continued from the previous post:
Penance and Holy Communion
When the communion of the entire congregation at each Liturgy, as an act expressing their very participation, in the Liturgy, ceased to be a self-evident norm and was replaced by the practice of a very infrequent, usually once-a-year, communion, it became natural for the latter to be preceded by the Sacrament of Penance i.e., confession and reconciliation with the Church through the prayer of absolution.
This practice, natural and self-evident in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the Sacrament of Penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition - always and in all cases - for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.
To be convinced of that, one has to recall, be it very briefly, the essence of the Sacrament of Penance. From the very beginning this sacrament was, in the consciousness and teaching of the Church, the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church of those excommunicated from her and this means of those excluded from the eucharistic assembly. We know that, at first, the very strict ecclesiastical discipline allowed for only one such reconciliation in one's lifetime, but that later, especially after the entrance into the Church of the entire population, this discipline was somewhat relaxed. In its essence, the Sacrament of Penance, as the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church, was for those only who were excommunicated from the Church for definite sins and acts clearly defined in the canonical tradition of the Church. This is still clearly stated in the prayer of absolution: "reconcile him with Thy Holy Church in Christ Jesus Our Lord..." (This, incidentally, is the prayer of absolution, used universally. As to the second one, unknown to the Eastern Orthodox Churches - "I, unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve. . ." - is of Latin origin and was adopted in our liturgical books at the time of the domination of Orthodox theology by Western theology.)
All this, however, does not mean that the "faithful," i.e., the "non-excommunicated," were considered by the Church to be sinless. In the first place, according to the Church's teaching, no human being is sinless, with the exception of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos. In the second place, a prayer for forgiveness and remission of sins is an integral part of the Liturgy itself (cf. the Prayer of the Trisagion and the two prayers "of the faithful"). Finally, the Church always considered Holy Communion itself as given "for the remission of sins." Therefore, the issue here is not sinlessness, which no absolution can achieve, but the distinction always made by the Church between, on the one hand, the sins excommunicating a man from the Church's life of grace and, on the other hand, the "sinfulness" which is the inescapable fate of every man "living in the world and bearing flesh." The latter is, so to speak, "dissolved" in the Church's liturgy, and it is this sinfulness that the Church confesses in the "prayers of the faithful" before the offering of the Holy Gifts. Before the Holy Chalice itself, at the moment of receiving the Mysteries, we ask for forgiveness of "sins voluntary and involuntary, those in word and in deed, committed knowingly or unknowingly," and we believe that, in the measure of our repentance, we receive this forgiveness.
All this means, of course, and no one really denies it, that the only real condition for partaking of the Divine Mysteries is membership in the Church and, conversely, that membership in the Church is fulfilled in the partaking of the sacrament of the Church. Communion is given 'for the remission of sins, "'for the healing of the soul and body," and it implies, therefore, repentance, the awareness of our total unworthiness, and the understanding of communion as a heavenly gift which never can be "deserved" by an earthly being. The whole meaning of preparation for communion, as established by the Church ("The Rule for Holy Communion") is not, of course, in making man feel "worthy" but, on the contrary, in revealing to him the abyss of God's mercy and love ("I am not worthy, Master and Lord... yet since Thou in Thy love... dost wish to dwell in me, in boldness I come. Thou commandest, open the gates... and Thou wilt come in love... and enlighten my darkened reasoning. I believe that Thou wilt do this..."). Before the Lord's table the only "worthiness" of the communicant is that he has realized his bottomless "unworthiness." This, indeed, is the beginning of salvation.
It is therefore of paramount importance for us to understand that the transformation of the Sacrament of Penance into an obligatory condition for communion not only contradicts Tradition, but obviously mutilates it. It mutilates, in the first place, the doctrine of the Church by creating in her two categories of members, one of which is, in fact, excommunicated from the Eucharist, as the very content and fulfillment of membership, as its spiritual source. But then it is no longer surprising that those whom the Apostle called "fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19) become again "worldly" (kosmiki, miriane), are "secularized" and their membership in the Church is measured and defined in terms of money ("dues") and "rights." But also mutilated is the doctrine of communion, which is understood then as the sacrament for a few "worthy ones" and no longer as the sacrament of the Church: of sinners who, by the infinite mercy of Christ, are always transformed into His Body. And finally, equally mutilated is the doctrine of penance. Transformed into a formal condition for communion, it begins more and more obviously to replace the real preparation for communion, that genuine inner repentance, which inspires all the prayers before communion. After a three-minute confession and absolution a man feels "entitled" to communion, "worthy" and even "sinless," feels, in other terms, that which is in fact the very opposite of true repentance.
But how then could such a practice have appeared and become a norm, defended today by many as truly Orthodox? To answer this question one must consider three factors. We have already mentioned one of them: that nominal and lukewarm approach to faith and piety of Christian society itself which led, at first, to an infrequent communion and, finally, reduced it to a once-a-year "obligation." It is clear that a person approaching the Divine Mysteries once a year must be really "reconciled" with the Church by means of an examination of his conscience and life in the Sacrament of Penance. The second factor is the influence on the Church of monasticism, which from the very beginning knew the practice of the "opening of thoughts," of the spiritual guidance by an experienced monk of a less-experienced one. But, and this is essential, such a spiritual father or "elder" was not necessarily a priest, for this type of spiritual guidance is connected with spiritual experience and not priesthood.
In the Byzantine monastic typika of the 12th-13th centuries, a monk is forbidden both to approach the Chalice and to abstain from it by himself, of his own will, without the permission of his spiritual father, for "to exclude oneself from communion is to follow one's own will." In women's monasteries the same power belongs to the abbess. Thus we have here a confession of a non-sacramental type, confession based upon spiritual experience and permanent guidance. But this type of confession had a strong impact on sacramental confession. At a time of spiritual decadence (which can be seen in its true scope and meaning in the canons of the so-called Council in Trullo, 6th century A.D.) monasteries became centers of spiritual care and guidance for the laity. In Greece, even today, not every priest has the right to hear confessions but only those who are especially authorized by the Bishop. Yet for the laity this spiritual counseling naturally led to sacramental confession. We must stress, however, that not every parish priest is capable of such spiritual counseling, which implies and presupposes a deep spiritual experience, for without that experience "counseling" may lead, and in fact often leads, to genuine spiritual tragedies. What is important here is that the sacramental penance became somehow connected with the idea of spiritual guidance, solution of "difficulties" and "problems," and that all this in the present conditions of our parish life, of "mass" confessions concentrated during some evening of Great Lent and reduced to a few minutes, is hardly possible and does more harm than good. Spiritual guidance, especially in our time of deep spiritual crisis, is necessary, but to be genuine, deep, useful, it must be disconnected from sacramental confession, although the latter must obviously be its ultimate goal.
The third and decisive factor was, of course, the influence of the Western Scholastic and juridical understanding of penance. Much has been written about the "western captivity" of Orthodox theology but few people realize the depth and the real meaning of the distortions to which Western influence led in the life of the Church and, above all, in the understanding of sacraments. This is especially obvious in the Sacrament of Penance. Here the distortion consisted in that the whole meaning of the sacrament was shifted from repentance and confession to "absolution" understood juridically. Western Scholastic theology transposed into juridical categories the very concept of sin and, accordingly, the concept of absolution, as dependent not so much on the reality of repentance, but on the power of the priest. If in the initial Orthodox understanding of the Sacrament of Penance the priest is the witness of repentance and, therefore the witness of the fulfilled "reconciliation with the Church in Christ Jesus. . .," the Latin legalism puts the emphasis on the power of the priest to absolve. Hence the practice, totally alien to Orthodox doctrine, yet quite popular today, of "absolutions" without confession. The initial distinction between sins (which because they excommunicate from the Church require a sacramental reconciliation with her) and sinfulness (not leading to excommunication) was rationalized by Western Scholasticism in the distinction between the so-called mortal sins and the so-called venial sins. The first ones, by depriving man of the "state of grace" require sacramental confession and absolution; the others require only an inner repentance and contrition. In the Orthodox East, however, and especially in Russia (under the influence of the Latinizing theology of Peter Moghila and his followers), this theory resulted in a simple, compulsory and juridical connection between confession and communion.
And it is ironic indeed that the most obvious of all Latin "infiltrations" is viewed by so many Orthodox as an Orthodox norm while a mere attempt to re-evaluate it in the light of the genuine Orthodox doctrine of Church and sacraments is denounced as "Roman Catholic."