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Sunday, September 25, 2011

St. Theophan the Recluse on penances in confession

Eastern Christian priests are not entirely uniform in the handing out of penances as part of the Mystery of Reconciliation.  Some whom I have known have declined the practice in an attempt to be authentically Eastern, on the grounds that penances smacks of Latin legalism, while others (including a hieromonk who translated from Orthodoxy after having been a schemamonk on Mount Athos for many years) give penances in the Latin style.  The following passage comes from one whose Orthodoxy and vostochnik credentials could never be questioned, St. Theophan the Recluse in the translation provided by Blessed Seraphim of Platina.  The source is from St. Theophan's The Path to Salvation:  A Manual of Spiritual Transformation (Platina, CA:  St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 182.

If the spiritual father gives you a penance, accept it with joy.  If the spiritual father does not give you one, then ask him to.  This will be not only a send-off to you as you depart on your good path, but also a shield and protection from outside enemy attacks on your new way of life.  Here is what the Patriarch of Constantinople wrote in answer to the Lutherans:  "We accompany the absolution of sins with penances for many respectable reasons.  First of all, so that through voluntary suffering the sinner will be freed here from onerous involuntary punishment there, in the next life, for the Lord grants mercy to nothing more than He does suffering, especially voluntary suffering.  Therefore St. Gregory also says that God's love is granted for tears.  Secondly, it is in order to destroy in the sinner those passionate desires of the flesh which give birth to sin, for we know that opposites cure.  Thirdly, it is so that the penance would serve as a bond or bridle for the soul, and not allow it to again take up those same vices from which it is still being cleansed.  Fourthly, in order to accustom it to labor and patience, for virtue is a matter of labor.  Fifthly, it is so that we will see and know whether or not the penitent has truly come to hate sin.
The English edition references "Christian Reading, 1842, vol. 1, p. 244 [in Russian]."

This is an illuminating passage for several reasons, first and foremost that it gives five very good reasons for the giving of penance during confession, but also because it shows that the practice is not simply a Latin borrowing or inappropriate Latinization.  Finally, the first reason St. Theophan gives is illuminating regarding the Orthodox teaching on reparation for sins - the "involuntary punishment" he speaks of cannot be the permanent fires of Hell (since the sin for which the sinner would be punished is already forgiven by the Mystery of Confession), so they must be something analogous to the Latin doctrine of Purgatory.

Our holy father Theophan the Recluse, pray to God for us!


  1. The Eastern Christian priests who have heard my confessions did give me penances, but they weren't what the Latin rite does by any stretch. Most of them told me to do certain actions that, while uncomfortable, were beneficial. A Latin rite penance is usually nothing beyond having to say a certain number of prayers. This isn't to say the West and East don't have anything in common, but it does stress why the Orthodox want to avoid the word "penance" and "Purgatory" and the like: they don't want the connotations of those words anywhere near their church, something I can sympathize with.

  2. I must say, Liam, that I completely disagree with your understanding of Latin penances. Yes, there will always be that priest who says "say four Our Fathers and four Hail Mary's" but this is a failure on the part of the priest. None of us (Latin Catholics) WANT pitiful penances. We wish, to quote Dostoyevsky, "to suffer and be purified by suffering". I've done some hefty penances in my day, and the Anglican (though very Catholic) C.S. Lewis meant to illustrate this mystery in his analogy of Eustace as the Dragon. The Latin charism is centered around penance, sometimes to an even unhealthy degree, but oh how we love fasting, love self-denial, and can't stop singing about it.