Advice on Confession from 14th century Armenian Cilicia

Roman de la Rose, ca. 1390, MS G.32 fol. 113r (Morgan)

Charles Dowsett writes:

The Advice on Confession [attributed to Movses Erzngatsi] is a document to be read against the general background of Roman Catholic-Armenian Orthodox relations in Cilicia […] The attitude of this Cilician author towards matters of confession was largely in accord with that of Rome and much more evolved than that of the very conservative David of Ganjak. The latter still upheld a modified system of public penance and aimed at fixing a definite period of penance for each particular sin, a period varied in accordance with the sinner’s age, estate and intentions, but still expressed in a fixed number of days or years. David of Ganjak’s Penitential was written about 200 years before the present “Advice” but the fact that it continued to be copied for many centuries indicates that confessors still used it. 

The Western Church had progressed to a system of private penance. The Catholicos of Armenia Hovhannes VI Sseci, who in 1205 had received the pallium from Innocent III, had been informed of the decision to hold the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and the canons on penance promulgated by this council, by which the system of private penance was officially recognized, find an echo in Movses’ insistence on the attention to be paid to the character and background of the confessant in determining his penance. […] In harmony with this is Movses’ psychologically sound recommendation to avoid the mention of sins of which the confessant knows nothing but which he might be quick to learn, while the remark that a sinful but knowledgeable priest is in matters of confession preferable to a good but ignorant one appears to be an original, and realistic, idea on the part of the Armenian vardapet.

And here is Movses’ Advice on Confession (translated by Dowsett): 

Now, with regard to confession, priests and layman must be especially cautious and take great care lest both perish through ignorance; for in all other [matters concerning the] priesthood one must choose a holy and reverent priest although he may be ignorant, but for confession a sinful but knowledgeable man is better than a pure but ignorant one, for the ignorant priest in many ways causes offence to the confessant at the time of his confession. There are some whom he strangles by severity and others whom he causes to perish by lenience, and by untoward questions he teaches them sins, and by remaining silent and unconcerned he destroys them; sometimes he sinks them in despair, and at other times, by his incompetence, he gives them license to sin, and he treats lightly before the penitent of the weight of his sins. And many such indiscretions are perpetrated by ignorant physicians at the hands of whom, instead of being healed, [their patients are] bruised and wounded, [as also] on many occasions [are those] who come to such [ignorant men among the priests] for confessions; therefore, one must take great care not to destroy one’s self and one’s neighbor and be condemned by God, for as one must flee from the sword [one must avoid] causing [a sinner] to confess to an ignorant priest. And [one must] not out of vanity and greed act excessively or indulgently in making them confess. And one must know that the taking of confession-money [xostovanadram] is a great and grievous sin whose name I cannot pronounce lest I depress you; but take care that you do not accept it. For many out of shame will not cooperate and escape confession, wherefore the priest must repeat many times “There is no such thing as confession-money. Come at any time to confession, above all on the Day of the Lord.” 

For Sunday, in the word concerning it, is a day of rest, for the Christian puts everything aside on the Day of the Lord, and men and women with their children in love and goodwill go to Church for prayers and confession and to listen to the Holy Scriptures and to partake of the body and blood of the Lord our God. And one must tell the priests at all times not to relax, for the priest is a shepherd of the flock of Christ; for if he is negligent and does not admonish [the erring], God shall demand of him the blood of His people and class the priest with the unbelievers for his neglect, but to such as tend [their flock] well, God shall give great rewards. And when any one comes to confession, the priest must consider the man’s repentance, his fear and shame, and from his expression and speech assess his fear and determine his penance accordingly. And he must consider also whether he is an old man, a child or a youth, a country-dweller, a villager or a townsman, a commoner, whether he is shameless or fearful, whether he knows the commandments of the Lord or is ignorant of the laws of God, whether he is artless or cunning, one who scorns the laws of the Lord, and whether he was led into the same [sin] through ignorance; for from a man’s character and behavior one must determine what [penance] he can endure. For someone must let their sins go unpunished, while on others one must impose heavy penance for small sins, and on others light penance for grievous sins, [according to how the priest] assesses the appearance and conduct of the man. And the form of confession shall be thus: when any one comes before the priest he shall first perform three genuflections before God and shall say: 

“I rejoice in You, Lord God, who made me worthy to come to confession; and now, Lord, cause me in accordance with Thy pleasure to confess my sins without shame, and banish from me Satan lest he make me forgetful of my sins and introduce distractions and delusions and evil shame into my thoughts and cause me to confess untruthfully; drive from me community of thought with the evil one, that in hope and fear I may open my mouth and relate my sins before You in great faith, and receive from You as [my] Lord remission, grace and mercy in abundance.” Then the priest gives the order to be seated, if it is a man to bare his head and kneel on the ground and to say: “I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”. And then he says: “I have sinned against the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; I have sinned against the Holy Virgin and the Holy Apostles, and all the saints; I have sinned against the archangels and angels and all the heavenly hosts; I have sinned against the angel which has watched over me from my childhood until now; I have sinned before Thy holiness, Father and watcher of my soul.” And then he shall give him leave to say what he has done, exhorting him not to be ashamed, [saying]: “I also am a man who has fallen into sin, and that of which you are now ashamed and conceal from me you shall cry out weeping at the awful tribunal in the presence of the celestial and terrestrial and shall find no forgiveness; therefore, recite them here before me alone and I shall readily give absolution.” 

And then one must spare him a little that of himself he be moved to say as much as he can. And again (one must) say “Tell me something else”, and a third time (one must) give him a moment’s pause and then urge him, saying “Say something else, do not be afraid, do not be ashamed; I shall not impose a heavy burden, and shall readily give absolution; but speak, mind, and keep nothing from me.” And when he stops, saying “I know of nothing else,” one must question him, (saying): “Did you do this or that?”, so that whatever he may have forgotten be brought to light, and that if he was afraid or ashamed he may take courage from the question and answer “Yes.” And as we have told you, question cautiously, that no offence is caused; for if it is a healthy-minded man ignorant of extravagant sins, he may be confused by questions about these and his thoughts fall into conflict, and he may say to himself “So such things too are done?”, and consequently he may either desire to commit them himself or grow conceited (and say to himself) “My sin is a (comparatively) small one” and remain unrepentant. For these reasons, one must question him in accordance with his own mode of expression. 

One must examine also concerning the time, at what age (the confessant) committed his sin, in youth or in old age, whether by his own free will or at the constraint of others, at the time of fasts or meat-days; (one must consider) whether it happened on the spur of the moment or with forethought, whether he went to his fellow to sin or whether the latter came to him, whether he enjoyed the commission (of his sin) or had a conscience about it, whether he afterwards repented or was happy, whether it happened with one or with another (i.e. with that one or this one?), with one person or with many, whether they understood what they were doing or not. Concerning swearing, (one must determine) what kind it was; whether (the sinner) insulted a man or a woman, (whether he insulted him or her) face to face or (his or her) image, (whether he swore at) the dead or the living, or, what is most horrible, the Faith or objects of adoration, (or) his angel; and one must tell him that swearing is apostasy, heresy and anathema. And concerning theft, (one must determine) whether the things (stolen) were big or small, whether (the thief) was in need or not in need; if the owner is alive, (the thief) must give back (the object stolen) to him, if not, to his family, and if he had no family, to the poor; if (the confessed thief) no longer has the things to restore, he shall repent as much as he can. 

It would be necessary to write much more about this matter, but this is enough from a confused mind at an uncertain time; for on this day at this very hour we have heard that the lawless ones (the Mamluks) have burned down the (monastery of) Drazark.


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