A TOTAL REDISCOVERY from CONFESSION: A Way to a common growth in the spirit of repentance
…Another source of difficulties [for a priest in his ministry] is the theoretical, or even theological, confusion as to the nature of the sacrament of penance. In practice a purely formal and juridical understanding of it, clearly Western and “Romanizing” in its origin, coexists paradoxically with an equally doubtful reduction of confession to psychology. In the first case the man comes to the priest, confesses transgressions of Christian Law, and receives absolution which entitles him to the second sacrament “of obligation” – Holy Communion. Confession proper is reduced here to a minimum, and in some churches even replaced by a general formula to be read by the penitent. All emphasis is on the priest’s power of absolution and the latter is considered “valid” regardless of the state of soul of the penitent. If the first case reveals “Romanizing” tendencies, the second can be termed “protestantizing.” Confession is regarded as “counseling” as helping and solving difficulties and problems and is a dialogue not between man and God, but between man and a supposedly wise and experienced advisor with ready answers to all human problems. Both tendencies, however, obscure and deform the truly Orthodox understanding and practice of Confession.
What we need….is, first of all, the real rediscovery in the Church and by her faithful members of the true meaning of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church, as that essential act in which she always becomes what she is: the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the new life, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the knowledge of God and communion with him. The Church becomes all this by the “sacrament of the gathering” – many coming together to constitute the Church – by offering as one body united by one faith, one love, one hope, the Holy Oblation, by offering “with one mouth and one heart” the Eucharist, and by sealing this unity – in Christ with God and in Christ with one another – in the partaking of the Holy Gifts.
What we need furthermore is the rediscovery of Holy Communion as the essential food uniting us to Christ, making us partakers of his Life, Death and Resurrection, as the very means of our fulfilling ourselves as members of the Church and of our spiritual life and growth.
What we need finally is the rediscovery of the true meaning of preparation as the very focus of our spiritual life, as that spiritual effort which always reveals to us our unworthiness and makes us therefore desire the Sacrament of healing and forgiveness, and which, by revealing to us the unfathomable depth of Christ’s love for us, makes us love him and desire to be united with him.
And if we “rediscover” all this, we shall also discover that in fact the entire life of the Church has always been that preparation: that all her rules – liturgical and spiritual, penitential and disciplinary – have indeed no other reason for existence but to help us in making our own life a constant preparation not only for Communion but ultimately for that for which Communion itself prepares us – the joy and the fullness of the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom.
We shall thus rediscover the real need for the Sacrament of Penance, for sacramental Confession. We shall seek in it not a formal “absolution” or an equally formal “condition” for Communion, but a deep spiritual renewal, the true reconciliation with God and a return to his Church from which we are indeed so often excommunicated by the hopeless secularism of our existence. We shall rediscover the spiritual meaning of the penitential seasons of the Church – Great Lent, Pre-Christmas Lent, etc. – which are the proper times and the proper seasons for sacramental Penance. We shall rediscover in ourselves the need for real spiritual guidance. And above everything else we shall – with fear and joy, spiritual trembling and faith – rediscover the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood as the very source and the constant focus of our life as Christians!
All this, to be sure, will not happen overnight. It will take much time, much effort, much patience. Yet the very fact that all these questions – and on a deeper level, the thirst and hunger for a fuller participation in the essential, spiritual and sacramental life of the Church – have appeared in our Church and in her members, reassures us that even in the darkness and the spiritual decomposition of our troubled times the Church “never ages but always rejuvenates herself.” It belongs to those whom God has entrusted with “rightly defining the word of his truth” – to the bishops, as the guardians of the Truth – to see to it that this spiritual hunger be satisfied in accordance with the true norms, the true demands of the Church’s Tradition.
…”One’s reconciliation with the Church in Confession is the outward sign of one’s reconciliation with the Father.”
A XIX-CENTURY “RENEWAL” – NOTES FOR CONFESSION
Here is a thought-provoking renewal – last of the line – buried in a spiritual classic by a schmoozey pilgrim. Frannie and Zooey read it (The way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, translated from the Russian by R.M. French, The Seabury Press, New York, 1965), pgs. 144-152. (Cf. note above, pg. 49.)
I heard that at the hermitage in Kitay, about five miles from Kiev, there was a priest of ascetic life who was very wise and understanding. Whoever went to him for Confession found an atmosphere of tender compassion, and came away with teaching for his salvation and ease of spirit. I was very glad to hear of this and I went to him at once. After I had asked his advice and we had talked awhile, I gave him my sheet of paper [a sin list he’s been keeping – Ed.] to see. He read it through, and then said: “Dear friend, a lot of this you have written is quite futile. Listen:
- First, don’t bring into Confession sins which you have already repented of and had forgiven. Don’t go over them again, for that would be to doubt the power of the sacrament of Penance.
- Next, don’t call to mind other people who have been connected with your sins; judge yourself only
- Thirdly, the holy Fathers forbid us to mention all the circumstances of the sins, and tell us to acknowledge them in general, so as to avoid temptation both for ourselves and for the priest
- Fourthly, you have come to repent and you are not repenting of the fact that you can’t repent – i.e., you penitence is lukewarm and careless
- Fifthly, you have gone over all these details, but the most important thing you have overlooked: you have not disclosed the gravest sins of all. You have not acknowledged, not written down, that you do not love God, that you hate your neighbor, that you do not believe in God’s Word, that you are filled with pride and ambition. A whole mass of evil, and all our spiritual depravity is in these four sins. They are the chief roots out of which spring the shoots of all the sins into which we fall.”
I was very much surprised to hear this, and I said: “Forgive me, reverend father, but how is it possible not to love God our Creator and Preserver? What is there to believe in if not the Word of God, in which everything is true and holy? I wish well to all my neighbors, and why should I hate them? I have nothing to be proud of; besides having numberless sins, I have nothings at all which is fit to be praised, and what should I with my poverty and ill-health lust after? Of course, if I were an educated man, or rich, then no doubt I should be guilty of the things you spoke of.”
“It’s a pity, dear one, that you so little understand what I said. Look! It will teach you more quickly if I give you these NOTES [i.e., a hand-written copy of the “renewal” – Ed.]. They are what I always use for my own confession. Read them through, and you will see clearly enough an exact proof of what I said to you just now.”
He gave me the notes, and I began to read them, as follows:
A CONFESSION WHICH LEADS THE INWARD MAN TO HUMILITY
Turning my eyes carefully upon myself and watching the course of my inward state, I have verified by experience that I do not love God, that I have no love for my neighbors, that I have no religious belief, and that I am filled with pride and sensuality. All this I actually find in myself as a result of detailed examination of my feelings and conduct, thus:
- I do not love God. – For if I loved God I should be continually thinking about him with heartfelt joy. Every thought of God would give me gladness and delight. On the contrary, I much more often and much more eagerly think about earthly things, and thinking about God is labor and dryness. If I loved God, then talking with him in prayer would be my nourishment and delight and would draw me to unbroken communion with him. But, on the contrary, I not only find no delight in prayer, but even find it an effort. I struggle with reluctance, I am enfeebled by sloth, and am ready to occupy myself eagerly with any unimportant trifle, if only it shortens prayer and keeps me from it. My time slips away unnoticed in futile occupations, but when I am occupied with God, when I put myself into his presence every hour seems like a year. If one person loves another, he thinks of him throughout the day without ceasing, he pictures him to himself, he cares about him, and in all circumstances his beloved friend is never out of his thoughts. But, I throughout the day scarcely set aside even a single hour in which to sink deep down into meditation upon God, to inflame my heart with love for him, while I eagerly give up twenty-three hours as fervent offerings to the idols of my passions. I am forward in talk about frivolous matters and things which degrade the spirit; that give me pleasure. But in the consideration of God I am dry, bored and lazy. Even if I am unwillingly drawn by others into spiritual conversation, I try to shift the subject quickly to one which pleases my desires. I am tirelessly curious about novelties, and civic affairs and political events; I eagerly seek the satisfaction of my love of knowledge in science and art, and in way of getting things I want to possess. But the study of the Law of God, the knowledge of God and of religion makes little impression on me, and satisfies no hunger in my soul. I regard these things not only as a non-essential occupation for a Christian, but in a casual way as a sort of side-issue with which I should perhaps occupy my spare time, at odd moments. To put it shortly, if love for God is recognized by the keeping of his commandments (If you love me, keep my commandments, say our Lord Jesus Christ), and I do not only keep them, but even make little attempt to do so, then in absolute truth the conclusion follows that I do not love God. That is what St. Basil the Great says: ‘The proof that a man does not love God and his Christ lies in the fact that he does not keep his commandments.’
- I do not love my neighbor either. – For not only am I unable to make up my mind to lay down my life for his sake (according to the Gospel), but I do not even sacrifice my happiness, well-being and peace for the good of my neighbor. If I did love him as myself, as the Gospel bids, his misfortunes would distress me also, his happiness would bring delight to me too. But, on the contrary, I listen to curious, unhappy stories about my neighbor, and I am not distressed; I remain quite undisturbed or, what is still worse, I find a sort of pleasure in them. Bad conduct on the part of my brother I do not cover up with love, but proclaim abroad with censure. His well-being, honor and happiness do not delight me as my own, and as if they were something quite alien to me, give me no feeling of gladness. What is more, they subtly arouse in me feelings of envy and contempt.
- I have no religious belief. – Neither in immortality nor in the Gospel. If I were firmly persuaded and believed without doubt that beyond the grave lies eternal life and recompense for the deeds of this life, I should be continually thinking of this. The very idea of immortality would terry me and I should lead this life as a foreigner who gets ready to enter his native land. On the contrary, I do not even think about earthly life as the limit of my existence. The secret thought nestles within me: Who knows what happens at death? If I say I believe in immortality, then I am speaking about my mind only, and my heart is far removed from a firm conviction about it. This is openly witnessed to by my conduct and my constant care to satisfy the life of the senses. Were the Holy Gospel taken into my heart in faith, as the Word of God, I should be continually occupied with it, I should study it, find delight in it and with deep devotion fix my attention upon it. Wisdom, mercy, love, are hidden in it; it would lead me to happiness, I should find gladness in the study of the Law of God day and night. In it I should find nourishment like my daily bread and my heart would be drawn to the keeping of its laws. Nothing on earth would be strong enough to turn me away from it. On the contrary, if now and again I read or hear the Word of God, yet even so it is only from necessity or from a general love of knowledge, and approaching it without any very close attention, I find it dull and uninteresting. I usually come to the end of the reading without any profit, only too ready to change over to secular reading in which I take more pleasure and find new and interesting subjects.
- I am full of pride and sensual self-love. – All my actions confirm this. Seeing something good in myself, I want to bring it into view, or to pride myself upon it before other people or inwardly to admire myself for it. Although I display an outward humility, yet I describe it all to my own strength and regard myself as superior to others, or at least no worse than they. If I notice a fault in myself, I try to excuse it, I cover it up by saying ‘I am made like that’ or ‘I am not to blame.’ I get angry with those who do not treat me with respect and consider them unable to appreciate the value of people. I brag about my gifts: my failures in any undertaking I regard as a personal insult. I murmur, and I find pleasure in the unhappiness of my enemies. If I strive after anything good it is for the purpose of winning praise, or spiritual self-indulgence, or earthly consolation. In a word, I continually make an idol of myself and render it uninterrupted service, seeking in all things the pleasures of the senses, and nourishment for my sensual passions and lusts.
Going over all this I see myself as proud, adulterous, unbelieving, without love for God and hating my neighbor. What state could be more sinful? The condition of the spirits of darkness is better than mine. They, although they do not love God, hate men, and live upon pride, yet at least believe and tremble. But I? Can there be a doom more terrible than that which faces me, and what sentence of punishment will be more severe than that upon the careless and foolish life that I recognize in myself?
On reading through this form of Confession which the priest gave me I was horrified and thought to myself: “Good heavens! What frightful sins there are hidden within me and up to now I’ve never noticed them!” The desire to cleansed from them made me beg this great spiritual father to teach me how to know the causes of all these evils and how to cure them. And he began to instruct me.
“You see, dear brother, the cause of not loving God is want of belief, want of belief is caused by lack of conviction, and the cause of that is failure to seek for holy and true knowledge, indifference to the light of the spirit. In a word, if you don’t believe, you can’t love; if you are not convinced, you can’t believe, and in order to reach conviction you must get a full and exact knowledge of the matter before you. By meditation, by the study of God’s Word and by noting your experience, you must arouse in your soul a thirst and a longing – or, as some call it, ‘wonder’ – which brings you an insatiable desire to know things more closely and more fully, to go deeper into their nature.
“One spiritual writer speaks of it this way: ‘Love,’ he says, ‘usually grows with knowledge, and the greater the depth and extent of the knowledge the more love there will be, the more easily the heart will soften and lay itself open to the love of God, as it diligently gazes upon the very fullness and beauty of the divine nature and his unbounded love for men.’
“So now you see that the cause of those sins which you read over is slothfulness in thinking about spiritual things, sloth which stifles the feeling of the need of such thought. If you want to know how to overcome this evil, strive after enlightenment of spirit by every means in your power, attain it by diligent study of the Word of God and of the holy Fathers, by the help of meditation and spiritual counsel and by the conversation of those who are wise in Christ. Ah, dear brother, how much disaster we meet with just because we are lazy about seeking light for our souls through the word of truth. We do not study God’s law day and night, and we do not pray about it diligently and unceasingly. And because of this out inner man is hungry and cold, starved, so that it has no strength to take a bold step forward upon the road of righteousness and salvation! And so, beloved, let us resolve to make use of these methods, and as often as possible fill our minds with thoughts of heavenly things; and love, poured down into our heart from on high, will burst into flame within us. We will do this together and pray as often as we can, for prayer is the chief and strongest means for our renewal and well-being. We will pray, in words Holy Church teaches us: ‘O God, make me fit to love you now, as I have loved sin in the past.’
…I listened to all this with care. Deeply moved, I asked this holy father to hear my confession….
CONCERNING HOW ONE MUST CONFESS
The priest accepting responsibility for a particular person confessing and for his spiritual affairs must bring him before the holy altar and have him stand there. If there is no church, then somewhere decent and private, i.e., a quiet place.
The sponsoring priest has him [person confessing] fall down at his knees before the altar and has him say this: Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to you all the secrets of my heart.
And his sponsoring priest says a prayer over him.
Than his sponsoring priest has him stand and addresses him.
The person confessing responds with his confession saying:
“Father I have sinned against heaven and before you in this and this [telling] every sin he committed.
And to each sin the sponsor responds: May God absolve you, child.
And when he has confessed everything, [the priest] has him kneel down before the altar once again, and prays over one who confesses.
After the prayer, the priest helps him up, says Psalm 55 , prays over one to do penance, and after the prayer he kisses him and lets him go.