On Unordained Monastics Hearing Confessions (St. Symeon the New Theologian)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from the First Epistle of St. Symeon the New Theologian, entitled A Treatise to a Spiritual Child about Confession and who they are that have received authority to bind and loose as regards:


…The possibility of making our confession to a monk who has not received the order of priesthood, ever since the vesture and clothing which is the mark of repentance was given by God to his inheritance and they were called ‘monks’, this you will find to have been open to everybody, as is written in the divinely inspired writings of the fathers. If you study them you will find that what I am saying is true. Before there were monks, bishops alone used to receive the authority to bind and loose, by right of succession, as coming from the divine apostles. But with the passing of time and with the bishops becoming good for nothing, this awe-inspiring function was extended to priests of blameless life and accounted worthy of divine grace. And when these also were infected with disorder, priests and bishops together becoming like the rest of the people, and many of them, as is also the case now, falling foul of spirits of deceit and idle chatter, and perishing, then this function was transferred, as I said, to the elect people of Christ, I mean the monks. It was not withdrawn from the priests or bishops, but they deprived themselves of it. ‘For every priest is appointed as a mediator between God and men in things pertaining to God,’ as Paul says, ‘and he is bound to offer sacrifice, as for the people, so also for himself.’ But let us start our discourse further back, and observe whence, and how, and to whom, this authority to perform sacred rites and to bind and loose was originally given. And thus step by step the solution which you asked for will also become plain, not for you alone, but for everyone else as well.

…They were the specially chosen eleven, and when the doors were shut, and they were assembled together within, he came and stood in the midst of them. He breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosesoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained. And at that time he enjoined nothing on them as to penances, for they were to be taught by the Holy Spirit. As then I have already said, the holy apostles in succession passed on this authority to those who were also the occupants of their throne, while none of the rest dared even think of such a thing, thus did the Lord’s disciples scrupulously guard the right to this authority. But as we said, with the passing of time the unworthy were mixed and mingled with the worthy, and they strove for pre-eminence one against another. Indeed, after the occupants of the apostles’ thrones showed themselves to be carnal men, lovers of pleasure and glory, and after they fell away into heresies, the divine grace abandoned them as well, and this authority was withdrawn from such men. Accordingly, as they have given up everything else which those who perform sacred rites ought to have, what is demanded of them is merely this one thing, orthodoxy—and not even this, in my opinion, since someone who in modern times refrains from surreptitiously introducing a dogma into the Church of God is not thereby orthodox, but an orthodox is someone who has achieved a mode of life consistent with right doctrine. And it is he or a similar man whom the patriarchs and metropolitans down the ages either were looking for but never came across, or in place of whom, if they did find him, they preferred an unworthy man. They demanded only this of the man, that he should produce the confession of our faith in writing, and in him they welcomed only this, his being neither zealous on behalf of goodness, nor as regards evil an opponent to anybody—as if thereby they were securing peace for the Church, when that state of things is worse than all hostility and a cause of great confusion.

As a result of this, then, the priests became good for nothing, and as the Lord said, they have become like the people. For they did not reprove, hold in, and restrain, but rather they excused and covered up one another’s passions, and the priests themselves became worse than the people, and the people worse than the priests. Yet some of the people were even revealed as better than they, being seen as burning coals in the gloomy darkness round the priests. If indeed the priests had, in accordance with the Lord’s word, been shining like stars through their mode of life, and like the sun, the burning coals would not have appeared resplendent but would have looked dim by reason of that stronger light. But when only the clothing and vesture of the priesthood was left amongst men, the gift of the Spirit passed to monks and was disclosed by miraculous signs, because through what they did they were following the apostles’ mode of life. Yet there too the Devil again performed his characteristic work, for when he saw them, how they were proclaimed in the world as new disciples of Christ once more, and how they shone both through their mode of life and through their miracles, he mingled false brothers amongst them, his own tools. And having little by little increased in number, they became good for nothing, as you see, and they have come to be monks who are not really monks at all. So then the right to forgive sins has not been granted by God either to those who are monks in virtue of their habit, or to those who have been ordained and included in the order of priesthood, or to those honoured with episcopal rank—I mean patriarchs, metropolitans, and bishops—simply in this way and by reason of their ordination and the dignity it confers. Far from it! For it is only the performance of sacred rites which has been conceded to them, and I think not even that to most of them, in order that thereby they may not be burnt up, being grass, but [the right to forgive belongs] only to those amongst priests, bishops, and monks who can be numbered with the companies of Christ’s disciples because of their purity.

By what then will those who are included amongst the men previously described recognize themselves with certainty, and those searching for them do so? It will be by what the Lord taught us when he spoke as follows: These miraculous signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues—this is the divinely inspired teaching of the Word—;they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them;and again: My sheep hear my voice; and again: By their fruits you will recognize them. What fruits? When Paul reckons up the greater number of them, he speaks thus: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, temperance, and together with these there is compassion, brotherly love, mercy, and the qualities that accompany them, and besides them a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, endowments with power to perform miracles and very many others, which are all the work of one and the same Spirit, distributing them to each person as he wills. So then those who have come to have a share in these endowments, whether in them all or partially, as is expedient for them, those were included in the company of the apostles, and there also those like them now being made perfect are included. However, it is not only by these endowments that such people can be known, but also by the way they live their lives, for it is thus that with greater certainty both those seeking such a man will recognize him, and also each person of this kind will recognize himself: for example, if in likeness to our Lord Jesus Christ they considered being made contemptible and humiliated not shameful but the greatest glory; and if, like him, they displayed obedience to their fathers and guides with no dissimulation, and even more to those giving them injunctions in spiritual matters; if from their very soul they loved dishonour, insults, reproaches, and abuse, and welcomed those who inflicted these upon them as people supplying them with great benefits, and from their very soul prayed for them, with tears; if they considered all glory in the world worth nothing, and everything in it refuse;—and why prolong my discourse by saying many things?—if he has practised every virtue designated in the holy Scriptures, and likewise every good work, and has recognized his progress as regards each one of them, and the level he has reached, and if he is being raised to the height of divine glory; it is then that he both knows himself to have become someone who participates in God and his endowments, and he will be known as such by those who are clear-sighted, or even by those who are half-blind.

And thus men of this kind would confidently tell everyone: We are ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as if God were appealing to you through us, Be reconciled to God. For all such men have kept God’s commandments unto death, they have sold their possessions, distributed them to the poor, and followed Christ through their patient endurance of temptations, and for love of God they have lost their souls in the world and found them again for eternal life. And finding their souls, they have found them in a light which is spiritual, and in this light they have seen the light unapproachable, God himself, according to that which stands written: In thy light we shall see light. How then is it possible for someone to find the soul that he has? Pay heed. Each person’s soul is the silver coin which was lost, not by God, but by each of us, because he immersed himself in the darkness of sin; and Christ, who truly is light, has come and, in a way that only he knows, has met with those seeking him, and allowed them to see him. This is what it means for a man to find his soul: to see God, and in his light to become higher himself than all the visible created universe, and to have God as his shepherd and teacher. And in the power of God he, if you like, will both know how to bind and loose, and also because he has certain knowledge of this, he will worship the Giver, and he would impart the benefit of it to those needing it.

I know, my child, that to such men authority to bind and loose is given by God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, to those who are God’s sons by adoption and his holy servants. I was also myself the disciple of such a father, who had received no ordination from men, but who, by the hand of God, or that is to say, by the Spirit, admitted me to discipleship, and who /ordered me to receive in the right way, by means of the traditional form, the ordination which is from men. And let us pray, brothers, that we also may become men of this kind, in order that we may be participants in God’s grace and receive authority to bind and loose sins, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom it is right to ascribe all glory, honour, and worship, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

…ordered me to receive in the right way, by means of the traditional form, the ordination which is from men, being moved for a long time by the Holy Spirit towards this by his vigorous love. Therefore, brothers and fathers, let us pray that we may first become men such as this, and thus speak to others about deliverance from passions and receiving the disclosure of logismoi. Let us seek for a man of this kind as our confessor, or rather let us seek for diligent men such as this, men who are disciples of Christ, and with heart-felt anguish and many tears, for a specified number of days, let us beseech God to open the eyes of our hearts so that we may recognize one, if someone such as this is to be found in this evil generation. Let us do so in order that, having found such a man, we may receive forgiveness of our sins through him, while obeying his precepts and commandments with all our soul, just as he, by giving heed to those of Christ, has come to share in his grace and his gifts, and has received from him the authority to bind and loose sins, being inflamed by the Holy Spirit, to whom it is right to ascribe all glory, honour, and worship, with the Father and the Only-begotten Son, throughout the ages. Amen.

St Symeon the New Theologian

Additional note

Here and elsewhere Symeon fails to distinguish between two different kinds of succession: that which is ecclesiastical and authenticates contemporary bishops as rightful official successors of the apostles, and the different kind of apostolic succession which is manifested in personal holiness and is the mark of genuine spiritual fathers, ordained or unordained.

St. Symeon is convinced that without a personal experience of Christ, no one should dare to give absolution. Similarly, if one has not been enlightened by divine light, one should not presume to listen to other people’s disclosures of their logismoi, and teach and guide them.

St. Symeon does admit that priests have authority to forgive sins. Rather inconsistently, however, he then at once maintains that this is given only to those whom he is prepared to call really good priests, giving a detailed description of their character and behavior. It is they who have this authority, ‘and not those who obtain from men merely their election and their ordination’.

In his Catechism, St. Symeon says priests that live holy lives certainly have authority to pronounce absolution, while he explicitly denies that ordination could just by itself bestow this qualification. While bishops and priests were intended to have the authority, Symeon says in this letter that they deprived themselves of the right. On the other hand, he was convinced that all genuinely spiritual men do have the necessary qualification for giving or withholding absolution. St. Symeon declares that since many bishops and priests had been found lacking in spirituality, authority to absolve has been extended to monks, but only, of course, to such as are truly spiritual.

In spite of his severe criticism of unworthy priests and bishops and of his assertion that unordained monks, if truly spiritual men, might give absolution, St. Symeon was himself a priest.

The typikon of the monastery of Theotokos Evergetis, founded in 1048 or 1049, provides for the hegumen to authorize some of the priests, deacons, or pious brethren to receive the confessions of their logismoi made by the less educated monks and to forgive them. And an apparently unordained monk who heard confessions appears in The Life of St Andrew the Fool.

Krivocheine remarks that Symeon’s position ‘was never officially approved by the Orthodox Church and was practically forgotten over the centuries . . . However, it was never condemned by the Church, directly or indirectly, nor was it rejected by clerical opinion, particularly in monastic circles . . .’ (In the Light, p. 139).