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The Sacrament of Repentance

October 03, 2021

The Sacrament of Repentance

What do we confess in confession?

This morning let us discuss confession. In order to properly grasp its meaning, let us turn to examining our inner spiritual life. We know that within us there is a constant struggle between good and evil. And the true Christian life begins in us only when we consciously take the side of good and attempt to defeat evil.
The most important thing that we say in confession has little to do with what we say.  The most important thing is what is in our heart, or the condition of our heart in confession.  When we come to confession, many words are not necessary.  In fact, many words generally only muddy the water and reveal a mind that is not settled, but is rather still self-justifying, still trying to “get a handle on it” as though you could actually fix this problem yourself, if you could only just figure it out.
The most important thing to bring to confession is a broken, contrite, and humbled heart.  A broken and humbled heart God does not despise, the Psalms tell us.  A broken and humbled heart expresses itself in simplicity, with few words: few words with much meaning.  
There is no figuring it out in confession, but there can be revelation.  In fact, so long as we continue trying to figure ourselves out, we will run in circles.  As dogs chase their tails, human beings chase their thoughts.  Around and around and around.  The same arguments, the same frustrations, the same dead ends.  Around and around and around.  We have to stop running.  We have to stop chasing.  We have to admit, we have to confess, that we will never catch it, we will never figure it out—and even if we did, even if we did figure out why we sin, in the many broken ways we do, still then, there would be nothing we could do about it.  Catching her tail, the dog only bites herself.  Coming to Confession and confessing the same sins week after week, is just like biting yourself.
But if we let go of the convolutions, if we stop chasing the thoughts and give up, if we just sit down and cry, then something begins to melt in our hearts.  Then we feel the pain of our brokenness, the deep sadness of a broken heart, a heart that we cannot control very well, a heart that lusts after what we don’t want and hates what we long for, a heart that is broken.  This is the beginning of self-knowledge.  It has absolutely nothing to do with figuring it all out.  It has very little to do with psychology.  It has almost everything to do with seeing, admitting and accepting that you are indeed broken.  This is the beginning, this is the beginning of humility.  And humility is the beginning of becoming like God.
Let us apply all this to ourselves. Trace your own actions, your intentions, your words. Yesterday you might have hurt someone with a harsh word, with insulting suspicion or a poisonous barb; a day earlier some mean, lowly desire may have gnawed on your soul and yet you did not abandon dwelling on it but even tried to enjoy it; or you had the chance to sacrifice your peace or comfort, to help someone, but you declined to do so, etc. If you are vigilant and honest with yourself, you would see that your life is a web, a huge network of such small but significant wicked moments, which comprise a significant part of your existence. If we ignore this, thinking that this is all normal, this means that you have not yet begun to live the Christian life. Our Christian life only begins when we say: No, I do not wish for such disgusting things to live in my soul! I wish to be pure and good! I wish to be a true Christian! But as soon as you attempt to take this path, you will be convinced of the following: the struggle against evil within yourself is exceedingly difficult, painful and exhausting. You will see how wicked your emotions are, how your filthy thoughts and desires, unwillingly, without your consent, take hold of you, push you towards one ugly deed or another. You may utter a harsh word or make a foolish move, and then you will begin to understand that you should not have said that, or done that, whereas before you never thought twice that whatever you said or did was wrong. You will begin to feel the great truth of the words of Apostle Paul, ”For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (Romans 7:15)
When God revealed Himself to mankind, He revealed humility.  This is what God showed us about himself when He revealed Himself to mankind, this is the quality that most defines God for us: love revealed by humility.  This is how God reveals Himself: Not by power.  Not through justice.  But in Humility.  God, who is whole, took on himself that which is contingent to teach us the way, to teach us that in accepting our contingency, dependence, inability, and brokenness we begin to imitate God.  We begin to find salvation.  
But we don’t want to be contingent.  We don’t want to be broken.  Like Eve in the Garden, we want to take for ourselves that which will make us what we want to be wise, beautiful, and well-provided for.  Apart from God, we want to become like gods.  We want to do it ourselves, our way, the way we like it; but in the end and we have experienced this time and time again, this is not just philosophy or ancient mythology, it is our daily experience, in the end we are merely driven by forces beyond our control: serpents and passions, culture and circumstance, need and opportunity.  Like Eve in the Garden we are deceived, and we don’t want to admit it.  We don’t want to admit it: we want to explain it: It’s her fault, it’s his fault, and it’s not my fault. Always someone else’s fault!!!
So we see that sometimes man pays no attention to his faults and sins, and lives for many years without care, and then, the time comes for his eyes to open. Some experience it in an instant, as did St Mary of Egypt, others experience it with great effort over a long period of time.
We are stuck on fault, on guilt, yet fault is not the issue.  Like a sick child who has caught a cold playing in the rain.  Figuring out how he caught the cold does not help heal the cold.  But to heal the cold, we have to first acknowledge that we are sick, that we are sick and cannot heal ourselves.  This is why we come to confession.  We come to confession to say that we are sick, that our body and mind is out of control, that we need a physician.  And just this act, this act of contrition, this act of humbling ourselves, and saying out loud: “I am badly broken and I cannot fix myself,” this act begins to heal us.  Why?  It begins to heal us because we have already begun to see reality, to see who we really are, and to find the place where God meets us.  
God saves the poor and needy, but for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is almost impossible.  The way a rich man can enter the Kingdom is by seeing his poverty.  It is the broken and humbled heart God does not despise.  When in a few words, with simplicity, we can admit our failings, our brokenness, our faults, then the pain in our heart speaks.  This pain is called compunction.  And when compunction speaks, few words are needed, simplicity is everything, and explanations are meaningless. 
When we come to confession, we come to God, as to a Physician, a Physician who listens more to our heart than to our words.  Preparation for confession has much less to do with scribbling down lists of mistakes and sins, or reading a pre-written list, as it has to do with allowing your reflection on your sins to break your heart—or rather letting yourself feel the brokenness that is already there.  When we come to confession with compunction, with pain in our heart, then we confess everything with few words, few words and much meaning.  When we come to confession with compunction and humility, then we already have begun to be healed, we have already begun to reach out our hands to our loving and humble Father, to the Physician who heals our soul.
We know that Jesus Christ brought holy life to this earth. This holy life is imparted to humanity through the Church and the Holy Mysteries. Confession is the Mystery of holy repentance. It was established so that through it, we could purify ourselves of all the filth of sin.
As He established this mystery, Jesus Christ said to His disciples: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20:22-23).
And to this day the pastors of the Orthodox Christian Church, with the power given to them by the Lord, release the sins of those who repent, and the grace of the Holy Spirit purifies their hearts.
In this way, confession is not some vague, strange custom that we have to blindly participate in for some reason, but an extremely important and exceptionally crucial means of moral recuperation and correction, which answers the demands of our own moral nature. Confession is not ‘going through the Orthodox motions”, To refuse to confess is the same as if we suffer from some physical ailment and, knowing what the most effective medicine is, neglecting to take it out of ignorance or laziness, and so to allow the disease to worsen. Our sins are spiritual disease. The medicine for this disease is confession. To neglect to use this medicine means that we do not wish to lose our sinful impurity and accumulate more and more of it.

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