As my blog statistics indicate that the Monday readership just loves evil and sin, I will try to put out a good smorgasbord today by focusing on precisely what kinds of sins one finds in the Irish Penitentials, the first written systematic arrangements for the assistance of confessors in Ireland (and eventually elsewhere) from the sixth through the ninth centuries. Before jumping in, it is worth noting a caveat from historian Hugh Connolly’s treatment: “As penitentials, these manuals were written in some sense on the ‘underside’ of moral theology. They were not intended primarily to be primers or text books for the student of human moral behavior, but rather as practical aids to the confessor engaged in the cure of souls. Our task then is one of reconstruction: by sifting through these penitential writings we hope to arrive at a more complete understanding of how the early Irish monks perceived the Christian moral life.” (p. 37) In other words, hold your judgments on the Irish!
Unlike today’s Catechism of the Church which arranges sins around the Ten Commandments, Irish Penitentiaries are divided into eight vices, which correspond to the virtues of a holy Christian life. This listing of eight (gluttony, avarice, anger, dejection, lust, languor, vainglory, and pride) dates back to early monasticism and particularly the writings of John Cassian, whose fourth century treatment on the “eight faults” is a true internet treasure for those interested in the monastic experience.
Using Cassian’s priorities, Penitentials begin with gluttony. There is considerable wisdom in this, as very recent psychological studies indicate that one of the two best predictors of health for priestly candidates is self-control (the other is a favorable attitude toward people in general.) Now that I think of it, self-control is the backbone of mental health and professional success. The monastic authors must have seen gluttony as a kind of “gateway” evil that rendered one vulnerable to greater evils down the road. Cummean’s Penitential quotes St. Luke about the evils of dissipation and drunkenness, rendering one unprepared for the Master’s return.
Gluttony is described in terms of our modern day “binging” with mention of subsequent sickness and distended stomach. Excessive drinking falls under this heading. Gildas writes that the monk who has drunk to the point where he is “benumbed and speechless” is to be chastised with deprivation of his supper. The sin is considered to be the failure to perform monastic responsibilities. David’s treatment of drinking is more complex, as are the penances. He breaks down excessive drinking into a number of circumstances—getting drunk from ignorance, from neglect, and (I like this one) “out of contempt for the superior.” Columbanus, in discussing drunkenness among the laity, makes a significant distinction between companionship drinking and deliberately getting another person drunk; the perpetrator he terms a homicida animarum and the penances are equated to those of killers, the heart of the sin being seen as hatred.
Under the category of gluttony is included eating “unlawful food,” which can include tainted carrion, blood, and roasted dogs and horses. The latter two are condemned as holdovers from Druid religious custom. Curiously, there is also mention of eating foods handled by unwashed hands or exposed to insects, though the penances for these infractions are not particularly stringent. As one might expect, the most common penance for the various forms of gluttony was fasting as prescribed numerically in the Penitentials, typically 15 to 45 days.
Somewhat surprisingly, the sin of “excessive talking” is included under gluttony. (I can think of a lot of places were too much eating, drinking, and talking is occurring at the same time.) The placement of talking sins here may have something to do with the physical layout of monasteries—monks lived in solitary cells and gathered in common only to eat and pray. The Penitentials make an insightful distinction between idle chit-chat and character assassination, the latter being punished more severely. The penance for the first case was one day of total silence; for the second, the singing of twelve psalms. Connolly makes the point that the same sins were sometimes included in multiple categories; the purpose here was to help the confessor discover the underlying vice or character flaw, and thus prescribe a penance most appropriate to the disease. In general, the best spiritual treatment for sins of gluttony were those that nurtured temperance.
The second category of sin fell under the title of avarice, and the gravity of the sins and the severity of penances increased significantly. Finian understood this vice as contrary to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor and thus particularly grave matter, as our Catechism would say today. Stealing heads the list; the Penitentials recognized the tendency of repeat offending by upping the penances almost exponentially with each confession. Gildas prescribed one year of fasting for theft; Finian adds to this the obligation of restitution, inspired perhaps by Zacchaeus’ promise to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Finian’s most severe penances are reserved for those who collect money under false pretenses, the most common pretext being the raising of funds to ransom captives. (St. Patrick himself had been carried off to Ireland as a slave in his youth.) Along with restitution, the penance for this sin was abstinence from wine and meat for two years.
The underlying purpose of the Penitentials treatment of avarice and greed was to instill a sense of obligation for the welfare of fellow Christians. This is a trademark of the Irish approach to morality. While it is true that monastic introduction of confession and a detailed moral code certainly served a practical purpose in keeping public order and later creating an environment of character where scholarship and worship would flourish, the original nature of the Penitentials, indeed of repeatable penance, was the flowering of virtue, and the confessing experience was designed to turn evil deeds toward habitual virtue. The monks themselves, the “green martyrs,” understood themselves as the living embodiment of the life God desired for all the baptized. There was a certain hubris, to be sure, in this attitude, but the monks of Ireland sincerely addressed the penitential process with the idea of turning souls with very concrete life-changing interventions.
If you are mentally drawing a comparison between the Irish experience and the present day practice of the Sacrament of Penance, then I guess we didn’t waste our time here today.