My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
MANY CONFESS, FEW REPENT
(Source: From the book "Repentance and Confession," by Monk Moses of the Holy Mountain, "Orthodox Kypseli" publications, Thessaloniki, Greece (edited for length).
Confession is a God-given commandment, and it is one of the Sacraments of our Church.
Confession is not a formal, habitual ("to be on the safe side," or, "in view of upcoming feast-days"), forced and unprepared act, springing from an isolated duty or obligation and for psychological relief only. Confession should always be combined with repentance. A Holy Mountain Elder (Geronda) used to say:"Many confess, but few repent!" [Geronda Aemilianos of the Simonopetra Monastery, Mt. Athos]
WHAT IS REPENTANCE?
Repentance is a freely-willed, internally cultivated process of contrition and sorrow for having distanced ourselves from God through sin. True repentance has nothing to do with intolerable pain, excessive sorrow and relentless guilty feelings. That would not be sincere repentance, but a secret egotism, a feeling of our "ego" being trampled upon; an anger that is directed at our self, which then wreaks revenge because it is exposing itself and is put to shame--a thing that is cannot tolerate.
Repentance means a change in our thoughts, our mentality; it is an about-face; it is a grafting of morality and an abhorrence of sin. Repentance also means love of virtue, benevolence, desire, willingness, and a strong disposition to be re-joined with Christ through the Grace of the Almighty Holy Spirit. While repentance begins in the depths of the heart, it culminates necessarily in the sacrament of divine and sacred Confession.
THE CONFESSOR AS A "SPIRITUAL FATHER"
During confession, one confesses sincerely and humbly, as though in the presence of Christ. No scientist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, sociologist, philosopher or theologian can replace the confessor. No icon--not even the most miracle-working one--can provide what the confessor's Stole (Epitrachelion) can: the absolution of sins. The confessor takes the person under his care; he adopts him and ensures he is reborn spiritually, which is why he is called a "spiritual father."
Normally, spiritual paternity is lifelong, sacred and powerful, even more powerful than the bond of any blood relatives. Spiritual birth is a painful process. The confessor must keep track of the confessing soul, with a fear of God (as one who is "accountable to God"), with understanding, humility and love, and guide him with discretion in the ever-upward course of his in-Christ life.
The confessor-priest has been given a special blessing by his bishop for the undertaking of his confessional opus. However, this gift of "binding and un-binding" sins is initially acquired only through his ordination as presbyter, when he is rendered a successor to the Apostles. Thus, validity and canonicity in Apostolic succession, through bishops, is of central and great importance. Confession is performed (and bestows divine Grace upon the faithful), not in conjunction with the skill, the scientism, the literacy, the eloquence, the energy and the artfulness of the priest; not even with his virtue and holiness--but through the canonicity (validity) of his priesthood and through the "Master of Ceremonies"---the Holy Spirit.
The possible sins of the priest do not obstruct Divine Grace during the Sacraments. Woes betide, if the faithful were to doubt (on account of the unworthiness of the priest) that the bread and the wine actually become the Body and the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy! This of course does not mean that the priest should not have to constantly concern himself with his own "cleanliness."
Thus, there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" confessors. Each and every confessor provides the exact same absolution. However, we do have the right to choose our confessor; and of course we have the right to turn to the one who truly makes us feel at ease with him, spiritually. To constantly change our confessor however, is not a very sober decision; this kind of tendency does not reveal spiritual maturity.
The confessor's opus is not just the superficial hearing of a person's sins and the reciting of the prayer of absolution afterwards. Nor is it restricted to the hour of confession. Like a good father, the confessor continuously cares for his spiritual child; he listens to it and observes it carefully, he counsels it appropriately, he guides it along the lines of the Gospel, he highlights its talents, he does not place unnecessary burdens on it, he imposes canons with leniency only when he must, he consoles it when it is disheartened, weighed down, resentful, exhausted, and he heals it accordingly, without ever discouraging it, but constantly pursuing the struggle for the eradication of its passions and the harvesting of virtues; constantly shaping its eternal soul to be Christ-like.
This ever-developing paternal and filial relationship between confessor and spiritual child eventually culminates in a feeling of comfort, trust, respect, sanctity and elation. When confessing, one opens his heart to the confessor and discloses the innermost, the basest and most unclean--in fact, all of his--secrets, his most intimate actions and detrimental desires, even those that he would not want to confess to himself, nor tell his next-of-kin or his closest friend. For this reason, the confessor must have an absolute respect for the unlimited trust that is being shown to him by the person confessing.
This trust most assuredly builds up with time, but also by the fact that the confessor is strictly bound (in fact to the death) by the divine and Sacred Canons of the Church, to the confidentiality that confession entails.
"ECONOMY," CANONS, AND GUIDANCE
In Orthodox confession there are of course no general instructions, because the spiritual guidance that each unique soul requires is entirely personalized. Each person is unprecedented, with a particular psychosynthesis, a different character, differing potentials and abilities, limitations, tendencies, tolerances, knowledge, needs and dispositions. With the Grace of God and with divine enlightenment, the confessor must discern all these characteristics, in order to decide what he can utilize best, so that the person confessing will be helped in the best possible manner. At times, leniency will be required, while at other times, austerity.
What is required of the spiritual father is a fear of God, discernment, honesty, humility, deliberation, understanding and prayer. "Economy" (Oekonomia: to make allowances for something, exceptionally) is not demanded of the person confessing, nor is it proper for the confessor to make it a rule. "Economy" must remain an exception. "Economy" must also be a temporary measure (Archmandrite George Gregoriates). When the reasons for implementing it no longer exist, it must naturally be retracted. The same sin can be confronted in numerous ways.
A canon (penance) is not always necessary. A canon (penance) is not intended as a form of punishment. It is educative by nature. A canon is not imposed for the sake of appeasing an offended God and an atonement of the sinner in the face of Divine Justice; that is an entirely heretical teaching. A canon is usually implemented during an immature confession, with the intent to arouse awareness and a consciousness of the magnitude of one's sin. According to Orthodox teaching, "sin" is not so much the transgression of a law, as it is a lack of love towards God...
A confessor acts as the provider of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. During the hour of the Sacrament of Confession, he does not function as a psychologist and scientist. He functions as a priest, as an experienced doctor, as a caring father. When listening to the sins of the person confessing, he prays to God to give him enlightenment, to advise him what the best "medication" for cure will be, and to gauge the degree and the quality of that confession...
Our Holy Orthodox Church is the Body of the Resurrected Christ; She is a vast infirmary, for the healing of frail, sinning faithful from the trauma, the wounds and the illnesses of sin; from pathogenic demons and from the venomous demonic traps and the influences of demonically-driven passions. She is not a branch office of the Ministry of Social Services, nor does She compete against the various societies for social welfare. The Church is mainly a provider of a meaning to life, of redemption and salvation of the faithful "for the sake of whom Christ," through their participation in the Sacraments of the Church.
The priest's Stole (Epitrachelion) is a planing instrument--as the Geronda [Elder] Paisios of the Holy Mountain used to say--"that planes and straightens out a person; it is a therapeutic scalpel that excises passions, and not a trowel for workaholics, or a symbol of power. It is a servant's apron intended for ministering to people, for providing therapy and salvation." God uses the priest for the forgiveness of His creature. It is plainly stated in the absolution blessing:
"May God forgive you--through me the sinner--everything, both in the present age and in the future one, and may He render you blameless, before His awesome Seat of Judgment; having no longer any worry for the crimes that have been confessed, may you go forth in peace."
Confessed sins should not be re-confessed; it would be as though one doesn't believe in the grace of the Sacrament. God is of course aware of them, but it is for the sake of absolution, humbling and therapy that they need to be outwardly confessed. As for the occasional penance imposed for sins, one must realize that it does not negate the Church's love for the person, but that it simply an educative imposition, for a better awareness of one's offences.
(To be continued)
MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God