Repentance and Confession (Part V)

St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and Enlightener of North America

St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and Enlightener of North America

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Mystery (Sacrament) of Confession

A word must be said about "general" confession, as distinct from a face-to-face confession between penitent and priest. General confession, in certain circumstances, could be a living model of repentance as a communal act, involving the whole body of the Church and as such manifesting the very essence of confession, involving intimate self-examination on the part of the penitent and possible guidance on the part of the confessor. Altogether, the function of the priest should not be ignored or minimized. "All who have experienced the blessing of having as their confessor one imbued with the grace of true spiritual fatherhood," writes His Eminence Kallistos Ware, "will testify to the importance of the priest's role. Nor is his function simply to give advice. There is nothing automatic about the absolution which he pronounces. He can bind as well as loose. He can withhold absolution--although this is very rare--or he can impose a penance (epitimion), forbidding the penitent to receive Holy Communion for a time--or requiring the fulfillment of some task. This, again, is not very common in contemporary Orthodox Christian practice, but it is important to remember that the priest possesses this right...Not that the penance should be regarded as punishment; still less should it be viewed as a way of expiating an offense...We don't acquire 'merit' by fulfilling a penance, for in his relation to God man can never claim any merit of his own. Here, as always, we should think primarily in therapeutic rather than juridical terms."

The most significant effect of confession is indeed due neither to the penitent nor to the priest, but to God Who heals our infirmities and wounds. It is not a matter of a let off, a clearance; it has the force of healing, of making the penitent whole. As such it is a gift from God which man must be open to receive, and learn to receive: "Let us apply to ourselves the saving medicine of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us. For it is not we who offer to Him, but He who bestows it upon us." It is significant that the Greek for confession, exomologesis, implies not only confession but also thanksgiving (cf. St. Matthew 11:25; St. Luke 10:21): "I shall confess/give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, and tell of all His wonders" (Psalm 9:1).

Reference has already been made to the cloud of guilt which at times shrouds the sacrament of confession. It is by no means a theoretical question, for guilt is part of the tragedy experienced by many people, whether in their personal lives or in the face of the appalling sufferings and misery - mental, physical, social - which afflict the world at large today and for which we all share the responsibility and the guilt. But in the specific context of repentance and confession, guilt is a highly misleading concept, largely fostered by Western thinking (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism). It originates in a hypertrophied individualistic, self-regarding view of sin and salvation, and indeed of repentance with its attendant legalistically oriented penitential system. Orthodox Christianity always resisted legalism, whether in repentance or in confession, eschewing both undue confidence in man's achievement or merit and the overwhelming sense of guilt, which is the negative aspect of being centered on oneself and seeking for some means of propitiating God's wrath. By contrast with this God is seen to declare His love for men at their most unacceptable. It is God's identification with man and His loving acceptance of the worst that men can do that makes repentance and confession a way of rediscovering God and oneself, and thereby of being set on the road to a full and loving relationship with God and with other men. There is no mention in Holy Scripture of the word "guilt" (ένοχή), although there is the adjective "guilty" (ένοχος). Instead of "guilt" there is "sin" (αμαρτία) - failure, loss, a break-up in relations, resulting in a kind of consciousness. Even "ένέχομαι" implies keeping fast within, cherishing, sharing, as distinct from being ashamed in the face of God Who inflicts retributive punishment.

Break in communication or communion can lead to pathological forms of guilt. But there is guilt born of a sense of responsibility for others as well as for oneself, leading one to an awareness of other people. The Christian view of man is largely a social one. Where there is a breakdown in personal love, or a rise in institutionalism, one finds a thickening of the atmosphere of guilt. Its antidote is collective confession, communal prayer to "our Father." A saint (a Christian believer) might confess daily without fear of neurosis, because he is in constant communion with God and man. Acknowledgment of one's limitations leads to personal communion with God Who alone can erase sin: "I acknowledge my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity...Then You did forgive the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32:5).

Through the forgiveness of sins in confession, the past is no longer an intolerable burden but rather an encouragement of what lies ahead. Life acquires an attitude of expectation, not of despondency; and confession becomes the way out of the impasse caused by sin. In this respect, repentance is also an eschatological act, realizing in our very midst, here and now, the promises of the age to come. Looking backwards would seem to imply the fate of Lot's wife (Genesis 19:26); "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit to the Kingdom of God" (St. Luke 9:62). God Himself is revealed before us and walks in front of us. "One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" (Philippians 3:13). (Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America).




O Christ our God, Who at all times and at every hour, both in heaven and on earth, are worshipped and glorified, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy and compassion; Who love the just and show mercy to the sinners; Who call all men t salvation through the promise of the blessings to come: Do You, the same Lord, receive also our supplications at this present time, and direct our lives according to Your Commandments. Sanctify our souls; purify our bodies; set our minds right; clear up our thoughts, and deliver us from every sorrow, evil and distress. Surround us with Your Holy Angels so that being guarded and guided by their presence, we may arrive at the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Your ineffable glory; for Blessed are You unto the ages of ages. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--St. John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George