The Orthodox Pages



23rd October 2008

































































































































Today our talk will be on the Sacrament of Confession. We will look at what is confession, how confession was instituted and how it developed into the Sacrament we now have. We will look at why we need to confess, how and how often, where to go for confession and other areas concerning the Sacrament.
We first see the forgiveness of sins with Christ, who when a bedridden man was brought to him to be cured he said: “Thy sins be forgiven thee”. In the story of the man sick with the palsy we read: “And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house”. (Matth. 9:1- 7) Here Christ is telling the scribes that healing the body is nothing when compared to the healing of the soul, but to show that he is the Messiah and that he has the authority and power to forgive sins, he shows them in a visible form they can understand by healing the physical ailment. They cannot see the healing of the soul, but they can see the cured body.
The apostles were also given the power to cure bodily ailments; we read in Matthew that Christ gave them “power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease”. (Matth. 10: 1) He then told them to “go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matth. 10: 8)
Thus they had the power to cure the body, but as yet they did not have the authority to forgive sins and cure the soul. This came later when after Christ was resurrected from the dead, he instituted the Sacrament of Confession by breathing on his apostles and saying “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”. (John 20:22-23) Thus here we have Christ giving the authority and power to his disciples to forgive or not to forgive sins. This was given to them before the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, showing that it was not part of the general gifts of the Holy Spirit that was given to all, but a special gift for the select few. This authority was then passed on to the bishops who are the ultimate spiritual fathers of a Church. Bishops then pass on this authority to certain Priests whom they deem are spiritually experienced to guide and advice the flock in spiritual matters.

Now for Christ to institute this Sacrament means that there is a need for people to confess their sins, but also that they must confess them before a priest. The bishops and priests are the only canonical and lawful successors of the Apostles and only they have the power to grant forgiveness and remission. St John Chrysostom writing on the glory of the Priesthood says: “…how great is the honour which the grace of the Spirit has bestowed on priests… for having their life in this world, they have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For he did not say to the angels “What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose, shall be loosed.” Those who are lords on earth have indeed the power to bind, but only men’s bodies, but the authority to bind that we speak of touches the very soul and transcends the heavens. What priests do on earth, God ratifies above. The Master confirms the decisions of his slaves. Indeed he has given them nothing less than the whole authority of heaven. For he says, “Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven, and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” What authority could be greater than that? “The Father hath given all judgement unto the Son.” But I see that the Son has placed it all in the hands of the priests. If a man “cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven except he be born again of water and the spirit,” and if he that eateth not the Lord’s flesh and drinketh not his blood is cast out of everlasting life, and all these things can happen through no other agency except through the sacred hands of the priests’ how can anyone, without their help, escape the fire of Gehenna or win his appointed crown? They are the ones - they and no others - who are in charge of spiritual travail and responsible for the birth that comes through baptism. Through them we put on Christ and are united with the Son of God and become limbs obedient to that blessed Head. So they should properly be not only more feared than rulers and kings, but more honoured even than fathers. For our fathers begot us “of blood and the will of the flesh”; but they are responsible for our birth from God, that blessed second birth, our true emancipation, the adoption according to grace. The priests of the Jews had authority to cure leprosy of the body, or rather, not to cure it, but only to certify the cure… But our priests have received authority not over leprosy of the body but over uncleanness of the soul, and not just to certify its cure, but actually to cure it”.
Thus we should not be as the Protestants who, like many other things, have abolished this God instituted Sacrament and because they never confess their sins they are completely ignorant of its significance. When they read the Bible, they pass over and pay no attention to the words of our Lord with which he established the Sacrament and gave to his disciples the authority to forgive sins. They grant remission to themselves and their mentality, being more easily acceptable in our modern world, has infected many Orthodox who have also abolished this Sacrament of confession for themselves and argue that they confess before the Icon of Christ or the Virgin, or that they tell their sins directly to God in their prayers. But Christ didn’t tell us to confess before his Icon neither did he tell us that by confessing directly to him in our prayers we would receive forgiveness of our sins. Neither the Icon nor our personal prayers can give us absolution. Christ entrusted this authority to the clergy and shepherds of his Church. Only the Priest can pronounce the prayer of absolution.
How we confess today is not how confession was made in the early Church. During the first four centuries, confession was made openly before the entire congregation. This doesn’t mean that everyone stood up and gave an account of all their secret sins and innermost thoughts. It was a confession of the things that had already become public knowledge like an act of adultery or murder that came to light and scandalized the faithful or when someone apostatised from the true Church by heresy and then coming to his senses wished to be readmitted to the Church. Confession then was a solemn public act of reconciliation, through which a sinner was readmitted into church membership. This form of confession was probably founded from the Epistle of St. James who says: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5.16). But even before this when St John baptized in the Jordan, people came and confessed their sins, showing that confession was regarded as a form of repentance and regeneration (Matthew 3.6; Mark 1.5; Acts 19.18).

After the fourth century private confession was more widely practiced, but even then it did not have the formal procedure it has now with absolution at the end. Very few of the Church Fathers refer to prayers of absolution, but this doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in some form or other. Certainly there were penances with penitent sinners having to abstain from Holy Communion for a certain period of time according to the seriousness of their sin. With the next few centuries and the Ecumenical Councils we see that penances were severe with many of the serious or mortal sins being punished with many years abstention from the Holy Mysteries. These sentences of many years without Holy Communion were then reduced by St. John the Faster who was Patriarch of Constantinople during the late 6th and early 7th century. John the Faster left as a set of 35 canons mostly dealing with sins of a sexual nature, which drastically reduced the sentences of previous fathers, and which were adopted and put into practice by the Church.

Many considered his canons as being very lenient and accommodating, but careful study of his canons shows that his remedies were in many places more austere than others. With his first canon, which is in fact not a canon, but an apology, he explains why he reduces the long sentences of other Fathers. He says that: “since neither the great Father Basil nor the other Fathers of the oldest times prescribed for penitents any satisfaction and canon with fasting, or vigilance, of genuflection (prostration), but canonized them solely with abstinence from divine Communion, for this reason we have deemed it reasonable to reduce the years of penitence for those who are genuinely repentant and willing to inflict hardship upon their bodies by means of severities and to live from henceforth a virtuous life contrary to the life they had before. If fact what he did was give the penitent a choice, they could abstain from holy Communion for the period stated by the Fathers or these years could be drastically reduced if the penitent was willing to spend these years inflicting himself with fasting and genuflections (prostrations) which could be anything from 50 to 300 a day. The time taken off was according to how much the person was willing to do. If he promised to give up meat then a year was taken off, if he promised to refrain from dairy products another year, fish another year, olive oil another year, with prostrations another year and giving alms according to the amount of wealth he had another year. So the years were reduced, but other hardships were imposed which in many cases were harder to observe than the previous canons, which only involved not communing for a certain period.

I will come back to penances shortly, but first want to finish with how the Sacrament of Confession has come down to us in the present form we have. The actual service found in the service books is probably from after the 10th century. It involves petitions and prayers before the confession and prayers of absolution after. In practice, today we rarely say all the petitions and prayers before the confession. The Priest will probably give the opening blessing and then possibly a short prayer. He will then ask the person to read a short petition whereby he tells God that he will confess everything from his heart and reveal everything he has committed and then beseeches God to forgive him and give him grace to not sin again. Then either standing or sitting facing an Icon or the Gospel book with the priest to his side, he will confess his sins and the Priest will if he feels it necessary advice him on certain matters or even give him a penance. After this he will ask him to kneel while he places over his head the epitrakhelion and says the prayers of absolution.

What has changed especially in our times are the penances, which have either been dispensed with altogether of have been reduced to a fraction of what are mentioned in the Canons. Also before, if a penance was given, then the Priest didn’t say the prayer of absolution until the penance was fulfilled, today we always say the prayer at the end of confession even if the priest imposes a penance. To understand why the Church has changed so drastically in the confessional room, we must first understand what the canons are. Many people consider them infallible in the same way the doctrines of the Church are. This is a gross misunderstanding: the canons, even though they were produced by the same councils that gave us the doctrines, are only rules for guidance. They guide and prevent men from falling into error and heresy, and assist the penitent to re-find his way back to God. We see that many canons were revised or updated from one council to the next and that is because something that was valid in the fourth century could not be applied in the same way in the eighth century. We are now in the 21st century and if we had [as we should] an Ecumenical council today, the majority of the canons [for Christian guidance] would definitely be updated or thrown out of the window.
Let us take as an example the sin of voluntary abortion. An early canon condemns the sinner to exclusion from the Holy Mysteries until the time of her death.
Another canon excludes a murderer for 25 years, but must spend those years repenting and fasting from the morning until evening and then eat only Xerophagia, in other words only bread and water.
The 20th canon of Ancyra [314], excludes the sinner for seven years.
The 91st canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council [692] condemns the sinner as a murderer, so the exclusion from the Mysteries is again the life sentence.
The 2nd of Basil excludes the sinner for ten years.
The 21st canon of John the Faster for 5 or even 3 years.
As already said, the canons of John the Faster are in general very lenient compared to other canons.
Why do we have such vast differences from one canon to the next?
Precisely because the canons are not the Christian Faith, they are not punishments that condemn sinners to a lifetime outside of the Church, but are to be used to guide the people to lead a righteous life pleasing to God, thus helping them find their way to their salvation. We can liken the road from earth to heaven as a very long motorway. On our journey, we might be tired or need to refuel our vehicle, so for a while we come off the motorway to find a suitable motel or fuelling station. Having come off the motorway we become sidetracked from various things and cannot find our way back to the motorway. We need assistance and this is where we need the canons, because the canons are like road signs that direct us in which way to follow, thus helping us return to the motorway.
When Jesus was asked “which is the great commandment in the law?” He replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 23: 37-40) Love therefore is above all the canons and can replace them whenever it is deemed a canon would do more harm than good.
Today if a woman comes to confess than she had a voluntary abortion, we would not exclude her from Communion for 3 years because instead of helping her return to the Church if would in fact drive her away. The Priest would judge or rather discern if she truly repented for her actions, taking into account when she committed the crime. If it was many years passed and her conscience has all that time been punishing her, if also she regularly attends the Church services and tries to live according to the teachings of the Church, then what would be the use of an added penance. On the other hand if the crime was recent then she will need time to reflect on what she has done and the priest might tell her not to commune for 3 to 6 months or even a year and also maybe to keep the fasts, which is her duty anyway, and maybe to read daily from Holy Scripture.
Christ is love, the Church is love, and we also must be love. The Church and her Priests must at all time show love and compassion for the people. We are not Judges of the people. We leave that to God and God alone. In the days when the Canons were written, everyone that went to church, and remained in the main part of the church until the end, had to receive Holy Communion. So someone who didn’t commune stood apart from the rest which must have been a humiliating experience. Today people rarely attend church let alone have regular communion. To tell someone that they cannot receive communion for one, two or three years would not really help them repent, but would rather keep them away from church for that period of time, so more harm is done than good.
One other thing that has changed over the years is how often people come for confession and why they come. Unless someone has fallen into a grave sin that would bar him from Holy Communion, one, two, or three times a year at the most is sufficient for most people. A daily, weekly or monthly confession is not in the tradition of the Orthodox Church as a whole, but only the practice of monasteries. Monks see their spiritual fathers on a regular base, some daily, for spiritual guidance, and as an act of obedience, but not necessarily always for confession. He will seek his advice on prayer and other matters at the same time the spiritual father can keep a check on his charge to see if his advice has been beneficial.
In recent years we have seen this monastic type of relationship between spiritual fathers and spiritual children spreading among lay people. They use the Sacrament of Confession not so much as to confess but as an excuse to talk with their spiritual father and ask his advice on almost everything they do. If they cannot get to see him then they will phone him with all sorts of questions and follow his every direction with blind obedience. This is very wrong because, for the spiritual father to guide and advice them correctly, he would have to be living with them and see how they actually live. Many couples with already large families ask their spiritual father for his blessing to have another child. What so they expect him to say? Of course he will give his blessing and probably tell them that children are gifts from God; go forth and multiply. What the priest cannot see is the already difficult life the couple have with so many children and the added burden another baby will place on the family as a whole. Such decisions are not the priest’s responsibility but only the couple’s. If the baby proves to be too much for them to handle they cannot come back to the priest and say “but you told us to have another child”. Others again use spiritual fathers as marriage guidance councillors. Every time there is a small problem at home they seek out his advice on how to cope with the situation. Now this is not a bad thing as long as both parties seek advice together. The Priest cannot advice properly if he doesn’t hear both sides.

There are even times when priests are the root of the problems between couples. The woman might come for confession and the priest tells her not to have intercourse with her husband on Saturday evenings or Sundays, on evenings before a feast, on Wednesdays and Fridays and during all the fasts, and many other days. She then goes home and refuses to allow her husband his marital rights saying that her spiritual father forbade her to give herself to him on that day. The husband who is not a regular Church goer goes storming to find the priest and warns him to stay out of his bedroom or else. You find this funny, but it has actually happened on more than one occasion, and deservedly so, because the priest didn’t understand what St. Paul meant when he said: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you devote yourselves to prayer, but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of control. I say this as a concession and not as a commandment”. (1 Corinthians 7:5-6)
This can be taken as a warning when seeking out a Spiritual Father. We use the name Spiritual father rather liberally but not every priest who has the blessing to hear confessions is also a spiritual father. If we want more than a father confessor we should look for someone with whom we feel comfortable with and in whom we can trust to open our innermost self to without feeling embarrassed or feel that he will judge or lose his good opinion of us. When we find such as a spiritual father we should not change him for another when we fall into the same sin because we feel ashamed to face him again or because we didn’t like what he prescribed for us. We should obey his every direction in the same way we go to a doctor for a certain bodily ailment and receive the proper medication that will make us better. The Church is a hospital for sick souls, Christ is the Head Physician and the Priests are his many doctors specialized in many fields of spiritual ailments. But just as there are good knowledgeable and experienced doctor and others not so experienced, so too are there good experienced priests and others inexperienced.

A spiritual doctor like a physician must have many years of studying, training and experience, not necessarily a university graduate, but a graduate of the spiritual university, knowledgeable through his own spiritual struggles in how to subdue the passions and overcome temptations. One doctor might prescribe one medicine for an ailment and another might give you something else or another might rely only on homeopathic medicines. It doesn’t matter what each gives as long as the end result is the same. This is true of priests. Not every priest gives the same advice, one will tell you to fast another to read, another to make prostrations, and another will keep silent. There is no fixed rule for which medicine to give. Each person is an individual with different needs. If the spiritual doctor has known you for some time then he will probably know from the beginning what would help you, but if your first meeting is during the confession, he will prescribe a general medicine like paracetamol, until he gets the results from your analysis. This is the meaning of penances. They are not penalties imposed on someone because they transgressed the divine law. They are medicinal to help the sinner attain a better and deeper realization of the enormity of their sin and to imbue in them a longing for virtue.
So now lets come to the question of why we confess.
In the sacrament of Baptism we receive either as children or adults, we are mystically, and truly joined to Christ and to His Living Body - the Church - through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit working in the baptismal waters. In Christ’s own words ‘…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5) With the Sacrament of Baptism we are cleansed from all sins and are spiritually reborn for righteous living. However, we still have the predisposition towards sin, which is interwoven with our free will. As time passes, we fall into sin due to careless ways of living, inexperience, and different temptations. We become spiritually sick as it were, but also our sins make a barrier between us and God, they restrict us from progressing spiritually and to re-establish our relationship with God and eternal life: we must cleanse ourselves of these barriers. If we think of the Holy Spirit as a fragrant perfume we would not put this very special and valuable perfume in a dirty bottle. We would wash the bottle clean making sure to remove every speck of dirt from it before putting in this valuable perfume. The bottle to put the Holy Spirit is the vessel of our body. If it has accumulated all sorts of dirt through the many sins that we have committed we should not expect the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us unless we first cleanse it from all impurities and every bad odour.
The sacrament of Confession works like a second baptism helping us to cleanse ourselves from the sins that have accumulated since our baptism and it allows the healing power of God to restore the broken relationship between us and Him caused by our sin. In the Sacrament of Confession the penitent Christian, in the presence of the spiritual confessor, opens to God his darkened and sick heart and allows the heavenly light to enter, cleanse and heal it. In Confession, as in Baptism, a rebirth takes place and this is why after Confession we feel cleansed and renewed, as a newly baptized infant. We obtain new strength to battle the evil within us and to restart a righteous life.
But just like having Holy Communion, we must prepare ourselves for the Sacrament of Confession. From a few days beforehand we should spend some time alone in prayer and self-examination collecting our thoughts and thoroughly examine our conscience. We must ask God to reveal to us those things in our life which have become a barrier to our relationship with Him. How did we offend him and how did we offend our neighbour? Try to remember all the sinful events and their details. If it is our first confession it is a good idea to look over our whole life so far and note down on a piece of paper those major incidents for which over the years we have felt guilty or which in some way still occupy our conscience. Then we should look over our more recent life - the last few months, weeks and days – more closely. Writing down our thoughts is a good way to remember our sins and we can bring this paper with us when we go to confession, but we should write things down in such a way that only we would understand what they mean just in case we lose the paper and it is found by others.

In general we confess those sins we remember, which are the grave sins and the very recent. As time passes we tend to forget the majority of our sins because they are the same sins that we have been doing for years and have become a habit, but with regular confession and with a sincere Christian way of life, as we scrape away the sins that are on the surface, the Holy Spirit works within us and slowly brings to the surface other sins we have forgotten. There are pamphlets that help you remember, which ask you a thousand and one questions like have you done this or have you done that etc. Personally I am against these lists of sins as they tend to make the Sacrament very mechanical. To give you an idea of these lists listen to the following: Have you attended Church services regularly? When in Church, have you been inattentive, laughed or talked unnecessarily? Have you used the name of the Lord in swearing or in a joking way? Have you sworn or murmured against God? Have you been ashamed to make the sign of the Cross in front of others? Have you attended parties, movies, etc. during the hours of Church services? Have you failed to keep the fast or other rules of the Church? Have you believed in astrology, superstitions, fortune-tellers or the like? Have you strayed from the teachings of the Church by unbelief or indifference to the Faith? Have you? Have you? Have you? This is no way to confess even though there are many who say that these lists help in preparation. There are other lists than certain Priest use and ask the penitent during confession if they have committed this or that. Again I am against the priest asking questions: that is not his job: he is there to listen and if need be then advice and say the prayer of absolution.
During confession we should confess clearly so that the priest understands the sin, but without mentioning others and without going into too many details. Giving a long detailed account of a sin is like trying to justify ourselves for what we did and very often it involves mentioning and blaming others for our weakness. God already know the details and the priest is not there as a judge, but as a physician. If someone is admitted into hospital after a car crash, the doctor needs to see the injuries, he doesn’t need to be told that you were at a party and got drunk, then driving home with your friend you got into a fight and one thing lead to another and before you realized you went straight into the lamppost. Also when confessing sins of a sexual nature, the priest doesn’t want to hear the details of these acts. Priests are also human with passions: too many details can make images in our minds. As a rule what goes on in a married couple’s bedroom is a private thing, and as the prayer during the service of Marriage says: “The marriage bed is undefiled”. There are of course times when married couples need to open this door if it involves unnatural behaviour, but this if possible should be done in a very discreet way. The experienced priest will understand. If the priest tries to enter this bedroom by asking questions and details then get up and walk out because he has no right to be there.
I think we have said enough on confession for today. There are still a great many things we can say on the subject and repentance as a whole, but these can be said at a later talk. What I would like to finish with today is something that Christ said, which when I first read it, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. The quote from Christ is “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.” (Matth. 5: 25-26) It always puzzled me and I couldn’t find a suitable explanation in the many interpretations available, until one day, many years ago, I found in the writings of one of desert fathers this explanation: “The adversary or the enemy in question is none other than our conscience which really is our friend but we don’t treat it as such. Our conscience reminds us with guilt when we have done something wrong, but we don’t listen to it and ignore what it is telling us until it is buried deep down and out of mind. Thus we treat our conscience as though he were our enemy. Christ says agree with your adversary in other words make friends and listen to your conscience which you have made your enemy while you are in the way - while we are still in this life otherwise when we die our conscience will deliver us to the judge- meaning that our conscience will accuse us before Christ the judge, we will not be able to hide all the wrong things we have done because they are all recorded in our conscience. On hearing our conscience, Christ will then deliver us to the officer meaning the angel who will cast us into prison or hell.” Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. That I think needs no explanation.