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A Letter to a Priest Concerning Epitimias


Question:

Dear Archbishop Chrysostomos:

Despota bless!

I have been challenged concerning epitemias by someone who believes that they are only punishment, and not in any way useful to control the passions ...I tend to tell my spiritual children [suffering from sexual temptation] to do as much of the so called "Prayers for Purity" as thay are able. This can be a little as ten prostrations, or for the stronger, the entire rule of prayer. Some resist this remedy, and refuse to do the prostrations, saying they are only punishment from me. ...Do you have any comments?

Kissing your right hand,

Priest xxx

Reply:

Dear Father xxx:

Evlogeite.

Thank you for your note, which I will try to answer to the best of my ability. It seems to me that what you are doing is perfectly in accordance with the prevailing advice of the better spiritual Fathers whom I have known. I follow their advice myself and give an epitimia ("penance") of prostrations and prayers in many circumstances; in the majority, I would dare say.

First, with regard to the passions: The very purpose of askesis is the purification of our thoughts and senses from the passions. In other words, fasting, prayer, standing, prostrations, and even almsgiving (a form of positive self-deprivation) help to control our passions and, in fact, to transform us into Christ-like creatures. Only through ascetic purification do we ever come to control our thoughts and senses, leading by Grace to their purification and their liberation from the influence of the lower impulses. The Philokalia, to name but one of the many Patristic texts on the attainment of perfection in Christ, is dedicated to this very proposition, as the subtitle of the collection suggests. St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite describes these as texts "...by which the mind is purified, illumined, and perfected through practical [i.e., ascetic] and contemplative [i.e., prayerful] ethical philosophy." Certainly this makes it clear that ascetic practices, which are a principal subject of this pivotal spiritual work, serve no other purpose than to cleanse us of the passions.

Especially in the case of sexual desires and sexual sins, ascetic practices are highly efficacious. After all, not a few Fathers have pointed out that eating rich foods, ignoring prayer, foregoing humble prostrations and entreaties before God, and general self-absorption (such as that which would thwart almsgiving) are the very causes of base temptations. If avoiding these things leads to sexual desire, which is at the core of fallen man's pride (the desire to usurp the creative power of God and to express it in perverted ways, at times, and outside the bond of marriage), it obvious that putting them into practice leads to purity. They are the very spiritual exercises that fortify our relationship to God and thus invite His Grace upon us. This is a basic teaching of the Orthodox Church.

The "Prayers of Purification" are widely used, and in particular in the event of a nocturnal emission. This is absolutely standard practice, as you might imagine, in monasteries, where this is the one bodily sexual concern for monks. Now, such an occurrence, if it does not involve the willful entertainment of lascivious thoughts during the day (which can lead to nocturnal emissions), is not considered a sin, as such, but a manifestation of our fallen state (see the fourth Canon of St. Dionysios of Alexandria). Yet, despite the fact that willful sin is not at issue in most instances, the prayers for purity are read, after a nocturnal emission, precisely because they are effective in controlling the passions. And the monastic life, which is about just that (control over the fallen passions), encourages asceticism even in innocence, since it is such an appropriate and Grace-filled and Grace-endowing tool.

Now, you may find those who argue that the pronouncement of an epitimia comes from Latin practice. This is popular among individuals influenced by some of the leaders of certain super-correct groups. I believe that the views of these leaders are the result of two things: first, sadly enough, the perverse sexual practices that they justify, as we have heard, in the name of supposed secret Patristic teachings, which obviously distort their views of the link between purity and asceticism; and second, the "witch hunts" that they and their followers persistently conduct in a wild search for "Western influences" in Orthodoxy. The first issue speaks for itself. The second one is more subtle. There are many Western influences in Orthodoxy, and we should try to identify and control them. But there are many Orthodox things in Western Christianity, too. The mere fact that something in Orthodoxy may parallel something in the West does not mean that this element came to Orthodoxy through the West; at times, it can be something which survived in the West from its Orthodox past. One of these things is the custom of giving an epitimia, or penance, which the Latins certainly inherited from Orthodoxy, and not the Orthodox from Western influence.

I cannot vouch for this story, but it is widely told throughout Greece. It illustrates well the danger of attributing, to a purely Orthodox custom, supposed foreign and non-Orthodox origins. It is said that Apostolos Makrakis, the Greek intellectual who wrote a number of thoughtful treatises on theology, but who also wrote some clearly heretical things (things formally condemned by the Church), was among those who apparently—and wrongly—thought that giving an epitimia was a deviation from traditional Orthodox practice. A the story goes, he once went to see an Elder (the spiritual Father of St. Nectarios of Aegina, if I am not wrong), who, after Makrakis' confession, gave him a penance (and we should not be afraid of this Latin word, since it is of perfectly Orthodox provenance). Makrakis was outraged and told the Elder that he would not follow such an innovation, no doubt believing that "punishment" would not cure sin (you see here, again, the confusion between an epitimia as an ascetic course of therapy and as mere "punishment"). The Elder simply told him, "The knee that will not be bent will be broken" and set him on his way. On the way down the hill from the Elder's Hesychasterion, Makrakis is said to have fallen from the donkey on which he was riding, injuring his knee. This injury, in turn, eventually led to complications from which he died.

I have heard this anecdote enough times and from enough trustworthy people to believe that it must be true, though I have, as I said above, no independent evidence of its truth. (I have also forgotten some of the details, perhaps, though in essence I believe that I have recounted the  story correctly.) Whatever the case, it illustrates a valid and important point. Behind the fear of punishment is pride. And even if a Priest does not, in fact, apply ascetic therapy in a punitive way, this fear reveals not only a misunderstanding of asceticism, but a lingering defiance against the Church by those who question the appropriateness of an epitimia. This defiance is perhaps the more important issue, beyond the sin for which a penance is pronounced, and thus those who question your perfectly traditional confessional practices, Father, are possessed of a spirit that can lead them to spiritual ruin and even, as in the case of Makrakis (if this story is true), physical disaster. Sins, which merely stain the soul, and even the very worst sins, are easily removed by repentance and the peritrachelion (epitrachelion); but defiance and pride eat away at the soul and deform it internally.

Please pray for me, as we do for you daily at the Divine Liturgy. Thank you for bringing up this important matter. My warmest wishes to your family and Faithful. I am

The Least Among Monks,

+ Archbishop Chrysostomos