Face to face with God: Confession in an Orthodox Church
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Why is confession necessary? In almost 100% of cases, this question appers in front of an individual trying to lead a church life. Those looking at the Church from the outside and often wondering how confession differs from, say, heart-to-heart conversation with a friend or a session with a psychotherapist, also ask it themselves.

Really, what is the difference? And why does a Christian definitely need a confession?

Pavel Bukurov discusses these and many other issues in the Golyanovo church of Saints Zosima and Savvaty Solovetsky with priest Alexy TIMAKOV.

Father Alexy, the first question that naturally arises for an individual in a consumer society: Why should I confess, what would it give?

Coming to confession, we begin one of the fundamental sacraments. In the Church, everything is performed by invisible action of God. Let us listen carefully to the prayer that precedes our confession. "Child, here’s Christ standing invisibly and accepting your confession.” It means, you, a human, stand face to face with God! It will be the same when you die. In this sense, the sacrament of repentance is the experience of dying...

Putting it harshly, while still alive I seem to be rehearsing my intercession before God. There can be no deception at this moment. What would I tell Him, the One who knows everything about me to the deepest end? Here, I discover my own depth voluntarily. The same depth where, in general, it is very scary. Where there is no desired purity, where sometimes there is only dirt and stench. And I spread it out before God for Him to cleanse me.

Often, when people come to me for the first time, I even tell them a joke about Chapaev. This joke is something of a parable. Telling about Chapaev going with Petka to a bathhouse to wash. "Petka, rub my back.” Petka rubs desperately. Washing away sequential layers of dirt, he says: here, another layer of dirt has come off. Ultimately, Petka shouts joyfully: “And here is the T-shirt that we lost last year!” Indeed, when we come to the sacrament of repentance, we, being so filthy, come to a bathhouse. And we begin to wash, but, unlike Petka and Chapaev, starting not from a T-shirt, but from a sheepskin coat. I don't know if we always have enough time to wash and dig till the T-shirt...

Our determination is important in confession, to come and stand before God, and be open to Him: “Lord, help me!” The mysterious action of God takes place here. God meets me carrying all my worthlessness. He heals me from my filthiness, which I bring out before Him through my good will. Lacking my sincerity, there will be no repentance. When embarking on the path of repentance, it is very important to remember that there is no sin that Lord cannot forgive. Despair in correction is a cunning demon that paralyzes my spiritual activity, disbelief in the power of God and faith in the possibility of my renewal, even despite my continuing sin.

A confession is something that has swelled, during it an individual pours out their soul. Does it mean that a confession is a purely spontaneous act? That one cannot prepare for it, otherwise it will lose its ingenuousness, would become artificial, formal?

Of course, you should prepare, how could it be otherwise? When approaching a priest, approaching the Cross and the Gospel, if I fail to live that part of my life for which I confess, I would certainly be very superficial. And when I prepare specifically and reflect about my life seriously, then, probably, I would be able to reveal and show all the hidden corners of my soul.

There is no sin as a general term... A sin is always something very specific. Unfortunately, sometimes people come to me and report: “Father, a sinful woman I am, in everything!”. Most often, it is a false humility, an attempt to create an impression of remorse, but, at the same time, not to reveal their unrighteousness specifically.

After all, we usually treat ourselves extremely indulgently: “What am I, a saint?” We pronounce this phrase, as if to say: “Am I crazy or what?” But the Orthodox way is a practice of getting sober spiritually, in which the rule of life is based not on average goodness, but on holiness. We forget that we were created according to the image of God (an image in Greek means “icon”), that we carry an icon of Christ in ourselves, given to us by God Himself. An icon, if it is not restored for a long time, darkens, turns into a “black board” (as said by Soloukhin). We bear a great responsibility for the precious gift. For every spot that we darkened this image with. It is exactly unpreparedness, superficiality, amorphousness, insincerity that results in artificiality during repentance. Only a thoughtful, timid attitude towards holiness, which is bestowed on an individual, only a sober identification of sin, of one’s unrighteousness, returns us to the road leading to Almighty. We need to return to confession again and again constantly. This way, our whole life becomes repentance. And in this sense, the Orthodox repentance is the path where we wander, stumble, fall, get up, shake ourselves off and go to the Kingdom of Heaven again.

In my opinion, there is another extreme, when an individual repenting for the first time begins to make notes scrupulously from books like “Manual for penitents” by St. Ignaty Bryanchaninov. The problem here is not that he does not have most of these sins, but that he is not able to perceive everything listed there as sin. I believe it to be something like an attempt on thesis viva right after kindergarten escaping school and university. This confession is excessively formalized. It does not mean that such books should not be used. They contain exactly what the Church classifies as sin, what it considers to be a sin. Sure, almost everything written there is our nature, but the question is whether I treat this as a sin, am I ashamed of it, and am I ready to declare war on this, while being at this spiritual level. We are certainly bad at seeing our sins well and therefore we pray: “Lord, grant me ability to see my wrongdoings.” And from one repentance to another, if we look into ourselves thoughtfully and sincerely, then gradually, sometimes very slowly, the veil falls from our spiritual eyes, spiritual weaknesses are exposed.

A repentant revision of one’s life path, reassessment of one’s actions should have clear criteria. Here, it would be good to rely on the experience of predecessors, so as not to repeat all the classic mistakes sequentially. Could you name some Christian books that can help those who are preparing for a confession?

It would be good if an individual that crossed the threshold of a church felt themselves being in the Church, not in a church building, but in a new spiritual world. As we enter the Church, we receive a gift of something indescribable, something unavailable for verbal formulations, the joy of the Church. It is almost impossible to express it. High experience thereof appears in writings by Apostle Paul: “I know a man in Christ who... was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12,2 4). Here is the feeling in a way he was able to convey it.

This joy comes to us in the Church. But in order to enter it, we also use our mind, it helps a lot. Especially when you consider that now there is some gap between generations, and the Church is visited by people who have not absorbed the Orthodox tradition with their mother’s milk. And what used to enter through the heart people now try to accommodate using their head.

Therefore, I would suggest literature that gives an opportunity to understand what happens in the Church. Probably, for a start, it would be the best to read the books by Metropolitan Bishop Anthony Surozhsky. Brochures Spiritual Journey. Reflections before the Great Lent”, “Steps”; his books such as “Conversations about Faith and the Church”, “Ways of Christian Life”, “On the Meeting” lead us into the space of the Gospel where we become truly church people. And such works as “On Prayer”, “Learn to Pray”, “Can a modern individual still pray?” pose us, Christian novices, in front of the most difficult problem of the Orthodox life, making a prayer. Why exactly his books? Because it is both accessible, clear and deep. His works are not fiction, not profanation, but serious literature written in modern language. It does not mean that there is nothing else, but I would recommend starting exactly with Master Anthony. Do not forget that a spiritual path is the safest with the guidance of a priest since there are many pitfalls and currents on this path. Usually priests are very approachable and welcoming when asked questions despite their busy schedule. (Also, book “Repentance. Confession. Spiritual guidance” by Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov will be very helpful, Ed.)

An acquaintance of mine told me about one situation. An intelligent lady approached her when she was standing in line for confession. And a short dialogue happened between them. "What’s going on here?” “A confession” “And can you ask for health here?” “Here, you can ask for forgiveness.” Hearing these words, the lady bid farewell politely and went towards the exit. Father Alexy, you are a priest and a doctor. The service of a priest and the profession of a physician are directed towards healing. Of a soul and body respectively. After all, repentance means not only cleaning from sinful defilement, but also healing from spiritual diseases?

That’s right. According to the Orthodox teaching, sin is a disease. Entering an individual, it perverts their spiritual nature. Failing to recognize sin, we would not determine a diagnosis, and failing to understand the nature of the disease, we would not even be able to begin healing. Without repentance, we resemble an unreasonable patient whom a physician diagnoses appendicitis and offers a surgery, and the patient claims that they have a runny nose and everything will go away by itself. A physician and patient must become collaborators in the fight against the disease. Likewise, the confessor and the confessed one must become allies in the struggle against sin. And it is very important that a priest with whom the confessing individual stands face to face is the assistant in repentance in Orthodox practice. This priest usually has some experience. He is always able, in one way or another, to respond to those outpourings which an individual carries to repentance.

The reaction can be disapproving, like any immediate lively response.

In Orthodoxy, a confession is always a heroic act in the form of a face-to-face meeting. It is exactly what the confessional partition takes away in Catholicism. However, it is exactly the heroic act that helps to burn sin. There is no need to confuse the sacrament of repentance with a meeting of a political party, where, whether an individual wants it or not, they are exposed to amuse the crowd demanding public self-condemnation for the fact that they “have sunk to that kind of life.” Orthodox repentance is not only a mysterious action of God’s healing grace, but also a secret of the confessing individual and confessor. And disclosure of this secret is a grave sin and a profanation of sacrament, which is fundamentally unacceptable.

Rather, repentance can be compared with a seedbed where weeds are pulled up. If they are not pulled up, then the weeds outgrow everything, if we pull up, then they still crawl out. Success is exactly in regular work: confession shall be regular. For “the forest is afraid not of the one who carries a lot, but of the one who comes often” as a Russian proverb puts it. It is what getting sober spiritually means, the more righteous an individual is, the better they see their sins.

In writings by Saint Ignaty Bryanchaninov, an extraordinary thought can be found: "Terrible self-cruelty is a rejection of repentance! Terrible coldness, self-dislike means neglecting repentance. A self-cruel one never fails to be cruel to those around them. Those compassionate to themselves by accepting repentance, become merciful to those around them altogether.” It turns out that: confession not only reconciles with God and with oneself (with the help from the voice of conscience), but also reconciles with other people?

I have already said that a human was created according to the image of God and that the image means “icon” in Greek. It means, we all, in essence, are an icon of Christ. It is not our merit, it is a gift from God given to us for safekeeping by God Himself. But at the Last Judgment, we would give an account of the multiplication of this gift. And to the simple question “Where is that jewel that I handed over to you, a human, for safekeeping?" we can hardly give an intelligible answer if we have not accustomed ourselves to a systematic restoration (to repentance), to a regular search for that true face, that source that makes us united with the Creator. Somewhere in our depths, we feel this authenticity of ours intuitively (after all, the image of God in a human is indestructible). But we manage to turn it around and make it a rejection of repentance: “Am I worse than others, or what?” Whereas the beginning of repentance is a sober understanding that I am not better than others at least. Here, there can be no quantitative comparison of my merits and demerits with the merits and demerits of another.

That measure, or, more precisely, that immensity of the gifts with which Lord showered me, and which I turned to dust, is the criterion of repentance. What another one did with their gifts is, first of all, their business, it means it is the secret of their confession, and this is the business of God’s judgment, not my condemnation. Here, the experience of our love, or at least being in love, can help us a lot. After all, to love an individual means to look at them in such a way, to penetrate so deeply to see their true spiritual essence, which is the image of God, the icon. Like an experienced restorer, who was provided with an ancient darkened board, is able to penetrate through the painted, darkened layers and exclaim: "Oh, what a beauty!”. Likewise, Lord reveals to us the ability to penetrate through the visible, but superficial, i.e. meaningless, into something genuine, deep hidden in another person. How many times have we wondered, looking at someone in love: “What has he found in her?” How often others were surprised when they looked at the individual who impressed us. But what is real, true is the image of God seen by one individual, even if it is hidden from others, and not this bewilderment, inability to see deeply. It is important to understand, as Master Anthony writes in book “Sacrament of Love”, what I pay attention to when I look at an icon: to damage suffered by the icon or to a wondrous face.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4,8). And to stop loving means to exchange the gift of deep penetration into the essence of another individual for a petty calculation of the quantitative characteristics of their useful and harmful qualities. The path of repentance makes us sober. It forces us to be demanding of ourselves and sympathetic to those around us exactly because I am no better than another individual, that we both have the same human dignity, that we are both created according to the image of God.

“Know yourself!” is the ultimate task that humans have been setting themselves for more than multiple thousand years. The task is very difficult. For example, what to do, if you feel that you need to confess, and at the same time you do not know what to say during confession?

Perhaps, such a feeling can arise only at the beginning of a church path, when we proceed from a wrong premise in relation to ourselves that I am no worse than other people, when I am too indulgent to myself. Intuitively, we feel our godlike nature and at the same time we feel that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, namely in our soul. We begin to feel that with our lives, actions, feelings, words we are causing discord in the way of life that God has laid in us. At the same time, we do not identify clearly the reasons of this disharmony since we do not see anything extraordinary, no matter what bad things we do since, as it seems to us, everyone does that. But personal sin leads to personal, or local, loosening of the foundations of being, and the common sin of all people leads to disharmony of the whole world, and we also feel it very well.

Therefore, when you come to confession, it is very important to see your untruth specifically. Sin is specific and repentance must be the same. Regardless of whether everyone does this or not, it is important that I have no right to do this, I recognized this lie in myself sincerely, and I must leave it. For a start, let it be two or three specific, but my sins. Subsequently, Lord would open my spiritual vision, and I would see more. The more righteous an individual is, the more sins they see in themselves, the greater the burden of sins they can get rid of through repentance.

At confession, one has to confess to actions that do not add to one’s credit. It’s difficult to get over a feeling of shame ...

Embarrassment I carry to confession, especially the first one, is the stumbling block. Embarrassment is caused not only by shame, but also by distrust of the priest. It is important to remember that I confess to God, not to a priest who is “just a witness” and if I’m lucky, an assistant.

My determination is necessary. It is very important what exactly I expect from confession: The Last Judgment or self-justification? During one private conversation, Archpriest Valentin Timakov said: “There is no place for jurisprudence in the next world! “ I come to confession like to the Last Judgment. And this is more giving oneself up than weighing of my virtues and wrongdoings taking into account their mitigating circumstances. I am very far from the Protestant attitude: if you started believing in Christ, then, you see, you are already saved, and the Last Judgment is useless. According to Patriarch Sergiy (Stargorodsky), a Protestant seeks not so much salvation as “impunity of committed sins." On the other hand, Catholic scrupulousness in weighing righteousness and sinfulness on the scales, when determining: whether an individual is saved or not? or perhaps they should be fried in purgatory a little? (as if God needed our torment!) is unacceptable. Otherwise, the phenomenon of a prudent robber is impossible.

Yes, Christ promised him: "Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Immediately in paradise, bypassing the fictional purgatory.

What I am about to say should be taken as an illustration, parable, but nothing more. Imagine ourselves as inhabitants of a cave where almost no light penetrates. It seems, eyes are not needed since we know where to bend not to bang our head against a stalactite, where to catch a crucian carp in an underground river. Where to wade it, where to take a snail off a cliff to eat. We have adapted to darkness and forgotten about the eyes. Vision is not gone, but it is not in demand. And if such a caveman is suddenly pulled out into the light at a bright noon, his eyes would hurt, and he would scream: “Take me back to the cave, I don't want light! “. After death, we would stand with our unclaimed spiritual eyes before the unfading Light of God and scream: “It hurts me to look at You! I don’t want to be with You!” It means, perhaps at the Last Judgment it would not be God who abandons a human, but a human would abandon God. What is scary, it is exactly that!

Our present life is a labyrinth cave. If I move along this labyrinth, even with difficulty, and overcome one hundred and thirty-nine turns, then I can see a barely noticeable glare of light on the opposite rock reflected by an underground river. And if I go even further, after thirty turns I can already distinguish the play of chiaroscuro. And if I do it regularly, my eyes would learn to perceive light, and when I am pulled out on that very bright noon, of course, I would screw up my eyes due to extraordinary radiance. But, perhaps, I would not wish to return right away, but I would try to get used to the strong light. A virtuous life, experience of prayer, is a training of our spiritual vision on the way out of the labyrinth. It will hopefully allow us to say: “Your Light, Lord, is difficult for our darkness, but bear with me, I will try to withstand it”.

There are no guarantees here, but only hope. There is no reckoning on one's own achievements, but hope for the mercy of God. However, no God’s mercy is capable of pulling us out of our darkness against our desire. And the theandric work of our salvation begins with repentance: “Teshuva!” (“Repent!” in the Old Testament language means “Turn your face to God!” - compare Matthew 4:17 and Deuteronomy 30:2.) When embarking on the heroic act of a face-to-face confession, it is very important to understand that it is sin which is shameful, but failing to repent, that the feeling of shame about what has been done is a flame burning sin, that the fear of God is not fear in front of God or horror of punishment, but fear of offending the infinitely close and loving one, fear to break off the thin intimate threads that connect us with the Creator. It is important to remember: it is necessary for me personally, and not for someone else. My eternal life or death depends on it.

An individual confesses before God in the presence of a priest. What is the role of each of the three participants of the confession?

God knocks at the door of the heart of each of us, waiting whether we open or not so that He can come in and have supper (Revelation 3:20). It means, so that the Last Supper, the Liturgy is performed in my heart. God longs for my love, but does not demand. He longs for our salvation, but leaves it to our conscience to decide, without pressing for a positive answer. Therefore, the relationship with God can be only extremely sincere. It is pointless to come to confession being guile. The question that was initially and forever raised before me is simple and sounds like this: “Who do you want to be with, human, with Christ or not?” And the answer is equally extremely simple: “With You" or “No”. But the answer is not easy! For this is the answer of a lifetime.

Yes, the path is available of a prudent robber who killed and robbed all his life but hanging on the cross cried out: “Lord, my whole life is sheer horror, but I suddenly saw Your Light and for some reason I did not become blind. Moreover, I am able to withstand it further. Don’t take it away from me. Think of me in Your Kingdom!” This path is possible, and I will not accept bewilderment: Why do bandits, “new Russians” or old communists come to the Church? But at the same time, I remember that the second robber hanging to the left of Christ sincerely was incapable of absorbing the Light of Christ, the sins prevented that. A priest can actually help a newcomer, but complete sincerity is required from the confessing individual. At the same time, I understand very well that, no matter how courteously I, the priest, treat anyone who comes, there will always be those who will never dare to approach me personally, or, having approached, would not get what they expected. I remember very well those who go away from me despite all my efforts. But God has a lot of everything, so there is another priest in whom you can find spiritual affinity. Each individual is unique, and all priests are also different. It is important to find the one who is yours. After all, each confessor has their own congregation. Someone has more, someone less, but, as a rule, children believe that they have the best confessor, for God has put into their mouth the words most needed at some moment.

Sometimes you confess, and a load is off mind, but it is far from every time when you feel spiritual relief. Does it depend on the mental attitude with which you start?

What is important is sincerity, which generates mental attitude, although the mental attitude can be born during a conversation with a confessor. But, indeed, it happens that people leave after confession feeling resentment against the priest. I believe it happens because we perceive the very fact of our coming as valor. We seem to be doing a favor to God, although we need it ourselves. One gospel story can explain the true state of affairs. A Canaanite woman followed Jesus and was crying out from the depths of her suffering soul: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly“(Matthew 15:22-28). She realized that life and death, and healing of her daughter depend only on Him. Lord went on as if not noticing her. But she kept on crying. The disciples became uncomfortable, and they persuaded Savior to fulfill her request, well, that’s not too much to ask of You, Lord; It’s not hard for you to forgive her. But Christ refused, referring to the words of the Law: He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. The woman, being a heathen, put herself outside the Law. But she was still begging. And then Christ uttered harsh words “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” calling her, in fact, a dog. How many of us are capable of enduring such a comparison? Who is so aware of their semi-paganism, their sinfulness? Sure, Lord saw the depths of her heart, to which He address so harsh accusations, and wanted to show her amazing answer to everyone: “Yes it is, Lord! Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. Only through humility, spiritual misery, we can be forgiven by God just like this woman was forgiven. We, who are doing God a favor with our visit to Him, hearing the priest’s reproof, become outraged, harp about rights and leave slamming the door. But I am convinced: all the trouble and harassment that we get in life and, specifically, within the walls of the church, we get either deservedly or for future use. At that, it would be good to comprehend for yourself that something is usually given for future use... to saints!