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5. Duties of penitents, and the discipline imposed; or the different kinds and degrees of penance

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church

5. Duties of penitents, and the discipline imposed; or the different kinds and degrees of penance

Penance, as has been already observed, was wholly a voluntary act, on the part of those who were subject to it. The church not only would not enforce it, but they refused even to urge, or invite any to submit to this discipline. It was to be sought as a favor, not inflicted as a penalty. But the offending person had no authority, or permission, to prescribe his own duties as a penitent. When once he had resolved to seek the forgiveness and reconciliation of the church, it was, exclusively, the prerogative of that body, to prescribe the conditions on which this was to be effected. No one could even be received as a candidate for penance, without permission first obtained of the bishop or presiding elder.

The duties required of penitents, consisted essentially in the following particulars:

  1. Penitents of the first three classes were required to kneel in worship, whilst the faithful were permitted to stand.
  2. All were required to make known their penitential sorrow by an open and public confession of their sin. This confession was to be made, not before the bishop or the priesthood, but in the presence of the whole church, with sighs, and tears, and lamentations. These expressions of grief they were to renew and continue, so long as they remained in the first, or lowest class of penitents, entreating, at the same time, in their behalf, the prayers and intercessions of the faithful. Some idea of the nature of these demonstrations of penitence may be formed from a record of them contained in the works of Cyprian. Almost all the canons lay much stress upon the sighs, and tears, accompanying these effusions.
  3. Throughout the whole term of penance, all expressions of joy were to be restrained, and all ornaments of dress to be laid aside. The penitents were required, literally, to wear sackcloth, and to cover their heads with ashes. Nor were these acts of humiliation restricted to Ash Wednesday merely, when especially they were required.
  4. The men were required to cut short their hair, and to shave their beards, in token of sorrow. The women were to appear with dishevelled hair, and wearing a peculiar kind of veil. 
  5. During the whole term of penance, bathing, feasting, and sensual gratifications, allowable at other times, were prohibited. In the spirit of these regulations, marriage was also forbidden. 
  6. Besides these restrictions and rules of a negative character, there were certain positive requirements with which the penitents were expected to comply.
    1. They were obliged to be present, and to perform their part at every religious assembly, whether public or private, – a regulation which neither believers nor catechumens were required to observe. 
    2. They were expected to abound in deeds of charity and benevolence, particularly in alms-giving to the poor.
    3. Especially were they to perform the duties of the par aholani, in giving attendance upon the sick, and in taking care of them. These offices of kindness they were expected particularly to bestow upon such as were affected with contagious diseases.
    4. It was also their duty to assist at the burial of the dead. The regulations last mentioned are supposed to have been peculiar to the church of Africa. 

These duties and regulations collectively, were sometimes included under the general term *, confession. By this, was understood not only words, but works; both, in connection, being the appropriate means of manifesting sorrow for sin, and the purpose of amendment.

Ep. xlvi. p. 107. Comp. De Lapsis p. 325, 326.

Concil. Toletan. iii. c. 12: Concil. Agath. c. 15. Ambros. ad Virg. Laps. c. 8.

Sozom. h. e. lib. vii. c. 16: Hieron. in Joel, c. ii.: Ambros. De Poenit. lib. ii. c. 40: Concil. Arelat. c. 21.

Concil. Carthag. iv. c. 82.

Carthag. iv. c. 81.

*. Euseb. Hist. Eccl. lib. V. c. 28. – Quis hoc crederet, ut saccum indueret, ut errorern publice fateretur, et tola urbe spectante Romana, ante diem paschae in Basilica Laterani staret in ordine poenitentium? Hieron. Ep. 30, Epit. Fab. – De ipso quoque habitu atque victu raandat, sacco et cineri incubare, corpus sordibus obscurare. Tertull. De Foenit. c. 9. – Totum corpus incuria raaceretur, cinere adspersum, etopertum cilicia. Ambros. ad Virgin. Lapsam c. 8. – Agite poenitentiam plenam, dolentis ac lamentantis animi probate moestitiam. . . . Orare importet impensius, et rogare, diem luctu transigere, vigiliis noctes ac fletibus ducere, tempus omne lacrimosis lamentationibus occupare, stratos solo adhaerere, in cinere et cilicio et sordibus volutari, post indumentum Christi perditum nullum jam velle vestitum, post diaboli cibum malle jejunium, justis operibus incumbere, quibus peccatapurgantur, eleemosynis frequenter insistere, quibus a morte animae liberantur. Cyprian. De Lapsis.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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