Who Should Come to Confession and How?
“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” Life is a continuous search for God, but God is not seen through telescopes or microscopes or X-ray machines. The human heart, the core of a person’s spiritual being, is the only instrument required to see God. It must be pure, says the Lord. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” The sacrament of Confession is a tool offered by God through His Church for the cleansing of the heart.
“There is no human who lives and sins not,” says one Orthodox prayer. St. John the Evangelist remarks, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). It seems that every human being needs the sacrament of Confession.
How often? As often as is necessary. Whenever our conscience tells us that we have fallen far from God’s ways. But even if we do not feel a strong sense of guilt, periodic Confession is good. It is like a medical check-up or a semester exam in school, an opportunity for self-examination; it is a look in the mirror, one might say, to ask the question, “Am I the person God intended me to be?” Most people who practice periodic Confession do so during the fasting periods before Easter, Christmas, the Dormition (August 15), but there is no reason to limit Confession to the special fasts.
What does one say in Confession? After an opening prayer, the priest asks, “What would you like to confess?” The answer or answers lie in the individual’s own heart. There are many guides to Confession, one of which can be found at http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article8476.asp. I am of the opinion that a person does rather well simply by being honest with himself/herself. The conscience is a wonderful guide, if we listen to it.
In my thinking, there are two kinds of sins to be confessed: (1) things of the past that no longer trouble us, for which we can say, “I was foolish, I did this awful thing; may God forgive me,” and (2) sins that are in the present, things with which we struggle but have not yet conquered. Anger, gluttony and pride come to mind (yes, the writer’s sins), but I am sure than you can think of your own. To these sins we say, “Here I am, Lord. Here is where I struggle; help me.” There are many “stubborn” sins that are difficult to defeat, but there is no unbeatable sin. With God’s help, all is possible.
Priests sometimes ask questions in Confession. The purpose is to help the person appreciate the extent or seriousness of sins. Priests sometimes offer advice, but the Confession is not dependent on whether advice is given or not. The Confession is based on a person in sincerity saying his/her sins so that the priest, who is a witness, hears what is said, and then the priest offers a prayer (called Absolution) praying that God forgive the sins. The Confession, one might say, is not to the priest but rather to God in the presence of the priest, who represents the Church.
The prayer of Absolution says the following:
“May God who pardoned David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial and the sinful woman weeping at His feet and the Publican and the Prodigal Son, may this same God forgive you all things through me a sinner both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His fearsome judgment seat. Having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, depart in peace.
“The divine grace through my unworthiness has you released and forgiven of your sins. Amen.”
Confession is a tremendous blessing! To be sure, I do not look forward to it any more than I look forward to my medical and dental check-ups, which I do with much hesitation. But I am always happy to have gone to Confession. There is a joy after it that is quite unique. I was fortunate to be taught Confession as a child by my priest, who very wisely emphasized its need.
People are often afraid that their priest may “look down” on them after Confession. Three things must be said: (1) The sacrament is “sealed,” meaning that priests are prohibited from speaking about the Confession to anyone after it is completed. (2) My personal experience is that when a person stands before the icon of Christ and is completely truthful, there is a tremendous power present that I cannot describe, except to say that I am in awe. I admire him/her for the honesty. (3) It is permitted to go to another Orthodox priest for Confession. (I myself go to a priest in an OCA (Orthodox Church of America) parish.)
At Sts.Constantine & Helen, there are designated hours for Confession before the major feasts. Confession is available throughout the year by appointment.
Fr. Stephen Callos