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 The Orthodox Christian Marriage
 The Sacrament of Penitence
 Homily on confession (1)
 Homily on confession (2)
 On Passing Through Death Into Eternal Life
 Fifth week of Great Lent: the Sacrament of Penitence
 Discourses on Confession
 Life after death

Priest Alexander Elchaninov.
Alexander Elchaninov.

Homily on confession (1)

“Now has come a favorable time, and the day of purification.” A time when we can put aside the heavy burden of sinfulness, sever the fetters of sin, see our soul renewed and enlightened. But the way to this blessed purification is not easy. We have not yet approached confession, but our soul already hears tempting voices: “Should I not put it off? Am I truly prepared? Do I not take communion too often?” We must firmly repulse such doubts. “If thou art approaching to serve the Lord God, thou must prepare thy soul for temptations” (Sirach 2:1). If you have decided to prepare for communion, a multitude of internal and external obstacles will appear; however, they will disappear as soon as you exhibit firmness of intention.

Concerning the matter of frequent confession: we must go to confession much more often that is customary among us; at least during all the four periods of lent. We, who are unskilled in penitence, must over and over again learn to repent; this first of all, and secondly – it is essential to keep a thread running from confession to confession, so that the intervals between our partaking of communion would be filled with spiritual struggles and labors, fed by impressions from the previous confession and fueled by anticipation of another imminent confession.

Another troubling question concerns the father-confessor: to whom should we go? Should we hold on to the same one, no matter what? Can we change them? Under what circumstances? Holy Fathers experienced in spiritual life assert that we should not change confessors, even if we are talking only about a confessor and not a spiritual father who guides your conscience. It sometimes happens that after a successful confession with a certain priest, subsequent confessions with him can be sluggish and emotionally unsatisfying, and it is then that the thought appears of changing confessors. But these are insufficient grounds for taking such a serious step. Not to mention the fact that our subjective feelings during confession have no bearing upon the essence of the sacrament, – the lack of spiritual uplifting during confession is often a sign of our own spiritual inadequacy. Concerning this St. John of Kronstadt says the following: “Repentance must be exhibited absolutely freely and in no way extorted by the confessor.” For a person who truly suffers from the wound of his sin, it does not matter through whom he confesses the sin which torments him; he only wishes to confess it as quickly as possible and be eased of the torment. It is a different matter if we, setting aside the true nature of repentance, seek confession simply as an outlet for discussion. At this point it is important to distinguish confession from spiritual conversation, which should preferably take place outside the sacrament, because any conversation, even about spiritual matters, tends to cool the penitent’s ardor, entangle him in theological arguments, and weaken the feeling of repentance.

Confession is not a conversation about one’s shortcomings or doubts, nor a vehicle for providing the father-confessor with information about oneself, and least of all – a “pious custom.” Confession is a fiery repentance of the heart, a thirst for purification, a wish for holiness, a dying of sin and a revival of sanctity. Repentance is already a degree of holiness, while insensibility and disbelief are a state outside of holiness, outside of God.

Let us look at how we should approach the sacrament of penitence, what is required from the penitent, how to prepare for the sacrament, and what to consider as being the most important moment (in the part of the sacrament pertaining to the penitent).

Undoubtedly the first step is the examination of one’s heart. This is the reason for having to prepare oneself for communion. “To see one’s sins in all their multitude and in all their foulness is truly a gift from God,” – says St. John of Kronstadt. Most people, inexperienced in spiritual life, usually see neither the multitude, nor the vileness of their sins. “Nothing special,” “like everyone else,” “just small sins – I’ve neither stolen, nor killed” – this is how many people begin their confession. And what about egotism, callousness, inability to accept criticism, obsequiousness, lack of faith and love, faintheartedness, spiritual idleness – are these not major sins? Can we assert that we truly love God, that our faith is fervent and active? That we love each person as our brother in Christ? That we have attained meekness, placidity, humility? If not, what does our Christianity betoken? How else can we explain our self-confidence during confession, if not by “petrified insensibility, numbness of the heart, spiritual death which has fore-shadowed the physical one”? Why did the Holy Fathers who had composed prayers of repentance regard themselves as the greatest of sinners and fervently cried out to the Saviour: “No one hath ever sinned on earth as I, the iniquitous one, have sinned,” while we are certain that we are in good shape?! The brighter the light of Christ illuminates our hearts, the clearer we recognize our spiritual short-comings, ulcers, and wounds. And, conversely, people immersed in the darkness of sin are unable to see anything within their heart; and even if they see something, they are not frightened, because they have nothing with which to compare what they see.

Thus the direct path to recognition of one’s sins is by approaching light and praying for this light which judges the world and all that is of the world within us (John 3:19). But until we achieve such closeness to Christ that the feeling of repentance becomes our usual state of mind, we must, while preparing for confession, examine our conscience – by the light of Church commandments, prayers, and the Gospel.

As we sort out our inner holdings, we must try to distinguish basic sins from those that are derivative, distinguish symptoms from primary causes. For example, it is important to note within oneself the wandering of the mind during prayers, inattentiveness in church, lack of interest in reading the Holy Scriptures; but do these sins not spring from lack of faith and little love for God? We should recognize within ourselves the sins of willfulness, disobedience, self-justification, inability to accept criticism, stubbornness; but it is even more important to discover their link to egotism and pride. If we notice within ourselves a tendency towards socializing, gossip, mockery, extreme concern for our appearance, and not only our own, but also that of our family members, concern about the furnishing of our home, – then we must carefully consider whether this is not a form of vanity. If we become too upset over life’s misfortunes, are heartbroken at partings, grieve inconsolably over our departed ones, does this not testify – besides the power and depth of our feelings – to our lack of faith in God’s Providence?

There is another means of gaining an awareness of our sins – and that is to take note of the habitual accusations of other people who live alongside of us, take note of the reproaches of our near ones: their accusations and reproaches almost always have a valid foundation.

Before going to confession, it is imperative to ask forgiveness of all those whom we had offended, and to approach confession with an unburdened conscience.

However, while examining one’s heart, one must be careful not to fall into extreme mistrust and petty suspicion of every movement of the heart; having stepped onto that path, one can easily lose sight of what is important and what is not, one can become lost among trivialities. In such a case it is best to temporarily suspend the examination of one’s heart, and to simplify and enlighten the heart by means of prayer and good deeds.

Homily on confession (2)

Preparation for confession consists not of attempting to remember ones sins as fully as possible and even writing them down, but of trying to attain that state of concentration, seriousness and prayer, in which our sins will become clear as daylight. In other words, one should bring to ones confessor not a list of sins, but a feeling of penitence, not a detailed dissertation, but a sorrowing heart.

But to know ones sins does not yet mean to repent of them. The Lord accepts our sincere and honest confession even when it is not accompanied by a strong feeling of repentance (if we bravely confess this sin, too - our stony indifference). However, a sorrowing heart, grief over ones sins, is the most important thing which we can bring to the confession. But what can we do if our heart, seared by the flames of sin, is not irrigated by life-giving tears? What if the feebleness of our souls and bodies is so great, that we are unable to sincerely repent?

This is surely not a valid reason to delay our confession: God can touch our heart even in the course of confession; the very process of confessing, of naming our sins can mollify our heart, clarify our spiritual sight, sharpen our feeling of repentance.

The very preparation for confession serves to overcome our spiritual indifference: fasting, which emaciates our bodies and disrupts the physical satiety which is so destructive to our spiritual life; prayer, thoughts of death; reading of the Gospel, lives of the saints and the works of the holy fathers; our earnest struggle with ourselves; the doing of good deeds. Our indifference during confession is primarily rooted in a lack of the fear of God and in a hidden disbelief. Thus our efforts must be directed towards this area. It is for this reason that tears are so important during confession - they soften our petrified state, rock us from top to bottom, simplify our internal condition, remove the major impediment to penitence - our egoism. Those who are proud and self-centered do not cry. If tears come - that means we have become softer, humbler. After such tears there is meekness, tenderness, peacefulness in the heart of those to whom the Lord has sent such joy-bringing weeping. One must not be embarrassed by tears during confession, one must let them flow freely, cleansing our impurities.

The third part of confession is the verbal enunciation of ones sins. One must not wait to be questioned but must make the effort oneself: confession is the spiritual labor of self-coercement. One must speak precisely, without glossing over the ugliness of sin with general expressions (for example, I have sinned against the 7th commandment). It is very hard, when confessing, to avoid the temptation of self-justification, of trying to explain to the confessor all the extenuating circumstances, of making references to third parties who have led us into sin. All of this is evidence of egoism, of a lack of deep repentance, of our continued wallowing in sin. Sometimes during confession people refer to a bad memory, which supposedly prevents them from remembering their sins. In fact, it often happens that we easily forget our sins; but is it only due to a bad memory? For example, we long remember those times when our egoism was badly hurt or, conversely, when we were highly praised. Everything that makes a strong impression on us we remember clearly and for a long time, and if we forget our sins, does that not mean that we attach little importance to them?

The marks of accomplished repentance are: a feeling of lightness, purity, ineffable joy, when sinning appears to be difficult and impossible.

Our repentance will not be complete if, as we repent, we do not firmly resolve not to return to the sin which has just been confessed. But how is that possible, you may ask? How can I promise myself and my confessor that I will not repeat the sin? Will not the converse be truer - a certainty that the sin will be repeated? Everyone knows from experience that after a while one inevitably returns to the same sins; watching oneself year after year, one does not see any amelioration, it seems like you jump - and you still remain on the same spot! It would be terrible if it were so. But, fortunately, that is not the case. As long as one has a sincere desire to become better, there is not a single occasion when consecutive confessions and communions do not produce favorable changes in the soul. Furthermore, we cannot be our own judges; a person cannot correctly judge himself, whether he has become better or worse. Moreover, the Lord, in His special providence, often closes our eyes to our spiritual successes, in order to guard us against worse sins - those of vanity and pride. It often happens that although the sin remains, frequent confessions and the partaking of the Holy Mysteries weaken and loosen the roots of that sin. And even the very struggle against sin, the suffering over ones sins - is that not a beneficial acquisition? Do not fear, - said St. John of the Ladder, even though you fall every day, as long as you do not step off the godly path; stand bravely, and the Angel who guards you will honor your patience.

If we do not experience a feeling of alleviation, of renewal, we must have enough strength to return to confession, to completely liberate our soul from filth, to cleanse it with tears from all its darkness and impurity. Only let us not ascribe our successes to our own selves, let us not depend on our own resources, have faith in our own strength. This would mean a total loss of all that we have acquired. Collect my wandering mind, o Lord, and purify my frozen heart; grant me the repentance of Peter, the lamentation of the publican, and the tears of the fallen woman.

Priest Alexander Elchaninov.
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