Repentance and Confession amongst the Ancient Pagans (St. Nektarios the Wonderworker)

NOTE: This article is taken from Repentance and Confession, pp. 37-38; 45-47: http://www.stnektariosmonastery.org/literature.php

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The Ancient Greeks considered confession necessary and beneficial, because as they were initiated into the Eleusinian and Samo-Thracian mysteries,1 they would confess their sins beforehand (Plutarch, On Sparta: Sayings). Socrates spoke of confession as salvific: “If he is unjust, he should willingly go there, where he will give an account as quickly as possible as if to a physician, hastening so that the ailment of injustice does not remain for a long period of time and render the soul infected and incurable” (Plato, Gorgias).

A Samothracian relief showing Agamemnon being initiated into the Cabeirian rites
A Samothracian relief showing Agamemnon being initiated into the Cabeirian rites

Pythagoras would also say: “do not attempt to cover your sins with words, but to treat them with reproval.” And Aristotle asserts: “the person who confesses the sin committed honestly renders himself not far from sinlessness.”…

Medieval woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells and other instruments in Pythagorean tuning
Medieval woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells and other instruments in Pythagorean tuning

The most ancient civilizations, having sinned, would offer propitiating sacrifices to God. As they offered these sacrifices, they would confess their sins. These prayers sent up to God from every part of the world are a certain type of active confession of the human race to God. The propitiating sacrifices are a certain type of active confession of the sin and guilt of those who offer them. The person who does not confess his sin finds himself perpetually under the weight of guilt and distanced from God. This is why the soul suffers and pains.

The Person Who Has Sinned is Obligated to Satisfy the Divine Righteousness

The satisfaction of the Divine Righteousness, which has been offended through the creation of sin by the iniquitous person, is both i) something demanded by justice (in order for treatment of the soul to occur), as well as ii) an internal disposition of the sinful man to propitiate God.

The demand by justice and the disposition of the heart originate from the same source: the perennial nature of the Divine Law. Justice demands satisfaction on account of the everlastingness of the Divine Law, which sin has plotted against. Additionally, due to an internal impulse, the heart seeks to satisfy the Divine Righteousness, internally it desires and seeks the reign of the Divine Law, and it hastens to act on behalf of its eternal truth. This internal desire emanates from the concordance of the inner will of man with the Law of God.

St. Nektarios
St. Nektarios

The demand [by justice] and the eagerness [of the heart] are set forth to combat sin, because every sin is an adversary of God’s Law and an enemy of the peace and the kingdom of God upon the earth, which sin seeks to disturb and bring to confusion and disorder.

Sin, being undesirable by nature, is uncreated; as uncreated, it is something non-existent. However, it receives hypostasis when it is created by unnatural human desire. But since the entire creation is full of the Lord’s works, while His Law has been poured upon the entire face of the earth, this unnatural human desire and creation that receives hypostasis also receives some type of place and displaces the good that has been created by God. If then God created everything very well, it follows that this new creation that entered into the world also disturbed and harmed the reigning good and plotted against the Law of God. Therefore, sin is a great evil against God because it threatens to destroy the work of God. And since its creator is man, when man sins, he sins against God; this is why he is obligated to satisfy the Divine Righteousness, while destroying the evil he has created and working on behalf of the everlastingness of God’s Law.

The repentance of the Prophet David at the rebuke of the Prophet Nathan
The repentance of the Prophet David at the rebuke of the Prophet Nathan

Both the Jews and the Gentiles held this belief that every sin is referred to God. Both the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Gentiles are replete with such testimonies. David, while confessing his sins to God says: “Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil before Thee” (Ps. 50:6). While Hesiod2 says that justice is a virgin and daughter of God, honored and respected by even the gods themselves. When someone insults her by intentionally dishonoring her, she immediately sits by God and relates to Him the unjust opinion of people, so that the people may repay justice for the unjust actions of their kings:

“One of them is the virgin, born of Zeus,

Justice, revered by all the Olympian gods.

Whenever she is hurt by perjurers,

Straightway she sits beside her father Zeus

And tells him of the unjust hearts of men,

Until the city suffers for its lords

Who recklessly, with mischief in their minds,

Pervert their judgments crookedly….”3

From these verses, Hesiod appears to proclaim not only that every sin is referred to God, but also that no reconciliation takes place between Divine Righteousness and man unless the necessary satisfaction is given for the injustices committed.

"The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon" by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.
“The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon” by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.

NOTES:

  • Samothrace: a Greek island in the northern Aegean. Eleusis: a city in ancient Greece, northwest of Athens. The mysteries that took place in these two locations were secret religious rites of ancient Greece, celebrated every spring in honor of Demeter and Persephone; they symbolized the annual death and resurrection of vegetation.
  • A famed Greek didactic poet who lived during the 8th century B.C.
  • Hesiod and Theogenis, Works and Days, verses 255-261.

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