by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
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 fulfill 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. It 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.