Orthodoxy Today
Healing The Infirmity Of Sin: A Brief Explanation

An early draft of this paper was presented at the Novice and Oblate Formation Lesson at Prince of Peace, Benedictine Monastery, Oceanside, California, 8 March 2009 and to the Society of St. John Chrysostom at San Rafael Roman Catholic Church, Rancho Bernardo, California, 14 March 2009. The Society of St. John Chrysostom-Western Region is an ecumenical organization of laity and clergy of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic and Roman Catholic Churches which works to make known the history, worship, spirituality, discipline and theology of Eastern Christianity, and for the fullness of unity desired by Jesus Christ.

This article focuses on sin as a spiritual infirmity and the cure of sin-from an Eastern Christian perspective. The essay omits the psychological factors that cause illnesses and the methods used to treat infirmities. Some psychological resources are in the Reference section of this article. For a list of psychological resources, see: www.orthodoxytoday.org/Indexes/Morellix.php.

Anthropological Foundations: Let's Start with Genesis

Essential to the Eastern Christian experience, as creatures of God endowed with a body and a soul and with a free will and intelligence, it behooves us to use all the gifts God has given us to heal the infirmity of sin. These gifts include the wisdom and prayers handed down from the monastery-hospitals of the early Church, where medical-psychological intervention was used at all levels and with all persons. The synergy of body, mind, and spirit can be seen in the logo of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion (OCAMPR), an agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, in which I serve as Religion Coordinator. The logo is comprised of three concentric circles-Body, Mind and Spirit-intersecting with each other. I urge all who read these words to consider healing as a cooperation, or joint agency, that includes God and the contribution of God's gift to mankind of intelligence, the fruit of which is research clinical science and the mystical healing gifts of His Church.

In the Eastern Church, the word sin in English is a translation of the Greek hamartia, which means "to miss the mark." Evagrios the Solitary tells us hamartia should be viewed as a "misuse [of] what God has created" (Philokalia I). The Eastern Church leans heavily on the practical definition of sin articulated by Evagrios, and adds to it another model: that of sin as an illness or infirmity (Morelli, 2006, 2008). As Meyendorff (1974) points out: "Sin itself in Eastern Christian anthropology is primarily a disease."

At the root of the experience of sin are the passions, which incline us to "miss the mark" and can develop into spiritual disease or sin. The understanding of sin as illness conforms to the spirit of Christ. Speaking to the Pharisees who were mocking Him, He said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Mt 9:12).

How did mankind become susceptible to the disease that is called sin? To answer this question, we have to explore what we know about God and His creation.1

Man is by Nature Good

Man, as a creation of the God who is good and creates only good things, was also deemed good. This is revealed in the passages in Genesis that assert that man is created in the image and likeness of God: "So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27); and, "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).

Man Influenced by the Evil One Chooses Sin

The devil, on the other hand, is the source of disorder. The devil does not function as God's opposite, but only as a liar and destroyer-as one who distorts God's truth and violently deconstructs God's created order. In Greek, diabolos means the "divider, separator, and slanderer." St. John wrote, "The devil has sinned from the beginning" (1 John 3:8). He shed more light on the nature of the devil and his evil in a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees: "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). Satan is the destroyer of goodness and order, the liar who fatally rebelled against God and looks forward only to eternal judgment and condemnation. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: "The devil is both God's enemy and His avenger. (cf. Ps 8:2) He is God's enemy when he seems in his hated for God somehow to have acquired a destructive love for us men, persuading us by means of sensual pleasure to assent to the passions within our control, and to value what is transitory more than what is eternal" (Philokalia, II).

The rupture occurred when Satan tempted Adam and Eve when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree was planted in the primordial garden with fruit that God commanded was never to be eaten: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17). Satan enticed Adam and Eve by arguing that if they ate of the fruit they would "... be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:7). As we know, our ancestors failed to obey and the entire material creation fell into disorder. The nature of their sin was that they looked to the creation rather than the Creator for the life (which includes knowledge and wisdom) that can only come from God. In the words of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "Evil entered the world not by the will of God but by fault of humans who preferred diabolical deceit to divine commandment. From generation to generation the human race repeats Adam's mistake in being beguiled by false values and forgetting the true ones-faith in God and verity to Him" (http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/5_1#PRIESTHOOD).

As Fr. Meyendorff (1974) tells us: "God had entrusted control over the world to man-His own 'image and likeness.' But man chose to be controlled by the world and, thereby, lost his freedom. He then became subject to cosmic determination, to which his "passions" attach him and in which ultimate power belongs to death."

Mankind's Expulsion from Paradise

Mankind is meant for paradise, and paradise is understood as life in and with God that lasts for all eternity. The Fathers of the Church wrote that the lie that Satan proffered hid a crucial dimension of God's original commandment not to eat of the fruit. Yes, Satan was correct in telling Adam and Eve that they would become like gods and therefore have knowledge of good and evil, but he withheld that they would also become captive to evil. As for Adam and Eve, the result of their disobedience was catastrophic. Adam and Eve lost the Spirit of God and became subject instead to the dust out of which they were created.

Man became bound to the earth rather than to the Creator. He was expelled from paradise because, knowing now only separation from God, he could no longer be part of its primordial harmony. Genesis tells of the tragedy: God told them, "'For dust you are, and to dust you shall return"... Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life" (Genesis 3:11, 19, 23, 24).

St. Gregory of Nyssa lamented, "Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature ... by his sin, (and) clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal" (Musurillo, 1979). In fact, some of the Fathers point out that if Adam and Eve had obeyed God, they would have matured in understanding and discernment and eventually come to know good and evil without becoming captive to the evil.

Restoration and Healing

But God did not leave Adam and Eve desolate. He began the restoration of Adam and Eve (and all mankind) immediately after their expulsion by clothing them in animal skins. The restoration continues through the covenant with Noah and the promise made to Abraham that through him God would send a savior to heal the catastrophic rupture. The restoration is completed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the Anaphora prayers in Eastern liturgical practice expresses it beautifully: "Thou didst send forth the Prophets; Thou didst perform mighty works by the saints ... who foretold unto us the salvation which was to come" (From the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great).

We share in Adam and Eve's original sin, although the Eastern Church's understanding of the term original sin differs from the Western Church's interpretation in some crucial ways. The Eastern Church does not teach that we inherit the guilt of Adam. Rather, we share in the sin of Adam in that we are born into a world where the consequences of sin prevail. These consequences include the brokenness-physical, mental, and spiritual-of disease and death. Our nature is corrupted. By our passions, we are subject to temptation, prone to sin, and share in death.

The unique emphasis on original sin in the Orthodox Church impacts Her teaching on how the death of Christ redeems mankind. The familiar verse taken from the Gospel of St. John affirms God's great love for mankind by the coming of His Son: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (Jn 3:16). Christ's voluntary sacrifice on the cross was not to satisfy God's vengeance, a desire to see someone punished for sin (the "substitutionary atonement" of some Western theologians). Rather, Christ's death on the cross enabled Christ to destroy it, as evidenced by His being raised from the dead once and for all.

The rupturing of Adam's relationship with God allowed evil to enter the world and is the source of sickness and death for all subsequent generations. Christ, as the One who overcame death, restores the relationship by destroying death through death. He becomes the mediator between mankind and the Father, the bridge over the unbridgeable chasm, the conqueror of death, the Savior of soul and body. His obedience unto righteousness (Christ was the only man not to break the Law of Moses cf. Heb 4:15) annuls the penalty of death that fell on disobedient Adam, and His voluntary and sacrificial death makes His resurrection from death possible.

St. Paul's message to the Romans summarizes the Eastern Orthodox view of illness and death and hints at how healing enters the world: "We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. The death that he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life that he lives he lives to God" (Rm 6:6-10).

We enter into the life of Christ through baptism; entering the waters enables a person to enter into the death of Christ and be raised in the likeness of His resurrection (see Rom 6:1-10). Baptism is the first step in the restoration of body and soul, a return in some measure to the communion with God that Adam and Eve experienced before their disobedience. The promise from God is that this journey may end in His kingdom, although this end is by no means automatic or guaranteed apart from testing and trial. Our faith in God has to be proven, that is, refined in the fire of tribulation, as St. Peter taught, and not be found lacking. St. John summed it up in the final book of scripture: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev 2:7). The man who hears and obeys is the man who will receive the promise of eternal life at the last day.

Passions: the Inclinations to Sin

After the Fall, mankind became predisposed to self-centered choices directed by the passions (lusts) rather than choices based on the highest form of love (agape). St. Isaac of Syria tells us: "Pandering to the flesh produce(s) in us shameful urges and unseemly fantasies" (Kadloubovsky & Palmer, trans., 1954).

The passions spring from the heart of the person. Jesus told us: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man" (Mk 7:21-23).

St. Paul wrote, "While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death" (Rom 5:7). The work of the passions can take place for both those living a single life and those living in marital union. In either case passions lead to a choice of self-satisfaction over a righteously joined union. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: "Self-love is an impassioned, mindless love for one's own body. Its opposite is love and self-control. A man dominated by self-love is dominated by all the passions" (Philokalia II).

Passions may predispose individuals to discord from God and mankind. St. Paul's warns us: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19-21). The Church Fathers attribute these to the demon of each passion that never tires of breaking union between God and mankind.

An example of how this works may aid our understanding. The demon of lust, the Church Fathers tell us, may take over our lives. Modern society facilitates this malady. Sex is broadcast everywhere for almost every use: art, fashion, music, news, pornography (especially the Internet), and the sale of almost any product, from automobiles to computers. The secular world flagrantly exposes body parts, especially the genital areas.

The Church Fathers knew about such enticements a thousand years ago. St. Isaac of Syria wrote: "Passions are brought either by images or by sensations devoid of images and by memory, which at first is unaccompanied by passionate movements or thoughts, but which later produces excitation." One way for faithful followers of Christ to deal with these passions, as St. Isaac continued: "... their thought must become attached to nothing except their own soul."

One has to make a choice between Christ and demon. St. Paul asked: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation ... distress … persecution ... hunger ... nakedness ... danger ... the sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ our Lord" (Rom: 8:35-39).

Discerning One's Passions

Vigilance and discernment are the chief virtues to be acquired by those seeking Christ's indwelling in them and who desire to overcome the power of passions.

Ilias the Presbyter tells us: "Demons wage war against the soul primarily through thoughts" (Philokalia III). Ideally, Orthodox Christians will make a "spiritual desert" for themselves removing them from the "enticements" so prevalent in modern life. Spiritual death occurs when these thoughts are self-centered.

St. Maximus the Confessor taught this as well: "The self-love and cleverness of men, alienating them from each other and perverting the law, have cut our single human nature into many fragments." How much more should St. Maximus' words apply to those of us seeking union with God and to all mankind!

A Consequence of Sin is Disunion

Sin takes us away from communion, to what might be called disunion, with God and neighbor. St. John Chrysostom states: "Did you commit sin? Enter the Church and repent for your sin; for here is the physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated, one receives remission of sins" (St. John Chrysostom, http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article7106.asp ). If the Church is a "physician," then Her role is to heal the break with God and neighbor. Sin is missing the mark of being centered on God and His Will and is considered, therefore, to be an illness or infirmity. With healing we are restored to a former condition.

We know this healing takes place in holy mysteries of Holy Baptism, Penance, Holy Unction and by receiving the Holy Eucharist-the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, we are reminded of all that God did for us: taking on our flesh, the cross, the grave and the Resurrection, the end of which is to reconcile us to Him: "Thou is was who … when we had fallen away raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until Thou had brought us back to heaven." Let us remind ourselves that when Christ gave us the Eucharist, he said; "Take eat: this is my Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins," and "Drink ye all of this: this is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins" (emphasis added).

Even Slight Sin is a Rupture Leading to Death

In his Letter on Confession, St. Symeon the New Theologian (1979) tells us of the magnitude and effects of even slight sin: "Let me use another example: imagine a jar filled with wine or oil. Even if the jar is not punctured on every side, and only a small hole appears on one side, all its contents will slowly spill out. In the same way, if you fall away through negligence even a little from one of the commandments, you will also fall away from all the rest."

Forgiveness and Repentance

Humility: the Good Soil of Repentance

True repentance cannot take place without humility. What is humility? St. Isaac the Syrian considers it to be an assimilation to God. St. Isaac is not talking about the simple human virtues or natural humility, such as gentleness, quietness, prudence or meekness (Alfeyev, 2000). St. Isaac says that humility is "… precise knowledge of our sins; or as a result or recollecting the lowliness of Our Lord-or rather as a result of recollecting the greatness of God and the extent to which the greatness of the Lord lowered itself in order to speak to and instruct us human beings ..."

St. Isaac continues: "I should marvel greatly if there were any truly humble man who would venture to supplicate God … the humble man keeps a reign of silence … simply awaits mercy … then he dares only to speak and pray thus 'May it be done unto me according to thy will, O Lord.'" Our relationship with the world gives us a sign of the fertility of the soil of humility. As related by Alfeyev (2000), in answer as to a question about how we can perceive a man has attained humility, St. Isaac answered: "From the fact that he regards it as odious to please the world either in his association with it or by word, and the glory of the world is an abomination in his eye." St. Isaac cites few examples of the signs of true humility. He who is humble is "never rushed, hasty, or agitated [or has] hot or volatile thoughts, but at all times remains calm; is not fearful of accidental occurrences, he knows his own weakness [and] he is in need of divine help."

On the other hand, acquiring humility, St. Isaac tells us, can occur by "unceasing remembrance of transgressions, preferring the last place, running to do the tasks that are most insignificant and distasteful [and the ability] to suffer wrongs with joy." "Humility," writes St. Isaac, "is the raiment of the Godhead … Everyone who has been clothed in humility has truly been made like unto Him who came down from … exaltedness and hid the splendor of [H]is majesty and concealed [H]is glory … Humility even without works, gains forgiveness for many offenses."

True Repentance

True repentance follows humility, and is known by its tears. St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us: "If after we have been baptized we gravitate towards evil and foul actions, we lose the sanctification of baptism completely. But through repentance, confession and tears we receive a corresponding remission of our former sins and, in this way, sanctification accompanied by the grace of God" (Philokalia IV).

Once again, the teaching of our holy father in Christ St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of the sharp tears of repentance and the fresh tears of compunction: "If we are all sinners and no man is above sin's temptations, it is certainly true that no virtue is more pre-eminent than repentance." (Alfeyev, 2000) Nikitas Stithatos explains this as follows: "When we act based in obedience to our fallen self … we defile the flesh with the noxious flux of sin, darken the soul with embittered anger and estrange ourselves from the Son of God. We should therefore cleanse the stain deriving from the body's intrinsic serosity with floods of heartfelt tears … and we will dispel with the luminosity of compunction and the sweetness of godlike love the cloud that darkens our soul" (Philokalia IV).

The depth of repentance can be heard in the seventh prayer said by Eastern Christians in the Orthros (Matins) service or in daily prayer:

O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … by thy Holy Spirit, [Thou] dost guide us. Wherefore we beseech thee: pardon, remit, forgive whatsoever sins we may have committed unto this present hour, whether by word, or deed, or thought, whether voluntarily or involuntarily; for if thou wilt be extreme to mark iniquity, O Lord, Lord who shall stand? For with thee is redemption. For thou only art holy, a mighty helper and the defender of our life; and our song shall ever be of thee. Blessed and glorified be the might of the Kingdom: of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Bishop Alfeyev (2000) notes St. Isaac's two definitions of repentance:

  • Abandonment of former evil deeds and grieving for them.
  • Continual and mournful supplication which by means of prayer filled with compunction draws nigh to God in order to seek forgiveness of past offenses, and entreaty for preservation from future infirmity.

Ongoing Repentance

Repentance then is considered a synergistic act: standing before God, sorrow for past sins and commitment to avoid 'missing the mark' in the future.

As is common among the Church Fathers, true repentance is considered a second baptism. The fervent tears shed over our separation from God, over missing the mark and over our spiritual illness act as a cleansing, a washing way of our disease. In our first baptism, if we put on Christ, we do so again in the second baptism of our repentance. As St. Isaac teaches (quoted by Alfeyev, 2000): "Repentance is given to man as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God … apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy."

Consider the powerful metaphor used by St. Isaac: "The man who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than someone who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling amid men."

True repentance is also a synergistic act of heart and mind. As Bishop Alfeyev (2000) tells us St. Isaac "speaks of the 'grief of the heart' and 'sorrow of the mind.'"

The Paradox of the Gravity of Sin, but the Simplicity of Repentance

To help us understand the seeming paradox of the seriousness of sin but the uncomplicated nature of repentance, consider the simplicity of the words of the good thief, crucified next to Jesus, who merely said: "And we indeed justly [are crucified]; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:41-43).

St. Isaac explains this mystery: "Seeing that his face is set all the time towards forgiveness ... He pours over us his immense grace which, like the ocean, knows no measure. To anyone who shows just a little suffering and the will to compunction for what has occurred, to such a person immediately; at once, without any delay, he will grant forgiveness of their sins." I always am taken by what the good thief did not say to receive Christ's promise that he would be Him in Paradise. The thief did not recite a long, complex tome or prayer asking for forgiveness, but only offered a few words indicating responsibility for past wrongful deeds: "And we indeed justly [are crucified]; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds."

The Simplicity of Repentance: Tears of Mourning, Purity of Love of God

St. Isaac goes on to give us the signs of true repentance: tears of mourning. "For tears are established for the mind as a kind of boundary between what is physical and what is spiritual and between passionateness and purity … tears begin to flow and they lead a man to perfection in the love of God. The more he progresses in this discipline, the more he is enriched with love [of God]." St. Isaac points out that an even further step in the spiritual life is reaching such a trust in God's mercy that one attains 'peace of thought' and spiritual rest.

According to St. Isaac, this stage is implied in the Beatitudes: "Blessed, therefore, are the pure in heart [Mt 5:8], for there is no time when they do not enjoy the sweetness of tears, and in this sweetness they see the Lord at all times … this is the meaning of the Lord's saying, 'Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.' [Mt 5:4] For a man comes from mourning into purity of soul." This is the calling of all Christians.

True Repentance is Based on Forgiveness

Forgiveness is to be reconciled not only with Christ but with all mankind. Christ's teaches in St. Matthew's Gospel:

But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny" (Mt 5:22-26).

To show how important forgiveness is, consider the words of our holy Father St. Ephraim the Syrian (1997):

But if you do not make peace with your brother, then how will you ask Me for forgiveness? I am your Master; I command you and you do not heed Me. You are a servant; how dare you bring me a prayer, or a sacrifice, or first fruits of your harvest, if you bear malice toward anyone? If you turn your face from your brother, so shall I turn Mine eyes from your prayer and from your gift.

If your brother is angry with you, then the Lord is also angry with you. And if you have made peace with your brother below, then you have made peace also with the Lord on high. If you receive your brother, then you also receive your Lord.

Jesus forgives our sins through asking forgiveness from those whom we have offended, receiving the sacramental power given to the Church, first to the Apostles, then to their successors-the bishops and priests right down to the present day-, when He told them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23). Finally, we can experience forgiveness through the special gifts of healing from our spiritual fathers.

Forgiveness: The Necessary Foundation for Repentance

When a person offends God or others, he or she must repent in order to be restored to full membership in the Church. In imitation of God's love, we embrace and forgive the penitent sinner, praying that he or she be reconciled to God, to the faithful, and to the world through His Church. The foundation of repentance is having a sense of our unfaithfulness to God and offense to others, contrition of heart, and a determination to amend and have a metanoia,—a fundamental change of mind and heart so as not to offend God and others again.

Bishop Hilarion Alfevev (2000) reminds us of the words of St. Isaac the Syrian: "If we are all sinners and no one is above temptations, not one of the virtues is above repentance. Its work can never end … because it is forever suitable for all sinners and righteous if they wish to gain salvation. And there is no end to their perfection, because the perfection even of the perfect is imperfection." Continuous repentance involves an active behavioral effort toward reconciliation. We can see that forgiveness and repentance are closely connected.

Pride: A Barrier to Repentance; Humility: The Gate of Repentance

St. John of the Ladder (1982) points out: "Pride makes us forget our sins ... the remembrance of them leads to humility."We must heed the saint's next words: "[The sinner] must not allow the memory of things that afflict him to be stamped on his intellect lest he inwardly sunders human nature by separating himself from other men although he is a man himself." When a man's will is in union with the principle of his nature in this way, God and human nature are reconciled. St. Isaac the Syrian taught that the person who has attained to knowledge of his own weakness has reached the summit of humility (Brock, 1997).

Authentic Repentance

God recognizes the difference between authentic and inauthentic repentance. Think of Our Lords counsel: "…do not heap up empty phrases … for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows…" (Mt 6:7-8). As St. Paul told the Ephesians (5:6) it is because: "empty words … that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience." If we seek to justify our sin or seek repentance not from a pure heart, but by words alone, then no true repentance has occurred. No matter how many words are expended in prayer, our repentance is inauthentic. But if we call out to Christ, from the depth of our heart heart, like the thief on the cross, we will find the forgiveness of God. As Jesus Himself told us: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8).

A wise person once said that God doesn't look at where we have come from, only where we are going. If repentance is drawn from a desire for a pure heart, the repentant sinner finds God no matter how many times he or she has failed. Authentic repentance looks to the future. It does not seek separation from God. Repentance is not considered authentic if the penitent, asking forgiveness, merely points to the past and does not have a firm desire to be untied with God, to fulfill His Will in the future.

The Fruit of Repentance: Theosis

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos pointed out, "Those who dislike and reject their fellow-man are impoverished in their being. They do not know the true God, who is all-embracing love." St. Peter, in his second epistle, tells us what God has given us: "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness ... that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:3-4). The Eastern Church understands "partakers of the divine nature" not as participation or becoming God in His Being or Essence, but sharing in the warmth and light of His "Divine Energy" (Staniloae, 2003).

The Road to Repentance: Healing the Passions

True repentance can only happen, as indicated by Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994, 1998), if we heal the passions of our soul. For the offender this means healing the passion that led to the offense. For the one who needs to forgive, this means healing the passion of anger and increasing in the virtues of humility and meekness. Forgiveness and repentance form a two-sided coin. One cannot exist without the other.

St. Maximus the Confessor describes the path of forgiveness and repentance: "The first type of dispassion is abstention from the body's impulsion towards the actual committing of sin. The second ... rejection of the impassioned thoughts … the third is quiescence of passionate desire ... [and] the fourth type of dispassion is the compete exclusion from the mind of sensible images" (Philokalia II). Psycho-spiritually, the path of repentance involves deciding to stop sinning, acting in accordance with Our Lord's counsels, and doing all we can to remove ourselves from events and images that arouse us to sin. This means substituting all that leads to sin to have available the works of God, that is, exercising and practicing Godly, virtuous thoughts and acts. The goal of repentance is that all we have in our heart and mind and all we do in our actions are based on prayer and the Holy Mysteries.

Let Us Commend Ourselves and Each Other … unto Christ our God

Theosis not only means being enlivened with the fire of God's warmth and light but being in communion with one another. St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) likens our growth in union with God to a compass. God is the center point. Each person is like the radials going out from the center to the 360 degrees encircling it. As we move toward God (the center), we also move closer to one another, but if we move away from God, we are also more distant from one another (Morelli, 2007).

The Spiritual Dimension of Healing: the Church

We have described the healing of sins through forgiveness and repentance. Yet in what context does this healing take place? St. John Chrysostom presents us with the idea that the entire Church of Christ is a hospital, thereby expressing in clear theological terms the relationship between the healing of body and soul practiced by the early Church. St. John uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as the model (see Lk 1:33ff). The Samaritan in the parable exemplifies Christ who, as the Great Physician, comes to the man beaten by robbers and left lying on the road (representing broken mankind) in order to bring healing. The inn to which the Samaritan delivered the suffering man is the Church (Vlachos, 1994).

The interrelationship between the body and the soul is noted in almost every liturgical prayer. For example, most of the corporate and private prayers begin with the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy) prayer: "All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us, Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for thy name's sake" (emphasis added).

The holy mysteries of the Church-Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Eucharist, and Holy Unction-are healers of the soul and body. They are meant to cure the disease of our separation from God, the consequence of our inclination to sin inherited from the ancestral sin of our first parents.2 The mystery of Holy Confession is the mystery par excellence for healing our infirmities and diseases.

Holy Confession

As with the other sacraments of the Church, Holy Confession was instituted by Christ Himself. Jesus told his apostles: "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 18:18). Christ's public life began with the cry of St. John the Baptist: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 3:2). The quintessential model of repentance-confession is found in the parable of the Prodigal Son:

And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." And they began to make merry.

Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound." But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" And he said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found" (Lk 15:11-32)>

Note the key phrase in the parable: when he came to himself. In one moment the prodigal son grasped the separation he had from his father's house, and he had the insight that he himself had brought on his separation by focusing on the material goods he thought he had the right to, rather than being in his father's embrace. He had penthos, or a sense of loss or mourning, at not being with his Father. This sense of loss led to a change of mind and heart, which is referred to in Eastern Christian spiritual literature as metanoia. As demonstrated in the parable, the prodigal son acted on his penthos: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." Penthos and metanonia impel action and point to a transfiguration from sinfulness to godliness in thought word and deed, in both the present and the future.

Two Types of Confession

Spiritual Fatherhood

As indicated above, Our Lord Himself instituted the Holy Mystery of Holy Confession. Consider the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (4:15-16): "For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me." The paternal ministry of binding and loosing was initially a function of the bishops and priests of the early Church and later adopted by the desert monks of the Church as the model of spiritual fatherhood exercised as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Efficacy of God's Grace and His Instruments

We learn from the Donatist controversy of the fourth century that the efficacy of God's grace is not dependent of the holiness of the sacramental minister, bishop or priest. McGuckin (2004b) informs us: "[St.] Augustine, in attacking [the Donatists], advanced the theory that the church is an ark containing saints and sinners (or the field containing wheat as well as tares). God would sort out the goats and sheep at His Judgment, but the 'church of the pure' was a contradiction of the church Christ wished to institute, which was more of a general hospital than a sanitized isolation ward." In this spirit we should also consider the counsel of Sts. John of the Ladder and Symeon the New Theologian, who advise that the ministry of spiritual fatherhood should only be performed by those who have attained some measure of spiritual purity.

Confession to a Spiritual Father and the Mystery of Holy Confession

The views on pastoral qualification accounts for the existence of two parallel yet intertwining practices of confession in the Eastern Church: one for laypeople and one for monastics. As Meyendorff (1974) comments: "By the fifteenth century, however, private confession to a priest, followed by a prayer of remission, was a generally accepted practice among laymen, with confession to lay monks existing as an alternative in monasteries." These co-existing practices of confession and penance allowed confession to be experienced both theologically and practically as a form of spiritual healing. "For sin itself in Eastern Christian anthropology is primarily a disease, a passion. Without denying the Petrine privilege of the keys transmitted to all the bishops … Byzantine theologians never succumbed to the temptation of reducing sin to the notion of a legal crime, which is to be sentenced, punished or forgiven; yet they were aware that the sinner is primarily a prisoner of Satan and, as such mortally sick. For this reason, confession and penance, at least ideally, preserved the character of liberation and healing rather than that of judgment." Elsewhere Meyendorff adds that mortal sins such as murder, apostasy and adultery-followed by formal excommunication-would necessitate a priest's absolution.

Duties and Gifts of the Spiritual Father Confessor

Bearing the Burden of Sin

A father cares for his children. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians (11:29) in his second letter, a father bears their burdens: "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" The first elders of the church-most of them non-clergy- were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, heard the infirmities that burdened the souls of those who sought them out and took their burdens on themselves. "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak" (Rom 15:1). A story from the lives of the desert fathers give a striking illustration. "Two brothers went into a town … one of them fell into fornication. The other wanting to help him said the same thing happened to me … let us go together and do penance … the one did penance not for himself, but for the other, as though he himself had sinned. God [forgave] the fornicator because of the charity of the brother who had not sinned. Truly, this was to lay down his soul for his brother" (Ward, 2003). Recall St. Paul's wisdom in the story of these two desert monks: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal 6:5).


Spiritual fathers possess several gifts. St. John Cassian (Philokalia I) tells us that St. Anthony the Great considered the most important gift to be discernment (diakrisis), which is the spiritual perception of that which burdens the heart of the one who has infirmities. Discernment is accomplished through the practice of "disclosure of thoughts" (logismoi) and of the impulses and passions that have occurred in his life; love of others and taking on the burden of the disciple:

To one is given through the Spirit … gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits (1Cor 12:8-10) "… it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the gospel passage: "The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness" (Mt 6:22-23). And this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion.

An example can be gleaned from the answer to a question given to St. John of the Desert of Gaza (Chryssavgis, 2003a):

Question: Now, if I find myself among people speaking about certain matters, whether fleshly or spiritual, what should I do: Should I speak or not?

Response by John: If you find yourself in the company of people conversing about either worldly or spiritual matters, give the impression that you too are contributing something, while saying nothing that harms the soul. Bear in mind that you should avoid their praises, lest you appear to them to be silent and are later burdened by this. However, even if you do this, make sure that you do not condemn them as speaking much, simply because you are saying little. For you do not know whether what will burden you will be the one word that you have spoken rather than the many words that they have spoken.


The gift of healing, whereby the spiritual father is described as a doctor, is a common theme in Eastern Christianity (Hausherr, 1990). St. John of the Ladder 1979) in his Letter to the Shepherd tells us: "The good Lord also gave us this natural characteristic: when a sick person sees the physician, that person rejoices."

The physician cures both outward, bodily disease and inner passions and impurities. St. John provides sound advice: "A plaster is a cure for the visible … [in spiritual illness] The guide should not tell all those who approach, that "the way is straight and narrow" (Mt 7:14), or that "the yoke is easy and the burden light" (Mt 11:30). Instead the guide should examine each case, and accordingly prescribe the appropriate medicine. To those who are burdened with grave sins and easily inclined to despair, he should offer the latter remedy; while to those who are inclined to pride and conceit, he should give the former passage."

St. Symeon the Theologian (1979), considers the spiritual father as a doctor, prescribing penance as an antidote to the spiritual sickness of sin. This saint tells us: "And even if we are wounded by its arrows, let us not delay, letting the sin's poison grow sweet in us like honey. Nor like a wounded bear should we irritate the wound by repeating the same sin. Let us run instead directly to the spiritual physician and vomit the poison of the sin through confession, spitting out its venom. Let us receive the penances which are assigned to us as antidote and always try to fulfill them by warm faith and fear of God."

Teacher and Counselor

Moses told God's people: "Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you." (Dt 32:5) "St. John of the Ladder also calls spiritual fathers teachers or counselors who heal by words and example. He tells us: "A genuine teacher is one who has received the tablet of spiritual knowledge from God, written by God's divine finger, namely through the experience of divine illumination … We have mentioned above, great Father, about that father of fathers, teacher of teachers, how he was entirely clothed in heavenly wisdom, straightforward, critical, exacting, sober, condescending, and radiant of soul. And what was most marvelous, was that he trained with greater strictness those that he saw as having a desire for salvation."


St. Symeon the New Theologian (1997) describes a good counselor as one who will "offer ways of repentance," and physician who "may prescribe the appropriate medicine for each of your wounds" and that one's spiritual father may also be an intercessor, that he may propitiate God, standing before Him face to face, and offering Him prayer and intercession on your behalf." However, being an intercessor is not accomplished by having a title or mere external appearance. He tell us, "Neither are all who call upon the name of Christ truly Christians." Spiritual fatherhood means bearing a great responsibility. St. Symeon's pastoral counsel on what it takes to exercise spiritual fatherhood reminds us of St. Paul: "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel …" (Rom 9:6). The saintly Symeon also reminds us of the words of Christ: "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Thus, the intercessor must do all he can to attain holiness, cooperating with God's grace and doing His will and urge his disciple to do so.

Christ is the One and True Mediator

The saints remind us that Christ Himself truly heals our disease and infirmities by forgiving our sins. The spiritual father is merely an icon of Christ and a witness for the Church. As it is written in the Holy Gospel: "Who can forgive sins but God only?" (Lk 5:21). St. Symeon emphasizes that spiritual fathers are merely ambassadors of Christ. From the words of St. Paul: "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:18-20).

Qualifications of a Spiritual Father

St. Symeon quotes several passages from the holy gospels and epistles that help us discern genuine worthy spiritual fatherhood:

  • "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (Jn 10:27).
  • "You will know them by their fruits" (Mt 7:16).
  • "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22-23).
  • "To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills" (1 Cor 12:8-11).

To these scriptural markers, St. Symeon adds: "And to these we add compassion, kindness, almsgiving and everything which follow from these. Not to be overlooked is the collective wisdom of the spiritual fathers that spiritual fathers should have discernment including "the ability to diagnose." This spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit is honed by experience…" (Chryssavgis, 2003). Chryssavgris, quoting a desert father, "Abba Joseph said: 'While we were sitting with Abba Poemen, he mentioned Abba Agathon as being an abba, and we said to him: "He is very young: why do you call him 'Abba'?"' Abba Poemen replied: 'Because his speech makes him worthy of being called abba.'"

In addition are the more specific criteria as noted by St. Basil (listed in Hausherr,1990). Summarizing St. Basil's touchstones of a spiritual father, they "walk unerringly and lead on their way to God, are adorned with virtue, through their own works witness the love of God, know scripture, are undistracted, have no love of money, are peaceful and humble, are not angry or resentful and are insensitive to flattery." St. Basil states "If you find such a person, surrender yourself to him."

Duties of the Penitent

Having a Regular Father Confessor or Spiritual Father

Consider the wisdom from the Book of Proverbs (11:14): "Where there is no guidance, a people falls …" St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) tell us: "Take a good look at this saying, brothers … We need assistance, we need guidance in addition to God's grace. No one is more wretched, no one is more easily caught unawares, than a man who has no one to guide him along the road to God."

Openness of Heart

Almost all of the spiritual fathers of the Church emphasize the absolute necessity of openness of heart. Openness of heart is a revelation, not only of conscience-that is, a knowledge of one's falling short, sins, and transgressions-but also of one's thoughts to a spiritual father. The purpose of this openness is to incite penthos, that is to say, compunction. As indicated previously, Penthos is the mourning for the loss of God's presence; the sorrow at His absence and our thirst for Him. The psalmist (147:3) tells us: "[God] heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds." The suffering of our souls, repenting our missing the mark, sensing our illness and infirmities, the depth of which is known by our tears of sorrow, leads the Orthodox Christian to confess their sins in a deep, heartfelt manner praying: "I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me. O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

Revelation of Disposition of Heart

One of the major purposes of openness of heart is to reveal the disposition of the heart. The disposition of the heart of the penitent points to the future, to what the penitent wants to become. As quoted by Chryssavgis (1990), St. Mark the Ascetic tells us: "He who has come to the knowledge of truth confesses to God not as a result of remembering what he has done but in order to gain patience for what is to come." Hausherr (1990) points out that the movements of the heart reveal suggestions or inner promptings, which can develop into "outward deed, into consent of the will." Knowledge of the disposition of the heart is the fruit of nepsis (vigilance) and watchfulness, consistently counseled by the spiritual fathers. Once again, true repentance points toward the future.


Consider Samuel's (1 Sm 15:22) words: "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice …" Hausherr (1990) quotes a question posed to St. Barsanuphius: "?Teach me, Father, whom should I ask about the subject of thoughts? Should I report the answer I received to another spiritual man?'" The holy man's response: "You should ask questions from the one whom you trust, and whom you believe is capable of bearing your thoughts: you should believe in him as in God. To ask another about the same thought would be to lack confidence and tempt [God]. For if you believe that God is speaking in his saint, what need is there to tempt God by posing the same question to someone else?" Consider the words of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, discussing a person caught up in disobedient pride (Ageloglou, 1998): "His problem is a spiritual one; it is rooted in his ego and his excessive love and trust in his own way of thinking. There is nothing worse than to listen to and trust one's own thoughts."

Love of the Father Confessor or Spiritual Father

In the spirit of St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians consider the last verse (6:24): "Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying." Consider the verse concerning obedience which occurs previously in the epistle: "… be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ." (6:5) Now consider the words of Jesus: "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward" (Mt 10:40-41).

St. Gregory Palamas (quoted by Hausherr, 1990) comments: "You owe all honor and love to your spiritual fathers, because the honor given them ascends to Christ and to the Holy Spirit from whom you received the son-ship, and to the heavenly Father, 'from whom every family, whether spiritual or natural, takes its name.' You will apply yourself to having a spiritual father all your life, and to showing him every sin and thought, to receiving healing and forgiveness from him … Therefore, always, to the end, consult and listen to your spiritual fathers, that your soul may be saved."

The Prayer of Absolution

I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God, the Lord, One in the Holy Trinity, to the immaculate Virgin Mary the Theotokos, to all the Saints and to you, my Spiritual Father, all my sins: … For these and for all my other sins which I cannot now remember I am heartily sorry that I have offended God, Who is good and angered Him against me; I sincerely repent, and I promise with the help of God to do better my way of life; wherefore I humbly ask thee, my spiritual Father saving penance and absolution.

O Lord God, the Salvation of thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, who repentest thee concerning our evil deeds, and desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live: Show thy mercy upon thy servant, N, and grant unto him/her an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins and deliverance, pardoning his/her every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Reconcile and unite him/her unto thy Holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom also with thee, are due dominion and majesty: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


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Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: April 10, 2009

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