Antiochian Clergy Seminar and Fall Delegates Meeting
North Royalton, Ohio – October 19, 2001
Father Richard Peters
THE PRIEST AS A CONFESSOR
You will only worthily celebrate the sacrament of repentance when you are a lover of souls and not a lover of gain, when you have learned to be patient and not to be irritable. A great love for one’s neighbor is necessary in order to hear confessions worthily — patiently, unhurriedly, and without irritation. The confessor should always bear in mind that “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” and should hear confessions accordingly. -St John of Kronstadt
Confronting the Images of Continuing Trouble
So much of what used to be sin is now identified as crime. “After the reign of Henry VIII in England,” writes Dr Karl Menninger, “many sinful acts were formally declared to be not only immoral but illegal. Murder, mayhem, robbery, treason, and scores of other specific transgressions became defined as crimes with prescribed punishments.” 1 In colonial America moral codes were enacted for the sake of enforcing virtue in the community. Later in Connecticut we are told, it was a punishable offense “to hang out laundry on Sunday or for using profanity in the presence of the mayor.”2
Since then to the present day sin has continued to undergo a conversion, which has, rendered the word practically pointless, if not an orphan. Sins that didn’t make the “crime list” were designated: “offenses contrary to conscience or moral standard.” Performed predominantly in secret, although often visible, they were categorized as “intimate and wrongful choices of action.”3 Wrongful actions fell under the authority of the church; crime became a matter for the state.
In 1952, by order of Congress, President Truman proclaimed the first of what was suppose to be “an annual day of national prayer”. The next year President Eisenhower followed suit. In his proclamation he borrowed the following text from Abraham Lincoln in a speech given in 1863 in which the word SIN was used.
It is truly of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.
“Since Eisenhower’s proclamation (1953) neither he nor any succeeding president has mentioned sin as a national failing. To be sure, they have skirted the word. The Republicans referred to the problems of pride and self-righteousness while the Democrats referred to shortcomings.” 4 But none used the old fashioned concept of sin. Says Menninger, “It would take us altogether by surprise if an American president were to say, ‘God, be merciful to us sinners.’”
America’s heroic and sacrificial efforts to recover from the September 11th holocaust and its commitment to defeat terrorism may not languish, but our attempted return to God in all of this may have fizzled. Despite the lull in attendance at casinos, adult shows and other forms of debasing entertainment we have since returned to our former moral standard, unworthy of the preeminence God has given us among the nations.
The day after the terrorist attacks one network anchorman said, “Just think of it. Our two symbols of power and prosperity have been smitten in one hour” Isn’t that a little ironic, a nation founded upon Judeo-Christian ethics is now defined by a five sided military building and two tall towers of economic commerce? That same day Senators and Congressmen, who continue to rule God out of our public schools and society at large, were on the steps of the Congressional Building singing “God Bless America”. Isn’t that a little strange, after murdering some forty million children killed by abortion — for which we have never repented — we are now asking God to “stand beside us and guide us?” “The thought occurred to me,” writes Frederica Mathewes-Green, “that what the song could really mean is, ‘God, bless the things we already do; bless the things we have decided to do.’”5
One week later the NFL resumed play but not without offering a reverential moment of silence for the victims of 911. What kind of people are we? Can 50,000 sports enthusiasts with painted faces and beer in hand, really convey respect for 5,000 innocent victims simply by interrupting 150 minutes of screaming and shouting for their favorite team with a moment of silence?
Last week our local newspaper treated us to a front-page review of “The Best Little Whore House in Texas.” After beseeching God in a humbling national day of prayer we are now proclaiming to God and to His world that “we have the strength and power, the ability, the resolve to endure any disaster because we’re proud and a great nation.” Therefore we can expect abortions to continue at the rate of 4,000 a day, the stock market to have our undivided attention, and the entertainment business to be as hedonistic as ever. And so far no president or government official has dared call it sin.
Standing vanguard against this erosion is the church, and more specifically the parish priest. It is he who must deal with the disgusting consequences of our culture while standing alone in the Sacrament of Confession, his sole purpose being to detach souls from these earthly preoccupations and draw them to the altar of God. They and they alone must become “the great preoccupation of his heart.”6
How difficult is his calling? In America debauchery is justified as a lifestyle, with nearly complete societal acceptance of couples living together before marriage, indeed without marriage ever being considered. It is a culture that has become lewd — we defend filth as art, define blasphemy as self-expression and protect obscenity behind the First Amendment. Our divorce laws and tax codes assist in the breakup of our church families, while our leaders champion lesbian adoption. And all this vaunted before the world as a way of life they should adopt, or else be considered backward.
How difficult is his calling? Homosexuality is regarded as an alternative life style and anyone who speaks out against it is not moral, but homophobic. Parental discipline is regarded as child abuse. We have children having children. It is illegal for a teenager to get a Tylenol from a school nurse, even with parental permission, but a teacher can procure an abortion for the same child without even notifying a parent.
Sexual perversion can be seen, talked to, and purchased over the internet. The gay rights movement parades itself in American streets as a tribute to the U.S. Constitution and the pinnacle of freedom. Promiscuity is protected as a right of the American citizen, so much so that we kill our children to hide our adultery or maintain our fornication.
As for modesty, consider the women from Muslim countries. These women are protected, sheltered, and modesty is the rule. Yes, we believe they take it to the extreme, to the point of oppression and domination, but for just a moment think through the differences. In a Moslem country a woman’s virtue is considered so precious and is so guarded that they cover their bodies completely when in public. How well does this stand along side the daily display of American women’s fashions, lifestyle, and general demeanor? Our young girls and boys have multiple rings in their ears, their nose, lips, eyebrows, and tongue. They walk about unashamedly with exposed bellies, tattoos, and their unmentionables accentuated by clothes designed for sensuality.
These images are in our church as well and testing her resolve. They are also testing her attendance. Orthodox laity will pay $50.00 a head to attend a church banquet but pass up the Bridegroom Services that are free. We squander precious time and money on food, drink, movies, and dancing on Saturday nights while the office of vespers and confession is nearly abandoned. We still can’t get to liturgy on time and unless the homily is delivered in a seven-minute sound bite our couch-potato minds can’t stay focused. We still shuffle during the reading of the gospel, talk during the homily, and wonder what it means to “lay aside all earthly cares”. We can neither fast during Great Lent without grumbling nor keep the teachings of the Church. Men loiter outside or in the vestibule as if to get a running start on coffee hour. In short we live as though we had no soul to save.
I think it’s time I explained the title of this section, “Images of Continuing Trouble.” I have already passed along several of those images. The phrase “Images of Continuing Trouble” comes from two poems by the British poet Jon Silkin. I use the phrase “Images of Continuing Trouble” because the images I have described trouble me greatly, as I am convinced they should. But in preparing this paper the image that troubles me most is that of The Priest as a Confessor. What is he like? How does he conduct the sacrament? How does he deal with images of continuing trouble?
Guilt, Forgiveness, and the Abuse of Language
We priests too are sinners and to some extent we have made our bed with today’s culture. If you argue against that summation then perhaps you’ll concede that some complicity does exist with one or more of the images presented, either through direct involvement or allowing them to exist in our homes and churches. In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “We are guilty of everything, and I am the most guilty of all.” This rings with St Paul’s admitting to be the chief of sinners, but more than that it proclaims an almost mystical sense of guilt, a sense of guilt that transcends time and person and place. You will remember the words of Daniel, a man who “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself” (1:18), a man in whom there was neither any “error or fault”, a man who was able to shut the mouths of the lions because “innocency was found in him” before both his God and his king; this same man, making his own private confession to God, said, “We (italics mine) have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly” (9:5). And so our own sinful complicity constitutes our first image of continuing trouble, we too are sinners, we too are guilty before God.
It follows that the second image has to do with forgiveness. Let us for a moment suppose that they are right, Dostoevsky and Daniel, that guilt is transcendent and no one is immune. No where is this more poignant than in the 1991 Communist attempt to overthrow the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. On that day, three young men protested the takeover by stretching themselves out on a Moscow street in the wake of the oncoming tanks. The tanks crushed them. At their funeral Boris Yeltsin turned to the parents of the three boys and said: “Forgive me, your president, that I was unable to defend and save your sons.”7 Think of it, “Someone who was not to blame was accepting responsibility in a society where everyone had avoided taking responsibility for anything.”8
We all know that “forgive me” is what the priest says to the congregation before beginning the Great Entrance. “Forgive me” is what every Orthodox Christian is supposed to say on Forgiveness Sunday before the start of Great Lent. Forgiveness is a recognition of complicity, as in Daniel “we have sinned,” and transcendent guilt as in Dostoevsky, “we are guilty of everything and I am the most guilty of all.” “Forgive me” is a recognition that we share in the blame even though we were not there. Let me illustrate. It has been suggested that the Holocaust in Nazi Germany led to the holocaust of Hiroshima. If that is true it may well be the case that American slavery also helped make both the Holocaust and Hiroshima possible, and that Hiroshima has helped make the slaughter of innocents, both born and unborn possible. If we can understand this, we can begin to confront the images of continuing trouble; even come to appreciate our own guilt and need for forgiveness. For to see ourselves as we really are, says St. Isaac the Syrian, is a greater miracle than raising the dead. Forgiveness brings order out of chaos, brings justice and peace where there is only injustice and warfare. And if we refuse to forgive and seek forgiveness then I dare say we are all guilty of everything, and I am the most guilty of all.
The Abuse of Language
Words are important; the choice of a word matters. God used language to create, to bring order to the chaos. The right use of language in confession does the same thing. When hearing confession (and when making our own confession) we must be sure that words match the sin, otherwise the image that troubles us is never forgiven. This constitutes language dishonesty, an abuse of words. On “the abuse of language,” consider the following:
“Recall that the Germans of WW II called the Holocaust die Endlosung der Judenfrage. End means final; losung means solution or annulment, Juden is Jew and frage means question. The interesting word is question. A race of people had been reduced to a question, thus hiding the true intention of its speaker. To them the Jews were less a question than a disease or plague. And if the use of the word question is barbaric, what do we call final solution? The holocaust was disguised in the words of a solution or annulment, which exceeds the limits of barbarism. This is a corruption of language beyond the comment of language itself, which is a most precious gift.
“What atrocities are hidden behind Euthanasia and abortion? You will remember that former President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to free the hostages in Iran was aborted. The double use of this word makes it possible to call off or recall babies before they are born — like helicopter missions
The abuse of words in confession
Since confession for the most part is expressed in words we can expect to hear, from time to time, a corrupted version of the image that troubles the confessing penitent. For instance, instead of hearing that someone fornicated, we are likely to hear, “I slept with my girlfriend”. Instead of confessing the sin of gluttony it’s, “I overate”; getting drunk is “I got a little tipsy”; slothful is “being overly-tired”, and anger is “I lost my temper” — each spoken perhaps with jocularity. As confessors we gently but firmly help penitents choose the word that best matches the image that troubles them. If I confess hate, then I am a murderer. It is one thing to say, “I committed adultery” and quite another to say, “I am an adulterer.” To steal is one thing, to say “I am a thief’ cuts to the core. St Gregory the Great said, “It is not so difficult to renounce what we have, but it is very much indeed to give up what we are.” 10
Recall that on the night before Jacob was to meet Esau, from whom he had swindled the blessing, he wrestled with a Man. When the all-night match was over and before he would grant the blessing, the Man asked Jacob his name (to see if he had finally come to grips with his sin): “I am Jacob,” he said, meaning, “I am supplanter, schemer, trickster, swindler.” 11 Trying to soften sin through euphemisms reduces the horror of sin and only makes it easier for a canine to revisit the ejected contents of its stomach (Proverbs 26.11).
Sometimes actions are better than words
Every once in a while a priest is blessed with a confession made without words. I’ll call her Rula. Her first visit to an Orthodox Church was Great Vespers. As the congregation began singing “O, come let us worship. . .” she, a total stranger, began weeping and never stopped. When vespers was over she walked out a cleansed and radiant woman. I’ll call him Andronicus. Once or twice when Andronicus came to confession he was unable to utter a word, he simply began to sob, then weep uncontrollably. I would put my arm around him. I would pat him on the back; it only got worse. He moaned, he groaned, his muscular frame literally shook. Finally I would interrupt, speak the words of absolution and send him home at peace with the God of Jacob.
The Priest as a Confessor
Preparing to hear confession
No good work ever succeeds unless it is accomplished by suffering, for “without the shedding of blood there is no remission.”12 Sacrifice is the groundwork of every achievement of God’s saints and no less the priest as confessor. Likewise, the time set aside for the hearing of confession requires preparation.
Fasting and praying are necessary whenever the priest begins attacking the inveterate disorders and vices to which God’s people are tied. Did not St Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: I most gladly will spend — and be spent myself for your souls — although loving you more, I be loved less?13 If we would not lose our own souls then we must trample underfoot all human desires that keep us from the salvation of our people.
Perhaps few knew this better than St John of Kronstadt who at times would spend ten to twelve hours hearing confession: “Oh, God, how difficult it is to hear confessions in the right way! How much preparation is needed, how much one must pray for a successful accomplishment of this task. What a cross confession is for the priest, when he realizes how ignorant, sinful and cold the penitents are and when he is conscious also of his own wickedness, his weakness, inertia and indolence of heart in developing compassion and zeal to the glory of God and the salvation of his fellow men and himself.”14
In the Sacrament of Confession the priest presents himself as a living sacrifice to the penitent. Self-sacrifice IS the priesthood and it takes a tremendous sacrifice to hear confession. Hearing confession is one of the crosses of the priesthood. But when we begin to love our cross we will learn to suffer lovingly. And to suffer lovingly enables us to suffer longer. Though a tempest rage around our soul we are not to become weary. To flee from our cross is to be crushed beneath its weight. To prevent that from happening we must pray, asking God to give us a love for our cross. Verily, there is no happiness except in the love of our cross, for it is the cross we carry that bestows peace upon our heart and that of the penitent.
Let us not be late, nor let us be in a hurry to leave the office of confession. Let our souls linger with God. And above all let us love Christ. Let us remove every obstacle that would keep us from Christ. Let us say, “Lord Jesus, take my hand; give me some bread and water today, and let me be satisfied in you alone.”
Draw as much fruit as possible from the sacrament of confession
St Simeon the New Theologian has an interesting take on absolution. He wrote that “no priest should be allowed to pronounce absolution who does not weep over his own sins during confession and who is not brought to tears during the liturgy.” This somewhat controversial saint takes these two sacraments and raises them to a higher level than perhaps we’re used to. If nothing more he requires us to become a participant in the sacrament rather than a sacramental performer.
If we fully understood what is taking place between God, the penitent, and ourselves during confession we would be repulsed by the worldly cares that we bring to the sacrament. Nor would we listen to the voice of our own fatigue. With St John of Kronstadt, we would see confession through the eyes of the prophet Zachariah: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” 15
When we open the Sacrament of Confession we are entering into a Divine Sanctuary for which there is room for only one other person. When that person enters he should be approaching a sanctity that can be both sensed and felt. If he be hardened and confesses sins without remorse, we must offer our own tears to God. Should he ask why we are weeping we reply softly: “because you are not.” We feel shaken, for this is the one sacrament that has the power to alter the life of both priest and penitent and enable us to love the good God. Sensing he may neither fast nor pray over his sins, we choose to keep watch over his soul that night and go to bed on an empty stomach.16
Guiding the penitent
Whenever a penitent would begin to describe his own virtues St John Vianney used to say, “you are here to save your poor soul, not confirm it — now what were you confessing?” When a person began to make excuse for himself over a sin, he would quietly say: “excuses are not allowed.” If a person was lacking in sincerity while accusing himself of grave sins he would sigh, “what a pity.”17
As priests we “are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force,” writes St John Chrysostom, “for a man is made better not by force but by persuasion.” What’s further, “God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.” 18 We must take care never to break or crush a person’s spirit,19 to the contrary we are to educate and to guide. Because man’s free will is the prerequisite for salvation it implies cooperation with God and with one’s father confessor. In this joint divine-human action (synergeia) all sides risk their reputations — in giving and in responding — but what God does is incomparably more important.20
There are times when after hearing a confession we simply have nothing to say, nothing clicks, the well has gone dry and so we say, “God has been gracious to you, go in peace.” When we do have something to say the use of short sentences is most helpful. Not every piece of counsel has to be explained; the penitent needs to assume some responsibility for working out his own salvation; so we send him home to think and pray.
We need not react to rebellion, to sullen silence or the refusal of a penitent to listen. Touch the sore spot quickly and decisively: “my dear brother (sister), you don’t have to listen to me, nor do what I say, but you must not disavow the possibility that the words I am speaking to you are words from God.”21 If they do not surrender on the spot we don’t get discouraged, for it is God who bestows repentance.22 So we pray over the penitent; and fast and pray much in his behalf before retiring.
What are we hoping to achieve in confession?
The answer is always the same: A change of mind, and a new direction for our lives. We confess our sins to escape our grief but always with the desire to be led in a new direction. Whether we know it or not, in confession we are looking for a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God. That’s why confession is a conversion, a coming back, a re-centering of our life upon the Holy Trinity. When we come to confession, writes Bishop Kallistos Ware, “we not only look downward at our own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”23
What to confess
Only God can tell us what to confess but these suggestions may help serve as prompters:
When we come to confession we must be prepared to concede to God what he already knows. Our hearts burn with conviction. We tell God how little we love him, how little we love his creation: the birds and animals, our enemies and our friends; we shudder at how this past week we wounded another person, perhaps a child, a parent, a spouse, a bird or animal, a tree or plant. We confess the slightest trace of vulgarity and meanness in our hearts. We resolve to become a stranger to all hardness, indifference and brutality. We tell him also of our lack of generosity to the church and to the poor, our lack of tenderness toward those who live beneath our social station, of our lack of forbearance with those who disagree with us, our unwillingness to suffer hunger from fasting and our absence from daily prayer. Oh, there is so much to confess if we would only allow ourselves to stop and think about it. If we have succumbed to acts of greed, lust, immorality, or unbelief then we tell that to God as well. And above all we confess the layers of artificiality that cover our humanity. We repent for having disfigured human nature in ourselves, of being impure, artificial, full of duplicity, pride and meanness.
We confess to Christ
We come confessing that we are incapable of self-cure. After self-examination we simply come empty handed asking for healing help from another. And this other is not the priest, but God. To again borrow from Bishop Ware, the priest is nothing more than “God’s usher” introducing us into the divine Presence. Therefore, it is to Christ, not to the priest that the confession is made. Confession is primarily Christ’s action toward us. When we meet, we experience the all encompassing love and forgiveness of God himself. Therefore we are not to be afraid, nor are we to hold back anything when we come to confession.
Frequency of Confession and its relationship to Holy Communion
Although a person knows when he should come to confession the frequency of that sacrament can be as often as the confessor may require. Generally speaking, however, a priest should not require a parishioner to confess any more frequently than he himself confesses. The bottom line is that every Christian should be prepared to commune weekly, albeit preparation does not necessarily mean confession with a priest before each communion.
Confession is an ongoing grace, a severe mercy, and should be practiced whenever and wherever sin has surfaced. Certainly a person, whether he has confessed to a priest or not, may still ask for (and should ask for) and receive forgiveness personally from God before receiving communion. This can take place following Great Vespers, during Matins, or during the Prayer of Confession — “wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions.” For even at the Chalice God’s forgiveness is forever proclaimed in “the communal sharing of Christ’s broken body and spilt blood which he offers “unto the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”24
We know when we have made a good confession
“To repent is to know that there is a lie in our heart.”25 When sin is hated and admitted we make a break with our past and a breakthrough to God. Confession is like a snake shedding its skin; it involves a tremendous struggle. There is a certain trembling of the soul as we stand before the gates of paradise. And how does one pass through this indescribable entrance? With tears and repentance. Whether alone or with a priest we know when we have made a good confession for we are shaken and conscious that our soul has been cleansed from every evil and sin. 26
The priest as a confessor
If there is any reward for serving as a confessor it is this: the privilege of witnessing a “good” confession. Indeed when this happens both penitent and confessor are shaken; we know God is present for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” As the images of continuing trouble are torn from the penitent, they are torn from us as well.
All this is free. We have done nothing to bring it about, we can take no credit, we have simply stood witness to “the highest grace possible, to the conversion and return of a sinner to the door of mercy.” 27
“Have you committed a sin?” asks St John Chrysostom, “then enter the church
and repent of your sin. . .. for here is the Physician, not the Judge; here one is
not investigated but receives remission of sins.” 28
1 Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?, Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, 1973, 25.
4 Ibid., 14, 15.
5 Frederica Mathewes-Green, Touchstone, The Fellowship of St James, P.O. Box 41078, Chicago IL 60641, November 2001, 14.
6 St Augustine.
7 James H. Billington, The Face of Russia, TV Books, L.L.C., 1619 Broadway, Ninth Floor, New York, NY 10019, 1998, 149.
9 Jason Peters, WW II Lecture Series, Dabney Lancaster College, March 25, 1995.
10 Edward L. Heston, The Priest of the Fathers, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1945, 147
11 The Amplified Bible, Genesis 32:27.
12 Hebrews 9:22.
13 II Corinthians 12:15.
14 Bishop Alexander, The Life of Father John of Kronstadt, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY 1070, 1979, 118.
15 St John of Kronstadt, Counsel on the Christian Priesthood, W. Jardine Grisbrooke, editor, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 10707-1699, 1994, 103, Zachariah 13:1.
16 St Jerome as quoted by Heston, 148.
17 St John Vianney, 1786-1859, French Roman Catholic Curé of Ars and patron saint of parochial priests.
18 St John Chrysostom on the Priesthood, St Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 1977, 56.
19 Isaiah 42:3: A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
20 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000, 51.
21 For an excellent treatment similar to this notion see St Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991, 84-87.
22 St John Chrysostom; also Bishop Kallistos Ware: “Repentance and confession are not just something that we do by ourselves or with the help of the priest, but above all something that God is doing with and in both of us.”
23 Ware, 45.
24 John Chryssavgis, Soul Mending, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline MA, 2000, 28.
25 St John of Kronstadt quoted by Ware, The Inner Kingdom, 47.
26 Father Arseny, compiled by the servant of God Alexander and translated by Vera Bouteneff, St Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Press, 1993, 267.
27 Fr Georges Florovsky quoting St Isaac the Syrian, Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, Notable and Academic Books, Belmont MA 02178, 1987, 231.
28 Chryssavgis, 28.
Father Richard Peters
St James Antiochian Orthodox Church
310 S. Putnam Street
Williamston MI 48895