On the Mystery of Confession

This isn’t a time of year when confession is at the forefront of Orthodox’ thinking, so I thought I would speak from my own experience of confession in the hope that it will be of some little help to my readers.

I grew up in the Northeast in the days before Vatican II. I was young so I wasn’t paying much attention then, but if the national statistics are accurate, then I would say that half of the population of my village were practicing Christians. Most were mainline Protestants, but we had a good representation of Roman Catholics, too. We Protestants used to make fun of the Catholics because they had to go to Confession on Saturday nights in order to prepare themselves for communion at the Sunday morning mass.

An old Catholic practice using furniture now removed.

It was often said that their confession was a perfunctory operation where you ducked into the confessional booth and whispered to the priest behind the grille the sins that you could remember committing in the past week. He then gave you a quick absolution and assigned x number of Hail Marys and x number of Our Fathers for your penance. It became a societal joke that this was a cheap ticket to communion for Catholics who would undoubtedly go right back out and commit the same sins the following week.

The Catholic way of thinking is highly rational and therefore legalistic. Sin is considered to be an offense against God’s law, for which the believer must apply the merits of the salvific death of Christ stored in the Church in order to escape divine retribution. Of course, in the Protestant mindset, Christ’s death once and for all obliterated sin and since the sacramental priesthood had been done away with, there was no need for confession before a priest.

In my Anglican experience, I once had a lady parishioner, a former Catholic, who asked the rhetorical question, “Why should I have to confess my sins to a man?” She was true to her word; she never confessed to me. Nor did any of my other parishioners. It was not done except rarely, even in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of my memory. The saying about sacramental confession was, “All may, some should, none must.” Now that I’m a member of a traditional Russian Orthodox parish, the wording might be changed to: “All must… and frequently.” Confession is a prerequisite to receiving communion at the Divine Liturgy.

Until the end of 2021, I was a steward of a Greek Orthodox parish. Oh, how different it was there! The culture was more liberal. The parish priest never preached about confession. No wonder he once admitted in conversation that it was likely that some people in the parish had never been to confession before in their lives. Would I be sarcastic to say that one could tell by their behavior?

The dearth of confessions in the Greek tradition, at least as far as I have seen in my limited American experience, may be the underlying cause of the diminution of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. No wonder they have a heretical scoundrel for an archbishop. No wonder they swallowed the lure of religious covidianism. No wonder they’re missing money from the St. Nicholas finances. Sin abounds and is not dealt with.

A rediscovered emphasis on frequent confession might not save GOARCH, but it certainly would help. Conversely, strict adherence to this Orthodox praxis does not render ROCOR without fault, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

All sins confessed stay under the stole.

I am a sinner, and I am still apt to sin, but I can say that I am more cognizant of my sins than I was until last year. I keep shorter accounts of my sins, and when it comes time for Saturday night confessions, I find myself creating a verbal list of sins before I step up before the Gospel book and tell them to God before the priest.

Pardon me if this sounds like boasting, but by the grace of God rendered through the mystery of confession, I have been able to put two besetting, lifelong sins into remission. I can’t yet say that I have conquered them, lest my pride open me up to stronger temptations. My priest has been helpful with his advice, sometimes by dispensing a dosage of penance. I now feel more at peace with God and the Church, with my family and with myself. My latest struggle is with the great question as to how I should respond to the world. I’m not young. I’ve witnessed a lot, but I must say that I find the current state of national and international affairs to be, frankly, utterly frightening. There is little that I can do about it, but I can’t be at peace with it. How should I engage with a world that seems to be spinning out of control? I’ll save that topic for a later post.

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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