176. Confession: “The Forgotten Sacrament”

That was the title of an article written some years ago by a Greek Orthodox Priest – and it was almost true.

Long ago this was not the case. In Greece Priests were ordained to travel from town to town only to hear Confessions. That was then. This is now.

However, (fallen) human nature being what it is, now that it is almost impossible to make a Confession, probably you all are desperate to have what you can’t have. So while you’re in the mood, let’s say more about the Sacrament of Repentance.

Our late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip directed that all should go to Confession from time to time. God bless him for trying, but ‘most everybody ignored him. In some places Confessions went entirely “out of fashion”. In others it became kind of  “sound and fury signifying nothing”. Macbeth Once a  man came to me for Confession. He read the words, confessed nothing, then waited for the Absolution. I was completely befuddled. Later I discovered that was how they did it in his tradition. Just a formality.

In recent years I think more Orthodox are going to Confession and actually confessing – but certainly still only a small minority.

What a shame.

The Sacrament of Repentance

This is a powerful tool to help us deal with our sins, our being “off the mark”. Our Lord Jesus gave this Mystery to His Apostles on Pascha night: “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven. Whoever’s sins you retain are retained.” John 20:23  (I’ve never been able to figure out why Bible-alone Protestants reject this Sacrament. I mean, there it is in the Bible.) 

But please don’t misunderstand what Jesus said. The original Greek text is difficult to express in English, so let’s not deal with that now – come back on Thomas Sunday. But He said this as part of His  commanding the Apostles to carry the Gospel, His forgiveness and reconciliation and healing, to the world. He did not here give Bishops and Priests a sort of personal magical legal power to forgive or withhold forgiveness. The Pharisees had been right: “Who but God alone can forgive?” Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21  

In the Absolution the Orthodox Priest simply declares to penitent sinners that God forgives themFor the Church is not a law court, and the Priest does not have the power to declare them legally innocent or guilty. (The word “Absolution” has so many Latin legalistic connotations that I wonder if we should find another word to replace it.) That’s not what this is all about. The Church is a hospital. The Sacrament of Repentance is therapeutic, for consolation and healing and guidance and assurance of God’s love – and His forgiveness, if we are truly repentant.

Why go to Confession?

1 It helps us deal with our guilt. We can take what burdens our conscience, and unload it on a Priest whom we can trust to absolutely positively keep his mouth shut. A Priest who violates the “seal” of Confession will be removed by his Bishop. In fact he should never even bring up what you confessed with you without your permission.

When we confess to God alone by ourselves, we hear no answer in return. But go and confess in the presence of the Priest. And then you will hear a man ordained to speak for Jesus Christ – by the Church, through Bishops in succession going all the way back to the Apostles and to Christ himself on Pascha night – who will respond and tell you that what you have confessed  “may God forgive you in this present age and in the age to come.” That helps. Believe me, it helps.

3 Confession provides a regular spiritual checkup, like going to the doctor regularly. If the Priest sometimes may “pry” into our spiritual and moral lives, what did you expect? He is doing exactly what our doctor does with our physical symptoms. I hope we care about healing our souls as much as we do our bodies.

4  Sins never seem so utterly stupid, even repulsive as when we tell them to someone else. Things that seemed so tempting – when I say them aloud I think to myself “I was attracted to that? Really?”

5 Confession provides a specific time when we know we repented. This makes it easier to stop. Once I got into a round of gossiping with fellow workers which was doing much harm. On Saturday I went to Confession. Monday when I returned to the office and the gossip was still flying, I said to myself “I have just been washed clean” and I did not want to get dirty again. It worked just like getting my car washed.

Questions People often ask about Confession

1 To whom should I go for Confession? If you already have a spiritual advisor, go there for counsel. Afterwards he/she will direct you to a Priest for formal Confession and Absolution. Otherwise, start with your parish Priest. In the unlikely event that you and he are not a “good fit” (certain people just don’t work well together), ask him to suggest another. If that fails, ask a pious friend to direct you to another. Tell your parish Priest what you’re doing – and that you still love him! (Priests can feel inadequate, too.) When people first came to me, sometimes if I felt things weren’t working, I told them “Let’s give this a six month trial”. One person needed a more directive, more “monastic” Confessor, and after a while we both agreed she should go there. No problem.

What should I confess? Begin with what is on your heart at the moment. Then confess what you’ve done wrong since your last Confession. You may use one of the many Orthodox Examinations of Conscience found online, or in our last Post.

What if I’ve already confessed something but still feel guilty about it? Should I confess it again? I’m told that Roman Catholics often say No. You’ve been forgiven, so drop it. Orthodox say: Confess it again. If you’re still feeling guilty, you still need healing. I often confess something from fifty years ago which still troubles me. The person I hurt doesn’t even remember it. But I do.

What if I miss something? Of course you will. The Priest declares God’s forgiveness for “whatever you have failed to say either from ignorance or from forgetfulness, whatever it may be…” Try to remember it for next time.

What if I’ve confessed and then have fallen back into it again? Will the Priest think worse of me? No. We all do that. C.S. Lewis once said that sometimes the only virtue of confessing is that it means we haven’t given up.

Will the Priest think worse of me just for hearing my sins? No. He already knew you’re a sinner. Everybody does! You think it’s a secret? The Priest thinks better of people for having the courage to come to Confession.

Does the Priest get a kick out of hearing peoples’ sins? Really..?! Confessions are     b o r ing. I mean, there are only seven deadly sins, and we Priests hear the same things (with a few variations) again and again and again. If you want to entertain your Priest, invite him over to dinner. If you want to bore him almost to death, go to Confession. But your Priest is prepared to be bored if it will help you repent and keep trying to be a better person.

8 How often should I go to Confession? There is no rule. I’d say at least before the great feasts. But when I have done something really stupid, I go quickly and confess and get that off my conscience.

9 What if the Priest gives me counsel  I disagree with? Must I obey? Only if your are under a monastic discipline. Otherwise think and pray deeply about it, then talk with him about it either at your next Confession, or outside of Confession. Maybe there was a miscommunication. Priests are human and can make mistakes.

10 Why do I confess out there in the church where anybody can see me? (You should speak quietly, of course. Sometimes I have to “shh” people a bit! ) Because there is nothing private about sin. Your sin hurts the whole Body of Christ, and your repentance heals the whole Church. This Orthodox way is likely a remnant of the early Church practice of public confession, when people would gather and, as Saint James wrote, “confess your sins one to another”. James 5:16  This worked pretty well when the Church was still small and “intimate”. But as churches grew larger probably this got to be an ancient version of “Days of Our Lives”! In any event, Confessions soon came to be made only to the Bishop or Priest.

How to make (“take”) a Confession

First, if your mind is like a sieve as mine is, you might write down what you want to confess. I’ve even had people confess off their smartphones! Afterwards destroy/delete the list, as a sign that your sins are forgiven.

In the practice I know, the Priest stands at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis – or sometimes another icon, or in another place. (If your church has a different practice that’s fine, too.) You both face the Lord, for the Priest is there as a witness, not as a judge. You confess not to him, but to Jesus. For the Absolution, the Priest will turn to you, but you continue to face Christ. It is He who forgives you, not the Priest.

The penitent kneels or stands and reads words of repentance. But if you use your own words, the Priest won’t stop you.

I’ll quote now from portions of the Antiochian/Greek text I use. I know the Slavic text is somewhat different

The penitent begins: “O Father Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to thee all the hidden and open sins of my heart and mind which I have committed to this present day...” Then the Priest is directed to say in a kindly voice, “My brother (sister) inasmuch as you have come to God and to me, be not ashamed.” A “kindly” voice. Isn’t that sweet? for the Priest is there not to bat you over the head, but to help you.

You then confess specific sins. Do not blame anyone else. This is your Confession, not theirs, so confess your own sins.

The Priest will then usually give some counsel. My first counsel is always this: “Have you forgiven everyone who has offended you?” for Christ told us clearly: “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 5:22 We who daily pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – if we do not forgive, how dare we expect God to forgive us?

The Priest’s advice is based partly on the Church’s 2000 years of experience dealing with sinners, and partly on his own experience counseling others, and partly on what he has learned by dealing with his own sins. In fact, in counseling others during their Confession, many times I have almost wound up confessing my own sins!

Then the Priest says “My spiritual child who have confessed to my humble self, I, humble and a sinner, have no power on earth to forgive sins but God alone”. He covers your head with his stole/epitrachelion – a sign that God covers your sins with His mercy – and reads the Absolution: “May that same God forgive you all things through me a sinner, both in this present world and in that which is to come”. He makes the sign of the Cross on your head, for God takes way our sins through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At the end the penitent usually kisses the Priest’s hand and his stole. And that’s it.

To repeat: the Priest is forbidden ever to repeat what you said during your Confession.

Trying to make a Confession, Spring 2020

Our American Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops has directed that individual Bishops and Archbishops may rule on whether formal Confessions may be permitted in their jurisdictions, but that “Spiritual guidance may be heard over the phone”. Which means you may tell your Priest by phone how you have sinned, and he may counsel you and assure you of God’s forgiveness. This isn’t altogether different from Confession, is it? “Semi-Confession” by Smartphone! What has it all come to? κύριε ελέησον.

If your Bishop allows your Priest to hear your Confession, I think you should nevertheless stay six feet away from him. This sounds weird, but you might be asymptomatically ill, and you don’t want to pass the Virus on to him, do you? Or he to you. I figure if God’s forgiveness can come all the way from Heaven to the Priest, surely it can make it another six feet from the Priest to you. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Two Stories

If you have hesitated to go to Confession, have I convinced you? 

I told this story answering a post-Blog Comment a couple or three weeks ago, but in case you didn’t see it: At the Episcopal parish where I was assistant, I had just preached (what I thought was) an eloquent compelling sermon about why people should go to Confession. After Mass this charming woman came up to me and said: “Father, I agree with everything you said. And I’m not going to do it.” It was so cute that I had to laugh. What else could I do? She spoke for most Episcopalians. I hope not for you.

This is the story of my first Confession. I was being confirmed into the Episcopal Church at a traditional Anglo-Catholic parish. They even had confessional booths with a screen separating the Confessor from the “confessee”. I had been instructed that my first Confession should cover my entire previous life. I was very hesitant, since by age 24 I had a lot to unload. But the Priest assured me that in the booth Confessors could not know who they heard, and besides many Priests heard Confessions there, so I was safe. So I made my first Confession and let it all hang out… and the Priest’s first words to me were “That was a good Confession, Bill.” I could have died. How silly. Now I know he’d heard it all before. No big deal. Why ever would we want Confessions to be anonymous? Confessions should be personal, like a good doctor with a patient –  and like God with us, for “He is good and loves mankind”. That’s the whole point.

Beginning tomorrow: Since most of us can’t get to church now, I’ll repeat last year’s series of daily Commentaries on the Services and Scripture Readings of Holy Week. Don’t let the stupid Virus isolate you from this life-giving Week.

One thought on “176. Confession: “The Forgotten Sacrament”

  1. The sacrament is the most intimate we have. The intimacy alone can scare people off. I had been in the Church well over a decade when I experienced my first complete confession. It was at a men’s retreat with a priest I had never met and will not meet again in all likelihood. But the retreat itself had forged an intimacy that encouraged and facilitated. By God’s grace my heart was changed. Never to be quite the same again.

    That was where I began to learn what the Sacrament really us–at least a little bit.

    Still I do not go as I should or even desire to. Odd isn’t that something so wholly beneficial is so easy to ignore.

    God forgive me.

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