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Word Magazine March 1978 Page 8-9
FOR PRIEST AND PARISHIONER
THOUGHTS ON CONFESSION
By Father Alexander Leon
Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom is indeed at hand, and we are called to a life of repentance. But how does the priest promote this process? Or, put another way, how can I as a priest be an effective instrument of the Church in reuniting the separated through the penance process?
Evil exists, and so does sin, not of necessity but because of inherent weakness. Man, Adam, our human nature, seems to be the victim not of the awesome power of the prince of this world, but of two things: underestimating the enemy and failure to marshal resources.
Underestimating the Enemy
How many times do we hear of the “subtle snares” and yet do not find ourselves in a state of constant vigilance, but are lulled to spiritual sleep with comforts and other desires so easily fulfilled.
Rather than think of God, His Kingdom, sharing eternal life, and all related matters, we slip into the “earthly cares”, essentially the concerns not of God, but of self.
Fr. John of Kronstadt reminds us that the root of every evil is a self-loving heart or self-pity or self-sparing; it is from self-love or excessive and unlawful love for oneself that all vices proceed. And he goes on to give quite a list:
coldness, insensibility, hard-heartedness towards God and our neighbor, wicked impatience and irritability, hatred, envy, avarice, despondency, pride, unbelief, gluttony, the love of money, vanity, slothfulness, hypocrisy.
It is interesting to follow his list, because we’ve always been taught that pride, or as he says, self-love, is the basis of all sins. But he is a pastor and he moves immediately to the effects upon the person — coldness, insensibility and hard-heartedness.
He has wisely put his finger on the pattern of behavior which is evoked by the sinner. And it is precisely the patterned hardening and insensitivity of the individual which makes them difficult to confess. They have closed any openness which one has by nature (“it was not good for man to live alone”), and in so shutting the door to others expressing self-concern, they have put a block in the way of relieving this inappropriate Christian behavior. Closure is definitely the prime stumbling block. We are outside of their world, and it’s not where we can be effective.
Next, the very fact that they’ve dropped into patterns is a problem. We know that the Christian is one who has been “freed” from the binding power of sin and death.
Here, suddenly, we see a person who exhibits patterned behavior; it’s predictable exactly what that person will say about our last sermon or the lack of warmth in the community.
We can see the patterns; they are recognizable, definable, and the patterns themselves are the pathology, for man is free, creative, living.
In cutting themselves off from God through sin, they have likewise cut themselves off from the life-force. The life-force necessitates an activity on their part, the synergism between God and man. The opposite force, the death force, is characterized by inactivity, in which we are carried along, flowing with the tide, just drifting.
In fact, whenever we speak of sin we think in terms of passion. Now to most of us that word passion brings up images of active sinning: adultery, fornication, stealing, murder, etc. But passion is from the Greek where it is not an active but a passive act. (That word passive also comes from the same derivative).
That is precisely where we run into problem No. 2, which is the fact that the main body of our parishioners have not actively sinned. They can’t put the finger on specific sins. And that in itself makes them content. They have been “lulled to sleep” and now Satan is about to take them for a ride.
Failure To Marshal Forces
What can we do? What resources can we marshal?
One of our children is sick, with a cancer of sin which will only grow and grow unless we, the spiritual physicians, operate. Surgery is the change —(Repent means to “turn away” or in other words to change direction.) But if surgery is the change, our relationship with them is the anesthesia.
Our acceptance, total love of them as children of God must be clear. They need not fear that their Spiritual Father will reject them because of their bad behavior, or will think of them differently after they expose their true selves. That we can see the value in them, the Image of God no matter what the sin, is the assurance that they receive in truly feeling forgiven.
Fr. John of Kronstadt says that consciousness, memory, imagination, feeling, and will are all helps to penitence. As we sin with all the powers of our soul, so penitence must be from the whole soul. Penitence in words only, without the intention of amendment and without the feeling of contrition, may be called hypocritical. Should the consciousness of sins be obscured, it must be cleared up; should the feeling be smothered and dulled, it must be aroused; should the will become blunt and too weak for amendment, it must be forced.
With this emphasis on the active interrelationship of the priest and penitent, we begin to see the process unfold more clearly. The presbyter is to bind and to loose. He is not there to passively listen and then automatically dispense forgiveness. By working in this manner, we have in fact reinforced the idea that they should bypass the priest and simply ask God to forgive their sins. After all, what’s the priest doing but listening or in truth is he really even doing that?
What Fr. John had alluded to was not so much listening to the words spoken, the enumeration of sins, but to perceive the feeling which goes along. Is it appropriate, absent, or even overblown and dramatic? Generally, true contrition is in fact absent. Why?
The passive spiritual life that we spoke of earlier does not permit us to enter fully into the process of penance.
People appear for penance, (1) when they want to (often to meet legalistic requirements), (2) without the preparation of prayer and meditation, (3) expecting to give the priest a few minor things so that he has something to forgive. This last aspect is tantamount to tossing a bone to a dog in order to pacify him. After all, they have progressed to the point that they won’t dare say they didn’t sin, since their last confession, be that one year or 30 years ago.
That and unfortunately only that would bring reproof from the priest. Yet, Fr. John sees the need of reproof. He says that in this life, we sin continually, and at the same time, we are so self-loving that we cannot endure to be reproved for our sins and faults, above all before others; but in the future life, we shall be reproved for them before the whole world. Bearing in mind this terrible judgment seat, let us bear reproof here humbly and gently, and let us correct ourselves of all our sins, and our faults; above all, let us bear reproof from those in authority over us, and may the Lord teach them to reprove our faults not with malice but with love and in the spirit of meekness.
So what we must employ is the whole range of possible actions on our part as pastors within the sacrament of penance, considering both the quality of the sin and the willingness and readiness of the sinner to return.
Father Alexander Leon is Pastor of the St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Mingo Junction, Ohio (OCA) and is the Dean of Eastern Ohio in the Pittsburgh Diocese.