Orthodoxy Today
Pastoral Pointer: It’s the Spirit Behind the Letter

"...for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor 3:6)

Up front I want to make clear that in no manner, shape or form is anything that I am writing meant to abrogate or ameliorate the commandments of God. In fact, just the opposite, my intent is to suggest a pastoral practice which would enhance keeping Christ's commandments. After all, we have it from Christ Himself: ". . . If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14: 15).

What I am suggesting is that the best way to keep the commandments is to first focus on understanding their spirit, their meaning, and then make connections to the letter, that is to say, the written code. This approach is both psychologically and spiritually sound (Morelli, 2005).  I am making the suggestion that this is an effective way to approach the commandments in workshops, catechesis and especially in pastoral aid given to penitents in the Holy Mystery of Confession.

Psychological Factors in Moral Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1932) first discussed moral development in his seminal work: The Moral Judgment of the Child. He initially discusses an early stage of moral sense called the "heteronomous" stage of moral reasoning. It is characterized by an exacting adherence to rules and obedience which is accompanied by what Piaget terms "a feeling of pure obligation." This stage also involves moral realism in which there is a focus on the letter of the law versus the purpose of the law. Piaget explains it this way: ". . . it is not surprising that the child should from the first "realize" and even "reify" the moral laws which he obeys.  It is forbidden to lie, to steal, to spoil things, etc., - so many laws which will be conceived as existing in themselves, independently of the mind . . . ." It is important to note that some individuals never advance beyond this early stage of moral sense.

For Piaget, the highest stage of moral development is moral autonomy. He defines this as ". . .when the mind regards as necessary an ideal that is independent of all external pressure." Piaget notes that this takes place ". . . when mutual respect [between individuals] is strong enough to make the individual feel from within the desire to treat others as he himself would wish to be treated [Emphasis mine]." The relation of this phrase to the words of Jesus: "And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." (Lk 6:31) is blatantly obvious, but there is no indication this was Piaget's intention.

Nevertheless, moral autonomy is closer to the true spirit of Christ's teachings, but still does not encompass its fullness.  It does not take into account intention.  An individual may act according to Christ's words noted above, sometimes referred to as The Golden Rule, to ensure self-gain. This was noted by Jesus Himself in His Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St. Luke. He tells his Apostles and Disciples:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. (Lk 6 32-34).

The core of the spirit of Christ's teaching (and in this example, The Golden Rule ) is that it must be motivated by  kenotic, self- emptying love. Our Lord goes on to explain the essential difference:

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6: 27-31, 35-38). (See Morelli, 2005, 2010).

Other psychologists have ventured beyond Piaget's heuristic model. Kohlberg (1976) proposed the highest stage of moral development to be the adoption of "universal ethical principles." These are self-chosen precepts which form an "articulated, integrated, thought out and consistently followed system of values." Perhaps few reach this stage, as did perhaps, for example, Mother Theresa (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983), now known as St. Theresa of Calcutta.  The pastoral point is this: Even if few reach it, aren't all called to attain the highest level of perfection they are capable of; aren't all called to sainthood ? Furthermore, isn't it the pastoral duty and obligation of priests, catechists (and husbands and wives as leaders of their Domestic Church) to lead all to such sainthood?

What should be done for pastoring or catechizing to be fruitful? We know from psychological studies that "internalizing" the reasons for moral behavior facilitates individuals acting morally. Children (and implicitly, adults as well) who function on a "hedonistic" or pleasure level "act out" more than those who have developed higher levels of moral reasoning such as empathy (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989; Bear & Rys, (1994) and universal ethical values (Kohlberg, 1976) Such  research would suggest that presenting the spirit behind commandments would facilitate individuals’ living a more Christ-like life.

Spiritual maturity

Even a cursory reading of the Spiritual Fathers of the Church points out their emphasis on the "stages of the spiritual life." This is not to say that the spiritual stages are equivalent to the stages of moral development as, for example, discussed above. It is to say, however, that the Church Fathers emphasize deep understanding or the spirit of what they are talking about. It starts out with the counsel of Christ about prayer: "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Mt 6:7). What is the meaning of this counsel? It was said by Jesus as part of the Sermon on the Mount. He had just told the gathered Apostles and Disciples: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Mt 5: 8). Clearly, it is all about 'the spirit.'

The spirit of the law

Most references to 'the law' in The New Testament refer to the intricacies of the  Mosaic Law, such as the necessity for  tassels at the edge of a garment.  St. Matthew (9: 20) makes reference to this in the rendering of Jesus’ meeting the woman with the issue of blood. "And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe [tassels] of his garment." The Jewish people remember 613 such written laws as accounted in the first five books of the Old Testament, as well as the innumerable sayings of the various Rabbis through the ages.

The meaning attached by Jesus and His Apostles when discussing 'the law" must be applied to the way we approach 'the Commandments' as well, not just the Mosaic Law. In this regard, St. John (1: 17) tells us: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." This can clearly be seen when Jesus goes to the heart or spirit of the commandments as in the well-known encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mt 22: 35-39).

This is the message St. Paul is giving to the Galatians (5:14,18, 23). "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . .But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. . .gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." And again when he says: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal 6:2). St. Paul's understanding of the spiritual basis which is the ethos of the law is made clear when he tells the Romans (7: 13-14): "The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith[fullness]. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith[fullness] is null and the promise is void."  This is also clear in his message to the Hebrews (8: 13): "In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." 

St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II) tells us what is behind St. Paul's understanding:

The grace of the New Testament is mystically hidden in the letter of the Old. That is why St. Paul says that 'the Law is spiritual' (Rm 7: 14). Thus the letter of the Law, superseded, grows old and decays (c.f. Heb 8: 13), while its spirit, perpetually renewed, stays young. For grace is altogether immune from decay. . . . All sacred Scripture can be divided into flesh and spirit as if it were a spiritual man. For the literal sense of Scripture is flesh and its inner meaning is soul or spirit. Clearly someone wise abandons what is corruptible and unites his whole being to what is incorruptible.

St. Maximus leads us to a very practical pastoral application of his spiritual perception. He would focus on the spirit behind the letter. He tells us:

He who fulfils the Law in his private and public life only abstains from the actual commission of sin. . . the outward fulfillment of his mindless passions. He is satisfied with this manner of seeing salvation because of his spiritual immaturity . . . .the literal meaning of the Gospel. . .[The highest level:] . . .the spirit of the Gospel is apprehended, and which by means of wisdom transfigures and deifies those imbued with spiritual knowledge: because of the transfiguration of the Logos within them 'they reflect with unveiled face the glory of the Lord' (2Cor 3: 18).

The aim of obeying and fulfilling the commandments should always be increasing our spiritual perception. This is to understand the spirit of the commandments and live our lives by this spirit. For priests, catechists or parents (the leaders of their domestic Church) to preach and be satisfied with the lowest common denominator of spirituality is abhorrent.  Rather, we should always try to pastor or teach to the highest level that can be achieved. Once again I turn to St. Maximus, who tells us:

Before His visible advent in the flesh the Logos of God dwelt among the patriarchs and prophets in a spiritual manner, prefiguring the mysteries of His advent. After His incarnation He is present in a similar way not only to those who are still beginners, nourishing them spiritually and leading them towards the maturity of divine perfection, but also to the perfect, secretly pre-delineating in them the features of His future advent as if in an ikon.

The Holy Fathers on disclosure

Isaiah the Prophet (43: 26) tells us: ". . . tell your lawless [sins] first, that you may be made righteous."  Irénée Hausherr (1990) summarizes the practice of the Spiritual Fathers during "the ancient times about which the Vitae Patrum [3rd-4th Centuries] testify."  Sin would be discussed to the extent needed to "exhort to compunction (penthos) —- without the slightest allusion to a detailed confession." Hausherr points out rather that the many documents of this era show a "need for openness of heart." He writes: "What the spiritual father needs to know and the spiritual child ought to reveal to him are one's actual dispositions which can be inferred from the 'movements of the heart' without any need to stir up the past, a too detailed remembrance of which might do more harm than good."

St. Mark the Ascetic tells us why:

To recall past sins in detail inflicts injury on the man who hopes in God. For when such recollection brings remorse it deprives him of hope; but if he pictures the sins to himself without remorse, they pollute him again with the old defilement . . . even though someone is illumined and hates the passions, he will inevitably be filled with darkness and confusion at the memory of what he has done….if he is still befogged and self-indulgent he will certainly dally with the enemy's provocations and entertain them under the influence of passion, so that this recollection will prove to be a prepossession and not a confession. (Philokalia I).

Pastorally wise St. Mark has the penitent, based on their past sins, focus on what they are to do in the future which will lead them to God:

If you wish to make a blameless confession to God do not go over your failings in detail, but firmly resist their renewed attacks. The man who possesses spiritual knowledge and understands the truth confesses to God, not by recalling what he has done, but by accepting patiently what comes.

The Holy Fathers on Penthos

The importance of penthos, that is to say deep spiritual sorrow, was told to us by St. Paul. "I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced." (2Cor 12: 21).   

Consider the words of St. Evagrios the Solitary (Philokalia I ): "First pray for the gift of tears, so that through sorrowing [penthos] you may tame what is savage in your soul.  And having confessed your transgressions to the Lord, you will obtain forgiveness from Him." 

It is not possible that such a "gift of tears," would lead to true sorrowing if based simply on viewing the breaking of a commandment to be a mere violation of a rule —-the letter of the law. St. Isaac of Syria gives us the understanding that true sorrow entails an apprehension "by essential sight." That is to say, true sorrow or penthos is perceiving a  sundering of the 'spirit of the law.' St. Isaac tells us:

. . .when grace begins to open thy eyes so that they perceive things by essential sight, at that time thy eyes will begin to shed tears till they wash thy cheeks even by their multitude, and the vehemence of the senses will be calmed so that they will be shut up within thee peacefully. (Wensinck, 1923).

The opening paragraph of St. John of the Ladder's The Ladder of Divine Ascent (St. John Climacus, 1979) makes clear that true sorrow is from the depth of the heart.

Mourning according to God is sadness of soul and the disposition of a sorrowing heart, which ever madly seeks that for which it thirsts; and when it fails in its quest . . . grievously lamenting  . . . .Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears . . . . For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins after baptism are washed away by tears . . . cleansed anew in with tears . . . . Groanings and sorrows cry to the Lord. Tears shed from fear intercede for us; but tears of all-holy love show us that our prayer has been accepted.

St, Maximus the Confessor references Psalm 50: 10. The verse reads:  "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me." St. Maximus understands by this "that by grace [we] may be completely emptied of evil thoughts and filled with divine thoughts, so that we may become a spiritual world of God." (Philokalia II). For St. Maximus this comes about, is "wrought from moral, natural and theological forms of contemplation."  This refers to the "spirit of the law." This view is underscored by St. Maximus’ understanding of the two definitions of "fear," one meaning of the word being superficial, the other meaning essential: “Fear is twofold; one kind is pure, the other impure. That which is pre-eminently fear of punishment on account of offenses committed is impure.”

Confession in Sacred Scripture

The Prodigal Son

The Holy Gospels give us a sense of a fruitful confession. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is an example. In the first part of the Parable St. Luke (15: 11-21) tells us:

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.' 

Note the scarcity of detail in Jesus’ description of the Prodigal's sin: "he squandered his property in loose living." It is not until toward the end of the Parable that Jesus has the brother of the Prodigal utter more clearly the meaning of "loose living." His brother, in a fit of jealousy for the Fathers joy in receiving back His son, with music, dancing and feasting, informs us that "loose living" was consorting "with harlots." (Lk 15: 30). Even this description is hardly pornographically explicit. It is simple, but precise.

The Prodigal's "coming to himself” that he had engaged in "loose living" provoked a metanoia a change of mind, heart and behavior which brought him back to his Father, enabling him to say: "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." Chryssavgis (1990) calls repentance or metanoia "a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, a new way of loving others and God." This speaks to the understanding of the "spirit" of the commandments.  Chryssavgis goes on to say:

'Repentance,' says [St.] Basil the Great, 'is salvation, but lack of understanding is the death of repentance.' It is clear that what is at stake here is not particular acts of contrition, but an attitude, a state of mind. 'For this life, ' states [St.] John Chrysostom, 'is in truth wholly devoted to repentance, penthos and wailing. This is why it is necessary to repent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one's whole life.'


We also have the Gospel example of Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus, a publically known sinner:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost." Lk 19: 1-10

In this example, we have a penitent making a most indirect 'confession.'  The conditional confession "if I have defrauded anyone of anything" is made much more affirmative by the admission next admission, that he had restored it "fourfold."  Much like the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus had a sense of loss and a longing for reunion. He actively sought out Jesus. Climbing a tree and scaling a roof is no small feat. He could only have been dimlyi aware of who the real Jesus was. However, he must have had some sense of the holiness of Jesus and sought to be in communion with Him.  Only a metanoia could precede such an action.

The Samaritan Woman

Also well-known is the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, a woman who had been living in a non-chaste relationship:

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?" Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly." The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things." (Jn 4: 5-25).

The encounter might be considered a model of penitential questioning. The woman seeks to drink of the fountain that eternally quenches thirst. She also must have had a sense of the holiness she is seeking to partake of but perceives quite dimly (see Endnote i) the fullness of what she is asking. In a sense, the command Jesus gives to her, "Go, call your husband . . . ." is actually a question. He already has the answer too, and to which she responds honestly: "I have no husband." The gentleness of Jesus, a great pastoral model, should be noted. He states a simple fact, and ends with the revelation that He is the Messiah, and St. John notes "many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did."" (Jn 4: 39).  The Synaxarion of the Church indicates that the feast of St. Photini, the Samaritan Woman, is celebrated  on March 20th.

The Woman caught in adultery

Another penitent who encountered Christ was the woman caught in adultery. In this case it was not even she who made the first advance; it was Christ's archenemies, trying to entrap Him.

We can note the words of St. Mark:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (Jn 8: 3-7).

The Scribes and Pharisees were attempting to impose 'literal' justice. Moses makes quite clear the penalty for adultery: "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." (Lv 20: 10). If Jesus said Jewish law should be followed, He could be charged with sedition against Rome. Because only Rome, by recourse to Roman law, had power to execute criminals.ii However, by not endorsing execution of the woman, the Jewish leadership would accuse Jesus of abandoning the "law of Moses," thereby alienating His people. But Jesus did fall into this trap. He appealed to the core or spirit of all law: Only someone who is without sin can pass judgment and execution. In other words, in as much as no man, save Jesus is without sin, it is only God, and Jesus as true God and true man, as well as the Holy Spirit, who can dispense either ultimate justice or mercy.

The Good Thief

The last example, the Good Thief also, did not seek out Jesus. The Gospel account is well known, he and another thief were crucified along with Jesus. In the Eastern Church the event, recorded by St. Luke (23: 32-49), is read each year in the 8th Gospel Reading on Holy Thursday:

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! "But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; 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." It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, "Certainly this man was innocent!" And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things. 

What is so remarkable about this account is how little the Good Thief said and how great was his reward. All he said was the sentence meted out, crucifixion for his thievery, and that it was given "indeed justly."  He simply asks Jesus to remember him when He goes into His "kingdom." Now, for the thief to say this he must have had a sense not only of his own sinfulness, but also. in some way of the ineffable, special holiness of Jesus. The request makes no sense unless the thief had some understanding that Jesus was, in fact, going into the "kingdom." He had such a remarkable trust and confidence in Jesus; that Jesus would simply remember him.  The grace, the reward, this sinner, this thief, gets is to be the only person to be proclaimed, that is to say canonized a saint, by Jesus Himself: " . . . today you will be with me in paradise." In fact, the Exapostelarion (hymn) sung after the reading of this 8th Gospel reading on Holy Thursday is: "Thou made the thief worthy of paradise on the same day, O Lord. Wherefore, illuminate me too by the Tree of Thy Cross and save me."

Icon of All SaintsIcon of All Saints

On the first Sunday after Pentecost the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints. In the Festal icon, above, the Good Thief is depicted in the lower center.

Christ leading the Good Thief into ParadiseChrist leading the Good Thief into Paradise

A Pastoral Example: Application to Holy Confession

When a penitent goes to Confession, after a good examination of conscience, , his or her Father Confessor usually first reads the appointed prayers (according to the Priest’s [acp2] Service Book of his jurisdiction, then asks the penitent to confess their sins. The penitent usually says something like: Father, it has been time since my last confession I have sinned in thought word and deed by: . . .  confesses sins.  The Father Confessor may then offer counsel based on his experience and his particular gifts of spiritual discernment. I will give a bare outline from some of my experience hearing confessions.  Based on the numerous articles I have written on Blessed Marriage, Parenting and sex, examples II to V  will be  on these topic ]

Example I [the ultimate non-confession]

Priest: "What sins do you want to confess to Our Lord"?

Penitent: "None; I haven't sinned."

Priest: "There is no man who liveth and sinneth not." (Prayer, from the Trisagion for the Dead) and/or "The greatest saints of the Churchfall down weeping over their sins; we all sin." or "Did you make an examination of conscience?"

Penitent: mumbling or "what is that . . .? [or some such]

Priest: [spoken softly and with great charity]. "You must make an examination of conscience; come back to me when you have finished." or "If you would like me to help you make an examination of conscience, I can do so." [follow-up absolution cannot be given until sin is admitted and confessed]

Example II

Priest: "What sins do you want to confess to Our Lord"?

Penitent: "I looked at pornography."

Priest: "How did it happen?"

Penitent: "I was on my computer; I was bored, with nothing to do . . . so I went to the site I knew of."

Priest: "We pray in the Lord's Prayer, "lead us not  into temptation." The closer you are to something that arouses you the more your desire for it. If you had a friend who had an alcohol problem, and he asked you if he should take a job as a bartender, what would you tell him?

Penitent: "He would be crazy; he would be just asking for trouble."

Priest: "Good! Now apply this to yourself when you are in front of the computer. Remember, as soon as you log onto the porn site it is like the alcoholic walking into a bar . . . so what can you do?

Penitent: "Have a plan to log into a different site?"

Priest: "Good!" "Something else.. . . what is the problem with looking at porn sites?"

Penitent: "I don't know what you mean"

[Penitent may need some guidance]

Priest: "What does it say about how you think and feel about the woman you were watching on the screen?"

[The counseling continues helping the Penitent see that it is a lack of respect for a person made in God's image; it does not emulate the love of others which God asks of us;  it is a self-centered act.]

Priest: "Are there any other sins you want to confess?" etc.

Priest: "Are you sorry for your sins?

Priest: — says the prayer of absolution.

Example III

Priest: "What sins do you want to confess to Our Lord"?

Penitent: Father, I committed adultery. [Priest knows the penitent is a married man.]

Priest: "Is this the first time?"

Penitent: "Yes."

Priest: "Have you done this before?"

Penitent: "No!"

Priest: "Tell me how did you come to meet this person?"

Penitent: "I was alone on a business trip; I went into the hotel bar for supper and this beautiful woman sat next to  me and one thing led to another."

Priest: Ok! Now that you know something like this can happen, how can you prepare for this in the future [similar to the counseling in Example II: "We pray, in the Lord's Prayer, 'not to lead us into temptation.' The closer you are to something that arouses you the more your desire for it. If you had a friend who had an alcohol problem, and he asked you if he should take a job as a bartender, what would you tell him?"—in these cases alternative ways of dealing with temptation can be elicited: having dinner in one's hotel room; practicing assertiveness scripts which focus on turning down advances. This last [acp3] might include telling the woman immediately: "I am married and do not cheat on my wife  . . . , etc." (Morelli, 2006) continuing similar to Example II above:]

Priest: "What does it say about how you think and feel about the woman you had the affair with?"

[The counseling continues by helping the Penitent see that is a lack of respect for a person made in God's image; it does not emulate the love of others God asks of us; it is a self-centered act.]

Priest: "What about your wife? What does having an affair with another woman say about your commitment to your wife? Do you remember that in our Orthodox Wedding Service we see the commitment to our spouse to be just as Christ was committed to us . . .  . He loved us so much he took on our flesh, was crucified, died, was buried and rose from the Dead?”

[Once again, the Penitent is asked if he has any other sins to confess, whether he is sorry, commits to pray to God for the grace to resist temptation and to do all he can not to place himself in the 'occasions of sin'—- absolution follows.]

Example IV

Priest: "What sins do you want to confess to Our Lord"?

Penitent: [a single male college student]. "I had sex with this girl"

Priest: “Were you married to her?"

“Did you make a life-long commitment to her?”

“Did you talk to her about how you would raise your children in Orthodoxy?”

“Were you in a blessed Orthodox Marriage with her?”

[During such questions, the penitent starts out looking at the priest quizzically — then starts to catch on]

Penitent: Oh! I see it's not about sex, but about commitment and the Church

Priest: "You are starting to get it; it is about commitment, the Church and sex."

[Counseling continues focusing on the theme of Blessed Marriage and sex, (Morelli, 2005a, 2008). As in the above examples the Penitent is asked if he has any other sins to confess, whether he is sorry, commits to pray to God for the grace to resist temptation and to do all he can to not place himself in the 'occasions of sin'—-absolution follows.]

Example V

Penitent: [a young adult unmarried female college student], "Father, I committed the sin of fornication."

Priest: "How did it happen?

Penitent: "My ex-boyfriend called and asked to come over my apartment."

Priest: "When did he call?"

Penitent: "Late evening, about 10 -11 or so. He said he just wanted to talk."

Priest: "Are you still attracted to him?"

Penitent: "Yes."

Priest: Now look into your heart; be honest with yourself; what did you think would happen when he came over?"

[a thinking moment pause]

Penitent: "We would go to bed together."

Priest: "Good, I can tell that is a very sincere answer."

Penitent: "But I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway."

Priest: "What chance do you think you had to resist him, if he was over your apartment, late at night, you had a cocktail,  . . .etc.?"

Penitent: "None."

Priest: "You really have to be honest with yourself upfront—you know what would happen if you let him come over.

Priest: "What should you have done?"

Penitent: "Been firm on the phone and told him ‘No, I do not want to see you’ in no uncertain terms." [assertiveness as noted above in Morelli, 2006).

[Once again the "spirit" of Blessed Marriage and sex, (Morelli, 2005a, 2008) were gone over. After this, the Penitent is asked if she has any other sins to confess, whether she is sorry, commits to pray to God for the grace to resist temptation and to do all she can not to place himself in the 'occasions of sin' — and absolution follows.]

Pastoral Commentary

It can be noticed that the only information necessary in the confession is the name of the sin, but, as St. Mark the Ascetic counsels, not "in detail." The only details are the circumstances which led up the sin, discernment of the spiritual stage of the penitent,  making sure the spirit of the commandment behind the sin was understood by the penitent, and looking to the future, that is to say, how the penitent can avoid committing the sin again. 

Admittedly the examples above are relatively uncomplicated. I did this purposefully due to the complexity of the dialogue which I would have to have written to encompass a knottier problem. An example of a such a problem would be someone who was having an ongoing affair with a colleague at work to whom they were extremely attracted. This scenario would entail changing established attitude and behavioral patterns. Also, the reality of keeping the employment status and physical care of their families would have to be taken into consideration.

The pastoral, psycho-spiritual place I would start (and have) in such a case would be  the model of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The penitent would have to see the horror of their estrangement from God and His love, pray deeply to acquire a longing to re-establish communion with Him and His Church, and pray deeply to ask God 's grace to be firm and strong in a deep metanoia, a change in heart, mind an behavior.  The penitent would also have to stringently practice cognitive-behavioral techniques such as assertiveness, (Morelli, 2006) as mentioned in the above examples.  All penitents, but especially those struggling to overcome complicated, multifaceted sins, have to be prepared to understand failure, but also the willingness of God to forgive as Jesus instructed us: "Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.""(Mt 28: 22). This means an eternal readiness to forgive. As St. Siouan the Athonite (Sakharov, 1999) tells us: "Happy is the sinner who has turned to God and loves Him"

How hopeful and beautiful are the words of St. Isaac of Syria:

As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance his mercy. Like a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of his creatures. (Alfeyev, 2000)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.


Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000). The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Bear, G.G., & Rys, G.S. (1994). Moral reasoning, classroom behavior and sociometric status among elementary school children. Developmental Psychology, 30, 633-638.

Chryssavgis, J. (1990). Repentance and Confession. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press.

Eisenberg, N., & Mussen, P.H. (1989). The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Hausherr, I. (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. Cistercian Publications, St. Joseph's Abbey: Spencer, MA.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research and moral issues. (pp. 31-53). NY: Holt.

Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, Switzerland: S. Karger.

Morelli, G. (2005a, July, 19). Sex is Holy: Psycho-Spiritual Reflections in a Secular World.http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliSexIsHoly.php.

Morelli, G. (2005b, October 03). Elevating motiveshttp://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-elevating-motives.

Morelli, G. (2006, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php

Morelli, G. (2008, July 6). Good Marriage XIII: The Theology of Marriage and Sexuality.www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart%20Marriage-XIII-The-Theology-of-Marriage-and-Sexuality.php

Morelli, G. (2010, October 01). Beauty, the Divine connection: Psychospiritual reflections.   http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-beauty-the-divine-connection-psychospiritual-reflections

Morelli, G. (2010, November 25). The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Churchhttp://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-catechesis

Palmer, G. E. H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1979). The Philokalia: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 1. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G. E. H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1981). The Philokalia: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth, (Vol. 2). London: Faber and Faber.

Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. NY: Free Press

Sakharov, Archimandrite Sophrony, (1999). St Silouan the Athonite. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

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Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.


i The Gospel accounts of Jesus with sinners discussed in this article all take place during His public life, that is to say, before His death and Resurrection. The meaning of Jesus taking on our flesh, teaching, suffering, being crucified, resurrecting from the dead, and ascending to the Father, would not be made more clear until Pentecost. At Jesus’ 'priestly prayer' at The Last Supper He tells His Apostles: "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." (Jn 14: 26). As pointed out, this promise is fulfilled  at Pentecost 50 days after the Resurrection. However, even after Pentecost the followers of Christ, even to the present day, will only see dimly, that is to say indistinctly:   "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." (1Cor 13: 12). St. Paul is telling the Corinthians that a greater understanding of spiritual things will only be in the age to come. In fact, all the encounters of Christ while on earth occur before His sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thus Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery and the good thief must have had the most infinitesimal sense of the holiness that was this Jesus whom they saw in the flesh.  The greatest  understanding possible for those who "become partakers of the Divine Nature" (2Pt 1:4)  awaits in 'the age to come.'

ii http://www.answers.com/topic/pontius-pilate

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: February 1, 2010

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