Archbishop Chrysostomos, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Bishop Auxentios of Etna and Portland, Confession, CTOS, Delusion, Discernment, Etna California, free will, Humility, illumination, Logismoi, mental health, mental illness, Metropolitan (Emeritus) Chrysostomos, Monastery of St. Gregory Palamas, passions, plani, prelest, Psychotherapy, Purification, revelation of thoughts, self-knowledge, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Isaac the Syrian
A Homily on Confession
by Archbishop Chrysostomos
One of the most difﬁcult things for the Orthodox Christian — and especially for converts from denominations in which confession is almost unknown — is the development of a true appreciation for the Mystery of Confession, which is, as St. Gregory Palamas tells us in his very eloquent language, essential to our spiritual “cleansing” (“Homily XXV,” Hapanta ta Erga, ed. Panagiotis K. Chrestou, Vol. X, p. 169). Many people think that Confession is somehow an optional aspect of Orthodox spiritual life, while others imagine that some personal confession to God, bereft of that emptying-out of the ego before a Priest that marks a true ﬁrst step towards genuine repentance, is somehow a substitute for the Church’s Mystery. Such thinking is quite unfortunate and leads not a few believers to an inauthentic Orthodoxy and to spiritual ruin. What is said in the “closet” (St. Matthew 6:6) surely helps one spiritually, and particularly those few who have that intense “friendship” with God that comes only with many years of spiritual experience and a certain charism from God. But even for such individuals, like those of us who are spiritual neophytes, the Church’s Mystery of Confession is indispensable.
What, indeed, could ever replace that humbling experience of putting off all social pretense, posturing, hypocrisy, self-assertion, and ego-generated bravado — the general self-advocacy that all of us embrace before others and before the world — and uncovering our inner selves before Christ in the form of a fellow human? We are lifted up in such humility, transformed by such honesty, and comforted in the good counsel of our spiritual Father and by the Presence of Christ, Who hears through the Priest our inner repentance and our fervent desire for transformation and Who, “alone having the power to forgive sins,” forgives us through the Priest of our shortcomings. And what experience could ever replace that wonderful feeling of inner cleanliness and sense of genuineness that inevitably comes to us when, having opened up our true selves to a Priest, Christ Himself comes to dwell in that vacuum which is left when our acknowledged sins, confessed in humility and with sincerity, have been wholly obliterated? Is there anything more upbuilding for the soul? More comforting for the mind? Sweeter to the heart?
It behooves us, then, to seek out this comfort of confession, this tremendous force which brings us to true knowledge of ourselves and which is such an effective therapy for the disease of sin that separates us from the image of God within us. Unfortunately, in this search, we are hindered, not only by the aforementioned misunderstanding of the indispensability of the formal Mystery of Confession, but also by our improper grasp of the dimensions of confession. I often hear our faithful say that they need only to confess that which bothers them. This is akin to saying that one need only clean the visible spots from a soiled fabric. In fact, unless one removes the unseen soil and contaminants from the hidden ﬁbers of a fabric, they will eventually rise to the surface and create more visible spots. And ﬁnally, if these are not cleaned, the surface of the fabric will become permanently corrupted, as the underlying layers that support it deteriorate and rot away. So it is with the soul. We must openly and sincerely confess those sins which naturally bother our consciences; but in seeking spiritual counsel and in examining our consciences, it is also necessary to seek out the hidden sins that eat away at our souls without our being aware of them. Confession greatly helps in this examination, since often the Grace of God reveals to a Priest or spiritual guide things that we do not see and which he can help us to see.
It is also the case that many individuals, even if they avail themselves of regular confession, will, whether out of shame or pride, conceal things from their spiritual Father. In this vein, the very ﬁnest work that I have read on the Mystery of Confession is Metropolitan Cyprian’s Écheis Eisitério? Patrick Barker [now Hieromonk Patapios] and I translated this book into English some years ago, under the title, Do You Have a Ticket? Published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies in 1994, it is still very popular among English-speaking readers. [Editor’s note: Available online at http://goo.gl/18TfOp] The central theme of this simple, straightforward, but profound book is the danger of concealing sins during confession and the liberating, transforming effect of revealing such sins, with the aid and persistent but gentle exhortation of a concerned [experienced and discerning] spiritual Father, even after years of concealment. I have encountered many individuals, including some who are present here, today, who, after reading this book, beneﬁted immensely from His Eminence‘s words and, confessing some sin that had remained secret in their hearts for years, experienced a liberating joy that in many ways changed and transformed their spiritual lives.
It follows by inference, from what I have said, that the Mystery of Confession must never involve superﬁcial, meaninglessly general, and vague revelations of sins. Of course, and especially with regard to sins of the ﬂesh, details of a graphic kind are not only unneeded, but inappropriate. However, one must permit his sins to emerge for what they are, and with enough candor to facilitate a deeper understanding of their effects on the mind and soul. A true revelation of sins certainly involves the uncomfortable process. again, of setting aside social pretense and the “artiﬁcial self” that so many present in daily life, thereby wishing to impress others or to create an untrue impression of themselves. Each time that we allow our spiritual Father to see us for what we really are (and a true Confessor beneﬁts himself, too, in this process, since he is able to see in himself what others reveal about themselves), we are changed. At least momentarily, we free ourselves from the tyranny of that “created self“ that, if it is not regularly exposed in the Mystery of Confession, will soon come to overtake us and, in deluding us from within, alienate us from our true selves and from the image of God which dwells within us.
There are many reasons that are invoked to justify ignoring all that I have written about confession. The most frequent is that many Priests cannot be trusted to abide by confessional conﬁdence. In the ﬁrst place, there are few serious clergy who would use confession to harm or discredit a spiritual ward. In fact, I know of many instances in which, having confessed this-or-that sin, and then feeling misgivings about doing so, a [repentant] will falsely accuse his Confessor of revealing a sin, either to discredit him (fearing he may in fact reveal the sin confessed) or as an excuse not to confess sincerely and openly. In the second place, a truly sincere person is willing, in the end, to suffer the consequences of his sins, whatever they may be. This point was brought home to me during the several years that I spent in post-Communist Eastern Europe. I happened to mention to a very erudite professor, with whom I was discussing the awful effect of the former atheist regime on his country (one which was predominantly Orthodox), the many people who had asked to Confess to me, some after years of avoiding confession because of the fear that a Priest might, in fact, be an agent or collaborator. This professor replied to me: “Not once did I let this fear impede me. Confession was more important to me than the consequences that might have befallen me, had I confessed to the wrong person. If some Priest had betrayed me. then the sin would have been his. I would still have beneﬁted from the spiritual relationship that went beyond him as a man.” I have always remembered that amazing afﬁrmation. We should all keep it in our minds, as we so unwisely seek reasons not to avail ourselves of the Grace of the Mystery of Confession.
Let me say that I am not preaching to you as a Confessor and someone special. I am speaking with you as a fellow sinner, with all of the deﬁcits, sins, and weaknesses that you have. I am not advising you to do something that I do not apply to myself. In fact, it is imperative that Priests and clergy confess frequently, sedulously seeking spiritual guidance, emptying themselves out. If they do not do this. they can begin to imagine themselves gurus, offering to others what they need themselves. They can come to imagine themselves exempt from confession because of their Priestly status, opening themselves up to the demonic delusion of thinking that, since they do not confess, their sins do not impede them. A good Confessor is a Confessor who feels the need to confess. And one who feels that need is one who is growing in spiritual life. For the closer that we get to God and the more that we submit ourselves to His guidance and feel and observe His Goodness, the more aware we become, simultaneously, of our own sins. We come to see that anything and everything that separates us from the Presence of Christ within us is a sin of the greatest magnitude. And in the end, it is that separation which makes sin what it is, and not the extent of our transgression. Thus, if a man repents of murder and is reconciled to God, the image of God is restored within him. By the same token, if a man entertains a hidden thought of enmity towards someone who has deeply wronged him, he is estranged from God and the image of God within him is obliterated. It is the sincerity of our confession — not the magnitude of our sin — which effects forgiveness. So it is, then, that one who serves God, however apparently minor his sin, must feel the depth of his sin and must seek forgiveness with fervour.
Finally, let me say something about the breadth of the phenomenon of confession. As I have averred, there is something beneﬁcial that derives from confessing one‘s sin in the “closet.” It is also the case that confessing to one another — laymen to laymen, as the Lord’s brother says (St. James 5:|6) — is of spiritual beneﬁt. In older times, moreover, a Priest often, in addition to Confession, would send his spiritual children to an experienced monk or spiritual advisor, and even one who was not a Priest, for spiritual counsel and guidance. Such spiritual advisors were sought out by the faithful with great fervour, as evidenced by those who ﬂocked to the pillars of the ascetic Stylites, hoping for some small word of guidance or spiritual counsel. And in monasteries and convents, the “confession” (revelation) of thoughts to the Abbot or Abbess of the community is an ancient and very important custom. Though this kind of “confessional” activity may lie outside the Mystery of Confession, it has tremendous spiritual value and often touches at the core of an individual’s spiritual life. Indeed. it was in seeking the spiritual counsel of the Blessed Fool-for-Christ, Matushka Paraskeva, that the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, revealing their sins, apparently learned of their tragic future fate from this clairvoyant woman.
Despite this breadth of spiritual practice and custom, which we must acknowledge and deeply honor as a signiﬁcant part of the charismatic life of the Orthodox Church, these things are not sufﬁcient. It still stands that absolutely nothing can replace the Mystery of Confession and the sacerdotal forgiveness of sins, which, while forgiveness comes from Christ, is bestowed only through the Grace of the Priesthood. Even if monastics may confess or reveal their thoughts to an Elder or Eldress; even if enlightened and holy Saints may reveal the hidden things of God to those who seek their counsel; even if one chooses to seek out God in the privacy of the “closet of the heart“; and even if our spiritual Fathers may at times entrust us to the counsel of some spiritual person, the Mystery of Confession and the Prayer of Absolution, which are administered solely by a [Bishop or] Priest, remain always and indubitably indispensable. Thus it was that St. Mary of Egypt, who lived like a citizen of Heaven in the desert. who was taught by the Holy Spirit, who walked on water, and who conversed with Angels — thus it was that she, joined by Grace to God, sought out before her death a Priest to whom she could confess, from whom she could receive absolution, and from whom she could Commune.
Those who seek to live without the succor of regular, sincere, and heartfelt confession, who seek reasons to justify their avoidance of a Priest — on whatever grounds and for whatever reason, whether real or contrived — imperil their souls, distort the teachings of the Church, become alienated from themselves and their fellow believers, and, above all, deny themselves that Mystery by which they are made whole (psychologically, spiritually [noetically], and ontologically), reconciled to God, and truly enlightened, becoming one with Christ. May we all heed this!
Orthodox Tradition Volume XXII, Number 2