by St. Symeon the New Theologian
Our venerable and God-bearing father Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) is one of three saints of the Orthodox church to have been given the title of Theologian (the others are St. John the Apostle and St. Gregory Nazianzen). Born in Galatia and educated at Constantinople, he became abbot of the monastery of St. Mamas.
His feast day is celebrated on March 12, the date of his repose.
1. You have asked our worthlessness to tell you, father and brother,
“if it is proper to confess our sins to monks who do not have holy orders”,
adding this also,
“because we have heard that the power to bind or loose was given only to the priests”.
These then are the words and soulbenefitting inquiries of your Godloving soul and its burning desire and fear. We acknowledged your good disposition since you seek to learn about divine and sacred things, but we wished to be silent because we are not of the loftiness of some who are able to distinguish among such matters and write about them. For the work of “interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people” (lCor.2:13) belongs to those who are free of passions and are holy men, from whom we are very far as regards our life and words and virtues.
2. However, it is written,
“The Lord is near to those who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps.144:18).
And because I, the unworthy one, have called upon Him in truth, I shall tell you the following things, not in my worth but in those of the divinely inspired Scripture. So rather than teach, I will simply bring to you the witness of the Scripture, reading the things you have inquired of me. Because, through the grace of God, I must guard myself, as well as those who hear me, from both precipices, that is, from the precipice of burying the talent (Mt.25:18,24), and from the precipice of teaching the divine doctrines unworthily in vainglory, or rather, in darkness.
Therefore, where should we begin our commentary if not from the beginningless cause of all things? For this is best in order to be certain about the things that will be said, because we were neither created by the angels nor taught by men but by the wisdom from above, that is mystically, by the trace of the Holy Spirit. And because we are always being taught, in every hour, and we have invoked that grace, now we shall speak first of the manner of confession and later of its power.
3. Confession is nothing other than the admission of our debts and, therefore, a deep awareness of our falls, that is, a decrial of our poverty and foolishness. The Lord spoke in parables in the Gospels about
“… two debtors: the one owed five-hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay [the creditor], he forgave them both” (Lk. 7:41,42).
So each one of the faithful is a debtor before his Master and God. For whatever each received from Him, the same shall be asked of him at the fearful and dread judgment seat, when we, both the poor and kings, shall all stand before it naked and exposed. Listen now to what it is that we have received from Him. There are many other things, of course, and no man is capable of enumerating them. But for the present time the best and most complete are deliverance from condemnation, sanctification from defilement, advancement from darkness to His ineffable light, the possibility of becoming His children and sons and inheritors through divine baptism and to be clothed with God Himself, and to become His members and to receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, which is a royal seal that the Lord uses for marking His own sheep. But what am I describing as “many” things? It is simply this: that He makes us like Himself and crafts us into His brethren and co-inheritors. To those who are being baptized, all these things are given directly by baptism, which are called by the divine Apostle
“divine riches and inheritance” (Col.1:12; Eph.3:8; 2Cor.4:7).
4.The commandments of the Master were given as guardians of these ineffable graces and gifts and they encirde the believer all about like a wall, creating a safe haven for the treasure hidden in his soul. And they sustain it and make it inaccessible to all enemies and thieves. However, we think that it is we ourselves who labour under the burden of keeping the commandments of a man-loving God; but we are unaware of the fact that it is we, rather, who are guarded by them. For he who keeps the commandments of God does not sustain and guard them but guards himself from visible and invisible enemies, the innumerable entities which the Apostle Paul spoke of:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spirits of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12),
in other words, which are found in the air and are always invisibly arrayed against us.
Therefore, he who keeps the commandments is himself protected by them and cannot lose the riches which God has entrusted in him. But he who disdains the commandments stands exposed before the enemies and is easily defeated by them. And having lost all these riches, he is in debt to the King and Master for all the things we spoke of which are impossible for man to pay back or even to find. For these are heavenly and He came from heaven. And He comes every day and brings them and distributes them to the faithful. Where could those who had once received them but also lost them possibly find them again? Truly nowhere.
Just as neither Adam, nor any of his sons, was able to restore himself or remake his relatives, it would have been impossible had not God, Who is above all being, become Adam’s son according to the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, and come and raised up both him and us from our fall by His divine power. Let him, who with regard to the commandments, only chooses to keep some of them and to forsake some of them, be aware that if he neglects to keep even one of the commandments, he will lose all of the riches. Imagine that the commandments are twelve armed men encircling you all around, and you are standing naked in the middle of them and they are guarding you. Imagine also other warriors who are your opponents and they come and surround you seeking to seiz and kill you immediately.
Therefore, if one of the twelve falls away by your own choice and neglects to protect you and gives up his post like an open gate to the enemy, of what benefit are then the remaining eleven men if even one of the enemies is able to enter into the centre and mercilessly cut you to pieces while the other eleven cannot turn around to help you? For even if they chose to turn around to help you they too will be slain by the enemy.
So the same thing will happen to you if you do not keep the commandments. Because if you should fall from a single blow of your enemy, all of the commandments leave you and, little by little, your strength is drained from you. Or to put it another way, a vessel filled with wine or oil does not need to be punctured all around to lose all its contents. A single hole opened up in one place is sufficient for all that was within to be slowly lost. Likewise, if you neglect just one commandment, you will slowly fall away from all the others, as Christ said:
“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him who hath not shall be taken away that which he hath” (Mt.25:29).
“Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments,” and by his transgression, “teach men to do so shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:19).
And Paul said,
“For of whom a man overcome, to the same is he in bondage” [This passage belongs to 2Pet.2:19].
“The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor.15:56).
Nowhere did not say this or that sin, but every sin is the sting of death. And he calls sin the sting of death because whosoever is stung by it dies. For every sin is unto death because even if someone sinned but once, Paul says he has already died, being under indictment for debt and sin and left lying on the road by the thieves.
5. What, then, does a dead man long for but to be raised up? And what does one who is unable to pay his debt long for but to receive the remission of his debt and avoid being thrown in prison until it can be repaid, something which he can never do since he has nothing with which to pay his debt, and thus will never come out of eternal prison, that is, the eternal darkness? Therefore, he who has been wounded by the spiritual thieves asks for a compatible and compassionate physician to come to him. For he does not have within him fear of God that is fervent enough that he would be able to go to a physician since his soul is faint from neglect, and he lies there a terrible and wretched sight to those who are able to see well, that is, who spiritually see the falls of the soul. So through sin one becomes a servant of the devil:
“Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves as servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death or of obedience unto righteousness” (Rm.6:16),
and he is a mockery of the Father and God, and is trampled upon by the enemies who apostatized from God.
Such a one has become naked of the royal purple and has been left blackened. Instead of a child of God, he became a child of the devil. What can he do in order to acquire again the things he fell away from? What else other than to ask for a mediator and a friend of God who has the power to restore him to his previous condition and reconcile him to God his Father? For he who was joined to Christ by grace and became His member and was adopted by Him, and like the dog that
“turned to his own vomit again” (2Pet.2:22)
and joined himself to a harlot or to some other body, is condemned the same as the unbelievers since he has dishonoured and blasphemed Christ Himself. Because according to the divine Apostle
“we are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1Cor. 12:27).
Therefore, he who joins himself to a harlot makes the members of Christ members of fornication (1Cor.6:15). So one who has done such a thing and angered his Master and God cannot be reconciled to God except by the mediation of a man who is holy and a friend and servant of Christ, and by abstaining from evil.
6. For this reason we must first depart from sin. However, if it happens that we are pierced by the dart of sin, let us not delay and allow its poison to entice us as honey. And neither ought we to repeat the same thing like a bear that has been enticed, and make the wound even greater. But rather we ought to run directly to a spiritual physician, purging ourselves of the poison of sin by confession and spitting out the poison.
And swiftly we ought to receive as antidotes the epitimia [corrections] given by him for our repentance and do them always in fervent faith and struggle in the fear of God. For all who emptied out the entire riches that were entrusted to them and spent their paternal estate on harlots and publicans, and whose conscience now is so burdened by shame that they cannot look upward and are without courage before God, naturally seek after a man of God who can receive their debt. And then through him they can approach God, which is something I know is impossible to do without sincere repentance and ongoing toils if one wishes to restore his relationship with God. But it has never been heard of or written in the divinely inspired Scriptures that one can take upon himself the sins of another and defend him if the sinner does not first undertake the toils corresponding to the sins and show proper fruits of his repentance. Because as the voice of the Forerunner of the Word said,
“Bring forth proper fruits of repentance, and think not to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father” (Mt.3:8),
for as the Lord Himself said to those who are so foolishly disposed,
“Verily, I say unto you: And though they stand Moses and Daniel in their midst to save their sons and daughters, they shall not be saved.” (See Ez.14:14,16,20)
What then should we do, we who wish to repent, and in what manner, in order to have our debts remitted and to rise up from our fall? Since God has so given, listen that I might explain it to each of you.
7. If you wish, search out a mediator and a physician and a good counsellor and let him show you: how as a good counsellor he will apply his counsel on the ways of repentance; how as a physician, he will give you the appropriate medicine for every wound; how he will be a mediator through prayer; and how he has communication with God and will stand before Him face to face in your behalf to gain the mercy of the Divine. Therefore, if you find a flatterer or a slave of the belly do not strive to make him your counsellor and ally lest he come around to your will and teach you not those things that are pleasing to God but those that you will accept, and thus you remain again the enemy of God and unreconciled with Him. Accept neither an inexperienced physician who will plunge you into despair with his great abruptness and improper incisions and cauteries, nor one who, in his excessive sympathy, will leave you ill while you think you are cured and, worst of all, what you do not expect, will surrender you to eternal hell.
For this hell is brought about when, in this life, the soul’s illness is not cured but continues until it dies with us.
“For not all who are of Israel are Israelites”” (Rm. 9:6),
but those with the name who also know the power of the name and are minds that see God. Likewise not all who are called Christians are really Christians.
“Not everyone, who saith unto Me, Lord, Lord,” Christ says, “shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father Which is in heaven,” and He says, just as “many will say to Me on that day…in Thy name we cast out demons…and then I will profess to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt.7:21-23).
8. This is why, my brothers, all of us must be careful — the mediators on the one hand, and the sinners on the other who wish to be reconciled to God — that neither the mediators bring down wrath upon their heads instead of rewards, nor the sinners who wish to be reconciled to God rush to, an enemy and a murderer and a bad counsellor instead of a true mediator. For these are the king who will hear the frightful words,
“who made thee rulers and judges over my people” (Ex.2:14)?
“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the timber from your own eye, and then shalt Thou see clearly to remove the splinter from thy brother’s eye” (Mt.7:5).
For the timber is a passion or desire which darkens the eye of the soul. And moreover,
“Physician, heal thyself” (Lk.4:23),
“But to the sinner God hath said, Why dost Thou declare Mine ordinances and take up My covenant in thy mouth? Whereas Thou has hated instruction, and hast cast My words behind thee” (Ps.49:16)?
And Paul says,
“Who art Thou that judgest another man’s servant, for it is by his own master that he standeth or falleth?” (Rm.14:4)
9. Therefore, because of all these things, my brothers and fathers, I shudder and tremble. I plead with all of you, bracing myself also with this plea to you, not to be superficial about these mysteries which are divine and awesome to all, not to play with things that are not games, and not to act against your soul because of vainglory, love of honours, or commerce or insensibility.
For it is possible to take up strange reasoning simply to be called “fathers” or “teachers”. I beg you, as we are simply taught by the earthly example, let us not shamelessly usurp equal honour with the Apostles. Because if one arrogantly dares to impersonate the representative of the earthly king and is caught with his colleagues and followers carrying out either secretly or openly what was entrusted by the king, he is subjected to extreme punishments in order to frighten others, and everyone laughs at him because he is a fool and senseless. What, then, awaits those who seize the office of the Apostles unworthily?
10. Nor should you wish to become mediators for others before you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and know, and are reconciled to the King of all, and can sense it in your soul. For neither can everyone who knows the earthly king be a mediator to him in behalf of others. Extremely few are able to do this, for they have acquired this familiarity before him because of their virtues and by their sweat and labours for him. And they do not have need of a mediator before him themselves but converse mouth to mouth with the king.
Therefore, fathers and brothers, are we not going to keep the same order before God? Are we not going to honour the heavenly King even equally as we honour the earthly king? Are we going to usurp and grant ourselves the seat at His right and left before we even ask for it and receive it? Such recklessness! What shameful thing has taken hold of us? Why, even if we are called to give an account for nothing else, for this alone, that we are disdainful, we shall be disgraced and denied a seat of dignity and cast into eternal fire. Now what has been said is sufficient for the exhortation of those who wish to be careful about themselves.
For this sake, our words have digressed a little beyond the subject at hand. But now, my son, we shall address what you asked to learn about.
11. Confession to a monk who does not have holy orders, you will find, was practised everywhere ever since monks existed and the garment of repentance and, the monastic life were given by God in His legacy, as it is recorded in the divinely inspired writings of the Fathers. And if you look into them, you will find that what we are saying is true. Prior to this, as successors to the holy Apostles, only bishops received the power to bind and loose. But as the time passed, the bishops became corrupt, and this fearful undertaking passed on to priests who had a blameless life and were worthy of grace.
And later, the priests as well, as the bishops associated with and became just like the rest of the people. And many of them, just as now, would fall into spirits of delusion [plani; prelest] and vain, empty speech and would be lost. Then the power to bind and loose was transferred to the chosen among the people of God, that is to say, to the monks. It was not that it was removed from the priests and bishops, but that the priests and bishops estranged themselves from this grace. “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God,” as the Apostle Paul says, and “he ought, as for the people, so also for himself offer” sacrifice (Hb.5:1,3).
12. But let us go back and start this commentary from the beginning and let us see when and how and to whom this power of sacerdotal service and of binding and loosing was given. And the order in which you phrased the question will thus make the answer clear not only to you but to all other men. When our Lord and Saviour said to the man with the withered hand,
“Thy sins are forgiven thee,” hearing this, the Jews said, “This man speaketh blasphemies. Who can forgive sins but God alone” (See Mt.9:2-3; 12:10; Mk.2:7; Lk.5:21)?
Because [ex officio] forgiveness of sins was never given by prophets or priests or by any of the patriarchs in those times. This is why the Scribes rejected Christ’s words as some new doctrine or odd preaching. And therefore the Lord did not blame them for it but He taught them something they did not know, showing Himself granting remission of sins as God and not as man. He says to them,
“But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to remit sins” (Mt.9:6),
and He says to the man who has the withered hand,
“Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored like the other” (Mt.12:13).
So by means of the visible miracle He proved the greater and invisible one. It was the same with Zaccheus, the same with Peter who denied Him three times, the same with the paralytic whom He cured and later found and said,
“Behold, thou art made whole. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee” (Jn.5:14).
By saying this, He showed that the man fell ill through sin and, when he was delivered from the illness, he received remission of his sins without fasting, without making the hard ground his bed, through his return and unhesitating faith, and the cutting off of evil, and through true repentance and many tears like the harlot, and like Peter who wept bitterly.
From such a beginning comes the great gift which belongs to God alone, and which He alone possesses. But when He was about to ascend to the heavens, in His place, then, He left this gift to His disciples. And how is it that He gave this authority and power to them? Let us see to whom and how many and when: to His eleven chosen disciples when He passed through the closed doors and they were gathered within. He entered and stood in their midst and blew on them saying;
“Receive ye the Holy Spirit; whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (Jn.20:22-23).
And He gave them no command regarding epitimia since they would be taught by the Holy Spirit (see Jn.14:26).
13. Thus, as we said, the holy Apostles passed it on to those who succeeded them and ascended to their thrones, so that among the others no one could even dare to think about anything like it. And thus the disciples of the Lord guarded the authority of this power with great care. But as we said previously, with the passing of time, the worthy became mixed with the unworthy. And because the unworthy were many more, they overshadowed and corrupted the worthy and engaged them in disputations over who has higher authorfty, and feigned virtue in order to preside over the others.
And because those who sat on the thrones of the Apostles showed themselves to be carnal, lovers of pleasure and lovers of honour, and they inclined towards heresies, divine grace abandoned men such as these and the power was removed from them. And this is why all of the qualities the performers of sacerdotal service ought to possess are put aside, and the only thing asked of those who are to be ordained is that they be Orthodox.
However, I fear that in reality they do not even ask that. For one is not Orthodox merely because he brings no new doctrine into the church of God, but because he has a life that is consistent with the correct teaching. Btit patriarchs and metropolitans at varous times’ sought after this kind of candidate either unsuccessfully, or they succeeded but preferred the unworthy over him. And they required of the unworthy only a signed statement of the Symbol of Faith, and asked of him only this: that he neither be a zealot for the good, nor that he fight against something that is bad. Supposedly, they were attending to the peace of the Church in this way, but this way is worse than any hatred and is the cause of great disorder.
And by this cause, the priests were corrupted and became as the people. For among them there were none who were the salt which the Lord spoke of, and who, by use of reproaches, could bind and check the flowing away of life. On the contrary, they agreed and covered up evil and passions for one another, and became worse than the people. And the people, in turn, became worse than them. In fact some of the people were shown to be better than the priests, because, amidst the total darkness of the priests, they appeared as a lighted coal. For, according to the words of the Lord, if in their lives the priests did
“shine forth like the sun” (see Mt.5:16; 13:43),
the coals would not have been seen to glow and would have appeared darkened in contrast to the more powerful light. But because among the people there remained only the form and external appearance of the priesthood, the gift of the Holy Spirit was transferred to the monks. And it was recognized by signs showing that the monks, by their works, were living the life of the Apostles.
There too, then, the devil again performed his work. Seeing that the monks appeared in the world like some new disciples of Christ and shone forth by their life and miracles, he brought into their midst and mixed among them false brothers who were his own vessels. And slowly they increased, as you see, and the monks were corrupted and became monks who were completely unmonastic.
14. Therefore, the power to remit sins is given by God neither to those who have the monastic schema nor to those who are ordained to the ranks of priesthood, nor to those honoured by the office of episcopacy, I mean to patriarchs and metropolitans and bishops. merely because of their ordination and its office. Heaven forbid! Only the performance of services is permitted to them, and to most of them, I suspect, not even that, so they, being straw, will not be burnt up. But the power of remitting sins is given only to those from among the priests and bishops and monks who belong to the rank of the disciples of Christ because of purity.
15. How, then, will they, whom we spoke of, know if they are among these disciples, and how will others who seek after them accurately recognize them? For this purpose, the Lord taught us saying,
“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak in new tongues,”
which refers to the divine and beneficial teaching of the Word;
“they shall pull up snakes; and if they drink any deadly things, it will not hurt them” (Mk.16:17).
“My sheep hear My voice” (Jn.10:27),
“Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Mt.7: 16).
By which fruits? Paul enumerates the many fruits and says,
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal.5:22),
and accompanying these are “compassion, brotherly love, charity”, and the consequences of these. And with them are
“the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of healing”, and many others. “But all these worketh that one and selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man as he wills” (1Cor. 12:8-11).
So those who have become participants in these gifts — either completely or in part according to what is profitable to them — are counted among the host of Apostles. Also counted among them are those who today become like them. And this is why they are the light of the world, as Christ Himself says:
“No man who lights a candle places ft under a table or under a bed, but places ft in a candlestick so ft will give light to all that are in the house.” (See Mt.5:14,15)
They are known not only by this but by the conduct of their lives. For in this way those who seek such men, as well as the men themselves, may know if, in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ, they are wfthout cause for shame and, like Him, have accepted rather as the greatest glory lowliness and humbleness and unhypocritical obedience to their own fathers and guides and, moreover, to their spiritual commanders; if, wfth all their soul, they have loved dishonour and insults and ridicule and reproaches; if they have regarded those who heap these things on them as the cause of great gifts and have prayed tearfully for them with all their soul; and if they have spat upon the glory of this world and regarded as dung the delights of this world.
But do I need to say so much, and to say the obvious, and drag out my commentary? If a man finds that he has achieved every virtue that is heard about in the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and he has performed every good work and knows the degree of his advancement and change regarding each one of them, and he is ascending to the heights of divine glory, then let him know himself as a participant of God and in His gifts; and those who see clearly and even those with dimmest vision will recognize him. And may those who are like him say to everyone with boldness,
“We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you through us… Be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
And all who are such as these kept the commandments of God unto death. They sold their possessions and distributed the money to the poor. They followed Christ and endured temptations. They lost their lives in this world for the love of God and found them in the eternal life. And when they found their lives they found them in noetic light. And then in that light they saw the unapproachable light, God Himself, as it is written,
“In Thy light we shall see light” (Ps.35:10).
But how is it possible for one to find the life which he already has? Pay close attention. Every man’s life is a drachma which we have each lost. For it is not God, but each of us who has steeped ourselves in the darkness of sin. But Christ the true light comes and – meets face to face those who seek Him and grants that-they may see Him by means He alone knows.
This is what it means for one to find his life: to see God, and in that Light to become higher than all of the visible Creation, and to have God as his shepherd and teacher, from whom, if he wishes, he will learn to bind and to loose. And having learnt it accurately, he will worship Him who gave ft, and he will pass it to all who have a need of it.
16. I know that to such men, my son, the power to bind and loose is given by God the Father from our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, that is to those, who are his adopted sons and holy servants. And I was a disciple of such a father who did not have the ordination by men, but he made me a disciple by the hand of God, that is by the Holy, Spirit. And he ordered me to receive the ordination of men, for it would be well to observe the customary form since, from my early days, the Holy Spirit was moving me toward it with great desire.
17. Therefore, my brothers and fathers, first, let us pray that we become like them, able to speak to others about freedom from passions and to hear their thoughts. And let us seek such a spiritual father. Indeed, let us search with toils for such men who are true disciples of Christ.
And let us beseech God with pangs of the heart and much tears for many days to uncover the eyes of our heart that they may know if and where such a man is to be found in our evil generation.
And having found him, pray that we may receive remission of sins through him, obeying his commandments and injunctions with our whole soul, just as he obeys the commandments of Christ and became a participant in His grace and gifts, and received from Him the power to bind and loose sins and was made fire by the Holy Spirit, to Whom be every glory, honour, and worship together with the Father and the only-begotten Son unto the ages. Amen.