If We Confess Our Sins


If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:9)

Confession is treated as one of the sacraments (mysteries) of the faith. In most cases it is done with a priest, within the confines of the canonical discipline of the Church. But what makes a good confession? I have written here recently that sin is not a “legal” problem. If that is true, then what is the nature of what we are confessing? Why do we confess and what difference does it make?

The Scriptures say, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Confession is linked to healing  and this is the heart of the matter. Confession is not a legal matter, a requirement imposed by God in order to earn His forgiveness. God always forgives us, everywhere and for all things. But our sins are not legal problems, mere breaking of the rules. Sin is like a disease, something that makes us spiritually, and even physically, sick. And like a disease, we often need medicine in order to be healed. We can certainly overcome an infection without medication, but an infection is also in danger of spreading and doing great, even fatal damage.

The same is true of our sin. We may be forgiven and healed without confession, but there is a very great danger that the true nature of the sin will not be recognized by us, nor correctly treated, nor healed. Sin that remains untreated easily becomes a festering wound in the soul, darkening our mind and poisoning even unrelated aspects of our lives.

A very common example of this poison is the experience of shame. Psychologists describe shame as among the most primitive of emotions. It is the feeling that we have not only done something wrong, but that we ourselves are something wrong. It’s mildest form is mere embarrassment. But it quickly becomes toxic and paralyzing. As an emotion, it is so painful that people quickly (and unconsciously) transform it into another emotion: anger and depression are the two most commonly cited. We hide our shame and find it too painful to examine, much less to share with another.

This is highly important for the sacrament of confession. Most of the “things” we have done wrong, whether lying, cheating, sexual peccadilloes or instances of anger, etc., are common, and known to be common. Our confession of such things quickly becomes little more than the admission that we are like other people. Indeed, people frequently say something to this effect in their confessions. Very little if anything is healed in such an effort.

The Fathers are quite clear, as is the Scripture, that the heart is the primary goal in confession.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart– These, O God, You will not despise. (Psa 51:17)

It is quite difficult to muster any serious level of contrition by admitting that you are no worse than anyone else. “I am average,” is not the voice of a broken heart. Mediocrity is the enemy of the spiritual life.

This is where confession becomes difficult. Going beneath the surface and pulling back the curtain of secrecy with which we hide our true shame and the depth of our fears is essential in the work of contrition.

The confession becomes difficult not only for the one who shares such power-charged places within the heart, but difficult as well for the one who hears and bears witness to such things. To sit as a priest in the holy place of human-shame-revealed is to hold a soul at its most vulnerable moment. Any effort to heap more shame on someone at such a time would be deeply toxic.

It is a great sin for a priest to judge someone who comes to confession. He must not be fearful nor should he seek to control the outcome of someone’s contrition or seek to make a penitent “behave.” While some great elders have the gifts and wisdom for directing souls, very few priests do. And to play ignorant or silly spiritual games with the lives of others is a far greater sin than any that a priest might hear.

But in the place of a trusted confessor, the penitent can begin the difficult task of revealing their shame and their toxic behaviors.

An interesting example of toxic behaviors/thoughts is that of sins that can be described as envy. Envy is far more than wanting what someone else has (that is mere covetousness). Envy is the joy we feel over the pain and suffering of others. I have written before of how deeply enmeshed the sin of envy is in what our culture describes as a desire for justice. Most complaints that something is not fair carries a large amount of envy. Envy is dark and brooding. The Scripture says that it was envy that crucified Christ. Christ also speaks of this when He says, “But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness” (Luk 11:34).  The Greek here could just as well be translated “evil eye,” for that is precisely the nature of the “evil eye” – envy.

As average, mediocre Christians, we rarely engage in actual acts of harm. But our evil eye rejoices at the harm that befalls others – particularly famous people and political leaders with whom we disagree. It is, ultimately, the heart of murder.

To reveal such darkness within ourselves is the path towards contrition and a broken heart. The prayers of the Church teach us to say of ourselves that we are the “worst of sinners.” Of course, in a congregation, surrounded by other spiritual mediocrities, it is easy to say such things about ourselves. After all, everyone in the room is claiming the same thing!

Sin is not a legal issue. Forgiveness, the medicine for sin, has already been given by God. It is the hiddenness of our disease that makes healing difficult. And so we hear:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:9)

and also,

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)

Both verses say the same thing. “Confess your sins,” is the equivalent of “walking in the light.” It is to leave behind the darkness of make-believe and secrecy.  Confession, letting the light shine in the darkest parts of our lives, brings about the healing possibility of communion with others (and with God) in which the blood (life) of Jesus heals and cleanses us.

So, if forgiveness is not about a legal problem, then what is its purpose? This is another way of asking what is the nature of the human spiritual problem – what is sin?

Sin is death. That is the first simple way of stating our problem. But death is more than the mortality of our bodies. Death is also a correct way to describe the entire process of movement away from union with God. The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is the Lord and Giver of Life. He is the author of our Being, the Ground of all existence. As St. Paul states: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

Thus movement away from God, away from communion, is a movement away from true existence, from true being and true life. It is to live in a manner in which things are falling apart, in decay and corruption. In moral terms, this process of death is manifest as those things popularly known as “sins.” But these are but the outward signs of an inward disease. This disease infects relationships and all human activity. It can be revealed even in the general artifacts of culture itself. The true life which is a gift of God also has a hallmark of beauty. There plenty of beautiful things to be found even in a sin-wracked culture, but often with strange perversions. Beauty begins to lose its transcendence, and instead of pointing beyond itself, it begins to collapse.

Even in material culture such as food and clothing, the process of death begins to degrade the true nature of everything. People begin to cook and eat for pleasure (or worse) without regard for substance. We dress for selfish effect and no longer for practical or honorable reasons.

Do we call a fat-filled, over-salted, over-sweetened cheeseburger a sin? Do we confess our Big Macs?

In and of itself, such an artifact is trivial, hardly worth the mention. But the failure to recognize what is going on in the world and our own role within it is significant indeed. We refuse to come into the light and share in making the world darker in every way. For many children born into the world, almost every path that stretches before them ends in darkness – not of their own making.

In our relationships with others this same forgiveness, this same play between light and dark, life and death are at work. Christ describes our forgiveness towards our enemies in terms that unite it to the life-giving kindness of God:

But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:44-45)

Forgiveness is the word we give to the healing of this dark madness of death. It is light and resurrection. It is the destruction of death and the creation of life. It is the recreation of the human person according to the image and likeness of God.

There are manifestations of this healing. Just as death is the root of sin, so life is the root of righteousness and holiness. Kindness and generosity, self-sacrifice and love become not only possible but living realities. A proper regard for the self in relation to others as well as to God becomes increasingly normal. Joy and the ecstasy of existence itself become hallmarks of the inner life. A growing compassion for all existing things marks more and more of our thoughts. Beauty surrounds the work of this healing. Civilizations that have promoted this work of forgiveness have produced some of the greatest treasures of human history. Meaning and purpose focus on compassion and transcendence rather than mere utility and profitability.

The most telling artifact of sin is a rotting human body which spreads its contagion to everything around it. It must be disposed of and quarantined to protect the health of those around it. Similarly a telling artifact of forgiveness is the incorrupt body of a saint, which far from endangering the health of those around it, becomes a sought after and treasured relic precisely for its wonderworking and life-giving miracles, even raising the dead (2 Kings 13:21).

Forgiveness is nothing less than eternal life working in us. Thus when we come to receive the life-giving mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ we hear: “the servant of God, N., partakes the precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”

To be cleansed of sin is to be freed from death.

A good confession is one in which the heart is broken and contrite, in which the light of God is able to shine not only on the symptoms of sin, but on their root. With such compunction before God, the work of the Spirit bears great fruit. A life lived with such compunction is the stuff of which saints are made.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


61 responses to “If We Confess Our Sins”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thanks be to God, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for this very very difficult nonetheless comforting blog post. Glory to God for all things!

  2. Eric Avatar

    Thnk you, Fr Stephen for your words. Might I ask, what does it mean to eat ‘without regard for substance’?
    Thank you

  3. davidp Avatar

    A-men and a-men. One way I saw a problem many decades ago are those who said they confess to God their sin and be as hard as nails to those where there was a conflict. I just had to leave it to God and have His Holy Spirit do the changing whether the problem was within me or in them.

  4. Gillian Trewinnard Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this and your other helpful posts. I have only recently found this site and am very grateful for the deep and compassionate teaching you offer. I am an Anglican Christian from a small town in New Zealand. Over the I have felt that I need the sacrament of confession but this is not readily available in my area and is seen as ‘unusual’ in the Anglican church in my province. In a place where this sacrament is available, what would you recommend for someone like me? I am perceived by fellow parishioners, including the clergy, as ‘good’ and ‘nice’ – but in reality I am in need of healing.

  5. Gillian Trewinnard Avatar

    P.S. Sorry about the typing mistakes – I meant to write ‘over the years I have felt the need…’ and ‘where this sacrament is NOT available’. Apologies.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Such situations as you describe put us in difficult positions. The first thing I would do would be to approach your pastor privately. As I recall, though confession is rare in many Anglican settings, it is not forbidden. If he/she is a person of discernment and discretion, God can meet you there. There is a difference between the need for confession as the need to let light shine in the darkness and confession needed because guidance is also part of it. The first of these can be easier to find than the second.

    Also, rather than press yourself to find a solution, press God. Pray and ask for His help in this. Opportunities and answers have a way of appearing.

  7. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen. I have been wondering lately why the prayers of the Church so often put the words of asking forgiveness in our mouths, when of course God has already forgiven us. I had realized that sin is not a legal problem, but not that forgiveness is not just a legal answer.

  8. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This is excellent, Fr. Stephen, very clearly written and helpful. As always 🙂 I have a question or two.

    Your example of envy is most helpful. Can you provide any other examples that may help us identify some of the underlying “roots” that we may be hiding from ourselves?

    I have prayed to God to help me see my sinfulness and, as much as I didn’t want to say that prayer, it has been very helpful. However, I am wondering if you know of any written preparations for confession that are available to help with the sort of confession you are recommending. (Most of what I find in RC literature and in online search for Orthodox is rather “legal” in approach.)

    Also, although I have long since abandoned the “list-making” approach to confession, do you have any recommendations for how one might bring forth in words these more shameful elements of ourselves in the confession itself? I am certainly not asking for a formula and I do not fully understand the differences between RC and Orthodox confession, but I have sensed that others on the blog may have this question as well. Thanks.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not aware of preparatory materials that do this very well. Most of them seem very “forensic” in their approach, alas. This sort of approach to confession is oftentimes best done in what is called a “life” confession. Where we are looking at longer patterns and events. One monastic whom I know recommended that people consider such a thing once a year.

    A good confessor is the best guide. And they are hard to find.

  10. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    Perhaps you could write such preparatory materials for us – in your spare time, of course 🙂

    Finding a good confessor is key and I appreciate your remarks regarding what we should NOT experience from a confessor. While my experiences with confessors has always been good, it is important for people to be aware of the signs of spiritual abuse so they don’t avoid the sacrament unnecessarily if this should happen.

  11. Dean Avatar

    I was reminded by your question to Fr. Freeman about an article written by Metropolitan Jonah. An excerpt of the article can be found on this blog site 1/4/2010 with a link to full article. It is entitled, ” Do not resent, do not react and keep inner stillness.” He treats of the prayer of stillness, surrender and detachment, emptying of the subconscious, imagination, resentment and the last excellent section is on repentance and confession. It has aided me in readying myself for confession. Perhaps it will help you too.

  12. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Dean.

    I just took a glance at it and will print it as it looks very good. (A note to others – if you follow the link to the monastery website, it is under “resources”, then “articles.)

  13. MrsMutton Avatar

    I’m printing this out and saving it in my Planner, something to read again and again. Let me know if you plan to put it into your next book, because that’s a book I definitely want in my library.

  14. Dino Avatar

    I do not claim to know with certainty why some seekers are bestowed (while others aren’t) those rare, charismatic confessors as their Fathers in Christ, whose advise and healing truly is beyond words, and whose indelible influence on their spiritual children is non other than the very birth of Christ in them. It invariably feels like the greatest gift for the beneficiary. It is often a matter of life-timing too, both for the confessor and the one who confesses.
    The list-making is often a solution in these cases too, we must resort to however, because all our problems and questions etc are often forgotten in the luminous presence of such charismatic priests.
    I remember fondly having this conversation many times in the past, when all the people who would go to confess to a famous Elder would repeat that ‘we go there drowning in problems, yet we forget all of them, simply upon encountering him! He therefore advised us to write them all down next time…’
    A life confession is a luxury with a confessor of such high demand, however, it is most certainly a kind of ‘betrothal’ once it’s happened…

    The ultimate “root” that we may be hiding from ourselves (as Mary put it) often has some connection to the fact that our inner motives are always selfish – not just in sin but even in ‘virtue’.
    It is not so much the unspeakable sins of perversions beyond the norm that humble us (in the sense of the saints’ humility), it far more the secret darkness that lies in our heart -even once we have long ceased to take part in the ‘usual’ sins- and is only brought to the open through a life of ‘extreme’ watchfulness.
    God’s light shines on man’s heart and reveals to us that, (even) all our prayers and ‘virtues’ are pure luciferean selfishness, that we want God’s gifts rather than Him, that we want our ego’s recognition in every tear, that our attachments somehow pollute our every ‘love’. It is painful, but without despairing from ourselves in this way and therefore firmly putting all our hopes (at long last) in God’s help only, and staying ‘fixed in that place’, we never see the fruits of stability in joy, stability in humility and stability in love…

  15. Claire Avatar

    I find this guideline for confession preparation really interesting and different, refreshing. http://www.alexandermen.com/Preparation_for_Confession

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for this link. I had not seen it before. It is, indeed, both different and interesting – doubtless quite useful for many.

  17. Karen Avatar

    There’s also a good post on preparation for confession here:


    Though it is intended for children, I think it gets down to the real issues for adults as well.

  18. Karen Avatar

    Mary Benton, Fr. George Arturo has a Youtube video on the passions and their roots in Orthodox tradition, which may also be helpful:


    The video that deals with the Seven Deadly Sins and the Passions is the one I had in mind relative to your question, but likely in your profession, you would find many of his other series interesting and helpful as well.

  19. Karen Avatar

    Sorry, Mary, that should be Fr. George Aquaro (not Arturo).

  20. […] If We Confess Our Sins – Glory to God For All Things […]

  21. mushroom Avatar

    As an emotion, it is so painful that people quickly (and unconsciously) transform it into another emotion: anger and depression are the two most commonly cited.

    Yes, that’s hitting uncomfortably close to home.

    I would say, too, in my case, I am often guilty of confessing the blossom while ignoring the root. I will try to do better.

    Thank you.

  22. orthorusyn Avatar


    I really appreciate your insistence on the truth that God forgives all the time, and in all places. In my Roman Catholic days, I struggled long and hard worrying about my legal status (“Am I in a state of grace??? Am I worthy to receive the Eucharist? What about each of my sins? Are these venial, or are these mortal??”). Shame and guilt can be powerful tools to prompt repentance, but for a person who struggles with addiction (such as myself), shame is just part of the cycle of disease. It keeps me sick.

    I was recently listening to a talk given by the late +Fr. Alexander Atty, and he made pointed out that we are never truly worthy to receive the Eucharist. God makes us worthy.

    Why would we ever say that we receive the Most Pure Body and Precious Blood of our Lord if we think we have to be 100% free of all sin before approaching the chalice? There is a difference between proper preparation (‘discerning the Body’) versus legalism.

  23. Nathan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I would love to hear your opinion on the link between confession & communion (if indeed there is any). I’m troubled by the insistence on a 1 to 1 ratio found in some circles. It seems that Holy Communion is what we absolutely need more than anything and we are never worthy to receive it. All of the preparatory prayers say as much! Is our tendency to have two camps of Orthodox Christians – those who are communing on any given Sunday and those who are abstaining because of X, Y and Z – an absurdity?

    In practical terms, where do we draw the “you shouldn’t receive Commune until you go to Confession” line?

    An interview with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokalamsk that I recently read stuck out to me: “Moreover, I consider it ecclesiastically nonsensical to attend the Liturgy without communing. Christ’s words, spoken by the priest: “Take, eat, this is My Body,” and “Drink of it all of you; this is My Blood of the New Testament…” and the deacon’s words, “With fear of God, and faith, draw nigh,” are addressed to everyone in the church, not to some category of people, e.g., those who have prepared for Holy Communion. Of course, here it is necessary to avoid extremes, and it is important that, in accordance with the words of the Holy Apostle St. Paul, one should approach the Holy Mysteries of Christ with discernment, lest Communion become a ritual formality, and frequent Communion engender a sense of becoming accustomed to that greatest of Mysteries. But I repeat that frequent, regular Communion should be the foundation of the spiritual life of any Christian. It is hard for me to imagine my life without Communion at least once a week. In a certain sense, I live from one Sunday to the next, from one Feast to the next. It is Communion that gives one the strength to be a Christian.”

  24. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I appreciated your comments as one who still is RC. It seems that the emphasis of the Catholic Church on rules and regulations has the unfortunate impact of stirring up obsessive dilemmas for many sensitives souls – my own included some years ago.

    While making a distinction between a so-called venial and mortal sin seems to help “draw the line” that Nathan asks for in deciding to receive communion, it doesn’t really – because it opens all of the questions you raise. It is not so easy in practice to decide how serious a given sin is, given mitigating factors, etc. The next thing we know, it has become a legal problem.

    Although I certainly have no answers, it seems in the end that sincerity of heart, trust in God’s mercy, humility and love are most important.

    We must be humble enough to confess and know that we need God’s mercy. And yet trust enough in His mercy so as not to overly focus on our sinfulness and make it a reason not to receive communion if our hearts are sincere.

    If we are prone to tying ourselves in knots with worry (and those of us who are know that we are), we simply throw ourselves on God’s mercy, knowing that is far more important for us to keep our eyes on God than on ourselves and our sins.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nathan, there is definately a link, but the extent and nature of that link is the question. It is easy to fall into the trap of not partaking because of failure to confess but not confessing either….

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is always a link between repentance and communion. St. Paul’s admonition about receiving communion properly is the root of that understanding. Having said that, this need for repentance and preparation have been displayed in a variety of ways throughout Orthodox history. Remember here, that the preparation for communion is the preparation to receive healing and transformation, not a legal acquittal.

    Communion and confession are not always linked in Orthodox cultures. Greek Orthodox do not at present make the same connection that is common among the Russian Orthodox. I have met Greek Orthodox Christians (as well as many other Orthodox) who have pretty much never been to confession in their life. This is not common, but is simply an example of how this varies across Orthodox cultures.

    Russian practice (as well as some others) has made a strong insistence on the need for confession. This became a matter of public policy under the Tsars. To be employed by the state (which was a large amount of employment) one had to be an Orthodox Christian in good standing. Good standing required confession and communion at least once a year. For some, this was their “maximum.” A piety accompanied this development in which communion was seen as needing increasingly stringent preparation. It became the crowning act of penitential struggle. As such, receiving communion on Pascha was thought by many (on a popular level) to be too penitential for such a joyous occasion. Most, instead, received their Paschal communion on Holy Thursday. It is understandable, but represents something of a bizarre evolution of piety.

    The frequent reception of communion, clearly the practice of the early Church, became uncommon throughout Orthodoxy over time. A variety of movements within Orthodoxy sought to change this – the Kollyvades on Mt. Athos in the 18th century are credited with helping revive the frequent reception of communion in Greek Orthodoxy – though there are many who still receive on an infrequent basis.

    In Russian practice the move towards frequent communion has been much more recent – 20th century and the present. St. John of Kronstadt taught the frequent reception of communion very strongly – icons of him often portray him with a communion cup. Fr. Alexander Schmemann and the hierarchs of the OCA made great strides in frequent reception beginning in the 70’s.

    It’s in this context that the connection between confession and communion became forged. If you’re only receiving once a year, for example, it makes sense to make confession before receiving. As a side note, I should point out that Russian Orthodox piety has always tended towards maximalism. It’s almost a national trait. Anything important is worth doing carefully, and even with great struggle. Communion as a crowning act of preparation and confession met fertile ground in the Russian soul. And there is much to commend in such piety.

    The “latinization” of confession is also a factor. Influence from Catholic practice and piety was problematic from the 17th century until the late 19th century in many parts of the Orthodox world. Manuals for the training of priests often borrowed heavily from Catholic sources (theology was taught in Latin for a while in some Russian schools)!

    In bringing us to the present – it’s easy to say that Orthodox communion practices vary widely. If you’re in a parish of Russian background, then you’ll likely find a stronger connection between communion and confession. And, of course, in our American melting pot, that influence can be found outside of the Russians as well.

    It is interesting that you quoted Met. Hilarion Alfeyev. He would be a prime example of eucharistic revival in modern Russia. And he is not alone. I know of at least one monastery in Moscow that is strongly leading this work, with the monastic brotherhood receiving communion daily.

    And, if communion is to be received weekly, its decoupling from mandatory confession becomes necessary for logistical reasons – it would be impossible in normal Orthodoxy (as in Russia) for priests to hear the confessions of so many every week.

    The OCA solved this problem in the 70’s with guidelines that called for “frequent communion” and “regular confession.” I teach my people to receive weekly unless there is a problem and to make confession about every 6 weeks, and at least once a year. Lent is a very busy season of confessions.

    All of this will vary somewhat from parish to parish – its something that is evolving. We should take the guidance of our priest and rejoice at the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. And be patient and understanding that we live at a moment in history and not in some ideal place of theory.

    There is, of course, an opposite enemy to the proper reception of communion: secularism. This is the great delusion of our modern period and infects almost all of us in America. This is the tendency to make things into “things” and to be careful only about the wrong things. Thus communion can become casual, a mere habit, and done without due regard to our salvation. Some fear this development – and – I should add – with good reason.

    Thus, there is a reluctance to “de-couple” communion and confession and a continued emphasis on good preparation even when receiving frequently. OCA guidelines still call for observing the Wednesday and Friday fast as well as abstaining from food from midnight before communion. How well this is done is known to confessors. In my experience the midnight fast is kept pretty strictly and the Wednesday Friday fasts are well observed – though there is plenty of struggle.

    I believe that God is strengthening the faithful with greater reception of communion because the coming struggles of the future are going to be very difficult. Without the grace of His Body and Blood, we will not survive.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the Antiochian jurisdiction here in the U.S. (decades ago) there was a greater emphasis on confession as a necessary preparation for the reception of Holy Communion. The trouble was that the faithful at that time stopped doing both.

    The pastoral decision was made to encouraging frequent communion with the necessity of confession only during Lent and the Nativity Fast if the person wanted to receive on Christmas and Pascha.

    My fellow parishioners and me are encourage to confess about once a month but many do not.

    The problem for many is that with more frequent confession, it seems as if each confession is pretty much the same.

    So Father, how does one get past bringing the same list to confession each time?

  28. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen
    Various times in the liturgy, in the precommunion prayers, the Lord’s prayer, what is pronounced by the priest concerning forgiveness of sins right before communing, not to mention our daily prayers, we are asking God to forgive us our sins. I believe that if we are sincere and are truly repentant then God does just that. That being so, except perhaps for really grievous sins (I realize that all sin disrupts our union with God) is confession with a priest done mainly for the purpose of the spiritual counsel that usually follows confession?

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    God forgives, but we are inwardly reluctant to receive. We go to confession for the same reason we go to the Cup. God could surely have “given” us the benefits of communion without actually having to eat or drink anything (or so I would imagine), but our eating and drinking are a more certain means and appropriate to our lives as people of flesh and blood.

    Forgiveness is just as real – and though God forgives – we are only flesh and blood and not pure intelligences. The physicality of sound and tears, of the priest as witness, the comfort of his epitrahelion (stole) over our head, all of these things is a more certain means of receiving the divine medicine of forgiveness. For though God gives, our hearts are very hard. We can hardly hold our own attention for more than a few minutes, our minds wandering throughout the service. Was I even paying attention when the priest pronounced forgiveness in a prayer?

    God in His wisdom has given us through His most Holy Bride, the Church, the physical means of receiving grace – for the same reasons that He became flesh and dwelt among us! For the same reasons!

    If we ignore these physical means of receiving grace, we ignore His incarnation as well. And indeed, I would argue that much of modern Christianity is anti-incarnational. They only want a story-book Jesus who has now gone to heaven. They don’t want to eat His flesh and drink His blood. They don’t want real priests and real confession – only speakers and singers and motivators!

    We go to the priest for confession for this is the primary means God Himself has provided for the receiving of forgiveness. The giving of forgiveness was done long ago.

    A child once said to me, “I did thus and so [his sins]…” and “I have come so God can make it right…”

    Counsel is good. But as often as not, I have nothing to say by way of counsel. “I am only a witness bearing testimony to God of all things that you say…”

  30. Dean Avatar

    Thank you so much Fr. Stephen for your insightful and heartfelt answer. I’ve asked others this same question. The incarnational aspect as regards confession is one I had not seen before…its physicality. Your response is one I will keep and reread.

  31. Chris Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,
    I have a practical confession question. My priest has similar requirements with the frequency of confession – about once a month, and no more than three months. There are times when I feel the need to immediately confess – I feel great contrition – but some times my last confession was just a week prior, and I don’t want to over-burden my priest with another confession. Often what happens is by the time my monthly confession roles around, I don’t feel the same level of contrition, and sometimes feel that I’m simply meeting a requirement to receive communion. What advice would you offer?

  32. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    This is a wonderful article on confession, sin, forgiveness. Please forgive me, but can you go further?

    I am a teacher in our parish but a couple years ago I actually did 7 sessions on the topic of confession and still didn’t clench it – either for the congregation or myself. As you said, there is very little satisfactory preparatory material available that is not forensic. Excellent confessors don’t grow on trees, but I wouldn’t even recognize one if I saw him.

    As Michael said above, you don’t want to keep coming and reading off the same list every month. But on the other hand I understand and agree that a confession is not the place and time for counseling; those should be kept separate.

    So the question is: what does a confession look like? If a session does not involve counseling, then how does either confessor or confessee make progress in working down to the root of the problem of which the external sins are only symptoms?

    It has been on my heart for some time that confession is a sorely missing piece of our Christian lives in this culture, and yet there are very few examples to allow one to even begin the process. As I said, the assignment of “hail Marys” and such in an RC confessional simply takes things back to a legal framework and misses the mark.

    I am checking out the links offered above, but I would gladly hear anything else you have to offer on the subject.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s the kind of thing to discuss with your priest. Confession being as it is – is often not as “timely” as we might want or hope for. God works with what we’ve got.

    At such times of heartfelt contrition – if confession isn’t possible – then do prayers (perhaps with prostrations) and ask for grace.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christ Himself is the Physician and Healer of our souls. Just like I trust my cardiologist to tell me what to do for my heart disease, so I trust Christ to work in me that deeper healing of soul and body.

    First – don’t judge your confession (or anyone else’s). It really is a mystery. There are things that take place in confession that are deeply beyond our ability to recognize. They sometimes become obvious later (for example).

    Also, be patient. We’re talking about a lifetime.

    And both counts, we Americans are a real problem. We’re deeply imbued with expectations based in psychology. Confession certainly affects some of the things that psychology considers – but has a much broader understanding of what it is to be human. Thus “root causes” may never be revealed to us in a conscious manner and yet be healed. It’s entirely possible. The nature of the sin in the case of the man born blind is never revealed in Scripture, for example. And yet he is healed – for the glory of God.

    There are many things, the truth of which is far too deep and complex for us to know or understand. We’re happy with psychological explanations but they’re all very reductionist. There are things within our lives whose causes even lie outside of us – such as “generational” and “primordial” sin. I am very aware, now in my 60’s, that I bear the “sins” of my parents. Not in any legal way at all, but the very things that probably dogged their personalities and created troubles for them are in me as well. They are the “cards I’ve been dealt.”

    The real press of all of this is not to move deeper into our sins (roots or whatever) but to move deeper into Christ. Christ ultimately is the proper focus of confession. We only begin to see and experience compunction as we see our sin in the light of Christ and His love. It is the light that shines in the darkness. It is not the light of our understanding that needs to shine, but the Light Himself.

    St. Maximus, especially, speaks of our growth in grace as a “movement” towards our End (Christ Himself). We cannot reach the End, by considering the root problem, because the root problem is not the End nor does even its correction reveal the End. Only the End Himself reveals Himself.

    As such, I think there could almost be the possibility of a “wordless” confession (I say “almost” because we have not been taught to wordlessly confess). But I have seen confessions where the contrition was such that discussion of sin or sins was pretty much superfluous. No words passed between the woman who bathed Christ’s feet with her tears, but her sins were forgiven. Tears and a broken heart are eloquent in and of themselves. We use the other words in order to strive towards such eloquence.

    The wise thief gained paradise in a single moment not through his words, but through the clarity of his contrition. Were any of us to repent in the same manner we would gain paradise as well.

    The teaching needed above all else, is that which awakens the hunger for paradise within our souls. “You have not because you ask not.” The Shunamite Woman grabbed the feet of Elisha and would not let go. Jacob wrestled with the angel and held him til morning. These are the great examples of contrition.

  35. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Thank Fr. Stephen,

    for not giving me a press-fit, American-psychologized, ready-made answer like one I was probably asking for. Or rather, for giving me an answer that is deeper than the surface most of us live on, that will take time for the ripple of it to reach the outer wall of my heart. As Jesus once said, “this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”


    And I do gather at least this much from what you said: to kindle the desire for God is the first step to the whole process. I’m never sure about that. To me it seems like the chicken and the egg question. For some it is the intense desire for Him and for others it seems the catalyst is the intense despair of themselves.

    In any case, you have furthered my understanding. Thank you once again for your service and dedication to Him.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    In a strange way it’s easy for us to get caught up in ourselves as we pursue the “origins” of our own darkness. We often want such knowledge on our own terms and time. I was reading (translating) some recently with the Slavonic service of Baptism, and noticed that it used the term “slave of God” for the candidate (it’s not put so starkly in English). We should not have the “mind of slaves,” but on the other hand, it’s good to have surrendered all of this stuff to God.

    The question comes up always about “repetitive” confessions. Since we’re human beings, I would expect sin to be repetitive. I tell people, if your sins were entirely different from your last confession, I would suspect you of schizophrenia or some other serious disorder. The “continuity” of our sins is similar to the continuity of our personality, and for the same reasons. It shows that they are not legal, for ontological – embedded in the stuff of our being.

    Sins, of course, are not the stuff of our being. Sin is a disorder of being.

  37. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    Your post on confession/forgiveness is exactly where I am at in writing my book. I have read and studied your words, 5 or 6 times, looking up every Bible passage you cited, usually reading the entire chapter. I have ended up quoting you in my book, which is a fictional autobiography.

    In one of your replies, you said: “I am very aware, now in my 60′s, that I bear the “sins” of my parents. Not in any legal way at all, but the very things that probably dogged their personalities and created troubles for them are in me as well. They are the “cards I’ve been dealt.”

    This is exactly what I started my book with: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” Exodus 20:5

    First par. The death of my son was the day that shattered my world and changed my life forever. The pieces are etched on my soul. I have always had a belief that things happen for a reason, that there is a design and structure to our lives, by which we are given by signs and clues along the way as to what path we should take. However, this numbed my very being, and I remained in a literal state of shock for at least six months. There is no way to prepare for something like this.

    Damon, extremely intelligent, was stabbed over 200 times when he said Ollie North was no hero and America had no business in Central America killing the Indians.

    Best just to copy my family’s response:

    I don’t remember how I got to my sister Carolyn’s place. I remember standing in her kitchen while she was telling me all the trouble Damon was getting into, running with the wrong crowd. She talked on and on about all the bad things Damon was doing. I left Carolyn’s as soon as I could after telling her, “You can be thankful to God that you will never know what it feels like to lose a child this way. You cannot relate to me, thank God.” No place to be. Poor Carolyn! She had been so debased, humiliated and damaged, belittled and berated by Dale that she had to become like him just to survive. She had gone to my parents, but they wanted nothing to do with her or her problem. There was no way for her to work it out with her bully husband. Working it out meant that he didn’t talk to her for a year. And he was always right, no questions asked.
    The day of the funeral was warm and sunny. I don’t really remember the funeral. I don’t remember what was said. I know the church was packed. I just remember my cousin Bob standing at the end of the church. He hugged me, and told me that he loved me. After the funeral, I rode with Fred to the cemetery, a hundred miles away in Beulah. I was the last one to leave the cemetery because the secretary from Employment Security Bureau was there talking and talking. She had no one else to talk to. I don’t know what possessed her to keep up that continuous chatter. I wished she would just shut up and go away. I never had any last moments alone with Damon. Finally we went to the church where there was a reception. I don’t recall the reception, except that Fred’s brothers, sisters, and mother were very kind. I rode back to the farm with Father and Mother.
    We were sitting around the table, Father, Mother, Marshall, myself, and Ginger. Father was talking, but for once he didn’t really know what to say. Ginger broke in and asked, “What are we going to do tonight? Let’s go to the dance at Mouse River Park.”
    Marshall, whose band was playing, was sitting on the stool. He said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I can’t get out of playing because I have a contract. I tried, but they can’t get a replacement, and they won’t let me out of my contract. It’s the very last thing I want to do, but I will get through it.”
    Ginger took over the conversation and gushed over Marshall in her little girl way, just like Father’s Queener. The thing that got me was that Father and Mother said nothing to her, just let her go on and on. I realized that I would be now robbed of my right to grieve. No place to be. I looked past Ginger, past Marshall, at a huge white bird sitting on the top of the white granary. I had never seen a bird like that before. It sat there for a long, long time. All I know is that Ginger dominated the conversation in a very distracting sort of way. I thought of how the nieces and nephews were so inferior to Damon, so mediocre, and yet these are the ones who will take charge, without any knowledge or vision of what they are doing, that whatever they did would be for their own selfish purposes, while Damon, the only hope for a sad, abused, and tired world, lay dead. After awhile a long while the bird raised its huge wings and flew south. I realized that people would go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. I realized that I needed to fly south, back to Denver as soon as possible. If people were going on with their lives, I might as well be with strangers. I had nowhere to be. For the first time, I saw my family for who they really were, and couldn’t wait to get away from them as fast as I could. They would not and could not be any comfort to me. I announced my plans. No one tried to persuade me to stay. I was an embarrassment to them. As soon as I could book a passage, I made plans to leave. Father stopped me in the kitchen, put his arms around me, and told me he loved me. He was crying. I felt it very strange and uncomfortable. It too late. But I had no doubt it was genuine. I just didn’t really know what to do with it. We got in the car and left for the airport. I don’t remember the ride or how I got back to Denver..
    I was waiting to hear from Ron Williams, but the only ones I heard from was the police detective, who sounded very sorry and sympathetic. Then he started asking me questions like, “Was Damon in a gang?” “Was Damon taking drugs?” and, “Was Damon a homosexual?” I realized they were trying to come up with some reason behind the viciousness of Damon’s death. I screamed at them, “Damon was intelligent, and that was the cause of his death. Check his school records.” I needed to talk with Ron Williams, the philosophy professor. Finally, I got a letter from him saying how sorry he was to hear of Damon’s death, that words failed him but that his heart went out to me. I called and arranged to see him. I drove to Ft. Collins and went to the philosophy department.
    Ron suggested we go to the park. I told him what had happened and my family’s reaction. He told me that America, the biggest cause of unnecessary death around the world, was not prepared to deal with death, and so avoided dealing with it. “Your family’s reaction is a reaction to you. Damon was very intelligent, like yourself. Do you have any idea how unusual you are?” I could only shake my head. “I have had only five students in my 30 years of teaching with a mind like yours.”
    “Damon was better, quicker, and brighter than me, and more talented.”
    “When things like this happen, we can only believe there is a higher purpose, and that it will be revealed in time. Well, now you must live for two, so that Damon’s death will not have been in vain.” I stayed and we talked for a long time. It was the only comfort I had. I wasn’t looking for anything. I went numbly forward because that’s all I could do.
    I went on with my classes at Boulder, although my mind could not engage in the studies. I couldn’t just drop my classes because I would have no means to support myself. I did not receive any cards or letters from back home. No phone calls. No show of support. Finally, a couple of weeks later, I got a letter from Ardyce. Ardie had forthrightly pointed out how this was all my fault. I was already numb with shock. There was nothing left to shock me, yet I was shocked. In her letter, Ardyce told me that my living in Denver was a bad influence on Damon, that my lifestyle was all wrong, and that I had only myself to blame for his death, that I selfishly pursued an art career at the expense of raising my children, that I should have never divorced Fred, that if I had been there to discipline the boys, none of this would have happened. It was difficult for me to belief that Ardyce could send such an exceptionally callous and cruel letter only a couple weeks after Damon’s death. I corrected the letter in red pencil and sent it back to her. I never heard anything back from her or from any of my family.
    I was in shock, suffering, going through it alone. Not only going through it alone, but being blamed for Damon’s death as well. There was no avoiding the dark valley that lay ahead. There was only going through it. Most people have family support. Not me. Not only did they blame me, they robbed me of my right to grieve. But the very worst of all, they robbed the world of who Damon was and replaced him with a version they could understand, one that made it acceptable for him to be dead and forgotten.

    Fr. Stephen, sometimes the enormity of the wrongful act make it very difficult to know where to begin. Ardyce has never said she was sorry, and in fact, believed she was doing my a favor by pointing out all my faults and mistakes. I’ve come to understand the reason she did that was because she felt she had to be the perfect child to win the love and attention from our parents. Wrong. They just ignored her all the more. No matter how she tattled, she could never become #1. And it changed her. (by the opinion and reaction my parents had to her.) And she became unlovable.

    You are very wise. I treasure your words which lead to greater understandings on the nature of sin, a concept we Americans don’t believe we are capable of. Thank you so very, very much.

  38. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I see what you mean about getting caught up in our own darkness. As fascinating as that is, (grin) what I’m really after is the trigger or the button that gets North Americans to start going to confession. I know my means and goal are probably skewed, but it’s not for the sake of numbers, rather for the healing of souls. We are so plagued with individualism that we think everything must be managed within the self and that nothing outside can be the thing that is essential and lacking in our lives. We need confession so badly, and yet the practice has been largely abused and devolved for lack of better terms.

    By the way, “slaves” is close but servant is better. God will not force.

    On repetitive sins, I hear what you’re saying and you are of course correct, but I imagine that instead of saying “I swore 5 times, had sex out of wedlock 3 times, was gluttonous 7 times”, it would be more about a recounting of each time with the intention of reflection and contrition.

    Of course now that I type this out I can see that this taken to the extreme would also be bad, a stumbling block to those addicted to emotional experiences. But perhaps the confession prep guidelines referenced from Fr. Alexander Men are the kind of thing I’m trying to get at.

    I do realize maybe I’m trying to make a science out of what is in fact an art. For this I apologize. I’m simply trying to understand where to start. I think it’s coming…

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not certain there will ever be a trigger that gets people going to confession with ease. A “parish culture” of confession is probably the right goal. Ease of access and comfort with what to expect are probably important as well. As a lone priest in a parish, it’s difficult. I sometimes hear a few just before liturgy, during the hours, but that’s often difficult because of other liturgical demands. Many Russian parishes hear them as well during the Canon during the Vigil. But attendance at Vigil is problematic in most parishes.

    I probably encourage the “culture” of confession more during Lent and Holy Week than at any other time. The services themselves produce compunction of a sort. There are stated times when I’m hearing confessions. People often feel more comfortable making confession when other people are as well.

    I also teach about confession not infrequently particularly in sermons. I talk about it in a manner that simply makes it a normative part of the parish culture.

    Most of my congregation are converts and confession is new or strange for them. But many of the “cradles” are unused to confession as well, particularly if they did not come from a Russian-culture Church background.

  40. Rachael Avatar


    Your article was very helpful and enlightening for me.

    I have a question about the link between confession and communion. I come from a Russian church where confession was required before every communion. I’m now attending an OCA church where that is not the case and the priest would like me to come about once a month and receive communion every week. However my background has made me rather uncomfortable about going to communion without confession.
    So, I was wondering about your comment that “I teach my people to receive weekly unless there is a problem.” This is the part that is difficult for me to overcome. What defines a problem? I understand I will never be worthy enough to approach the cup, even if I went to confession 30 seconds before receiving, but it’s hard for me to define what sins would need confession before communion. Hence I continue to hold on to the rule from my old parish. Recently a friend of mine suggested that I should be taking communion every week but I am struggling to reconcile confession as not needed for every communion.

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    You should pay attention to your conscience. You don’t have to force these things.

    It is also good, however, to simply take direction from your priest. He takes a great responsibility for your soul. I once had a family that were struggle with great issues. They only communed about 4 times a year (in a European fashion). I cautioned them that they could not overcome their difficulties without the greater grace of communion. They began to receive more frequently. They confessed more frequently as well, though not before every communion.

    Under “problems” I would say those things that seem to be bars from communion. Such as having ignored the fast. Such as a serious unresolved relational issue, such as angry words not forgiven. It’s the state of the heart that matters. Is your heart troubled by some sin? Should it be?

    But often we simply have a sort of fastidious personality, rather compulsive about things. In which case its not conscience that troubles us but something closer to a nervous condition. It’s something to discuss with your priest and be patient with yourself and him. Pray. God will help you. Give Him time to help you.

    A young woman whom I know had the opposite problem. Early in her Orthodox life she lived in Siberia for a year. There people only received about 4 times a year and she had received every week (both when she was an Anglican childhood and in her Orthodox years). To be suddenly told that this would not be possible was very difficult. Instead, the priest, as I recall, blessed her to receive every 6 weeks or so – but that was because she was the daughter of a priest. It was a lesson in Orthodox culture shock.

    God will be with you whatever you do.

  42. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Chris (& others)

    I know it was not my advice that you sought but I will share with you something that I did recently with confession. It might help with the sense of immediate contrition. (For me it helped with the tendency to become nervous and rehearse my confession excessively.)

    While preparing and reflecting at home, I wrote a “confessional prayer”, i.e. a written prayer to God confessing and expressing what I needed to express. When I actually met with the priest (RC), I read/prayed this prayer. The priest and I spoke briefly and he said the prayers of absolution.

    This is the first time I’ve done this – and the first time I confessed to this priest, but I could see it being helpful for me to move away from the more “legal” practice of needing to remember and report. If there was a longer time between confessions, I could see adding on to the prayer at more than one interval, at times when contrition is deeply felt.

    I don’t know if this would be acceptable in an Orthodox confession (or to all Catholic priests) – but am just sharing what was a rich and prayerful experience for me.

  43. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen, you wrote:

    …we Americans are a real problem. We’re deeply imbued with expectations based in psychology. Confession certainly affects some of the things that psychology considers – but has a much broader understanding of what it is to be human.

    Just today I was speaking with one of my very spiritual patients about how the spiritual and psychological interact. I suggested that all in healing vocations should have some knowledge of the areas outside of their own specialty. As a psychologist, I should know something of medical and spiritual healing; physicians should know something of spiritual and emotional healing; clergy should know something of medical and emotional healing.

    What is so very “American” about us is that we try to divide up the human person, as though our emotional, spiritual and physical lives are somehow separate – and we need a different “doctor” for each one.

    Personally, it would frighten me to go to a psychologist who did not share my Christian faith. How could I trust them to heal my emotional state if they did not understand my soul?

  44. Albert Avatar

    My priest gave me some helpful advice: keep a brief daily journal, half for the blessings & joys that came or that you may have helped bring to others, half for anything you did (or did not do when you could have) that separated or drew you away from God. Review at the end of a week or two in order to see patterns or tendencies, but also to be reminded of the moments of grace–so that sin does not become the dominant focus.

    The obvious problem with this is time. I forced myself to be brief and selective by using a compact daily planner/calendar. The box for each day was small enough that I had to use abbreviations and an informal shorthand (my own version of hurried texttalk). This prevented a tendency to obsess about negative things–no place to elaborate especially since half of the box was for good things.

    I kept the calendar/journal with my little prayer book, and wrote quick entries during a 5-10 minute evening prayer time. The experience surprised me. I found myself being more thankful for blessings than ever before. And I didn’t have to make a list or bring one to confession. I was very familiar with what I needed to say.

    The secret for me was the size of the little calendar book and it’s appearance. I started using different colored pens, each color representing something. I used pencils on occasions when I either wasn’t sure about something or simply felt vague or blah about the whole project. When I looked back over a large space of time, the colors and symbols, including question marks exclamation points, made a pleasant sight, both like a puzzle and a mini tapestry (well, not really, but still).

    It may sound a bit too much like Jay Gatsby or some other nutty idealist, but I really got into it. And the best thing of all, it kept me from long bouts of shame-turned-into-depression (or anger). I knew I was addressing problems, so I was freed from thinking about them too much. Ironic. But even better, whatever shame crept in was always balanced by gratitude.

  45. Albert Avatar

    P. S. About the “blessings and joys” – I eventually started looking for them. I became aware of so much everyday beauty – in people I loved, but also in those I only passed in the street or the store. Also in the trees, the sky, pets, and (this surprised me) in myself:the mysteries of health, strength, and vision itself. What started out as a record of “near-death experiences” (if sin is death), also became a reminder of their opposites. I haven’t submerged sin, but it doesn’t submerge me either, the way it could, and did from time to time in the past.

  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Benton,
    My point about the American penchant for psychology is to think that everything that matters is in our head.

  47. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    Unless I misunderstand, I think we are in agreement – though I might be admittedly going a bit off-topic to make a point dear to my heart.

    My point was that, ideally, a psychologist should be deeply aware of and sensitive to the spiritual aspects of healing – and not reduce the process to a series of techniques. (Even if not personally equipped to handle the spiritual healing of patient, being sensitive to this reality enables a gentle referral to the proper person.)

    Likewise, ideally, a member of the clergy should be deeply aware of and sensitive to the psychological aspects of healing. This is not because God cannot heal all – surely He can. However, some religions teach (erroneously, in my opinion) that psychiatric illness suggests a lack of faith and this prevents people from seeking needed treatment. Hence, a member of the clergy is wise to know when a gentle referral to the proper person is needed as well.

    While God can heal all, without needing clergy, doctor or psychologist to do so, I believe that we are called to minister to each other (and receive that ministering) for a reason. Because we are flesh-and-blood people, it is one of the ways we come to know the love of God most profoundly.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary Benton,

    While God can heal all, without needing clergy, doctor or psychologist to do so, I believe that we are called to minister to each other (and receive that ministering) for a reason. Because we are flesh-and-blood people, it is one of the ways we come to know the love of God most profoundly.

    We are called to minister to one another, our salvation is intrinsically bound to our doing so. (Matthew 25)

    …and this is one of the healing parts of confession that does not get talked about enough: My priest lays his stole over my head and shoulders as I am confessing. It does a number of things: it makes it difficult for anyone close to hear anything; it creates a safety zone while at the same time creating a physical link with him as I confess; the touch relaxes and comforts me helping me to be more open.

    In my parish we kneel to confess in front of an icon of St. Dismas, the good thief. The physical act of kneeling, seeing the icon, the touch of the priest, his words of guidance and later absolution, my words of contrition are all intimate physical acts that reinforce the spiritual process occurring.

    When I am done, he gives the absolution with the laying on of hands and I stand up and kiss his stole.

    The laying on of hands, the physicality of the process is part of the healing. Sin cuts us off from other people as well as from God. The physical aspects of confession in the Orthodox Church are part of restoring both our communion with God and our communion with our fellow human beings.

    The RCC practice of the boxed confessional seems to emphasize the forensic and individual notion of confession (at least it does to me). The difference in how we practice the sacrament of confession is one of the biggest differences for me between we Orthodox and the RCC.

  49. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Thank you,

    All those who have brought forward questions or comments. I see our efforts here as archeologists, unearthing a practice that is half-buried and almost forgotten. That’s what it feels like. So every little bit helps.

    Fr. Stephen: I understand concerning the lack of a trigger. This is wisdom, simply immerse ourselves in the idea of confession instead of looking for a magic button.

    Albert: Thanks for your words concerning the journal. I think you may be onto something. Only time and experience will tell, but journalling may well help the whole legal sin business mellow into something meaningful and begin to turn the “crime” into a need for healing – and then balance it out with gratitude that you speak of.

    thanks again, drewster

  50. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Michael, for sharing this. It sounds very beautiful.

    Confession in the RCC has changed some in recent years (there we go changing again!). Some churches do not use the “boxes” at all anymore, using either small rooms or open areas apart enough from the congregation to avoid overhearing. We often have services especially for reconciliation, with prayer together as a community and then individual confession. Touch is sometimes used as well – but, sadly, with the scandals, priests have to be more than careful.

    Also sadly, confession is very much under-utilized in many parts of the RC community. So I am particularly grateful to read this article and the comments of my fellow Christians whose interest in the sacrament is sincere and can help me strengthen my commitment to it as well.

  51. Boyd Avatar

    I tried to confess to a Romanian Orthodox priest once, but he said that we should just “talk.” It was not a very healing experience. He just listened and did not really say anything or give any counsel–certainly no absolution. I spoke to a Coptic priest about confessing–he seemed more open. I am still very attracted to Orthodoxy, but my wife and I settled on the Lutherans. Though Luther, I have read, was actually in favor of the Christus Victor model, penal substitution beginning with Melanchthon got the upper hand. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution#cite_note-10

    Lutherans technically can confess to a pastor, but I don’t think that it is done very much and since the penal model is strong, I don’t know if I would get the spiritual hospital approach that I need.

    Does the Orthodox church permit confession by non-Orthodox?

  52. Boyd Avatar

    Does the Orthodox church permit confession by non-Orthodox?

  53. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Mary Benton,

    What you’re talking about reminds of Paul Tournier. I assume you’re pretty familiar with him? The Healing of Persons and his other numerous writings?

  54. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Actually, Drewster, never heard of him, sorry to say. But I will look into his writing, if you recommend him. Thanks.

  55. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Orthodox Church cannot offer confession to the non-Orthodox for the same reason it cannot offer communion. The mysteries are not isolated bits of the Church’s life. Each sacrament is a manifestation of the One Life. If someone is not in union with that one life (i.e. the communion of the Church) then that must be dealt with first. Thus, when someone enters the Church through Chrismation (for example), absolution is given for the first time, and the first and foremost sin that is being forgiven is that of Schism. Thus, confession of the “non-Orthodox” means admitting them to the Orthodox Church. In that sense, yes, we confess the non-Orthodox.

    The Romanian priest acted appropriately. He gave you pastoral attention. But, not-unusually, he did not give advice.

  56. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Sounds good, Mary. I think you’ll really like him. He was a Swiss physician that decided that health professionals really need to more holistically know their patients in order to do a good job of healing them. Some intriguing ideas that lead towards wellness.

  57. dino Avatar

    In Orthodoxy, when practiced rightly – as is usually the case on Mount Athos to use a prime example -, the ‘guidance part’ of Confession appears to be the most ‘personalised’, (as in ‘individually fine-tuned’) sacrament for both our heart and our mind.
    What is no less than astounding is that a Spiritual Father’s word (‘Logos’ if you like to make the deeper connection here), uttered and listened to in a state of prayerful and trustful attention, has the power to enlighten through the Holy Spirit, more regularly than any other Sacrament, under the usual circumstances.

  58. John M. Avatar
    John M.


    Thank you for clearly and concisely laying out the nature of sin and life, writing such as yours stirs something in my being.

    As a non- Orthodox, I sometimes ponder what the lack of confession before a representative of The Messiah has and is doing to me. I also feel that at 51- years old, there would not be enough time left in my life to confess my sins.

  59. Boyd Avatar

    Thanks. Prayers appreciated.

  60. Karen Avatar

    John M., I was 46 (almost 47) when I entered the Orthodox Church. Doing that first Confession was one of the hardest–and most freeing–things I have ever done. I recommend it. Confession is still not easy, but definitely a blessing.

  61. […] am reminded of Fr. Stephen’s writing on the disease model of sin (click here). This forgetting of ours is not unlike the “forgetting” of many people who have a […]

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