January-February 2019

Post date: Apr 23, 2019 8:26:42 PM

During the past year or so, more parishioners have fallen asleep in the Lord than in my first five years at St. John put together. Some of those losses were somewhat expected, some came as a shock. It was this set of circumstances that prompted me to include the two-part series on preparing for death in the Orthodox Church in the previous newsletters. I would like to conclude the series with a few considerations on the mystery of confession.

Romans 3:21-25 reads: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

In 1 John 1:8-10 we find the following: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

Finally, in our funeral and memorial services we ask, “As a good and loving God, forgive every sin he (she, they) has (have) committed in word, deed, or thought, for there is no one who lives and does not sin.”

Every priest has heard, “Father, I’m okay,” and “I don’t have anything to confess.” The three quotes above (and others like them) witness against these statements. Indeed, St. John the Theologian, the beloved disciple who had lain on the Savior’s breast at the mystical supper and to whom the Lord entrusted His mother, is so bold as to say that we make God a liar through such statements: a heavy accusation.

At this point it needs to be said that there are various reasons why Orthodox Christians would say they have no need for confession and I will take the remainder of this article to look at some of them.

Reason #1: Shame. “If I go to confession, someone other than I will know my sinfulness, and I am ashamed of it enough on my own without someone else knowing.” To this Fr. Stephen Freeman replies:

Our shame clouds the heart and the mind and we fail to see ourselves and the world as they are.

The only path to the truth in these situations is to bear the shame. St. John Climacus says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” (4.62) It is worth noting that the Elder Sophrony advised, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” This is something we do along and along, as the soul is able to bear it.

The inner act of acknowledging our shame, and sitting in its presence without anger or sadness, is an act of self-emptying. When we are in such a place we pray, “O God, comfort me.” It is then that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, can enter in and grant us the great comfort of the image of Christ being formed in us. It banishes anger and dissipates sadness. (https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/11/13/unavoidable-suffering-and-salvation-the-way-of-shame/)

Reason #2: Fear. “The priest will punish me and will never look at me the same way again.”

This reason is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of confession, for confession is not about punishment. St. John Cassian gives us insight into its true purpose:

“The old man said to me: ‘Take heart, my son. Without my saying anything, your confession has set you free from this captivity. Today you have won a victory over the adversary who had beaten you. Through your confession you have brought him down more completely than when you yourself were down as a result of that silence which he had prompted. No word uttered by you or by anyone else had stopped him, and until now you had given him the whip-hand over you.” (quoted in “Repentance and Confession in the Orthodox Church” by Dn. John Chryssavgis, p.28).

The priest is not there to punish, nor to judge, but as a witness and, by God’s grace, a healer. As many priests have said, sin is boring, not fascinating, not unique, not memorable. It is not something that the priest will dwell on. As the prayer at the end of confession says: “as for the sins which you have confessed, having no further care, go in peace.”

Reason #3: Inattentiveness. “I haven’t really thought about sin or confession.”

This is sometimes linked to reason 1: thinking about sin and confession can be uncomfortable. Sometimes it has to do with busy-ness and simply not stopping to think about our actions, thoughts, and desires. The good news, if we fall into this category, is that we can do something about it, make ourselves sit down and examine our consciences. There are even guides to confession in a variety of formats. The bad news is that no one else can do it for us.

Reason #4: Pride or spiritual blindness. “No, I really I don’t have anything to confess.”

If the words of St. Paul and St. John the Theologian above were not persuasive enough to convince that this is never the case, I have nothing to add.

May the time of our departure find us prepared.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter