood. Ii is best when these two qualities exist together in the same person In critical historical situations, however, a distinction can be made between these two roles. Monastic tradition allows such a separation. St Symeon the New Theologian is unambiguous: “It is possible for us to confess to a monk who is not a Priest.”

Of course this does not justify Protestants, in all their many forms, because they completely reject priesthood as well as other truths revealed by Christ and upheld by the Church. Monks endowed with divine grace respect ordained Priests. We should mention, however, that ordained priesthood exists to help the laity, whereas spiritual priesthood, which is the foundation of sacramental priesthood, will continue in the age to come.

From The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action