Many commentators have contrasted Western and Eastern Christianity with a simple dichotomy, where there is said to be a legal or juridical emphasis in the West and a therapeutic or medicinal focus in the East. An excellent treatment on this is the recent work of Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet, whose three-volume ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ draws from many patristic sources to unfold the way that Eastern Christians consider morality, repentance, and asceticism (1). How we understand morality and describe our holiness and our sins can lead to a dilemma, and this recently came to me when I learned that involuntary sin is a foreign term for Western Christians, whereas the state of grace is not often heard in the spiritual language used by Eastern Christians. For this reflection, I want to delve into how we understand holiness and morality from a typical Roman Catholic definition of what it means to be in a state of grace versus a state of mortal sin, and then compare it to the Eastern Christian notion of involuntary sin and the journey of Theosis. From there we will come to a crisis of apparent contradiction, and hopefully come to a resolution. Specifically, I will reflect upon how it is precisely through a more therapeutic view of sin and salvation that a sort of all-encompassing view of sin and holiness emerges in the Eastern Christian understanding, while maintaining that apophatic characteristic of mystery and openness to God’s mercy. In embracing both aspects of the Biblical narrative of our moral growth and healing through Christ, I believe that we will see the balance that is needed for a healthy moral outlook.
In the Western “lung” of the Church, sins can be broadly divided into venial sins and mortal sins. Borrowing from 1 John 5:16-17, this understanding that there are sins which lead to death has made self-examination as to whether one is prepared for communion based on whether one has an unconfessed mortal sin, or not. When one has no unconfessed mortal sin, communion can be received, and one is said to be in a state of grace. A layer of complexity which must be added to the question of whether an immoral action is a mortal sin is laid out clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As we read in section 1857, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'” We have already stated that some sins are more serious than others in terms of the matter or content of the sin, but the other two conditions mentioned in the catechism speak of morality in terms of our subjective experience. That is, if we have no knowledge of the seriousness of the sin, and if we do not deliberately consent to committing that sin, our moral standing before God is not worthy of the term mortal sin. In this way of thinking, an act that constitutes a mortal sin would not make one excluded from communion if the person did not sin of their own will or of their own knowledge, and the holy mystery of confession would likewise not be necessary to be in a state of grace. It is precisely in this emphasis on the will where moral understanding arguably differs most between Western and Eastern Christians.
In many ways, the Western perspective on morality and the will hearkens back to a view that comes to us through St. Augustine’s writings. In debating Fortunatus, he wrote regarding the will as follows: “Which free will if God had not given, there could be no just penal judgment, nor merit of righteous conduct, nor divine instruction to repent of sins, nor the forgiveness of sins itself which God has bestowed upon us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because he who sins not voluntarily, sins not at all. This I suppose to be open and perspicuous to all.” (2) (emphasis added) This line of thinking supports the Catechism’s qualification that unintended grave matters are not mortal sins, and implies that they are not sinful deeds at all. The state of grace is not lost when something grave is unintentionally committed. While this mindset brings an understanding of the importance of the will and is arguably a remedy to overly scrupulous conscience examination among other things, is it possible that other aspects of our human experience are missed in this clear cut distinction between acts which are willed and those which occur through our human frailty or weakness?
We must look more closely at the Catechism of the Catholic Church as it describes sin and morality. For example, venial sins are not simply dismissed as irrelevant. There are the consequences to venial sins which must not be ignored when we consider the teachings on sin. In this life, we are warned in section 1863 of the Catechism that “[v]enial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.” Weakening our love for God and impeding our ability to love the good is no light consequence but nevertheless, the Catechism continues with a sterner warning about vices. In the summary of the chapter on sin, section 1876 states, “The repetition of sins – even venial ones – engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.” Taken together, our moral standing can be compromised by venial sins, particularly when committed habitually, such that there is a weakening of our love for the good and a proclivity to slide downwards towards a love of vices. Therefore, while there are clear cut distinctions between mortal and venial sins in the Western Christian view, there are qualifications that mitigate the severity of a sin and there are consequences for even the smallest sin. The guiding principle in one’s examination of conscience would be to repent of all sin, and to seek confession particularly when one is concerned about any potential mortal sin committed willfully and knowingly. But if we return to St. Augustine’s writings, is it fair to even call an unintended mortal sin a venial sin? The Catechism’s answer in section 1862 is that “[o]ne commits venial sin…when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.” The nuances make it clear that the will must be involved in a grave sin, and without that complete consent the matter becomes venial sin. Perhaps Augustine was speaking above of the will in this fullness of deliberate or complete consent when he uses the word involuntarily? It is not entirely clear. Regardless, in this system of moral theology, there is an internal logic which is consistent and brings us to focus upon our moral standing by asking whether one is in the state of grace. The key dividing line that we concern ourselves with ultimately is whether there is unconfessed mortal sin, which is the line leading one to condemnation. This focus on being in the state of grace led some moral theologians to develop manuals for penance to ensure that the state of grace was returned to the penitents, but if our journey with Christ to moral perfection includes healing the damage in our life that may come about from things not willed in any sense, we may feel some incompleteness using this system.
As a Byzantine Eastern Christian, my evaluation of this system of thought begins with an important qualification. As is true of any system of thought, there may be some inevitable incompleteness that comes from a situation being either not fully qualified or covered within that particular system’s framework. Biblical studies and the ancient maxim lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) is instructive on how I came to a crisis in considering this system where the will is a sine qua non in moral reflections.
From a Biblical perspective there are important qualifications placed upon sin and wounding that come to us from the Mosaic law. As is true of the modern legal distinctions between manslaughter and murder, the will is a key component in determining the severity of a sin. For instance, we read in Deuteronomy 19:1-5 “When the LORD, your God, cuts down the nations whose land the LORD, your God, is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their cities and houses,you shall set apart three cities in the land the LORD, your God, is giving you to possess. You shall measure the distances and divide into three regions the land of which the LORD, your God, is giving you possession, so that every homicide will be able to find a refuge. This is the case of a homicide who may take refuge there and live: when someone strikes down a neighbor unintentionally and not out of previous hatred. For example, if someone goes with a neighbor to a forest to cut wood, wielding an ax to cut down a tree, and its head flies off the handle and hits the neighbor a mortal blow, such a person may take refuge in one of these cities and live.” What is striking about this notion of cities of refuge is that one guilty of unintentional homicide is not punished as a criminal in the sense of receiving the death penalty, and yet the one who flees to the city is set apart from society at large by being forced to live in this city of refuge. It points to the fact that certain actions may be entirely unintentional and yet have devastating consequences. But are those acts of manslaughter considered simply traumatic, or are they also considered sinful? In the cultic life of the people of Israel, this idea of an unintentional sin is clearly shown to have a place in the Old Testament. Some acts would not appear to be volitional, despite the theology of St. Augustine. In Leviticus 4:1-2 we read, “The LORD commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel that anyone who sinned and broke any of the Lord’s commands without intending to, would have to observe the following rules.” The chapter continues with the specific offerings needed whether an unintentional sin be committed by a community or on the level of specific people. What emerges from these Biblical passages is the idea that we can not only cause damage unintentionally, but we can very much sin unintentionally with some serious consequences.
Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses nuance to distinguish between “complete consent” and something that is done willfully, but in the passages above, the sin is considered unintentional. That may be the net outcome of how we look at some sins committed accidentally or unintentionally, in that they are mostly but not completely unintentional. But let us press the matter even further and ask what we think about tragedies in our life that are completely accidental and completely done without our will? What about completely unwilled for tragedies such as miscarriage and stillbirth? This is precisely where the Byzantine expression of prayer comes into focus.
It is clear that in the Byzantine perspective as in the Roman Catholic perspective, not all sins are relegated to the same level of severity. For example, in the customary beginning prayers, we sing, “Most Holy Trinity have mercy on us, Lord cleanse us of our sins, Master forgive our transgressions, Holy One come to us and heal our infirmities for Your Name’s sake.” Some Byzantine writers would consider sins to be willed offenses, transgressions to be unintended in nature, and infirmities to be more general issues of temperament, demeanor, and other background weaknesses that a person is dealing with (3). In dividing up our morality into different categories, there is a similar space for nuance as mentioned above with the Roman Catholic view of sin outlined above. However, the Byzantine way of praying goes beyond to kinds of sin in terms of degree or manifestation. Transgressions are akin to unintentional sins in the Old Testament or in the Catechism passages on venial sin where grave matter is committed without complete assent or complete knowledge. The clearest divergence between East and West comes to light when we focus on other prayers in the Byzantine Tradition. As one example, a petition that the deacon or priest prays for the forgiveness of sins of a departed soul in the service known as the Panachida is as follows: “Again we pray for the repose of the soul[s] of the departed servant[s] of God, (Name/s), and that (his-her-their) every transgression, voluntary and involuntary, be forgiven.” We pray for Christ to forgive those sins that are called involuntary, which is more than referring to them as committed in ignorance or unintentionally, because the will is expressly denied to be involved in the process of something called a sin. If we are strict Augustinians, how can that make sense? This covered well in a Master’s thesis by Hieromonk Maximos of Holy Resurrection Monastery who compares St. Augustine to Saint Maximos the Confessor and St. John of Damascus (4), but what I want to dwell upon in this reflection is the moral difficulty that comes to mind when we adopt a legal perspective and focus on the state of grace, as well as the difficulty that comes to mind when we operate from a perspective of some sins being voluntary and others as involuntary.
Before we reflect upon the moral difficulties of these two systems, let us further ask what constitutes an involuntary sin in the Byzantine viewpoint. Indeed, there are the unintended events such as transgressions and manslaughter which are mentioned above, and that would be part of involuntary sins. Further, our dispositions and temperaments that are weak may fit into the opening prayers and be referred to as infirmities, which again underscores the medical focus in the East. But a deeper look into the canons and prayers of the Byzantine Tradition takes us to a place where we may not feel fully at peace, at least not at first.
From studying the Byzantine perspective on involuntary sin, it is clear that a miscarriage or a stillbirth is considered to fit into this category. To demonstrate this, let us read the Prayer for a Mother who has Miscarried or Aborted from the Byzantine Euchologion, which is cited in reference (4). “O Master, Lord our God…do thou thyself according to thy great mercy, have mercy on this thy handmaid who today is in sins, having fallen into the killing of a person, whether voluntary or involuntary, and has cast out that conceived in her. And forgive her iniquities, whether voluntary or involuntary, and preserve her from every diabolical snare, and cleanse her defilement, heal her suffering, and grant unto her health and strength of soul and body, O Lover of Mankind; and guard her with a shining Angel from every assault of invisible demons; yea, O Lord, from diverse inward travail befalling her; and by thy abundant mercy, rouse her humbled body, and raise her up from the bed on which she lies. For we have been given birth in sins and transgressions, and all are unclean before thee, O Lord…” There is a range of debate about the appropriateness of the language (5) used in this prayer, but let us note that it specifically refers to asking for forgiveness of voluntary or involuntary iniquities that are tied to the miscarriage or still birth. In addition to this prayer, the Byzantine Canons mention miscarriage. In the compendium known as ‘The Rudder’, an abortion carries a 5 year excommunication, and unintended loss of children in the womb carries a 1 year excommunication (4). This would mean that a woman who suffered greatly and experienced 5 miscarriages would experience the same canonical penalty as someone who wanted their new life in the womb to die. Admittedly, these canons are not regularly followed by Eastern Catholics or Orthodox Christians (nor am I arguing that they should be), but the mentality underlying it is that there is such a tragedy that a refraining from communion is a result of this involuntary sin. The lack of communion in this specific involuntary sin is reminiscent of what we had said about the Roman Catholic view of mortal sin, in that mortal sin bars one from receiving communion. And yet, we must admit that a miscarriage is not willed by the mother who loses her child. How does this comport with morality as a journey to holiness where we view ourselves as children of God who are only guilty of mortal sin when it is grave matter, done with full knowledge and full volition?
To answer this question, we must return to the introduction of this reflection. In the Christian East, sin and salvation are viewed through a lens of focus around a medicinal or therapeutic perspective. Christ is our great healer, and our wounded state is our focus in so much of our prayers. Thus, if we are to imagine the contrary world where the Church did not discuss miscarriage and stillbirth as part of the overall tragedy of sin, that silence would be even more deafening than feelings of guilt. Additionally, there is a very human element to this prayer asking for forgiveness. So much around the medical circumstances which lead to miscarriage or stillbirth is surrounded by ignorance and darkness. Having experienced this pain first hand, I must take the reader to the moment where we knew that our son who had lived for over seven months in the womb had lost his heartbeat. We were there in the hospital room, an IV had been placed to induce a labor which I would later discover to be just as painful as any of the other five children that my wife had borne, and yet we knew that the outcome of that pain on the sixth occasion would not have the joy of those tears and cries that new life brings. The doctor let us know that in our situation, it was possible that we could discover that the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around our son’s neck. Or they could uncover that blood clots had constricted the flow of blood from within the same umbilical cord. Trauma might be evident, or perhaps signs of genetic ailments. Lastly, and most silencing to all thought, we were told that the majority of times there would be no answer to why we were where we were that evening. There would be in essence no answer to why this had happen. And I will never forget how that would be in some ways the worst possibility of all. It was so difficult because of the deep feeling of both powerlessness and the inevitable feeling of guilt. It was truly an involuntary sin.
We may read the Holy Scriptures and hear from our Lord that those who perished from the falling of the tower of Siloam were not greater culprits than those who were spared (Luke 13:4), and that may be a word of consolation. But the preceding and subsequent verses both attest to the fact that unless we repent, we will all perish (Luke 13:3, 5). As such, it can be said that no one is fully righteous. When we encounter death through tragedies such as miscarriage and stillbirth, we can be overwhelmed with questions about why we as parents lost our children. A mother or father may be consoled by the idea that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent this loss, but is that always accurate? The more we learn about potential dangers in life, we can in hindsight recognize that lifestyle choices (for example) may have contributed to the loss of a holy innocent in the womb. If only we knew! Even if we did not know, our loss is just as tangible. By being open to the notion of involuntary sins in this exact context of loss, Byzantine Christians are not heaping up guilt. Instead, they are opening their eyes and their hearts to see this precisely as an area where healing is needed. There are no answers, but we know that we do not understand the situation, which hearkens to the Byzantine emphasis on knowledge of God as apophatic, where we understand Him based on who He is not. So too in our moral journey, we understand that the ideal is not to be found in the absence of health or life. It is instead to be found in union with God through Theosis. And yet we also understand that that absence, when it is experienced through sin is something that calls us to love and repentance, when understood in the light of Christ which shines on the world’s darkness and our own darkness.
Returning to the Western view where the will is a prerequisite for calling something a sin, is it fair to say that this approach neglects involuntary sin? From a strict sense where there is no sin without the will, the answer is yes. The full answer depends on the approach one has towards involuntary sins. If healing is withheld because we wrongly think that morality only considers moral crises that are willed, perhaps that is true. But if consolation and love is offered to assure those who suffer events such as miscarriage and stillbirth, that is not the case in an ultimate sense. Again, with a legal focus the Western perspective emphasizes what is needed to be in a state of grace, so the context may be about comfort that is healing. But since forgiveness is precisely healing and not a legal standing in the Byzantine view, the comfort that we seek always comes to us through forgiveness and love that is offered through prayers seeking forgiveness for one who suffers through involuntary sins. It will also be considered to be needed in every facet of our moral progression that moves towards union with the God who is completely perfect . Our eyes turn towards each aspect of our personality, each intended or unintended tragedy, and we cry out “Lord have mercy!” at every thought that comes to mind. Because of this, we do not fall into scrupulosity or doubt when we live out the Byzantine perspective. Instead, we open our eyes to see our salvation in every aspect of our existence.
In closing, our journey of life is one where we seek peace and repentance. Our repentance can be focused on the minimum state that is needed to not be a place of judgment or condemnation, and that is all well and good to the degree that we do not become complacent. The state of grace provides us an examination of conscience that assures us that we can receive communion. In the Byzantine perspective, there tends to be more of an all-encompassing acknowledgment that holiness can continue to grow. Perfection is described as “endless growth in the good” by St. Gregory of Nyssa, an Eastern Christian Father who grasps this reality so clearly and succinctly. That constant movement or growth has analogies in a viewpoint that is more about a state of grace or of the beatific vision. Like all truth, an emphasis or model is never able to fully grasp all of reality. As physical light is both particle and wave, our spiritual journey into the light of holiness is a matter of where we are, and at the same time it is about where we are going. By thinking about sin as something that is a matter of presence or absence, we see the position in which we stand. By seeing sin extending deeper than our will, we see our destination to which we are going. We hope for the day when we will be as Christ is, and we thank Him for His mercy to love us even today when we see the many ways in which we fall short. As Catholics, we do not have to be blinded to the Tradition as expressed in the West or in the East. Because of this beautiful relationship between the Churches, our moral journey can be informed by both perspectives, even if our home base or emphasis may be on one Tradition. That may be the surest way to keep our balance in our understanding of morality, and indeed for all of truth.
1. Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Jean-Claude Larchet. Alexander Press, 2012
2. Debate between Augustine and Fortunatus http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1404.htm
3. Shown to be Holy: An Introduction to Eastern Christian Moral Thought. God with Us Publications, 1990.
4. SINS VOLUNTARY AND INVOLUNTARY: JOHN OF DAMASCUS, NATURAL INTEGRITY AND THE MORAL VISION OF EASTERN ORTHODOXY Hieromonk Maximos (Michael Davies) The Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Berkeley, California July, 2007.
5. As one example, note that the Orthodox Church in America has very recently published a prayer service that is expressly intended for those who have experienced a miscarriage or still birth (link: https://oca.org/liturgics/music-downloads/service-after-miscarriage ). While not denying the reality of involuntary sin, there is a pastoral approach that has a different emphasis from the Euchologion prayer.