|The doors of repentance do Thou open to me…
Repentance is God’s greatest gift to man. It is a second baptism, in which we are cleansed of the sins we have committed and clothed anew in pure white raiment, and we receive the grace that was lost by mankind after the fall. We were sinners and now we become pure. Repentance opens the heavens to us and leads us into paradise. There is no salvation without repentance.
To repent means to change one’s way of life, first and foremost – to “come to one’s senses,” i.e. see sin within oneself, become aware of it, come to hate it, and afterwards repent before God in the presence of a priest and promise not to sin again.
A sick person cannot be cured unless he reveals his illness to a physician. In like manner we cannot obtain forgiveness from God until we become aware of our sins. “Awareness of sin is the beginning of salvation, – says Blessed Augustine. – If a man conceals – God reveals; if a man hides – God brings out into the open; if man becomes aware of sin – God forgives.”
People often come to confession and do not know what to say. There is no question of their repentance! Their spiritual eyes are closed, their soul sleeps like the dead.
Why does the soul sleep? From whence arises such a terrible state in man?
The devil knows that the main ingredient of salvation is heartfelt repentance, and so he strikes at the very core: he deprives people of confession. And there is the result: a person no longer control his deeds, words, and thoughts, his reason becomes clouded, he does not see his sins and does not notice that he has transgressed the law of God. Sin becomes a habit, permeates man’s nature, and lives within him. And such a man no longer fears death, or hell, or the dread Judgment itself.
Not only does sin poison our soul with evil, but it poisons everything around us. “Every sin, even the smallest one, influences the fate of the world,” – says the venerable elder Siluan. And, on the contrary, our repentance acts favorably upon those around us, brings joy to them.
“Sin is the greatest evil in the world,” – says St. John Chrysostome. Our unrepentant sins are like new wounds which we give to Christ the Saviour. They are like terrible sores upon our souls, and the scars from them remain for the rest of our lives. Only in the sacrament of penitence may we cleanse and heal souls. Repentance drags us out of the abyss of sin, vice, and passion, and leads us through the gates of paradise. The Lord Himself opens His arms to us and embraces us like prodigal sons. And we aspire towards God just like a child runs to his parents after being naughty: he cries, begs forgiveness, promises to be good, and his loving parents forgive him. So our Heavenly Father, when we come to Him with sincere repentance and in tears, forgives us and freely gives us His grace. It is the same as when someone offends a child, the latter runs to his parents, complaining about the offender, and the parents comfort the child, saying: “It’s all right, it’s all right, we will tell off that bad person, he will not bother you again…” Similarly we, too, when the devil attacks us, should straightaway run to confession, tell God everything, and He will forbid the devil to attack us. St. Theophanus the Recluse says that in confession we get rid of the devil as an enemy and a villain, who hurts us only as long as we do not see him, but as soon as we notice him – he runs away immediately.
In confession we receive grace-filled strength from God to combat sin, vice, and passion. A certain person could not rid himself of addiction to tobacco and asked advice from Optina elder St. Ambrose. The elder explained to him how smoking harms both the body and the soul, and advised him to go to a full confession, detailing his sins from the age of seven, and to partake of the Holy Mysteries. This helped. It is impossible to overcome passions without frequent and sincere confession.
When a person commits the same sin over and over again, he develops a passion for this sin, and although he himself is free, his soul remains imprisoned. Many people are free in body and do not realize that they are fettered by sin, do not think about the fact that all our deeds, words, and thoughts are monitored by both heaven and hell, by God and the devil. All our iniquities, impure thoughts, every vain and idle word are recorded by the evil spirits and will be revealed on the day of the Last Judgment. At the same time a person’s good deeds precede him and will justify him at this dread Judgment.
The Lord Himself described for us the model of repentance in the parable of the prodigal son. The Holy Fathers distinguish three moments of repentance in this Gospel parable. The first moment is when a person comes to his senses, i.e. looks inside his soul, becomes aware that he is terribly sinful and guilty before God, and a penitential feeling arises within him. The second moment is when a person comes to a decision: “He [the prodigal son] got up and went…,” i.e. goes to church to confession. And the third moment – “He fell upon his father’s bosom..,” i.e. repentance itself, confession itself, when a person confesses all his sins to God in the presence of a priest and promises not to repeat them. And then the Lord, like a loving Father, forgives him and takes him, like a prodigal son, into His arms.
Repentance begins only when a person realizes that he is sinful, that his sins prevent him from living properly, that they poison his soul. If a person does not see his sins, it means he is spiritually seriously ill, and that for God his soul is dead. Such a soul is no longer tortured by sin, it has been bound hand and foot by the devil, its spiritual eyes are closed, its ears do not hear, its lips are mute. Like someone lying in the grave this soul does not see, does not hear, does not feel. When a person becomes ill, the first symptom of his malady is his rejection of nourishment. Similarly whoever is spiritually ill rejects prayer, rejects all spiritual things. Such a one does not wish to read the Holy Scriptures in which the Lord speaks to us, does not wish to go to church, and even if he forces himself to go, he comes late to the service, does not stay until the end, thinks only of when the service will be over. He does not even see his sins, and this is because he has strayed far away from God, from the Light. Until we come to God, until we begin to live according to His will, we will continue to remain in the dark and will not be able to see our sins. Our soul will continue to be black, and each new sin will be a new black spot upon it, but it is impossible to see black on black…
All great sinners always believe themselves to be good people, while all saints think of themselves as great sinners. They live in the light of Christ, and thus they see even the minutest spot on their soul and are aware of their unworthiness before God.
A disciple once came to one of the elders and said: “Abbas, I see angels with my spiritual eyes.” The elder replied to him: “That is not such a great feat. But when with your spiritual eyes you will see the abyss of your sins, as countless specks of sand on a beach, – that will certainly be a great feat.” The Holy Fathers say: blessed is the man who sees not angels, but his own sins.
Why do we not see our sins? Because we do not monitor ourselves, our actions, words, and thoughts, because we do not follow the law of God, because we have become so mired in sins that we have become used to them, we no longer regard sin as a sin. When we sin continually, the sin enters our heart and takes control over it.
The Holy Fathers say: the beginning of salvation is knowledge, – i.e. knowledge of one’s shortcomings, vices, and sinful habits, – and self-condemnation with remorse and prayer to God for help.
We know that the Apostle Peter was faint-hearted at first and renounced Christ, but when the rooster crowed, the apostle bitterly wept, repented, and was forgiven. In the life of each one of us there is such a night, when in the midst of our iniquities “the rooster begins to crow,” i.e. the voice of our conscience, accusing us who have renounced our Saviour and who are crucifying Him with our sins. Woe is unto him who closes his ears so as not to hear this voice. Joy is unto him who begins to weep bitterly over his sins and cleanses his soul through repentance.
Thus, when a person realizes that he is sinful, he must not wait, he must not delay his repentance. There are two calendars in our spiritual life: one is divine and the other is demonic. The divine calendar is called “today,” “now.” Turn to the Lord now, repent now, for tomorrow may be too late. And the demonic calendar is called “tomorrow,” “later.” “Leave everything for tomorrow, today you are still young, live for your own enjoyment and repent later, when you become old.”
However, an illness cannot be disregarded, otherwise it may become fatal, and repentance cannot be delayed, otherwise sins may lead to spiritual death. “Do not postpone until tomorrow, because this ‘tomorrow’ has no end,” – says St. John Chrysostome.
Some people think: when I retire, then I will start going to church, then I will repent. But how can you be sure that you will live until retirement? Between you and death there is but a single step, says the Lord. Go to a cemetery – there you will find not only old people, but young ones as well; perhaps the Lord will summon you tomorrow. Do not delay, do not listen to the devil who whispers in your ear: “Wait, do not hurry, there is still plenty of time…” Do not listen to the world and the devil, who hold on to you very firmly and do not wish to let you go; do not listen to your corrupt heart and darkened mind, which do not want to give up their sinful pleasures: “Not now, later, later…” No, not later, but right now, says the word of God, – repent immediately, do not wait a single day, even a single hour: sin deprives you of the grace of God and delivers you to the devil.
If dirty dishes are not washed immediately, the dirt will become crusty and very hard to wash off. The same with sins: the longer we put off repentance, the harder will it be to cleanse our soul of them. Foolish is the person who does not clean his house, who has dirt and dust everywhere, who does not bathe himself, and does not change his clothes – it is unpleasant to deal with such an individual. But our soul is far more precious than house and clothes, it should be clean, bright, and holy, and it can be purified only through the sacrament of repentance.
A sinner’s repentance is joy for heaven: the angels, the whole heaven rejoice over a single repenting sinner, the entire heavenly host celebrates when penitence takes place on earth. Elder Siluan the Athonite says: “Whoever repents has the Holy Spirit within him and becomes like unto our Lord while still here on earth, while whoever does not repent is like unto the adversary.”
Repentance opens the gates of paradise for us. The venerable Niphontus once saw angels carrying the soul of a sinner up to heaven, and when they carried it through the toll houses, the evil spirits shouted: “This soul is ours, give it to us! It is ours!” – “And how will you prove it?” – asked the angels. “There is not a single sin which this man did not commit; he spent his entire life amid vices and passions, obeying our will.” The angels then asked the Guardian Angel, and the latter replied: “Yes, this man was a terrible sinner, but when he became ill, he repented before the Lord. Amid pain and torment he lifted up his hands to heaven, wept bitterly, and prayed fervently. And the Lord has forgiven him.” The angels did not give up the soul to the demons, and the latter cried out in despair: “What shall we do? If God had mercy on such a soul, then we are laboring in vain, for He will forgive the entire world!” – “Yes, – said the angels, – if the entire world repents with humility and remorse, then God will forgive it.” And the angels carried the soul of the penitent sinner through the gates of heaven.
St. John Chrysostome says that sin places a stain upon us which cannot be washed off with a thousand springs, but only with the tears of repentance. And the Lord waits for man to come to hate his sin, for his soul to feel an abhorrence of this sin, to feel penitence and sincere remorse. Tears of repentance have special standing in the eyes of the angels. It is well known that human tears cleanse the eyes, kill off germs, wash out dirt. If men did not shed tears, the world would be full of blind people. The same is true of spiritual life: without tears of repentance to cleanse the soul, the soul would become blind.
But what if tears of repentance do not come to us, if the soul remains empty and cold? In such a case fall on your knees before the Crucifix, entreat God and the Holy Theotokos to soften your heart, pray and read the Gospel. Our hearts are like stone, but the Word of God is like living water – it will fall upon the stone and gradually soften it. Stand before the Crucifix and think of the Lord looking upon you from His cross and seeing through you, seeing all your thoughts and deeds. What will you say to Him when you come up to be judged? How will you justify yourself?
In order to feel penitent it is very helpful to think of death more often. Expect to be summoned any minute, just like for an examination. “Remember your end and you shall never sin.”
The fruit of repentance is rectitude, a change of life. Man abandons the path of perdition and steps onto the path of salvation: erstwhile he served the devil by following the latter’s evil will, and now he lives with the Lord and is learning to obey the Lord’s holy will. Man promises God to sin no more, pitilessly uproots all vices and passion from his soul, turns away from evil and all manner of deceit, and continuously feels remorse over his sins and weeps like the thief Barbarus. This latter was a terrible sinner who killed 300 people, including two priests. But there came a moment when he became aware of his horrible life, came to confession, repented of all his sins, and asked the priest to assign him some kind of penance. The priest thought it over and said: “From this day you shall work for me, and you will live in the barn with the animals, eating and drinking with them.” After the service the priest went home, with the penitent Barbarus following him. For two years he lived in the barn and looked upon himself as the lowliest creature. Later he went off into a deserted place, and lived there for another 12 years, feeding upon grass like cattle. Once a group of hunters rode by, saw an animal in the distant grass, and shot it with their bow and arrow. However, when they ran up to it, it turned out to be a hairy man – this was Barbarus. He was buried, and later his body was found to be incorruptible and myrrh-streaming. Many people were miraculously cured at his grave. He has been canonized as a saint.
St. Theophanus the Recluse says that repentance alone is not enough for salvation, but one must have a firm resolve to change oneself, to abandon former sins. And if you make such a promise to yourself, the Lord will always help you. Thus Mary of Egypt, as soon as she promised to forego her depraved life, was immediately able to cross over the threshold of the church which her sins had not been letting her enter. She was a great sinner who had spent 17 years in fornication, but when she repented she went into the desert and spent another 17 years (the same number of years that she had sinned) in battling the demon of fornication, and only after that did she begin to progress in spiritual life. For 47 years she lived in the desert and attained a state of great holiness, so that she was lifted off the ground during prayer and crossed the waters of the river as on dry land…
No matter what sins we have committed, we should under no circumstance fall into despair or fear that God will not forgive us. “Man’s despair is great joy for the devil,” – remarks St. Barsonuphius the Great. We should never despair, but should remember that our Heavenly Father loves us more tenderly than any mother in the history of mankind. How many people have lived in the world, and how many more are still to come, and all have sinned and will sin, and each person bears punishment for his sins, but if all human suffering, all tribulation, all torment were to be poured into a single chalice, they would make up the chalice which Jesus Christ drank for us sinners. All mankind was damned and in the devil’s power, and no one save Christ the Saviour could redeem us, could take all our sins upon Himself. The redemption took place, and by His great mercy the Lord left us faith and repentance. As a loving Father He enfolds every prodigal son, every repentant sinner into His embrace with great love and joy, and He will never remind us of our sins as long as we do not abuse the Lord’s love. For the salvation of our soul we must sacrifice our health, our well-being, even our life if necessary. The best example for us is Christ Himself. He showed us the way to paradise – through the Cross, through suffering, – and there is no other way into the Heavenly Kingdom.
How to prepare for confession
Many people regard themselves as believers, go to church, pray, and yet they do not know how to repent, they do not see their own sins.
How does one learn to repent?
To do this one must constantly monitor oneself, one’s actions, words, and thoughts. As soon as you notice something wrong, immediately appeal to the Lord in remorse: “Forgive me, O Lord, and have mercy upon me, an accursed wretch!” And afterwards confess your sin before a priest. “Test yourself in the morning as to how you spent the night, and in the evening likewise, as to how you spent the day, – advises the venerable Abba Dorotheus. – And throughout the day, whenever you feel burdened by thoughts, examine your inner self.” The venerable Simeon the New Theologian says: “Sit in judgment upon yourself every evening over how you spent the day: did you condemn anyone? Did you offend anyone with your words? Did you look upon anyone lustfully?”
One must prepare for confession in advance: think everything through, remember all one’s sins, pass through all the byways of one’s soul, and be sure to write everything down; otherwise, as we go to the priest for confession, the enemy may cloud our minds, and we will forget everything! It is even better to work out a habit of writing down one’s sins daily. Before we go to bed, we should mentally examine the day that has just passed and how we spent it: how did we pray in the morning, were our thoughts scattered, where did our minds dwell – on the words of the prayer or in the kitchen or a store; did we offend anyone that day, did we berate anyone, were we ourselves offended if someone berated us, were we envious of anyone, were we puffed up with vanity? And how did we sit at the table? Did we overindulge? Did we read the Jesus prayer, did we pray before each deed, did we have even the slightest thought for our soul? Or did we only think of our flesh? And how did our night pass? Perhaps we had unclean dreams because our day was passed in uncleanliness… And thus, if we learn to monitor ourselves in such a manner, we will always know what to say in confession.
“A person who becomes accustomed to accounting for his life here in confession will not fear to answer before the Dread Judgment of Christ,” – says St. John of Kronstadt.
A person who never repented or repented imperfectly must make a comprehensive confession – remember and write down all the sins he committed since childhood. Some people write down only those sins which they have never before confessed, but if any sins were repeated, they must be confessed again. After that we must make peace with those around us, both those whom we have offended and those who have offended us. We must ask their forgiveness.
When we come to confession, we must not excuse ourselves, but rather denounce ourselves, become aware of our sins, condemn them, reveal them to the confessor, and have faith in that the Lord has forgiven them in the sacrament of confession.
A sin in our soul is like a snake under a rock. If you pick up the rock – the snake will crawl away; if you reveal the sin – your soul will be free of it. You must simply give a detailed account to the confessor and receive absolution from the Lord through him; moreover, you should bear worthy fruit of this repentance by doing good deeds.
“By repentance, – says St. John Chrysostome, – I mean not only the rejection of former evil deeds, but the intent to do good deeds.” And here is our first good deed – confession, because confession destroys falsehood, reconciles us with God, brings peace and tranquility back into the soul, which means joy and hope for those around us.
Recently in Russia the so-called “general confession” has been very much in vogue: a priest would come out, read some prayers, name some sins, then cover each person who had come to confession with his epitrahelion and read the prayer of absolution: “I forgive and absolve you of all your sins.” And thus thousands passed through such a “confession,” in which the person himself does not name a single sin: both the baptized and the unbaptized, and all went up to communion. Perhaps someone had been drinking the whole night, carousing, using foul language, perhaps someone killed an infant in her womb, someone went to sorcerers or extrasensorics, or engaged in sorcery himself… All of them went up to communion, went to take the Living Christ into themselves. But the Lord sternly warns us: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs” (Matt. 7:6). Christ will never enter an unrepentant soul, God enters only pure souls, thus all these people were taking communion for their own damnation.
The Orthodox Church never had general confession. In the early years of Christianity there was open confession, but later it was changed to private confession. General confession has come to us from the West, and it already signified a retreat from Church canons.
General confession is a terrible thing. Back in the 1920s the famous priest and preacher Valentin Sventitsky warned: “Every person who uses general confession, even in its most improved form, should know that he contributes to the antichurch… General confession is totally unacceptable in any form or under any circumstance.”
The church is a spiritual clinic in which souls are healed. The priest says the following words before confession: “Behold, child, Christ invisibly stands here, receiving thy confession; be not ashamed, nor be afraid and conceal nothing from me, but do not hesitate to tell all that thou hast done…” And he adds: “If thou concealest anything from me, thou hast a double sin; make sure, therefore, that having come to this physician, thou go not away unhealed.”
Now just imagine that sick people gathered together and came to the clinic. A physician usually sees 15-20 people at a shift, but here he suddenly looks out into the waiting room and sees that there are hundreds of people. He asks them: “Are all of you sick?” – “Yes, we are all sick.” – “Do not worry, there’s nothing terrible, you are all well, go in peace.” Is such a physician behaving rationally? Of course not! The same happens in church, particularly since the church is a spiritual clinic where we must heal our soul, while the priest is like a physician, he must see and listen to each one individually. Any physician who sees a patient first asks him about his symptoms and only then makes a diagnosis. The same thing happens here – the priest helps us remember unrepented sins from the time of our youth, and these sins must be named, even if they were committed 60, 70, 80 years ago. Our mind is forgetful, does not remember many of our sins, but the demons remember well and will show us all our sins as we pass through the toll-houses; therefore, we must remember all our sins from youth and repent of all of them, so that nothing remains in the soul. Only then will our soul be tranquil.
The Orthodox Church allows only two types of confession – private and open. Private confession is when we repent before the Lord in the presence of a priest (the cross and the Gospel that lie on the analogion are the visible signs of the Lord’s invisible presence). Open confession is when a person confesses before all the people, having received the priest’s blessing to do so. For example, a schoolteacher comes up to the priest and repents: “Father, I have told the children at school that there is no God.” – “Did you say it to all the children?” – “Yes.” – “Now go and repent before all the people.” And so she stands in front of everyone and repents: “Dear brothers and sisters! I was a schoolteacher and told the children that there is no God.” This is open confession. Of course it is hard to repent, but there is such joy, such lightness when the soul repents!
Some people may ask: and how about the confessions held by St. John of Kronstadt? Were they not general confessions? St. John of Kronstadt was a great and holy man, a multitude of people came to see him, sometimes up to 10,000 a day, and each person wanted to be confessed by him. It was physically impossible for him to see everyone individually, and so he proceeded with confession in the following manner: he first gave such a moving homily on confession that many people were moved to tears, feeling remorse over their sins, and then he instructed everyone to name their sins out loud, so that he could hear them. And so this huge mass of people, thirsting for repentance, would begin to repent, loudly naming their sins, while the saint would say: “Repent further, speak further, not everyone has repented yet.” For a long time the crowd would loudly say their sins, naming all kinds of transgressions… Afterwards 25 priests would come out and absolve the people of their sins. But when the penitents came up to communion, the clairvoyant saint would say to many of them: “You have not repented properly, you cannot take communion.” This was not general confession, but open confession, where each person could hear the sins of his neighbors.
Why do many people like general confession? It is because we are vain, egoistic, and the devil imbues us with false shame. “How can I say such-and-such to the priest? I will not repent of this, I feel ashamed. And what will the priest think of me? He may even berate me.” All of us want to appear good, pure, and kind in the eyes of others! Thus such demonic thoughts come to us, but we must not pay any attention to them and must not be afraid of the confessor. The confessor knows all the most terrible sins: thousands of people have passed before his eyes. He rejoices when a person repents wholeheartedly. We must be ashamed to sin and not ashamed to repent. We must confess all our sins, even the tiniest ones. Some people think: “O, this is not really a sin, this is just a trifle, there’s no need to bother the priest with this.” Wrong! One large stone or a bag of sand – both drag us underwater and towards the bottom equally. We sin not only with our actions, but also with our thoughts. If we accept sinful thoughts, we must confess them afterwards. St. Ambrose of Optina saw the tiniest spots of sin, both in his own soul and in the souls of those who came to him, and demanded that all sinful thoughts be confessed. Our invisible enemy will instill a sinful thought into a person’s soul, and will then write it down as though it were the person’s own, in order to subsequently accuse the person at the Last Judgment, – said the elder.
By the grace of God many churches have now gone back to private confession, in which the sacrament of repentance occurs.
If our spiritual eyes were open, we could see how this repentance takes place. Just as righteous Paul the Simple saw it. For his humility the Lord granted him spiritual vision, and he saw the spiritual world just as we see the earthly one. The Guardian Angel and a demon approach each person who wishes to confess. The Guardian Angel waits for the person to fully reveal all his sins, while the demon whispers in his ear: “There is no need for you to tell everything – what will the confessor think of you? The Lord is merciful, He will forgive you all your sins anyway.” The person begins to repent, names his sins, and snakes of different size issue from his mouth, and if he mentions all his sins, all the snakes come out of him. The confessor covers his head with the epitrahelion and reads the prayer of absolution, while at the same time the Lord Himself says: “I forgive and absolve you of all your sins.” The demon disappears, while the angel approaches the person, rejoicing for his soul. The Guardian Angel then places a crown on the head of the penitent, while the latter leaves confession in an enlightened and blessed state… Paul the Simple saw the other side of the coin as well. A sinner came to confession and began to name his sins, and from his mouth also issued snakes of various size. He decided to mention a certain sin, and at first a huge snake began sliding out of his mouth, but then he became ashamed and concealed the sin, and the snake went back inside him. The confessor asked: “Do you have any sins left?” – “No, – said the man, – nothing is left.” The confessor covered his head with an epitrahelion and began to read the prayer: “I forgive and absolve you,” while the Lord said: “I do not forgive you and do not absolve you.” And so the person went away with a concealed sin, and the Guardian Angel began to cry, while the demon approached the person and said: “This is what you should always do, for the Lord is merciful, He knows all of man’s weaknesses, He will forgive you anyway.” And so these two persons approached the Chalice to take communion, to take within themselves the Living Christ. The one who confessed properly took communion worthily, while the unrepentant sinner left the Chalice with a darkened soul, with an even greater sin, and the angel took the communion away from him and instead of Christ’s Body gave him an ember of coal…
If a person comes to confession, this means that he has felt the desire to rid himself of sin, to cleanse himself. Why? Because even the smallest sin burns us like fire, and we try to rid ourselves of it as quickly as possible. Sin is also like a snake coiled at our breast, ready to strike at any moment. And when it bites us, the body becomes dead, the soul also becomes dead, it no longer feels the pangs of conscience, ceases to hear the Lord’s voice. Many people become used to this, and their entire life becomes a mass of sin. Therefore, if such a person comes to confession, he does not know what to say. Such people usually declare: I’ve not killed anyone, I haven’t stolen anything, and I have no particular sins… Or just the opposite: “Father, I have sinned in everything.” I ask: “Well, what are your sins?” – “Well, everything.” – “What did you do – set fire to villages?” – “Of course not, Father!” – “Or perhaps you made the men drunk with vodka?” – “No, no, of course not!” – “Then why do you say that you have sinned in everything?”
Confession usually takes place in the following manner: at first a person sees only his or her heaviest sins: did not come to church, engaged in fornication, had abortions… but after 2-3 days more sins come to mind, they issue forth like snakes. The person feels ashamed, tries not to let out these snakes, to forget about them, but they keep coming out and coming out. What should one do in such a case? One should give them freedom, let all of them come out into the world. One should note down every single sin and repent of it before the confessor, otherwise one will never get rid of these sins. Such repentance may last for several years before all vices and passions are exposed.
One can repent in different ways. There is formal confession, in which a person simply enumerates his sins without any feeling of penitence; such a confession is not accepted by God. “Verbal penitence without intention to correct oneself and without any feeling of remorse is called hypocrisy,” – says St. John of Kronstadt. The confessor always watches the way in which a person repents.
For example, a woman comes up and says that she had abortions, but has not yet truly repented of them, and now she feels the need for penitence. She sheds copious tears, her heart is breaking, she promises never again to commit such a sin, and asks for penance. Although the confessor gives her some penance, yet seeing such deep remorse allows her to take communion. However, when another woman also speaks of having abortions, but says it without any feeling of guilt, indifferently, the confessor excommunicates her until she comes to a realization of her sin. In such cases one cannot grumble against the confessor, complain, demand: “Let me take communion!” God’s grace cannot be obtained by force or screaming.
Elder Barsonuphius of Optina says: “Experience shows that a person is at peace only when he totally acknowledges his own guilt and repents of his sin, without trying to lessen it in the eyes of others.”
God looks not upon words but into one’s heart.
Two monks in a certain monastery quarreled with each other. Finally one of them decided to go and ask his brother for forgiveness, knocked on the door of his cell, but the latter did not even open the door. He came another time, but the same thing happened. Then he went to his elder for advice. The elder said: “You went there thinking to justify yourself, but in the depth of your heart you still have not repented; go now and ask forgiveness from the bottom of your heart.” The monk understood, repented, went again to his brother, and the latter opened his door, welcomed him lovingly, and forgave him.
It is also important to know that during confession one must talk only about one’s own sins, not the sins of others: “Father, my husband is a drunkard, uses offensive language, my daughter is disobedient, my neighbor harasses me…” Such a “penitent” will talk about everyone else and not say a word about oneself.
What are our heaviest sins? To begin with, that we do not have a real and living faith in God. We do not go to church every Saturday, Sunday, and on all the holidays. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the head of this Body is Christ Himself. One of the apostolic rules states: whoever did not come to church three Sundays in a row is thrown out of church by the Holy Spirit and remains in darkness, in the power of the devil. Only through repentance does the Lord forgive us and unite us with the holy, universal, apostolic Church.
We do not keep the fasts, we eat non-lenten food on Wednesdays and Fridays – that is also a heavy sin: on Wednesday the Lord was betrayed, while on Friday He was crucified; these are days of mourning. Again we are thrown out of church by the Holy Spirit.
We do not pray to God when we go to sleep, we get up in the morning without prayer, and neither do we pray before meals, after meals, throughout the day, before each activity. We do not pray to God and do not thank Him for everything.
We get married in a civil ceremony, but not in church – that is fornication, and from the Gospel we know that fornicators do not inherit the Heavenly Kingdom. Apostle Paul says: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortionists, shall inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Heavy mortal sins must be lamented until death. Here is one of them, very widespread in our times – abortion. Many people say in confession: we have not killed. “Did you have abortions?” – “Yes, I had.” But that is the same as committing murder: to kill a child or to kill an adult is one and the same in the eyes of God.
When a person is conceived in the mother’s womb, he immediately receives a soul from his parents; therefore, by killing an infant in the womb, the mother kills a child, a person, even though he has not yet appeared in the world. A civil court metes out harsh punishment for murder, isolates the murderer from society, locks him up in prison, or gives him a death sentence. But if human law punishes so severely for murder, what will God’s judgment be for unrepented infanticide! On the day of the Last Judgment all the children who had been killed in their mothers’ wombs will appear before their parents as adults, and the parents will have to answer for their deed.
A certain woman, a gynecologist, was very proud of her profession and always walked around with her head held high. And then one night she had a dream: she saw herself standing on a high mountain, surrounded by a multitude of children who were all raising their hands and pointing at her, screaming: “You are our murderer! You are our murderer!” She was overcome with fear, and the terrible screams woke her up. But the voices continued to follow her, and she realized that she had served as an executioner and was carrying an extremely sinful burden on her shoulders – a great many murdered people.
It is a sin not only to kill an infant oneself, but to advise another to do so, and to assist in such a deed in general. Thus, in order to avoid the eternal torment of hell, a mother who had abortions must lament the terrible sin of infanticide until her very death, must repent before God until her very death. Upon rising in the morning she should immediately prostrate herself before the icons, crying: “Lord, forgive me, a killer!” She should do the same before going to bed at night, before meals, after meals. She should pray constantly, keep the fast, do good deeds, especially to her enemies, and suffer all kinds of insults, humiliation, illness, feeling remorse over her terrible sin: “Lord, it is better that You punish me here on earth, but have mercy upon me in the afterlife!” And whoever has not been visited by sorrow or illness should ask God to send them, and when they are sent – should not grumble, but should rejoice and thank God.
What other sins are there? Betrayal of spouses. This is called adultery. If we come to confession and are carrying this sin in our hearts, we must declare it. This is because as soon as our soul leaves the body for the next world it must pass through 20 “tollhouses” – i.e, 20 trials, and at these tollhouses the demons will exhibit every single sin that the person committed in his life. The most terrible tollhouses are: the 16th – fornication, the 17th – adultery, the 18th – sins of sodomy. Fornication is when a person cohabits with someone outside of marriage, or lives together unmarried, while if he does get married and betrays his spouse, then he has committed the sin of adultery. The sins of sodomy take their name from the two ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities were notorious throughout the entire world for their horrible sins: man lived with man and woman with woman, spouses engaged in all kinds of depravity, people cohabited with animals – these are all sins of sodomy. And at this tollhouse a great multitude of disgusting and lewd demons, together with their chief, Asmodeus, brag that very few individuals can pass through these tollhouses, because many people sin and do not repent – during confession the evil spirits brainwash people into feeling shame and fear.
In ancient times, when a person committed a crime, he was beheaded. During confession, however, when a person has repented of his sins, has bowed his head before the cross and the Gospel, and the priest reads the prayer of absolution, it is sin that is cut off. There, at the guillotine, a person received death for his crime; here, in front of God, he receives life, resurrects his soul.
What sins come next? We used profanity, drank to the point of inebriation, danced wildly, sang lewd songs, played cards, smoked, brawled, engaged in stealing, entertained thoughts of suicide, cursed others…. And how full we are of wrath, malice, irritation! We do not give in to those around us, we badmouth them, we become offended at them, we do not speak to them for a long time, we tell dirty jokes, we laugh a lot, and yet the Holy Fathers say: “Whoever laughs immoderately, it is a sure sign that this person does not have the fear of God within him.” We eat immoderately and leave no place for prayer, we oversleep. And we are prey to dirty thoughts and vile dreams because we had spent the day uncleanly: either we overate, or overslept, or offended others, etc., and since our soul was made unclean, so does our body become unclean during sleep.
A man’s soul is never empty, but is filled either with the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. How to determine which spirit lives in our soul? If we do not feel the need to pray, to love God and our neighbors; if we do not live according to the laws of goodness and love, but rather according to the laws of evil; if we constantly wish to offend someone, to rant and rave, to be puffed up with pride, – this means that an evil spirit lives in our soul. And such a person can be seen immediately, wherever he may be: at home, at work, on a bus, standing in line, – everywhere he is the same, constantly pouring out verbal filth and behaving unpleasantly. And if we should see in ourselves the signs of an evil spirit, we must immediately begin working on ourselves, repenting and correcting ourselves. We should bear in mind that our entire life on earth is only a preparation for eternity, and that all our deeds – both good and bad – will go with us into the next world. We should remember that death is never far away!
The Lord in His great mercy calls us to Him, extends His hand to us, waits for us to cleanse our souls through repentance. Remember the time when the Saviour was coming out of Jericho with His disciples, and a blind man was sitting along the way, and hearing that Jesus was coming he began to cry out:
”Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me!” He was told: “Do not shout, no one hears you.” They tried to hush him up, but he cried out more and more loudly, and the Lord stopped and ordered the blind man to be brought to Him. “What do you want from Me?” – “To be able to see.” And immediately he could see, and he followed Christ along the road. Thus we, too, should cry out in our spiritual blind-ness: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me! Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy!” The demons will try to hinder us, to stop us: “Do not shout, no one can hear you anyway.” But you should continue to cry out, to cry to the Lord, and He will hear, He will accept your repentance and will save you.
Fornication and adultery
The demons controlling the aerial “tollhouses” dealing with fornication brag that few individuals can pass through these tollhouses, because all people experience desire, all are inclined towards sins of the flesh, but very few repent of them: the devil lulls people into a false sense of shame. One must repent boldly, but be ashamed to sin, and one must always remember that on the day of the Last Judgment we will see all of our unrepented sins as in a mirror, they will all be presented openly, and we will be shamed before the entire world and all the angels. And if we consciously conceal even a single sin during confession, our confession will not lead to salvation, but to condemnation.
Sins of the flesh are particularly widespread in our time, when a dirty stream of pornographic literature and films is flowing towards us from the West. People have become used to living in lewdness and do not count it as a sin.
But the Lord has given us the following commandment: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time – thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that whoever looketh on a woman to lust after her committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Such is the degree of purity and holiness that Christ demands from us!
The sins of fornication and adultery are terrible, mortal sins. If a person does not repent of them, they will close the doors to paradise, for nothing unclean can enter there. They destroy family hearths, corrupt unspoiled and pure youth, deprive men of the power to reason, blunt the mind, fill the memory with filthy remembrances.
Sensuality, say the Holy Fathers, is an abyss in which a great multitude of souls have perished. The pleasure received from satisfying the lusts of the flesh passes quickly, while its dirty trace remains in the soul forever.
The Lord will judge us not only for our actions, but also for our thoughts: chastity is not only purity of the body, but also purity of the mind. Therefore, we must first of all learn to struggle against unclean thoughts, because without such a struggle it is impossible to nurture virtues, to attain spiritual perfection.
For those who delight in lewd thoughts there is no salvation; those, however, who do not accept such thoughts, who overcome them by means of prayer, receive crowns from God.
The letters of St. Seraphim the Athonite describe an instructive example. A certain abbess was bringing up an orphan girl in her convent. The girl sang and read in the choir, and when she turned 18 – she died. The abbess prayed and fasted for 40 days, asking God to show her the celestial dwelling of her protégé, and on the 40th day she saw the ground open up and the girl thrown out amid fiery flames. “My daughter, you are burning?! – the abbess cried out in horror. – Why did you land in this place?” – “Reverend Mother, pray for me, – said the girl, – I deserve to be punished. A certain young man used to come to church while I sang in the choir, and I loved to look at him, to delight in his presence, and I fornicated with him in my thoughts, but did not repent of this to my father confessor because I was ashamed. And now I am tormented by fire…”
We should also repent when we have unclean dreams, which indicate an unclean soul. “When a soul is seduced by unclean dreams in its sleep, this means that it has not yet attained perfect chastity,” – the Holy Fathers warn us.
What gives rise to passions of the flesh? The basic reason (and not only of bodily passions) is pride and passing judgment. St. John of the Ladder says: If a man falls into fornication, before that he has fallen into pride. If we pass judgment on someone over a sin, if we feel pride that we ourselves are innocent of this sin, then the Lord will allow us to fall into the same sin. Therefore, we should try not to notice the sins of others, not gossip about them everywhere, but only pray for such a person. Saint Anthony the Great used to say: Even if I see a monk sinning with a woman in the town square, I will cover him with my mantle and pass by…
Passions of the flesh often arise from gluttony. “Whoever satisfies his belly and at the same time wishes to overcome the spirit of fornication is like unto a man who wishes to extinguish fire with oil,” – says the venerable John of the Ladder. The more wood we place in a stove, the fiercer will burn the flame; the more food we eat, the stronger burns the flame of our passions.
A certain monk in a monastery was terribly tempted by the demon of fornication. He told his elder about this and asked the latter to pray for him, but still there was no relief, and the passion of fornication continued to torment him more and more. Again he went to his elder, and the latter said in amazement: “But I have been praying for you! It doesn’t help? Well, we will intensify our prayers.” And once again he started to pray, and then the demon of fornication himself appeared to him and said: “You are laboring in vain! I departed from your monk as soon as you started praying, but he has his own personal demon: he loves to sate himself with tasty food and to sleep a lot…”
Abstinence in food is very important, and if passions of the flesh continue to be bothersome, one can abstain from meat, sweets, wine, stimulating drinks. “Eat a measured amount of bread and drink water temperately, and the spirit of fornication will depart from you,” – the Holy Fathers advise us. It is very beneficial to work a lot, avoid eating late at night, take exhausting walks, sleep with an open window, sleep on hard mattresses, avoid covering oneself up too warmly, reduce the hours of sleep, get up immediately upon awakening, and avoid lolling around in bed.
Fornication is also the result of reading obscene literature, looking at seductive pictures and pornographic postcards, being attracted by and going to see erotic shows and dancing, licentious interaction with individuals of the opposite sex, dirty jokes, immodest laughter, improper glances and touches.
Contact with lewd people is very harmful, as are dirty, lecherous conversations, love for luxury, a desire to dress up and use makeup for the purpose of attracting and seducing others. Young girls who like to use makeup should remember the words of Apostle Peter: “Let your adorning not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel, but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price (1 Peter 3:3-4).
A woman can fall very low, but can also rise very high, and the example before us should be the Most-holy Theotokos, the Virgin Mary: a Virgin before giving birth, a Virgin while giving birth, and a Virgin after giving birth. She spent Her entire life in holiness and did not have a single unclean thought. Similarly, a maiden who lives chastely and spends her time in prayer is surrounded by a fiery circle of grace, and the demons cannot approach her.
In order for our life to be pure and holy we must guard ourselves, battle and vanquish the enemy, and then the Lord will save us.
Not a single person can escape passionate thoughts: the one who did not experience them in one’s youth will come across them in maturity, and sometimes even in one’s old age, especially those who have been living chastely. The thoughts themselves are not yet a sin, because they arise independently of our will; the main thing is for our soul not to be in agreement with them: even in our thoughts we should bar the way to demons. If a door stand slightly open, a snake can easily slither in; in like manner, if we stop to entertain a thought, it will already take control over us.
Elder Siluan, when he became a novice in a monastery on Mount Athos, struggled against lewd thoughts and desires to such an extent that he even thought of leaving the monastery and getting married. At that time he was inexperienced and did not know how to cope with such spiritual warfare, but later he went to his elder and revealed his state of mind to him. The elder replied: “Never accept even a single lewd thought.” Siluan followed this advice and the demon left him, and throughout the forty years of his life in the monastery he did not allow even a single lewd thought to enter his mind.
If we struggle against sinful thoughts and repel them, this is counted as our having engaged not in sin, but in spiritual labor.
Two monks were once passing through a village, and five times one of them had the sinful thought of committing fornication. He repented of this to his father confessor, and the latter said: “It was revealed to me that five times you have repelled sinful thoughts, and I saw five crowns over your head.”
Thus, of utmost importance is the determination not to succumb to sin or to temptation. Of course we cannot do anything by our own power, and in this warfare we must rely on God’s help and on prayer to the Mother of God and the saints. They are the ones who, according to St. John of the Ladder, “vanquished their body, vanquished their nature, stood above nature, and such a person is slightly, or even not at all, lesser than the angels.”
“If you should burn with the fire of bodily lust, set it against the fire of Gehenna – and the fire of your lust will be immediately extinguished and will disappear,” – says St. John of the Ladder.
Thus, the main thing is the remembrance of death and the terrible torments of hell, as well as pure-hearted repentance, confession of one’s thoughts, frequent communion, and constant Jesus prayer.
We must engage in an implacable battle with the devil who persuades us to sin. The devil abhors chastity and purity, and especially in our times he attempts to brainwash us into believing that man must take all he possibly can from nature, that it is harmful for man to live in purity. Even many physicians insistently advise patients to engage in fornication in order to rid themselves of one or another illness.
In reality fornication not only does not cure illnesses, but increases them, bringing great harm. In the beginning of last century, a survey was made of over 200 major medics of world fame, both in Russia and abroad, and all of them replied that physical abstinence is not only not harmful, but even necessary. In their many years of practice these medics did not meet a single person whose illnesses, including psychological ones, arose as a result of physical abstinence. Young people can and should remain virginal, which will help them to accumulate bodily strength that will benefit their organism throughout their entire life. Usually only those who wish to justify their own licentiousness speak of the supposed harm of chastity.
Chastity is even more necessary to spiritual health. A chaste person is always tranquil, peace reigns in his soul, his thoughts are clear and pure, his eyes are alight with joy, his heart is filled with love for God and others, and he is automatically engaged in constant prayer. On the contrary, a person who does not restrain his flesh suffers a darkening of the mind, his memory and all his abilities become blunted, he becomes hot-tempered, irritable, can no longer control himself, becomes a slave to his passions, hates chaste people, turns away from all that is divine. Why does this happen? Because the grace of God is no longer present in his heart, which has become the receptacle of dark, evil forces.
“Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). We must not forget that we do not belong to ourselves: both our bodies and our souls are not ours, we have been created by God for God and should be pure and chaste in His eyes, and then we will be like angels. We must only apply some effort, and the Lord will generously reward our labor by granting us eternal bliss in His Kingdom.
How I find you, so shall I judge you
The Lord says: “Repent!”
“Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance,” – exhorts us St. John the Baptist.
In the penitent days of the Great Lent the Church cries out: “My soul, arise, whyfore dost thou sleep? The end is approaching…”
The end is approaching… Perhaps today will be your last chance for repentance, so do not delay it, hurry to confession. Remember: the Lord will forgive all sins, except one – that we did not repent, and He will judge us not for our sins, but for our not having repented of them.
Re-examine your entire life, remember all your sins. Do not be afraid of the confessor, reveal to him all that is in your heart, all that burdens your conscience. Millions of people have passed before him, and he knows all human sins, and if he is a genuine pastor, he will rejoice when a soul repents, just as all of heaven rejoices over a single penitent sinner. Do not be afraid, do not hide anything, but only remember what the Lord said: “How I find you, so shall I judge you.”