Archimandrite Andrew (Konanos) explains what should one do if a person confesses their infirmities, what a good spiritual father should be like and what you should do if you cannot bring yourself to repent.
Any person can overcome their inner “swamp” and reach the top of holiness. Each of us is a mixture of holiness and mediocrity. And everyone carries a piece of heaven inside themselves. It’s simple as that. And when we begin to understand this, we can “come down” to earth and inspire others for a real, true and natural life. Of course, this does not mean that we give people “green light” for committing sins and so on. When a person admits their infirmities and learns to see themselves from the outside, they should not tell others, “Well, since we all are sinners, let’s continue sinning!” Absolutely not. It does not mean that now people can do anything they want. However, if a person wants to sin, they sin anyway. What can you do? You cannot force them to stop…
Yet every sin has a bitter taste: even if you do not feel it in the beginning. So if a person commits a bad, indecent act, sooner or later it will be revealed to them that it is a sin: they will understand, feel it themselves.
It is necessary to avoid forcing people to be good by keeping them in a constant fear and tension: do not do this, do not do that. No. You should help your neighbor see their real self, their true nature.
Do not set the bar high: have you yourself reached this heavenly, supernatural perfection without any effort? Of course, not. This is not easily achieved. If you do not practise what you preach, if I do not do it, how can we talk about simplicity? “It’s so easy to quit smoking!” “Don’t do it like this, do it like that, it’s so easy!” This is not easy at all, it is actually very difficult. As Elder Paisios said, “If God forsakes me, I will start loitering in Thessaloniki in bouzouki bars and go dancing there”.
Now I am sitting here, talking to you, and everything is working out not because I am so wonderful and you are so terrible, but because Lord is holding my hand and helps me. Of course, I, in turn, also help God by giving Him my hand, but the most important thing is His great help. And it is not that, let’s say, you are hooligans and bandits, and we are so good. It is just that when I begin to understand that God is helping me, I come down to earth, and a person is wondering, “Wow, father, you understand me so well! You understand why I act like this, why I live this way: all my sins, my failures, my vices, my villainy and negligence!” How can I not understand you? I also carry all of this in my heart. “No way! But you never did that!” It is true, I did not. Yet in my thoughts, in my heart I did. It is like with a cake: even if you do not eat it, but simply imagine it, your mouth waters. Do you agree? You only have to walk by the store window… In any case, that is what happens to me.
Once I was invited to lead a discussion in London. There are so many delicious sweets being sold everywhere there! However, at that time I had to hold myself back on sweets: the doctor forbade it. And I did not touch a single cake, I kept to the regime. Yet mentally… Mentally I ate everything I saw! Indeed, I did not put a single piece in my mouth, those who were there with me can attest to that: they tempted me to try at least one cake, but I stubbornly kept saying, “No, no!” And only my soul knows what was going on inside me in those moments: in my thoughts I ate all those cakes!
Therefore, when a person comes to me and repents the sin of gluttony, I cannot start explaining to them haughtily, “You know, what you are doing is unacceptable! Gluttony is a terrible, deadly sin!” and so on, and so forth. Do I not suffer from this sin from time to time myself, wanting the same thing? That is how compassion works. I really like the meaning of this word: when people sympathize with your suffering, they suffer together with you. And understanding and mercy are also there. That is, a person is hurt by your pain: they grieve with your grief, and even sin and fall together with you. However, there is no understanding without compassion. To “hurt” for a person, one needs to understand them. And if I am so wonderful, pure, holy, and unreachable, how can I truly show compassion for you? And how can you open up to me, how will you confess something that you carry in your heart?
It is very important for a spiritual father who guides you to be a true believer and not to pretend to be someone they are not; that being a person of holy life, they could show compassion, sympathize and feel pity for the sinners coming to them; that they would live by deeds: that is, fall and stand up themselves, fight and struggle, making effort and not drawing you an image of idealized Christianity; would not set the bar too high so that you lose your last strength and are ready to give up everything, “No, enough, I will never be able to do it!” And you start going crazy, because how can you confess all your secret intentions, thoughts and desires to such perfection? Well, it is a big misconception.
And you know what never ceases to surprise me every time? That the holiest Person on earth after our Lord Jesus Christ, His Mother, the Most Holy Theotokos, Whom we call good, most gracious, is She not perfect? Yet, at the same time, does she really condemn, admonish anyone? It seldom happens that a good person is not exalted above the rest; it rarely can be said about someone, who is perfect, “They are just so simple. They simply illuminate everything around them, they simply love, simply live a holy life: for the sake of the whole world”. This is what the Blessed Virgin did: She became the most Holy for people. What people? Those, who aspire to it themselves. That is why we love the Theotokos so much: She is the Mother, gentle and at the same time majestic, more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, as they say in the prayer. And She treats you with respect: you, a bad sinner, and She loves, embraces, anoints, cleanses, and protects you.
This is how one can change a person: when they themselves want it – with kindness, mercy, affection, tenderness, and embraces.
Then uncertainty and fear will disappear from their heart. You encourage them, and they are not afraid to speak out. “Wow, and I won’t get punished for this? Not even a slap?” – “No”. – “And you won’t push me away? You’re so high up…” – “Far from high up, my child! Where is it: high up? I’m lower than you! And what is it being high or low? Before God we all are tiny and insignificant”. As the Most Holy Theotokos said to Silouan of Athos, “I do not like the way you live”. Yes, She reprimanded him, but as St. Silouan said later, “If only you had heard Her voice! She condemned me, but with such love! My heart began to beat faster and softened after such condemnation!”
If we could hear the voice of the Theotokos, feel Her grace, we would immediately change our whole life. And not because we got condemned, criticized, punished, or hurt, but because of grace. Do you see where the difference lies? No, I do not mean that it is necessary to justify the sins of others. Yet it is essential to understand and realize: yes, this person committed a sin, but if I were in their shoes, I would have sinned more. And I do the same things, but secretly, no one sees or knows this except my spiritual father, whom I tell everything. Therefore, many people cannot confess to their spiritual father and they go to someone else, who does not know them, so that they would not be thought of badly. Where does this fear come from? “How can I tell this to my father? – worries a person. – He will start shaming me, after all, there should not ever be such conversations…” Regardless of should there be such conversations or not: if you are such a person, if you feel and think this way – open up your heart, ask about everything that bothers you!
Believe me: the most of what seems terrible or awful to us is not so. The most terrible thing on earth condemned and admonished by God Himself is not something that scares you now, but other things that you are unlikely to confess. Those are selfishness, heartlessness, hatred, revenge, malice: all those unpleasant states, which entail other sins.
Translated by Julia Frolova