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