The Journey to Repentance

One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.

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We knew virtually nothing

…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.

Like a hardened crust

I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’

The experience of a miracle

And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,

‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’

‘All of them,’ I replied.

Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.

He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’

Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’

I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.

This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And thestarets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’

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13 Responses to “The Journey to Repentance”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Very interesting blog entry on confession. I am curious what the Orthodox Church teaches about this sacrament: As I read the book “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha” by father Schmemann, he indicates that the sacrament was traditionally (in the early Church)reserved for those who have left the Church and need to return to it.

    I know the Orthodox Church does not entertain ideas such as mortal vs. venial sin as in the west, and I know the Orthodox Church also focuses on the healing of our souls and not a change in legal status as in the west. But I am wondering what specifically the orthodox Church teaches about our “requierments” as to how often we should/must confess and after what actions?

    thank you.

  2. Valentina Lootens Says:

    Thomas,

    There is not one answer to your question. As you rightfully noticed, Orthodoxy does not see things (practices, spiritual efforts) legalistically. What is good fro one person, will not be good for the other.

    The number of times one goes to Confession depends on the advice that one receives from a Father Confessor or a Spiritual Father (Orthodox are not encouraged to rely only on their perception of things since human perceptions are quite often false, so we need someone to guide us, to give us an advice). It also depends on the person’s desire and inclination. You may go to Confession as often as you would like and, of course, as often as your Father Confessor is available.
    If you read closely the narrative, the author felt a burning need to go and confess – this is the right time to go. The circumstance, as you can imagine, might be different for different people, but all Orthodox believe that sin is something that separates us from God, and it has to be removed like cancer.
    Other times are determined historically. Such time is before Great Lent (which is coming up based on Gregorian Calendar in two days) and other fasting periods and Feast days.
    It is also good to do when you are traveling for a spiritual retreat (i.e. a monastery). If a person is on the verge of dying…So, really, there are multiple occasions when Holy Confession is most natural and desired.

    Now, in some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Holy Communion is tied to Holy Confession. That is to receive the latter, one has to take the former.

    Orthodox monastic communities are known to have confessions every day. This allows for mind and heart to be pure of any sin and be able to grow closer to God without obstacles.

    I hope this was helpful.

    In Christ,
    Valentina

  3. Andrew Battenti Says:

    One of the worst things that can happen to man is that he is ceases to be in full communion: body, soul and spirit, with God. It is all or nothing, hot or cold, there is no lukewarm.

    And thus did the good Lord wake me from my slumber this night, to share with you these very words.

    We knew virtually nothing.

  4. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Every time I read something about confession, I am reminded of my late mother’s struggle with this Sacrament. “I can’t believe that a loving God would require this of me,” she used to say. I wish she were still alive, or I wish I had known of this book when she was alive: This excerpt is so beautiful, in the way it shows that confession is the *gift* of a loving God.

  5. Ioannis Freeman Says:

    Building on what Valentina shared in response to Thomas, I would like to add a couple of points. Valentina identifies a relationship of trust and mutual respect shared by a Spiritual Father/Confessor and the person who seeks guidance and confesses sins.

    I have amplified what Valentina related as the character of the relationship in hopes to emphasize an ancient Orthodox practice of trust and confidence that the two build over time. The ancient quality of this relationship appears in early apostolic literature and subsequent tradition.

    In other words, the Orthodox ethos at the parish level should be the same ethos as in monasteries regarding confession, which is determined by recommendations and discussion, and after that manner variable in reference to frequency. I say should be, but acknowledge that often it is not.

    Having served one time in a more juridical body to which you alluded, Thomas, I can tell you that the canons regarding confession differ when it comes to minimum number of confessions per year. But that would lead into a trail that I consider useless to follow. Mention of it here acknowledges your question about frequency.

    I consider this trail useless to follow, because the Orthodox ethos of “come see, and come do” with the Church is based on a view of person in relationship to a confessor that is absent among Latin-rite Catholics except in monasteries where, ideally, no more than 12 men or 12 women practice something more akin to what I call an Orthodox ethos.

    Father Stephen, would you talk a little more about sacrament from an Orthodox perspective?

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Thomas,
    The discipline of confession can vary from jurisdiction and also in different cultural settings. In the US in the (OCA) my jurisdiction, confession is “regular” meaning about every month or six weeks, unless needed more often. Anything that has damaging impact on our relationship with God or other people. One’s confessor can answer this is better detail.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Ioannis,
    Please forgive. I deleted your earlier post. It seemed perhaps too private. May God forgive us all.

    A brief thought to your request to say more: it seems the Prodigal Son is one of the most salutary parables to direct our hearts in confession. There is a “coming to himself,” that occurs in repentance. Sometimes we “come to ourselves” before the sacrament – sometimes during the sacrament, a great grace – frequently afterwards as grace brings more things into our awareness. Learning to understand confession as healing, and appreciating the very depths of the disease (and even its depravity sometimes) that infects us, takes time. Getting free from a forensic understanding, and particularly the trivialization that can be part of it can take time.

    Another thought of some use, perhaps. I observe that many in our culture tend to approach their sins in a “psychological” manner (rather than forensic or as sickness). Thus, there is a tendency to not only confess sins but to “analyze” them, “explain” them, report on whether they are “improving,” etc. This psychological world-view is a cultural distortion that also needs to change as we grow. A good confessor/spiritual father, again, will give help with this.

    Finally, we should not feel embarrassed or worry about making a “good” confession. Being in confession is good. Any humility we bring is helpful. Any confession we make is a good start. Accept with humility the questions a priest may ask and direction he may give. My bishop says we should be careful about “false elders”. There are few living elders anywhere in the world – fewer still in America (with deep gifts of discernment and the like).

    The good news, is that with humility – on the part of the penitent and on the part of the priest (or even in spite of the priest) God will save our souls and heal our wounds. It is God, after all, to Whom we confess. The priest is only a witness.

  8. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for posting this beautiful testimony. In my own OCA parish, I have found that the emphasis is placed not on coming to Confession with a particular frequency (although my Priest told me that the absolute minimum for being considered still a member of the Orthodox Church is once a year!), but as often as the need or conviction arises. Similarly, emphasis is placed not on the quality of one’s confession, but on the goal of Confession (as for all the spiritual disciplines), which is a restoration of the communion of love with God and others. Although it seems to me that there is a relationship between Confession and Communion, it is my understanding that in terms of Orthodox history and practice, one is not contingent upon the other in any formulaic or legalistic sense (as might be inferred from the current practice of some ethnic Orthodox Churches). I’ve found that my own Confessor’s refusal even to state guidelines other than the above has been helpful for me, since I am prone to a tendency to perfectionism that easily begins to create performance anxiety that obscures for me the meaning of the gospel in all the Church’s rites and Mysteries!

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen,
    Generally confession and communion are not always connected – but, as you note, this varies. I sometimes suggest to people that they set a minimum of at least confessing during each of the 4 fasting seasons (Great Lent, Apostles’ Fast, Dormition Fast, Advent Fast).

    I once had a young girl (of about 11 years old) say after service one evening (with regard to confession) – “It’s wonderful! Why don’t more people do that?” Such a good heart.

  10. Bruce Johnson Says:

    Thanks.

  11. Valentina Lootens Says:

    Forgive me all! I made a glaring mistake – it was late last night, but I still do not want to mislead anybody.

    I wrote: “Now, in some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, Holy Communion is tied to Holy Confession. That is to receive the latter, one has to take the former.”

    It should read: “That is to receive the former, one has to take the letter.”

    Father bless.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.
    As you rightfully noticed, there is no direct historic tie between Holy Communion and Holy Confession. However, believers are always encouraged to approach the Cup with clean mind and prepared heart. How one can do this if he/she is burdened by unconfessed sins? Moreover, often is people are not put before some sort of standard, they will tend to “skip” the Sacrament of Confession.

    Thus, although there is not a tie and I think there should be no tie (otherwise we can slip into western legalism), but there is still a very natural connection between these two sacraments. In the same manner as it is in Baptism and Chrismation.

    I have listened not long ago a lecture by the professor of Theological Seminary in Moscow, Alexei Ivanovich Osipov, a popular speaker on Orthodoxy in Russia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Osipov).
    One of the questions dealt with the difference between the way the Russian church sees the relationships between Communion and Confession (always going hand in hand) and how it is done in the US, for instance. His answer was that although there is no historical need for Confession to preclude Communion, he is very glad that it is so in Russia. The reason being that otherwise people take it lightly and do not prepare their hearts out of laziness and lack of spiritual zeal.
    I think there should be a definite clear guidance (in the form of advice) from the priest to his congregation on what to do in terms of frequency. The priest knows his people and knows what is best for each one of them. However, I do not see this kind of relationship here often.

    One last comment, when my husband and I came to our present parish, our Father has also told us of “at least once a year requirement,” and I was rather shocked. It does not seem to me as a good standard to set since a lot of people will take it as a “that is what I am supposed to do, period.”

    Although God is merciful and leads His people in various ways.

    In Christ,
    Valentina

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Valentina,
    “Once a year” is the minimum, more or less, according to the canons. As you note, it would be insufficient for maintaining a healthy spiritual life.

  13. Thomas Says:

    Thanks to all of you for the detailed answers to my questions. The way you all have presented confession seems very organic to me. I have been in a sort-of legalistic mind-set before, but then I found myself focusing more on the legalism than the healing: a hoop to jump through instead of a time for growth. Seeing confession as an opportunity for spiritual healing where the frequency is determined by the confesser and the penitent (instead of by a legal requirement) will allow me to get much more from the sacrement.

    Thank you all again.

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