When a priest hears someone’s confession, its content remains secret. In publishing the confession of a priest himself, we leave his personality undisclosed.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees administer the authority of Moses,
So do whatever they tell you and follow it, but stop doing what they do, because they don’t do what they say.”
I am not a good man, but what I say about God is true.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
How One Can ‘Disprove Faith’
‘Father! Do you really believe in everything you preach or is it just your job?’
When people who are not familiar with the Church asked me such questions on our acquaintance, at first I would see this as rudeness. Why, with no grounds for this, they’d suspect a stranger of hypocrisy and a shameless lie. To add to this, if I asked them whether they believed in God themselves, they’d answer, ‘Of course, I do, but I think many priests don’t…’ Later, when I listened to those accidental interlocutors’ impressions of their priests, I came to understand that my anger was vain. Not that I learnt anything new about the clergy, it’s hard to impress me with anything new in this respect. It’s rather that I’ve started pondering over the traces our – shall I say, self-indulgence – leaves in the hearts of those who are around. ‘Nonbelievers cannot disprove faith. But believers can – if they do not live up to their faith,’ as Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) put it.
When I was a layman, my frequent sin was censuring priests. Not only for their sins that caught the eye (there were not many sins I would see then). It just seemed to me that this or that priest was not ‘spiritual enough.’ I was sure that it was very easy to become a saint as soon as you put on a cassock, the more so as the cassock commits. One just has not to sin, and the spiritual gifts would flow in easily by themselves. When I entered the ministry myself, I would censure priests less. (I still judge bishops, but I think I’ll have to find another way of fighting this sin.)
I often recall a happening from my youth. I was not twenty then. I was angry with Father N., whose behaviour in the chancel seemed inappropriate to me. Replying to one of my insolent remarks, Father N. said, “I was like you when I was your age. Then all the sanctity disappeared. Let’s talk of it again when you are thirty and I am forty.’ I blushed inwardly and thought: no, I would never be like you! – but had enough wits to keep silent. You are forty now, Father N. Look; you’ll see that you were right, sadly. I am worse than you, I know it for sure. To name just one thing, I would not be meek enough to tolerate someone’s escapades and to forgive, the way you tolerated and forgave me then.
A License to Satisfy Religious Wants
As the title comprises the word ‘confession,’ the reader might expect a description of my unlawful actions. I guess I can make no ‘Decameron’ personage, as every sin is quite common. God in His mercy has been keeping me from doing anything that would present a canonical obstacle to my serving at the altar. But, besides the so called deadly sins, one can be filling up the cup of God’s patience with lots of misdeeds. And I would not wish anyone to have this feeling that one’s soul is full of filth from top to bottom, that one has no right to stand at the altar, to touch the Cup with God’s Flesh and Blood, knowing all the time that one’s parishioners are waiting for this Liturgy. You can be the least worthy of this Sacrament, and you are supposed to make it.
Out of the riches of the world literature, I know only one book in which the author delves very deeply into the psychology of a Christian priest. It’s Graham Greene, and his novel ‘The Power and the Glory.’ The central character is a nameless Catholic priest serving in Mexico during the times of the godless dictatorship, risking execution. He says that only once he was afraid to start a Mass, and it was the first time after he had committed a deadly sin – lechery. I find it important that it was only once, this first time. By what I’ve said before, you can see I have never felt exactly what this priest felt, in full. Not because I am so pious, but because I just do not know how I would face my wife and our little children in such a case. Nevertheless, I understand why this man never felt the same fear again.
One makes an effort the first time one oversteps one’s conscience, as if breaking a wall. The next time it’s easier, the way is trodden.
The cost of this is a loss of a living, active faith. When a filthy heart is unable to return God’s love it hides from this love, as Adam did in the garden of Eden. And this happens when there is no real repentance, no uttermost resolution to clean up the heart, whatever it takes, within the person. To be able to doubt God’s existence or the reality of the Sacrament one has to get to utter spiritual madness. It’s an extreme. More often faith becomes just a theoretical belief that does not reflect on the spiritual experience. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews, 10:31), and, as there’s neither repentance nor love in one’s soul, this fear kills prayer. We understand it in our mind that one cannot escape from God’s All-Seeing Eye, but we start hiding our own eyes. Reading prayers becomes a formal activity. A lengthy liturgy tires only a person who does not pray. So the only reason to cut a liturgy is that we are unable to pray. We cannot or we do not want to.
Without the fire of God’s prayer a priest’s service becomes just an occupation, a trade. The power to bind and loose we get in ordination, the power to make Sacraments with the power of the Holy Spirit is now perceived as a ‘license’ to satisfy people’s religious wants. When we serve not the altar but a service bureau, we forget the responsibility we have in the people’s eyes. One is not interested in the personal qualities of a notary one wants to seal a document, and the validity of the Sacrament, as well as the validity of the seal, does not depend on the degree of the priest’s piety. So what do you want from us the priests? And our… but why do I say ‘we’? I keep telling the parishioners that when one makes a confession one is to speak only of oneself. It’s so much easier to say ‘we have sinned,’ than to say ‘I have sinned’.
So, my rudeness and lack of attention to my parishioners is also a result of lack of a living faith, because Christian love for one’s neighbour and love for God are inseparable. And faith without love is how the demons believe ( James 2:19).
How Many More Souls…
Once I was amazed by a girl who had come to our church from a village some 20 kilometers from us. She amazed me with her earnestness and the profoundness of her preparation for the Sacraments of confession and communion. Then I heard nothing about her for about a year. When I was performing a requiem service in one of the houses in that village, her mother came up to me. She said her daughter was dying from cancer, and she asked if she could read the Psalter herself when her daughter died. As we talked I realized I knew the girl. I said, ‘She had not made her communion for a year, we need to have her make it while she’s alive!’
We agreed they would come to pick me up in a day or two. I never asked for their name or address. So I was very upset when a week had passed, and still no one had come for me from that village. Then I had to leave for another region for a couple of days, and I took a priest with me to keep me company. As we were talking with him, I recalled the girl and spoke about her mother with anger. My mate told me that if he had been in my shoes he would have gone to the village to find out where she lived and to give her communion.
I knew he was right but I just shrugged my shoulders. I did not want to hitchhike to the village with the Holy Sacraments (I had no car, neither did my interlocutor) and then to be walking around the village asking where the girl dying from cancer lived.
He went home, and I stayed a day longer in that city. When I came back I learnt that while I was away this priest came to my church, took the Holy Sacraments, went to that village, found the girl and gave her communion. Later I was told how she radiated with joy when she recalled this unexpected visit. To add to this, when I met the priest again he begged my forgiveness, he said he had done this not to vex me, he had just been sorry for the dying girl. Oh, my brother, it’s not only her that you showed mercy to. You also saved me from being held responsible for her soul on the Day of the Judgement.
But how many more souls are there for which no one is responsible but myself?
More on responsibility
About a year before my ordination I was given a blessing to become a godfather for my friend. His attitude to Orthodox Church was very complicated, and his decision to get christened was a hard one to make. My attempts to share my religious experience with him (or to burden him with it) influenced him for the worse. However, we came to the parish where I was a psalm-reader then, and spent the night before the Sacrament in a house by the church. I saw that he was wavering inside; so I was wavering too: what was I to do? What was my role in my godchild’s life? I tried to pray as best I could. Seeking consolation I opened the Gospel, and the first lines I saw were the following: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves’ (Matthew 23:15).
It struck me to the depth of my heart. But I drew no conclusion. I understood why I had been shown these lines only years later, when I saw how much spiritual harm I had done to the man…
On ‘My Graveyard’
My old acquaintance died in the intensive care department after a car crash. When he was taken to hospital our common friends told me where he was, and I got worried that he was not a Christian, as I knew about his views. After he died I learnt I had been right, he had never been christened. He had stayed several days in the intensive care department, fully conscious. I was in the same city at that time, thinking I was to get to the hospital, to the intensive care department, to talk to him. But I did not try to. I did not get prepared. Maybe they would not have let me in. And if they had, my acquaintance might have not agreed to get christened. It’s possible. But this possibility is no acquittal for me, for there still was a chance.
With acute sorrow I was telling this to one of our common friends, and he asked whom I was so sorry for, for the man or rather for myself. The question is clear. Yes, meditation can be different, and quite often instead of repenting we just pity ourselves. But my sorrow was more for him than for myself. I am christened. And I hope that, despite my sins, those who love me pray for me, and in answer to their prayers God will not sentence me to everlasting destruction, that He’ll give me an opportunity to repent.
There is, however, a question that contradicts my hope. What if there are souls who have not found their salvation due to my fault, those who turned away from the church seeing my sins, those who were left without spiritual support due to my inattentiveness and laziness, those who went astray due to my erroneous advice? How can I be saved if they are tortured? The question is even not if my salvation is possible ‘de jure,’ but what it would look like against their tortures.
I heard a saying doctors have, ‘Every surgeon has his/her graveyard.’ But a priest, a spiritual doctor, has no right for such a graveyard, or the first grave there is his. Oh how well we are to pray for all those whom we’ve come across by God’s will…
And God Will Tell You: Now Do It Yourself
Soon after my ordination I met a priest who I had confessed to many times in the previous years. He congratulated me and said, ‘Your life is simple now. It’s God who does for you everything you do. It will be so half a year, and then God will tell you that from now on you’re on your own.’ I understood what he meant. The time after the ordination was very special. The prayer that had taken serious effort before came very easily now. Temptations that had deranged me before were slipping by almost unnoticed now. I felt the presence of a Power that was helping and protecting me at that time; it’s hard to describe it to anyone who has not felt it at first hand. But this feeling lasted two months or maybe even less with me. I do not think that half a year is a common rule. I rather think that the priest shared his own experience (O God please remember the soul of Your deceased servant, priest Evgeni). And I know why I fell out of this grace much earlier. The reason is I got overjoyed and relaxed. Before my ordination, if I missed morning or evening prayer, if I let myself do something that was incompatible with spiritual life, e.g. spent some time in a reckless company of friends, I would feel terrible very soon. I would repent and I’d need to make effort to return to prayer, to the shaken peace of mind. After the ordination I was surprised to find it very easy to pray, even when I could not collect myself. I did not do anything unthinkable, it’s just that any church-going person knows when he or she is self-disciplined and how it shows and when he or she is not. I forgot about self-discipline then, but despite this, the power from above kept my consciousness in check. For a while. But when with all his or her deeds a person shows that he or she does not appreciate God’s gift, sooner or later God stops giving it. That godchild of mine came to me in tears a month after his christening and said, ‘Never in my life have I been so disgusted with myself. I have never known a person can feel such disgust.’ Later, two more acquaintances who also were christened when grown-ups told me the same. I do not think they felt anything really heinous. It’s rather that in the Sacrament they were given a purity of spirit they had never known before, and they did not understand what it was; they felt the difference when they started losing it. There were others who did not feel disgusted. These were those who had been preparing for the Sacrament well, those who understood that they needed to grow the seed God planted in their souls and to bring it to fruition.
I was christened when I was a baby, but I do know what these acquaintances of mine felt, because the feelings of those grownups who get christened and of those who enter the ministry are similar, to some extent. It’s so because christening, ordination and other Sacraments are the co-work of God and the person who undergoes the Sacrament. It must be so. But many of us make the same mistakes again and again. As to the gifts that God has been giving one free and one has spent mindlessly, it is much harder to work earning them than to keep them carefully with gratitude. If only the youth knew…
I’ve been asked more than once whether I regret I took the priest’s path, whether I ever feel disappointed. No, I’ve never for a moment felt disappointed in priesthood; I do not think it even possible for a believer. But doubting myself, my own suitability for the occupation is another matter. After a few years I realized I had been too rash with ordination, it would have been wiser to get better prepared for this service, to mature.
It’s natural that years of service should bring even a very poor priest not only sins, but experience. If I say that after ordination I was only declining from spiritual life it won’t be true. One way or another, God would make you pray if you haven’t got the diligence to do it on your own; one way or another, if people turn to you for spiritual help you have to make some steps together with them. But there was something I lost in the early days of my priesthood I cannot regain up to now.
On the Donkey Treading On Palm Branches
I should not be adding the sin of self-justification to a heap of my sins. What is left to us is repentance, and there’s hope given to us together with the opportunity to repent. God’s love gives us the grounds for this hope, and every day we can see signs confirming that God has not forsaken us.
Despite our vices and infirmities, God’s will can be realized through us, unworthy priests, and sometimes it happens without our will. During my first steps in the Church I was allowed to see true miracles that were worked through priests whom at that very moment I would censure for their real or imaginary sins. I often recall some of the happenings (for example a miraculous healing, or a sudden direct reply to an unuttered question one was not likely to guess), and I am glad I did not tell the priests about those wonders. I am sure they have no idea God showed me the miracles through them. Even at that time I realized that if I had told them about it, it could lead them into temptation. The temptation, as I learnt later from my own experience, was very dangerous: we can ascribe to ourselves the miracles God works through us despite our lack of faith.
This is what Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh says in his very unusual interpretation of the passage about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The poor donkey must have thought itself the reason why the crowd was throwing clothes, palm branches and flowers before it, that it was itself people cried hosanna to; it did not realize God was riding on its back… If a priest hearing a word of gratitude or an assessment of his service took them as pertaining to himself, he could be compared to this donkey.
When we sin, we do know what we’re doing. That servant who knew what his master wanted but didn’t prepare himself or do what was wanted will receive a severe beating (Luke 12:47). I am praying God not to let my sins overcome the limit after which I will not be useful to my Lord even as a donkey… I humbly beg those who read this, if you see us, careless shepherds, to pray for us, pray for God to forgive our sins and to help our spiritual growth. Of course, it’s easier to censure, but God has promised not to judge those who learn not to be judges of others. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed (James 5:16) – these words of the Apostle James refer to all Christians, and the relations of laymen and clergymen is no exception.
Translated from the Russian by Olga Lissenkova
Edited by Deacon Steve Hayes