Over the past few weeks several people have asked me questions about Confession. I hope the following reflections on this important part of Orthodox life will help us all.
Confession is the opening of our heart to Christ, and in Christ to our spiritual father. When we make our confession we are really coming to Our Lord Himself, whom the priest represents, for Jesus told His Apostles: Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Confession is joyful, because we know that we are being loved and healed by God.
We know that in our priest we have a spiritual father who loves us, and who guides us and protects us by his earnest prayer. All this is brought out by the fact that we make our confession standing in front of the icon of Christ--and our priest stands with us. He witnesses our confession to Christ our God and, like Christ, he shares our burden. We are not alone.
It is good to confess about once a month. In some places Orthodox people confess before every Holy Communion. If we go too long without confession, we find we do not know what to confess! Why is this? It is because our hearts become insensitive. We become complacent. We lose the attitude of repentance, which is essential for the life of a Christian. Repentance does not mean just feeling bad about ourselves, but rather changing our mind, or our heart, and this is only possible to the extent that we open ourselves to Christ and experience His Kingdom. This is why our confession is a sacred Mystery.
We tell our sins. It is like going to the physician and saying, "This is where I hurt." So we do not conceal anything or excuse ourselves. The Church is a kind of hospital, a House of Healing. Everyone in the Church is being healed, and Christ Himself is the Physician. It is vital that we come to this House of Healing! We cannot heal ourselves, yet Christ will not heal us without us. He does not force His healing on us. Instead, He invites us, asks us: Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden...
What are sins? They are the ways in which we have departed from God. They can be things we have done or not done, things we have said or failed to say. They can be our hidden thoughts and motives. We have just pleased ourselves, catering only to our own needs and passions: anger, laziness, resentment, pride, and the rest. And the worst state is to be unconscious of all this! We become aware of our sins not so much through looking at ourselves, but rather through communing with God. People who do not pray may feel disappointed in themselves, but they do not see their sins in their true light. That is why we prepare for our confession first through direct prayer to Our Lord, if possible standing before the icons and reading the Sacred Scriptures. When we do this, we experience ourselves in a new way. Then we are able to look at our lives and see things differently--how we react to people and their problems, how we are oblivious of God much of the time, how we treat those closest to us... Our hearts are pierced! Sometimes people do not quite know what things to confess. They feel a little confused about specifics, and therefore they avoid confession. I think having the following outline can help us get beyond these hesitations:
In each Confession, we need to tell, first of all, anything that seems especially serious and is troubling our conscience. These things are obvious and we should just say them, in simplicity, without trying to analyze them. If our priest feels some clarification would help us, he will say a few words, or ask some questions. And we can always request this.
Beyond any such obvious matters, it is good to mention in confession one or two specifics from the following three areas of our life.
The first is our family life, or life at home. For example, if we are children we will want to confess our shortcomings in how we treat our siblings, honor and obey our parents, and handle the "unfair" things of everyday family life. Married persons should always mention in confession aspects of how they behave toward their spouse. If we are monastics, we will look at how we deal with the shortcomings of the others and with the trials of community life, and how we love and trust our Elder. If we are single persons, we do well to examine our attention to, or neglect of, those closest to us, our immediate circle, our relatives, and our old friends.
The second area to examine for confession is our wider life. This includes the people and situations which we encounter during the day, for example at work. Everyone who comes into our life, however briefly, is in the image of God. He or she also has much suffering. That is certain! And we know that no meetings are just chance: somehow God has given us to them in order to show them love. It is easy to forget this. Our work, too, is a service. For the Christian, work is a service ultimately of Christ, since He is our Lord. Our work is "what we do": it expresses who we are. This is obvious in the case of professional work, but it is really true also of ordinary tasks and of work which the world may despise as menial. Much of the day of a monastic is spent doing manual work and attending to everyday needs. What does that tell us about our own everyday life?
The third area is our more direct relationship with God. The priority here should be our zeal for attending the services in church. When we are absent, is it for reasons worthy of blessing? On such occasions, do we feel deprived? In church, do we pay attention and make the effort to take part in the service with reverence and awe? The same questions apply to our observance of the fasts, our morning and evening prayer rule, and our taking time for devout reading of the Scriptures and of other writings of the Orthodox Church.
It is one thing to regret our sins inwardly, but when we confess them to our spiritual father we are repudiating them. We are taking a stand against them. By the act of telling our sins, we are reversing the act of committing them--as far as is in our power. Our sins are usually hidden things, which lurk inside us. But if we tell them, we are casting them out, spitting out the poison which we have ingested into our system. When we confess our sin, we are saying: This is no longer what I want to be!
We should be ashamed to sin, but sometimes we are ashamed to confess our sin. This is how the demons trick us! If we are serious about our repentance, if we truly hate our sins, we will ignore the false shame that would stop us confessing them.
After we have confessed, our priest may speak to us. The purpose of his fatherly guidance is to help our repentance. He may ask some questions or give some advice. He may be able to see why we fall into certain sins and instruct us how to prevent this happening in the future. Sometimes he will give us a rule of prayers or of things we need to do or avoid. In this way the priest is a physician prescribing the treatments we need for our healing to be permanent.
Finally, we bow or kneel and the priest reads over us the prayer of absolution, covering us with his epitrachelion and laying his hand on our head. This is a very beautiful action! We are experiencing the healing love and reconciliation of our Savior. Absolution means being set free or loosed from our sins. When we sin, we enter into a certain contract with the sin--or rather with the demon who is tempting us. This relationship can come back to haunt us and it can cause us many problems throughout our life, and most of all at our death. Above all this is true of the sins which are not limited to isolated events but also imply a lifestyle. It is vital that we utterly reject such contracts by our confession. Our spiritual father's prayer of absolution is for God to set us free. The absolution does not undo what we did in the sense of putting the clock back, but we are loosed from our sin and from its power over us.
In Orthodoxy we see repentance as continuous. It is not a stage which one passes through and then leaves behind. It does not cease with our confession but, rather, with confession it is able to grow in depth and purity. Strange as it may seem, we repent more fully the further we are from our sin. For repentance is the heart's yearning for God, and the closer we draw to him the more total will be our desire.
-Father Paul Burholt
Copyright © 2015 Fr. Paul Burholt