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Modern penitence


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#1 Evan Herberth

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 12:54 AM

Dear All,

I've recently read some of St. Nicodemus's Exomologetarion. I won't confess on here, but suffice it to say that the penances prescribed in the Saint's book are incredibly more intense than those prescribed by my parish priest, and he's very traditional in his outlook, I believe.

Having said that, my question is why, logically speaking, there has been a relaxing of penitence on the part of priests nowadays. Not that I'm complaining; I must confess that if I were prescribed such a penance, I would probably fall into disobedience, knowing myself. However, from an ecclesial standpoint, isn't it frowned upon to relax traditional rules very much, especially in the Orthodox Church?

Thanks,
Evan

#2 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 01:21 AM

There are many who would say that modern people these days are much weaker Christians than our forebears. People are not as willing to face the penances that earlier Christians did, and perhaps our shepherds are simply not up to challenging us in such a manner.

#3 Kyrill Bolton

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 03:46 AM

I must confess that if I were prescribed such a penance, I would probably fall into disobedience, knowing myself. However, from an ecclesiastical standpoint, isn't it frowned upon to relax traditional rules very much, especially in the Orthodox Church?

Thanks,
Evan


I think you answered your own question in the underlined portion. I would like to think that the Holy Spirit would guide the priest in imposing penances for we are told that God will not test us beyond our capacity.

This quote from the website of the Valaam monastery speaks to the issue of our present spiritual state. "There are no spiritual fathers, not because there are no individuals who can reveal God’s will, but there are no spiritual fathers because there are no people who are capable of receiving the Word of God. The Word of God is all about the Cross, but the people reject this. That is precisely why spiritual fathers fall silent. If the fathers reveal God’s will to people, and they do not want to hear this, they will start fighting God and will conscientiously crucify Christ."

Yes we are in a sad state today but God's grace is always sufficient.

BTW there is nothing saying that you cannot impose something upon yourself, like giving up coffee and remembering every time that you want a cup you are to remember such and such time that you stumbled. (I gave up orange juice in the mornings to remind myself that I shouldn't steal magazines from my doctor's waiting room. I don't think I'll ever do that again but I need the daily reminder to make me realize what a sinner I am and so often over little piddling things.)

#4 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 07:26 AM

There are many who would say that modern people these days are much weaker Christians than our forebears. People are not as willing to face the penances that earlier Christians did, and perhaps our shepherds are simply not up to challenging us in such a manner.


Perhaps it's a case of "do unto others" on the part of the priests? :-)

R.

#5 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 01:50 PM

Dear All,

I've recently read some of St. Nicodemus's Exomologetarion. I won't confess on here, but suffice it to say that the penances prescribed in the Saint's book are incredibly more intense than those prescribed by my parish priest, and he's very traditional in his outlook, I believe.

Having said that, my question is why, logically speaking, there has been a relaxing of penitence on the part of priests nowadays. Not that I'm complaining; I must confess that if I were prescribed such a penance, I would probably fall into disobedience, knowing myself. However, from an ecclesial standpoint, isn't it frowned upon to relax traditional rules very much, especially in the Orthodox Church?

Thanks,
Evan


The commentaries on the canons say that the reason for this has been the diminishing strength of the faithful over the centuries to bear such penances. After all, the purpose of a penance is to bring a person to repentance as they are able, not to destroy them.

In this sense then there is wisdom in what one senior spiritual father once told me that even for serious moral sins, for certain people it may be sufficient that they approached confession at all.

In Christ-
Fr Raphael

#6 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 04:46 PM

There are many who would say that modern people these days are much weaker Christians than our forebears. People are not as willing to face the penances that earlier Christians did, and perhaps our shepherds are simply not up to challenging us in such a manner.


Do you practice such austerities?

#7 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 26 June 2011 - 01:33 AM

What I do or do not do is between me and my father confessor, and God. I mind my own plate.

#8 Thomas Carroll

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Posted 26 June 2011 - 08:37 PM

Dear brother in Christ Evan,

I think you will find a very illuminating discussion of this subject in the book 'Wounded by Love.' There is a first-person description there of the personal experience of Elder Porphyrios of Attica, who as a new spiritual father assigned the full penances prescribed in the old books, but quickly learned that they were detrimental to the repentance of many who came to him. If I have time later, I will quote some of what he says.

Asking your prayers,
Thomas

Dear All,

I've recently read some of St. Nicodemus's Exomologetarion. I won't confess on here, but suffice it to say that the penances prescribed in the Saint's book are incredibly more intense than those prescribed by my parish priest, and he's very traditional in his outlook, I believe.

Having said that, my question is why, logically speaking, there has been a relaxing of penitence on the part of priests nowadays. Not that I'm complaining; I must confess that if I were prescribed such a penance, I would probably fall into disobedience, knowing myself. However, from an ecclesial standpoint, isn't it frowned upon to relax traditional rules very much, especially in the Orthodox Church?

Thanks,
Evan



#9 John Mitchell

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Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:11 PM

St Nicodemus is a monk writing to monks. Penances for monks are far more spartan than they are for laymen.

#10 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:25 PM

St Nicodemus is a monk writing to monks. Penances for monks are far more spartan than they are for laymen.


Actually, St Nikodemos is addressing all of the faithful in his works on confession and frequent reception of the Eucharist.

In Christ-
Fr Raphael

#11 Thomas Carroll

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Posted 27 June 2011 - 10:32 PM

Dear brother in Christ Evan,

Here is the passage I mentioned earlier. I cannot praise this book highly enough.

To begin with, when I first started to hear confessions, I used to really 'scald' those who came to make confession. I used to have at my side Saint Nikodemos's Confessor's Guide[I]*[*[I]Exomologitarion] when someone would come for confession. If he confessed a serious sin then I would look up the book and would see that it wrote: 'Not to receive Holy Communion for eighteen years.' I didn't know; I was inexperienced. And so I imposed the corresponding penance. Whatever the book said was law. But then the people would come back the following year -- they would come from various places, from various villages, from far and near -- and when I asked them, 'How long is it since you made confession?' they would answer, 'I confessed to you this time last year.' Then I would ask, 'And what did I tell you?' They would reply, 'You told me to do a hundred prostrations every night.'
'And did you do them?'
'No.'
'Why not?'
'Well, you told me that I couldn't receive Communion for eighteen years so I thought to myself, "Since I'm damned anyway, I might as well forget about the whole thing."'
You understand? Then another person would come and say the same thing. So I thought, 'What do I do now?' It was then I began to become a little wiser. The confessor has the power to bind and to loose. I remembered one of Saint Basil's Rules, and I took that as my basic guideline and changed my tactics in confession. The Rule says: 'He who receives the power to bind and to loose, when he sees the great remorse of one of the sinners, let him reduce the time of the penance. Don't let him judge the penances in terms of time, but in terms of disposition.'
And so I started to encourage the people to read the poetic canons written in honor of the saints, to read short prayers, to make prostrations and to read Holy Scripture. And in that way they began to pay attention to the things of our religion. Their hearts were softened and without any external prompting they desired to observe the fasts, to enter the spiritual arena and to come to know Christ. And one thing I have understood is that when someone comes to know Christ and love Him and is loved by Christ, everything thereafter proceeds well in holiness and joy and everything is easy.


Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, pp. 43 & 44
edited from an archive of notes and recordings
by the Sisters of the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi
translated by John Raffan
Denise Harvey (publisher), Limni, Evia, Greece
2005

#12 Moses Anthony

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Posted 28 June 2011 - 10:40 PM

My first priest once said to myself and another about our volume during Divine Liturgy, "Not everyone is at the same place."

Woe unto me for my conundrum; for, although I am married with a family, I am drawn to the asceticism of monasticism. Which for a large part exists because of ecclesiastical laxity. The priest, the 'spiritual father' and the individual Christian, are all under the same mandate; i.e., "Obey God" Those who are wiser than we, and who know our walk as Christians -spiritual fathers and priests- know what forms of penitence we are able to bear, lest in our haste to copy our favorite saint, we become disheartened and worth only to be trampled under the foot of men. Which of our present day bishops whom we hold to be god-fearing, would cast himself into, and roll around in a briar patch to overcome sinful lusts?

Again: As we all know, God directs all our lives as it will best benefit each of us for the purpose of godliness, without the time frame of our existence. The evidential results are according to where God has called us (i.e., vocation and place), and how He intends to use us.

The bishop of a particular diocese may face different priorities than that of another, and so will exercise 'economia' within the rubrics of the Canon, as concerning his priests. And so on down the line! If I went to my bishop and said that I wanted to persue a life of repentance, he would most likely tell me to first master the simple life. It is where we each are in our journey with the Master, how he directs us, and how obedient we are as to the form of asceticism the world sees!


the sinful and unworthy servant

#13 Evan Herberth

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 02:13 AM

Dear brother in Christ Thomas,

I really appreciate the transcription you shared from Wounded By Love. It even mentions precisely the book that had caused a crisis for me! So Elder Porphyrios makes the observation that these canons were driving people away from the practice of the faith. Why, then, do they exist in the first place? Do you believe it's as others have put it on here: that we are just a weaker generation, including the generation that Elder Porphyrios was observing as a confessor? We can't handle those penances, but St. Nikodemos' generation could?

Thanks again,
Evan

#14 Evan Herberth

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 02:21 AM

Herman,

Fair observation.


Kyrill,

Thank you for the wisdom. I suppose if you gave up orange juice, I could give up coffee ;-). So it was a kind've specific penance for a particular sin, and that's the idea of the giving up?

Fr. Raphael,

So penances, then, are completely relative to the individual being penanced, not absolutely annexed to the sin being corrected? Why do you think this change in people generally has occurred? I made the observation that I personally was too weak to bear what I was reading, however, I come to understand that what I observe in myself is pandemic. Why should it be so? Did the devil acquire a magic wand he didn't have before?

Moses,

May God lead you through your conundrum; I certainly can't. I'm both younger, and have my goals and situation oriented 180 degrees away from yours (single, but don't plan on remaining so).

Peace,
Evan

#15 Kyrill Bolton

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 01:05 PM

Kyrill,

Thank you for the wisdom. I suppose if you gave up orange juice, I could give up coffee ;-). So it was a kind've specific penance for a particular sin, and that's the idea of the giving up?

Evan


I gave up the orange juice as I have a terrible memory for my sins and I wanted to be reminded of 1) my past deed, 2) the fact that even though my stealing the magazine might be 'justified' or rationalized as being relatively small I needed the reminder that it was very wrong and 3) maybe even more so, I needed the reminder that no matter what I think or people might say, I am not a good person but very capable of doing the worst of things in my rebellion against God.

Has giving up orange juice worked? Maybe a little (God knows) but writing this note has certainly helped by bring to remembrance my sinful nature. "Keep your mind in hell and fear not." St. Silouan

#16 Evan Herberth

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 02:52 PM

Dear Kyrill,

You've piqued my interest with your philosophy here. I understand that St. Silouan was a wonderful human being, and also this philosophy of remembering every rotten thing (including death and hell) to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow, if that's an accurate enough of a description of its purpose.

Here are my (at least in my self-serving opinion) logical objections to this very orthodox attitude you have (and I hope you'll respond so as to help my mindset here):

1. Aren't we to forgive ourselves as we forgive others? And forgiving entails forgetting, at least from a passionate standpoint, and many times from a memory standpoint, of the sin committed against us. So wouldn't we be holding ourselves to a disproportionate (illogical) standard to remember all of our own sins, while considering it a mandate from on High to forget everyone else's sins.

2. Shouldn't our modus operandi in following the Lord be consistent? After all, certain sins (sexual in nature), would probably be most unwise to remember vividly on a daily basis when practicing a certain penance for those same sins. In the case of these, wouldn't the aforementioned "forgive and forget" be best, while striving our best to turn away from the circumstances and thought patterns that led to the committing of the carnal sin in the first place?

3. In our Orthodox prayer books, we are reminded of certain categories of sin that we may have fallen into, "seeing the beauty of another and being wounded thereby in my heart", "idle talking", etc. These, no doubt, are trying to remind us of our spiritual weakness, but they don't call to mind specific sins of ours.

Even in Catholic churches, I remember the priest saying something like, "Let us call to mind our sins." And we'd bow our heads and reflect. Were these supposed to be specific sins, though? I appreciate your bringing this up; this might help me understand Orthodoxy better (recent convert).

Thanks,
Evan

#17 Father David Moser

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 03:45 PM

...I needed the reminder that no matter what I think or people might say, I am not a good person but very capable of doing the worst of things in my rebellion against God.

... by bring to remembrance my sinful nature. "Keep your mind in hell and fear not." St. Silouan


I understand that St. Silouan was a wonderful human being, and also this philosophy of remembering every rotten thing (including death and hell) to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow


I do believe this is a gross (if common) misunderstanding of St Silouan's statement. "Keeping your mind in hell" is not about remembering your sins, but about placing all your hope on God. St Silouan's purpose here is much closer to the scriptural injunction "in everything give thanks" and "the last shall be first". If I depend solely and completely on the providence of Christ and if, in that state, I am in hell, then I will rejoice for this is the place that my Lord has given to me for the salvation of my soul. If, I, in humility am willing to accept and assume this lowly place then I know that even here, Jesus will sustain through the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is a matter of trusting God, not of punishing yourself.

I strongly recommend a careful reading of St Silouan's writing on this matter as well as the writings and lectures of his spiritual successors Archim Sophrony and Archim Zacharias. This teaching of St Silouan is complex and subtle and requires a great deal of prayer and spiritual discernment for those of us who did not receive the same grace to behold God with our own eyes early in our spiritual lives (as did St Silouan) to understand.

Fr David Moser

#18 Kyrill Bolton

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 03:52 PM

Dear Kyrill,

You've piqued my interest with your philosophy here. I understand that St. Silouan was a wonderful human being, and also this philosophy of remembering every rotten thing (including death and hell) to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow, if that's an accurate enough of a description of its purpose.

Here are my (at least in my self-serving opinion) logical objections to this very orthodox attitude you have (and I hope you'll respond so as to help my mindset here):

1. Aren't we to forgive ourselves as we forgive others? And forgiving entails forgetting, at least from a passionate standpoint, and many times from a memory standpoint, of the sin committed against us. So wouldn't we be holding ourselves to a disproportionate (illogical) standard to remember all of our own sins, while considering it a mandate from on High to forget everyone else's sins.

2. Shouldn't our modus operandi in following the Lord be consistent? After all, certain sins (sexual in nature), would probably be most unwise to remember vividly on a daily basis when practicing a certain penance for those same sins. In the case of these, wouldn't the aforementioned "forgive and forget" be best, while striving our best to turn away from the circumstances and thought patterns that led to the committing of the carnal sin in the first place?

3. In our Orthodox prayer books, we are reminded of certain categories of sin that we may have fallen into, "seeing the beauty of another and being wounded thereby in my heart", "idle talking", etc. These, no doubt, are trying to remind us of our spiritual weakness, but they don't call to mind specific sins of ours.

Even in Catholic churches, I remember the priest saying something like, "Let us call to mind our sins." And we'd bow our heads and reflect. Were these supposed to be specific sins, though? I appreciate your bringing this up; this might help me understand Orthodoxy better (recent convert).

Thanks,
Evan


I am not fit to give spiritual advice I can try and share my life but you would be much better served to address these things to your spiritual father. Having said that, 1) I do try and forgive and forget both of myself and, more importantly, others. However, forgiving and forgetting a particular offense does not imply that I don't remember my sin as a weakness, my sin as something to be avoid in the future. In this I am not remembering my offense to God as much as my weakness, my sin nature. Now when I see orange juice on the breakfast menu I don't think of that magazine but rather my weakness in general. (In this particular case I took a magazine of no market value without stopping but when I had my own business I handled 10's of millions of dollars of other people's money and I took none. From this I can try to isolate why I did such and such one time but not another, I can pray that the Holy Spirit gives me His wisdom so that I can learn, not only intellectually but substantively. This is only inserted as an example of why I try to learn about myself from my sins. I can't learn from my 'virtues, if any, because I am so deluded and prideful. Another example of learning from past mistakes is that many, many, many years ago I was extremely sexual tempted, in part, because I allowed myself to spend time with the other person. From this I learned and practiced for about 35 years never to be alone in a car with a person of the opposite sex.)

2) I don't really practice "could of, should of, or would of" (of if do I catch myself and stop) so I don't dwell on the sin but upon the effect upon me and others. For instance, in the example of being tempted I can and do reflect on the effect of that upon others, sort of like making a splash in the water with a pebble, the ripple I've created reached out and touched dozens, hundreds of others. I have spent much time making what amends that I could by direct contact and prayer. This allows me to claim and deal with my actions (which I guess is my self imposed penance.)

3) I think this point that you are asking is sort of the difference between a general and specific remembrance of a sin or categories of sin. Here again, I can only point to my life. Especially when I was new to the concept of spiritual growth (and this is much more recent than my conversion to Orthodoxy 20+ years ago), I too had problems or issues with the general categories of sin and passion. As I started getting serious about growth I started to perceive that given enough thought to any such category (or even specific sin) I was in some manner guilty but it was only when I made the decision and took the responsibility for one area of my life to change (gave it to the Holy Spirit) at a time (can you say gluttony) that my conscience really started to react. For me it is the process.

I have a remembrance of hell not because I remember "every dirty rotten thing" but because I can see my self (soul) being so dark and dirty when held up to the light of Christ. I have been forgiven for many, many things but even just writing this I have to wonder why, if not for pride, that I say anything about my spiritual struggle. Yet I have no choice but to fear not and 'get'r done.'

Hope my struggles have helped, pm me if you wish.

May God have mercy on us both.

#19 Kyrill Bolton

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 03:55 PM

Father, bless
Fr. David
Of course your reading of St. Silouan's writings are correct, I apologize if I have mislead any one. I hope my last post clarifies my understanding of this concept, if not please do not hesitate to respond.

#20 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 09:35 PM

Evan Herberth wrote:


Fr. Raphael,

So penances, then, are completely relative to the individual being penanced, not absolutely annexed to the sin being corrected? Why do you think this change in people generally has occurred? I made the observation that I personally was too weak to bear what I was reading, however, I come to understand that what I observe in myself is pandemic. Why should it be so? Did the devil acquire a magic wand he didn't have before?


Yes- penances or epitimia must be geared according to the person who confesses. Keep in mind that by this way of looking at it- then confession itself could be a suitable epitimia for many people nowadays. Which was my point in my previous post.

According to the classic commentaries on this, for example St Nikodemus the Aghiorite (these are found in his works on Confession and in his comments on the canons in the Rudder), penances have diminished in severity, even during the Patristic period, due to the increasing weakness of the faithful. What may have been a true corrective during the early centuries, in later times would serve likely to crush a person, instead of leading them to amendment. In this sense the penance ends up driving a person away from the Church rather than providing a lesson that leads closer to It. Keep in mind the extremely critical point for modern clergy, that in our times, this possibility of driving someone away from the Church is literally true compared to previous times when such an option would have been inconceivable (even legally).

Your last questions are not easily answered in a few words. Sin is a constant since the Fall. But man's conscious turning from God has now become a social value- or even a social virtue! The inevitable result of this, according to the ancient & modern Holy Fathers, can only be the gradual unraveling of man on every level- moral, social, spiritual. This is a spiritual law- that man only finds his life in God and Who is revealed in Christ.

The greatest and most destructive deception of our age then is that any option is possible. According to our way of seeing life, even Christ may have a place in our lives, as long as He is related to in terms of being only one relative option.

This then is how we also arrive at the Church, for we are not free from such 'values'. There is also though the deeper matter that we are never barred off in a spiritual sense from our society. Either we are busy redeeming it through selfless dying to ourselves- or unseen by ourselves we are increasing the pain of our society, by continually avoiding the fact that life for ourselves and for others who surround us, can only come from this dying to ourselves in terms which the Church directly offers to us: ie the parishes, monasteries, families, societies- which Christ actually places before us. Anything else can only be described as escapism.

The way forward then is to positively and in concrete and practical terms live the life that Christ has set before us. (eg what your priest asks you to do; what you need to face in terms of the parish or family you are part of). Thus the ideals of the Church are very high- but the means are right before us.

In Christ-
Fr Raphael




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