Question: What is an epitimia? In what does it consist?
Answer: An epitimia (Greek, epitimion, from epi – on, timi – punishment) is a means of spiritual correction, prescribed for serious transgressions: witchcraft, apostasy, fornication, murder (including abortion), grave-robbing, and so on. The spiritual foundation for this means of healing the serious vices of man the Holy Fathers see in the word of God, which speaks about punishment as a benefaction in relation to the transgressor: “My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD: neither be weary of His correction” (Prov 3:11); “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). The rules for the application of epitimias are found in general Church canonical collections. Well known is the penitential nomokanon (book of epitimias) of St. John IV the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople. In it are contained instructions for spiritual fathers who hear confessions. The compiler of the penitental nomokanon, defining various means of healing for spiritual-moral infirmities (strict fasting, prostrations, giving to the poor, etc.), advises one to be guided not only by the weight of the sin, but by the degree to which the penitent is experiencing his behavior, his inner condition.
In our time, when the spiritual infirmity of people is so great, a pastor must use his right to apply epitimias very carefully, with wisdom and love.