Forms of Penance in the Greek Orthodox Church?

Hi all,

I wonder if there are any medieval church scholars out there who could tackle this one....

Recently in my game, one of the characters committed cold-blooded murder during a passionate act of vengeance and anger, when the character discovered a father who was abusing his children. The interview and subsequent murder was a dramatic scene, and shocking to all involved. The player is normally very prudent. Since the act occurred in an infernal aura, I decided to take a cue from RoP:I, in the chapter on sinning, and give the character a personality trait of "vengeful +1" and a confidence point for it. It was a nice cap on the adventure, which had some great role-playing throughout, and reminded us all of the true dangers of the infernal.

Later, once the characters got back to a big coastal city, the character (a mage from Greece) sought out a Greek Orthodox Church and went to confession, trying to absolve himself of this mortal sin. Since the character is truly remorseful, and concerned about his immortal soul, I want to come up with a suitable penance before erasing the personality trait. Unfortunately I know almost nothing about Medieval penance, let alone how it was doled out in the Greek Orthodox Church in those days.

If anyone happens to have any knowledge of the subject, please advise.

I'm especially interested if it could lead to a story. For example: "In order to be forgiven, you must find a local orphanage, and donate your time to the organization for the next year." The character loses 4 seasons of study (an appropriate sacrifice for the player), and it could lead the characters into a story involving the local urchins. However, I have no idea if this is too New Age....

Any help would be most appreciated.


Minor theological point - in the Christian tradition, forgiveness is guaranteed the moment you ask for it; the priest is just there to give a human face to the act, and to ask relevant questions and act as a sounding board. Penance is what you do afterwards in order to essentially try to get rid of the evil that did in yourself and to others. (it's closely related to "reconciliation" - the acts you do in order to repair the harm you did to yourself, others, and society as a whole.) Although I'm not Catholic, from what I understand of the formal process, it's also roughly analogous to 're-programming' your behavior to reduce the likelihood that the act occurs again.

That being said, medieval penance (relative to modern penance) is pretty hardcore. The penance for murder is usually something like "become a monk for the rest of your life". I believe it was graded based on the importance of the individual.(The theory being that while everyone is a child of God, in practical terms the harm to society is greater if you killed your liege lord than some random peasant. Killing a peasant can cause a blood feud. Killing a lord can cause a civil war.)

So - if the PC is truly repentant and wants to RP out his penance - it's probably going to take the rest of his life, honestly. Penance for murder is the medieval theological version of a life sentence. (Because - let's face it: the character is the kind of person who, when he gets angry, kills people.)

I am currently verrry busy, verrry far away from any Ars book, and even from all my books on the middle ages.

But have a look at hesychasts. Joining them to do lifelong penance might even allow your PC to maintain some itsy bitsy place in the saga.


I may be wildly wrong here, but my impression was that part of the point of penance in medieval Catholicism was to reduce or eliminate the time spent in purgatory paying for the sin. As I understand it, the Eastern Orthadox church has no purgatory, which is likely why the descriptions of Orthodox penance I find on line seem to be limited to a few prayers.

This may be helpful, and roughly was followed in the middle ages, too:

So penance for murder will certainly involve incisive actions to curb one's violent impulses in the future, and to make all the reparations to the community of the victim one is capable of.


I think this is correct. I was brought up in an Eastern (Russian) Orthodox Church and certainly the sense I had was that any instructions a priest would give during confession (probably a regime of fasting and prayer, although I hadn't committed any murders...) were to help stop you sinning again (or at least reduce the amount you sinned) rather than to annul previous sins or as punishment. That said, anyone who killed another (under any circumstances) would be excluded from the Eucharist for a number of years (three years is given here - - for killing in war, perhaps it would be more for cold-blooded murder).


I'll start by saying that my upbringing was Catholic, so my knowledge of Greek Orthodox doctrine is not great. But I can do research. And in this case, I went straight to St Basil of Caesarea, a luninary in the Eastern Orthodox Church (of which community I believe the Greek Orthodox Church is a part.) Here's what St. Basil says:

So, David is certainly correct that St. Basil suggested that those who killed in war abstain from communion for three years. But it's much worse for others. Unintentional homocide is eleven years; abortion is ten years; and outright murder is thirty years (if it was committed in "ignorance"). I'm not sure what the punishment would be for pure intentional (not ignorant) murder. My recollection of Catholic doctrine is that if you were a murderer you had to abstain from the sacraments for the rest of your life and pray for forgiveness in the next. But I'm not sure that would apply to the Greek Orthodox Church.

I think it's also true that in the Greek Orthodox Church the priest has the power to withhold absolution if he thinks it proper. So you have to convince the priest that you are genuinely repentant and have performed the penance that he has set forth.

Thank all for the research. This is so helpful.

... And does not bode well for the character in question, who is really going to want to do some lab work in the next 30 years. We'll see how this plays out.

Thanks again. :slight_smile:

In the western Church, and I assume that this holds in the eastern too, there is also a long tradition of the wealthy/powerful buying their penance. Indeed penance is an obvious method of coercing the wealthy to found monasteries, chapels and the like.

Of course, whether such activities (which might well satisfy the earthy institution of the church) truly satisfies the supernatural divine (or the pious conscience of a particular character) is a different question.

Actually I think this was one of the many points of contention between the two, that only the RC church sold indulgences. On the other hand it looks like the OC had penances which were very short and easy, generally consisting of prayers.

A good source to study penance (epitimia) in the medieval Eastern Orthodox Church is the Kanonarion of John the monk, which is apparently not available online.

There is a collection of articles on The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500, editors Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington, in which an article on Canon Law to 1100 by Spyros Troianos (pages 115-169) describes the approach and contents of the Kanonarion. This collection can be found in excerpts here. The summary on p.159f shows, which time periods of exclusion from service and the holy mysteries, with obligations to prayer and fasting, were considered appropriate: 7 years for prostitution, 30 years for incest with a spiritual child, or even until the end of one's life.

Note, that a person's exclusion from service and the holy mysteries is very visible to the community and causes continuous public humiliation, which that person has to bear as part of the penance. Later works on the subject, like the Kanonikon (see p.160 above), were less comprehensive and generally tended to shorten the periods of epitimia required.

Books like the Kanonarion in the Byzantine Empire existed in parallel to Byzantine criminal laws, so public humiliation might indeed be the least concern of a murderer, once his deeds become known - though his confessor is held to silence on the contents of a confession in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well.