Word Magazine January 1985 Page 4-5
THE SACRAMENT OF CONFESSION
AS A TOOL
BY FATHER JOSEPH ALLEN
“Until death, repentance is not limited either by seasons or acts.”
—St. Isaac The Syrian
When I was asked to share some thoughts on the Sacrament of Confession, one short phrase was added at the end of the assignment. That short phrase was indeed an important one, because it offered some orientation regarding what to emphasize in these thoughts. Remembering our limitation on length, I was asked to write about confession solely “as a tool.”
Now, what does that mean, a “tool”? And how does that word give us guidance and direction?
Well, we all know what confession is, i.e., we all know the form which is used in the Orthodox Church. But how is that form a veritable “tool”?
To answer the question, we must first remember that the form carries the meaning, and the terms speak of the content.
There are two terms in the classic literature which describe Confession: The first is exomologesis which means “to make full acknowledgement” i.e., to disclose oneself fully; the second term is metanoia which literally means to turn oneself around, to change one’s deepest mind, to “convert” from one’s old ways to a new way blessed by God. But these two words, exomologesis and metanoia, are only the first step in understanding how Confession is a “tool.” In the first term, when we “speak out” our sins, our faults — our failures — in trust to our Father Confessor or Spiritual Director, confession becomes a tool to bring light into the darkest recesses of our life. In the second term, metanoia, when we fully “realize” what we have indeed spoken out with this trusted spiritual guide, we then “make a decision,” and then, with that decision, confession becomes a tool for us to bring about a real change in our life. So then, in these terms, confession becomes a tool to speak out in trust and hope, and then a possibility to bring about a change in our minds and hearts.
But this same literature also tells us that this is a Sacrament, a Mystery — in truth, the “Mystery of Repentance” which is the best title for this spiritual action. We have been promised by Our Lord Himself that if we “repent” with our whole being, we will find the Kingdom of God. But how can that be? Where is this kingdom? And how does Confession as a Sacrament become a “tool” for finding that kingdom?
When we enter into oneness, into a unity with God — in other terms, when we enter communion with God, which we do in various ways in our life — we have tasted the presence of God. That is what happens in the Sacraments: we passover to God, and He to us. We do not have to wait until we die to taste this presence, this Kingdom. Where God is, there is the Kingdom, the realm of the Trinitarian God. He invites us into that kingdom: “Come, taste and see how good the Lord is”.
But then, where is the connection, the linkage with this sacrament being a tool? Well, it goes like this: we all sin, we all fall short. As the Great Apostle Paul, quoting various Old Testamental Prophets, said in the Epistle to the Romans: “There is no one, no, not one, who sins not!” But when things happen to us — and remember we sin “knowingly and unknowingly” as we say in our pre-Communion Prayer — when we do sin, we break with God, we fall short, we “miss the mark.” And we need a way to get back, to re-enter that oneness; in short, we need a way to be re-initiated, in a sense “re-baptized” into God’s Kingdom once again. And there precisely is where we can say Confession is a “tool.” It is — and always has been — used as a way of re-entrance. In fact, it has variously been expressed as the “Baptism of Tears,” “The Fount of Forgiveness,” a new esodos — an entrance into Christ! in which our tears wash clean our interior life.
The question, then, for all of us is this: do we use this tool? Or even more, do we use this tool correctly? Has this become a mere “juridical” requirement, a way to merely claim membership in a parish?
Although in the history of our Church it has at times been used as a legal device — in Tsarist Russia, one could not vote or hold political office unless he “went to confession” — still this is an aberration of the sacrament. Confession should not be associated with any legal terms. Indeed, the Father Confessor is not a “judge,” one who puts you in a booth while he sits in another booth. Look again at the form: He stands beside you, and you both face an Icon or Cross. This means that he is more of a “witness” to your confession to God, the only One “who lives and sins not,” and therefore the only One who can truly forgive. We must, all of us, remember that God is the only Pure One; the rest of us need to be “renewed.” The late Father Alexander Schmemann used to say that, from our point of view, the sacraments are more about “renewal” than about “purity,” and that we humans seek to be renewed in that purity which God Himself possesses. A critical “tool” for that renewal is precisely the Sacrament of Confession.
Of course, this same form —both standing together, before an Icon, most often in a rather open and public place in the Church —again speaks a truth: Confession was “public” in the early Church. “Confess your sins one to another.” Although this was the earliest practice, the sacramental life of the Church evolved and the need to find a more personal and intimate relationship with a Spiritual Director became the practice. The fact that we do participate in the Sacrament rather publicly, however, continues to remind us that when we sin against God, we sin against each other; there are no private sins; we all publicly sin against each other as well as against God.
Finally, though, if Confession is a veritable tool in these cases, we must all know that there are certain parameters as to how to use that tool. I mentioned already the need for an intimate and trustworthy relationship with one’s Father Confessor. That relationship is indeed critical, as we are constantly reminded in the ascetic literature which focuses on all these matters relative to repentance. Confession is not a “show” as it was for the Pharisee in the Parable of Pharisee and Publican. The world will see, will judge, will render an opinion, and the Pharisee counted on it. But who went down to his home “justified,” “renewed,” “healed?” It was the one who God knew truly confessed, who thought Himself not worthy to lift up his head, i.e., the Publican, what that world and society called the “filthy tax-collector” For us, this means that we are to obey our Father Confessor, our Spiritual Director, to whom God gives the ministry to guide us, to judge us, to forgive us. And this we are to do regardless of how it appears to our world and society, for while in this world, as Jesus taught us, we will have tribulation, but in the Sacrament of Confession with a true “soul-friend,” we will have healing and hope.
And so, these are but a few ways for us to understand just how Confession, the Sacrament of Repentance, becomes a “tool” to all those who search to find that communion which the Almighty God is always seeking to grant us.
Father Joseph, Director of Theological and Pastoral Education for the Archdiocese, is National Chaplain of the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch and Pastor of St. Anthony’s, Bergenfield, NJ.