I am forty years old. I was baptized only recently, and I have been to a confession fewer times than the number of fingers on one hand. When I stand in line for confession in a church, I have many questions. They seem naïve even to me.
“In terms of spirituality, there are no naïve questions,” says Archpriest Igor Fomin, Rector of the house church of St. Alexander Nevsky on the premises of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs. “While we ask questions, we are alive.
Therefore, do not be afraid to ask questions. Judging by the kind of questions you ask, it will become clear both to you and the priest just how essential spiritual life is to you and how much you care about it. There is nothing that could be of little importance here. For a person who is ill, everything is important. I wish for all of us to ache for Christ!”
May it be that faith is a gift that I do not have?
You came to the Church and started asking questions. It means that the Lord touched your
mind and heart. Of course, faith is a gift, and it is given to you. You can try rationalizing it: as in, you simply met a remarkable person, read some fine book… Trust me, many meet remarkable people, many read such fine books that we never ever dreamed of! However, they lack this gift of faith. That is not because they are better or worse than we are: it is irrelevant to our case. The Lord simply did not give it to them. Just remember, faith is not given to a person to resolve all their issues. Faith is given to a person to serve this faith. How exactly? By serving your neighbor in Christ. This is a very crucial condition.
I do not feel anything special during the Divine Liturgy in the church. Is it bad?
If you do not feel anything “special” during the Liturgy in the church, it is very good. You must be on the right track. The only thing you should feel is the presence of God, His love, care, and attention. However, all this is not expressed in some “special” feeling, increased heart rate, or enthusiastic conclusions.
Paisios the Athonite has a story that is difficult to understand at first. He talks about his life in a monastic cell at Mount Sinai. He had the following tradition there: every night he visited a neighboring cell, and he had to walk up three-four steps on the way there. Nights in the East, especially away from civilization, are dark, and when the night is foggy, and stars are invisible, one cannot see anything at all! He illuminated his path with a lighter: he would stop, use a lighter, see the steps, and move ahead. Once the lighter did not work. It broke. When the flame did not ignite, at that very moment a bright ray from a nearby mountain lit his way. Paisios immediately turned around and went back, “No! – he shook his head, – you will not take me so easily!” It would seem that a person should have rejoiced, “This is how much the Lord cares about me! Now I will descend under the light of Divine grace, the real light of the Mount Fabor!..” Yet here lies the paradox. If he thought so, the key thought would have been “about me!”, that is, he would have considered himself worthy. Yet a humble person, a person, who is in repentance, understands that they are not worthy of Divine attention. They put themselves in the end of the queue to the Kingdom of God. Although, there will be no such queue, of course! Therefore, if it is not God, it is the devil! That is why he recognized it as the devil’s temptation, turned around, and walked away.
If we feel something, we should not delude ourselves. The ascetics always ran from this, “Lord, if it is from You, I am not worthy. If it is from evil, deliver me, Lord! I am a weak man!” The Divine Liturgy should bring one thing into a person’s life: peace. Peace and love in your heart.
Should I feel relieved after confession?
You see, it is an unworthy man, a man, who feels like a sinner, that attracts the grace of God.
When you feel that you are right, there is little chance of staying right. It has happened so many times: a child returns home from the Russian State Exam and says that he wrote it perfectly! When the results come, there are twenty eight points instead of the expected eighty! Our self-confidence always backfires. Humility, repentance, and meekness: these are the qualities that one should have before and after confession.
Why should I look for my bad qualities instead of acknowledging the good ones in a confession?
The Church does not offer you to talk about good or bad: she offers you to talk about reality.
Imagine that you are waiting for a guest. Me, for example. What are you going to do? Will you turn the blind eye on the garbage you have at home? On all that creative chaos, dust on the shelves, and dirty dishes? Will you try to notice only the good things: wonderful curtains or a picture on the wall? “Everything is wonderful here!” – you will say. I will also notice only the good things: curtains, pictures, and elephants on the shelf… However, I believe, you will not feel very comfortable. It seems to me that you will feel uneasy if a plate, on which you would offer me a cake, and a cup, in which you would pour me some tea, are dirty.
The preparation for meeting an honored guest means that you will sweat your guts out cleaning everything in your apartment. Even when they come, you will lift your hands in dismay and say, “Oh, how suddenly you came, I did not have time to get everything set!”
That is exactly the way the Church calls us to look at ourselves honestly. She calls us to do it precisely through confession: to get rid of everything nasty and terrible inside us, to leave those good and wonderful things that should not be noted by people themselves, but by the Lord. So that He would say, “You are wonderful, because you do not think much about yourself, you can really look at yourself and see who you really are!”
While evaluating themselves during confession, a person suddenly realizes, “It turns out I am not that pure! It seems I will not fly on the wings to the sky, because I am deeply rooted to the ground by my sins so that it is harder and worse for me to take off than for any other person…”
It is the view of yourself that gives God an opportunity to help you. Humility and openness to Him are much more important than some smart and right words. Confession encourages us to truly look at ourselves and ask Christ for help, Who will purify your soul and give you the chance for such communication.
What should I strive for?
We have several “I”s: the “I” that I know myself; the “I” that my family, friends, and close ones know; and the “I” that is known by complete strangers, with whom I am taking the subway. Finally, there is the “I” that mosquitos know: as a somewhat wonderful person, but it is better to avoid getting caught by him or her so as not to get killed or called names.
The closer these “I”s are to each other, the more complete a person is. The Church suggests bringing all these “I”s as close to each other as possible. So that these “I”s will not be different people, but one whole person. So that we end up treating our boss the same way as our child.
A holy man is the one who has only one “I”. That is why many holy fathers fled into the desert in order to avoid dividing themselves into different “I”s, and keeping in mind who they should be at the next moment: at work, at home, in transport, and with other people. The Church suggests drawing closer to a single “I”.
What if I have nothing to repent of in confession?
If you come to confession and you have nothing to repent of, that is probably a good thing. The Apostle Paul says so: if your conscience does not condemn you, you are a happy person! Although the Psalmist David, for example, believed that it is impossible to live an hour without sinning.
Of course, one should neighter obsess about finding one’s sins nor make them up. It often happens that a person approaches me, and I can feel that they are anxious: they need to say something, but do not know what! Then I stop them, “If you do not see your sins, may it be better just to repent that you do not see them? Just honestly admit it…” That would be right.
Why is there a brochure about confession at the entrance to the church? Should one use it in preparation for confession?
I’ll tell you more: even priests prepare for confession with the help of this brochure. The brochure, which one can get at the entrance to the church, is a crib note, a reminder that a certain sin exists. Not necessarily in you, but it exists! While testing our conscience, we can quite accidentally find out that a particular action, which we take without a second thought, is, in fact, a sin. We need this crib note to remind us of the boundaries of our righteousness or sinfulness.
This brochure is not at all for people to go through all the points, to note all their sins, come up to a priest, and say to him, “Father, I prepared for confession so well today. I literally noted as many sins as I could! Well, am I now worthy to take Communion?..” If they feel worthy this way, it means that it is high time they are recommended to postpone taking Holy Communion until they welcome Christ to clean up their house together.
It is not enough to see that you are a sinner. It is not even enough to name all your sins. It is essential to receive forgiveness. After confession we should get a feeling that dear Guest, Whom we invited to our untidy house, will help us clean it up. “I will help! – says He, – you only need to ask! Call Me, open the door! Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him!”
What if the list of sins for the next confession has not changed? What is the point of all this if the situation has not improved over time?
It is not bad if nothing has changed for the next confession. At least, the list did not expand, the situation did not get worse. Speaking of confession, it is essential to know the difference between “remorse” and “repentance”.
Repentance, or “metanoia” in Greek, means “change of mind”. That is, to repent means to change one’s mindset, to change one’s life. The fact that we come to confess is a statement of our remorse or even repentance.
“Remorse” is what Judas felt. He regretted that he had betrayed his divine Teacher, threw away those thirty pieces of silver that he received for his betrayal, and hanged himself. That means that remorse does not bear any fruit: it is just a kind of unfinished stage that can lead a person to suicide even, one of the most terrible sins. That is, the burden may turn out to be too heavy. Remorse can happen to you anywhere: at work, in the subway, or at lunch. It often happens when empathizing with someone’s creative work: at concerts, at performances, where you suddenly grasp the idea of the author himself, who was in a similar state while he was creating the piece. The tears are suddenly gushing down: however, not about a character, but about yourself! This remorse is extremely important for a person. Yet, it is good when it is followed by a firm intention to change. This is when we truly start to act. This is what metanoia is.
It is not enough to come and say, “Father, I smoke. I smoke and that is it, I cannot do anything about it! I need it, it is crucial to me, it calms me down and eases stress!” The priest will certainly suggest doing something about it: for example, smoking only after midday if you cannot stop smoking at all. However, when a person does not just fold their hands and asks people to accept him or her the way they are, but really tries to change something in their lives, this is an attempt of changing one’s mind. This is all the more effective, when you give up everything to God’s will, do what you should do, and be as it may!
Am I going to confession for forgiveness or for an advice?
Confession is not just an acknowledgment of your sins to God before witnesses. It is also a “debriefing” in the Orthodox tradition. As a priest I can testify: the priest does not always say what he wanted to or was going to in response. Sometimes you start talking about something that you did not even want to bring up. You say it, and then you even feel uncomfortable that it happened. It is so uncomfortable that when that person comes next time you tense even… Yet they come and start thanking you.
For example, here is a story that happened during Lent. A woman came to me and told me that it was her godson’s birthday, his first jubilee. Even though his parents were sympathizers, they were not practicing Christians, so they were throwing a big party in a restaurant in the midst of the Great Fast.
“So tomorrow,” she said, “I will give him his gift quietly, but I will not come to the celebration, of course…”
And all of a sudden I lashed out at the parishioner for no apparent reason and started scolding her.
“How could you?! Are you going to buy off your beloved godson? Now, go to the restaurant! Have fun there and eat everything that is on the table, spend time with your godson on his anniversary, and don’t even doubt it!”
The woman was shocked, “How come? What kind of Orthodoxy is this? It is a time of fast and prayer, and I will be in the restaurant?..”
She disappeared… I was so worried, I thought that I frightened her off the Church, I was terrified… She came back after a while and thanked me saying that she had been extremely nervous, but at the same time she had heard and come to realize many crucial things.
I am grateful to God for the fact that a priest most often does not speak to parishioners on his own behalf, but he is an instrument of God; the twig, with which father can “punish” his child: and “punishment” means “teaching” in Church Slavonic.
How to overcome embarrassment before the priest?
Do not fight it. Let it be. May your conscience bother you, may you feel ashamed: it would be perfect! Believe me, this is not masochism at all, this embarrassment will stop you in the future when you try to commit the same sin.
Sadly enough, but very often the only thing that stops us from committing a sin is the fact that we will have to confess it before our spiritual father. Naturally, there are cunning Christians who come to a confession to another church. However, there are many wonderful priests too who will say, “Yes, I understood you, this is very well, this is what you need to work on, but you will certainly need to repeat this confession to your spiritual father!” When you answer in such a way, you clearly hear, see, and feel the disappointed, “Oh! It did not work out!” If you feel uncomfortable talking about this with your spiritual father, then do not commit this sin!
What will happen if I do not confess some of my sins to the priest?
Concealment of a sin is certainly a great sin in itself. This does not shatter the confession of other sins in any way: they are forgiven, and we are given a chance to start afresh. Yet, if some sin is concealed on purpose, out of false fear, it begins to germinate in your soul. You may not even commit it ever again, you may feel too ashamed, but it will stay with you and grow inside. It is crucial to realize: the Lord does not want the death of a sinner, and He will give you all the opportunities to make sure that you admit this sin. There are a lot of ways: one may achieve salvation through suffering, one could be struck with some disease, a sin could be made public, etc.
There is a rude, but quite accurate saying, “a sin will punch you in the face!” Here you can either get rid of it yourself through confession or suffer from it. As they say, the choice is ours to make… Our salvation rests in our hands, too.
Interview with Archpriest Igor Fomin by Alexander Ananiev
Translated by Julia Frolova