The Sacrament of Confession
by Fr. Peter Orfanakos
As Orthodox Christians, our spiritual journey in the life of the Church begins with the Sacrament of Baptism. It is during this 'mystery' that we are cleansed of the original sin of man and made pure through the purifying waters of the Baptismal Font. It is during this service that we also receive the Sacrament of Chrismation, 'the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,' and the Eucharist, 'Holy Communion.' We begin our spiritual journey clothed in a garment of righteousness whose whiteness reflects the purity of our soul.
Throughout our lives, we strive to follow the teachings of Christ and the Church. We are called to be 'God-like,' to follow the example that Jesus set before us, and live a pure and blameless life. Yet, sadly, we fall short. Quite often we find ourselves giving into temptation and falling into sin. It is this 'missing the mark' that threatens to cause a separation in our relationship with God.
Confession, too, takes place within the Church. It is not a private procedure, a treatment of some guilt-ridden individual on an analyst's couch. It is not based on an admission of guilt and certainly cannot be reduced to a feeling of guilt, of liability for conduct contrary to norms and laws which render a person subject to punishment. It is related to what is deepest in man, to what constitutes his being and his relation with other human beings as well as with God. It is a sacrament - "the visible for of an invisible grace" (Saint Augustine), re-establishing a bond of union between God and man, between man and man. This is why confession also takes place within prayer because it is there that a personal relationship in all its intensity is realized both with God and the entire world. As such, confession and prayer are not merely technical terms but means and opportunities offered by the Church for overcoming sin and death. Repentance is indeed the cause and consequence of prayer, being the highest and fullest foundation for and form of prayer. "True prayer," according to Saint Anthony, "is that in which one forgets that one is praying," and genuine repentance enables one to forget oneself and simply long for God, who is present in the very depth of repentance. For it is "before Him alone that one sins" (Psalm 50:3-4) - that is the personal or relational aspect of both sin and repentance.
The Role of the Spiritual Father
As Christians, we have many ways to make sure that our relationship with God continues to grow; the first of which is prayer. Both a strong personal prayer life and participation in the sacramental life of the Church are vital to keeping our spiritual tank full of fuel. The Church in her wisdom also provides us with a guide - a Spiritual Father, who will serve as our navigator assisting us along the way.
In the United States, it is usually the parish priest who fulfills this role. It is from him that we receive the sacraments of the Church and spiritual direction. The sacrament of penance is our formal act of reconciliation with God and exists in the Church to allow for the repentance and reconversion of Christians who have fallen away from the life of faith.
Three Main Elements
There are three main elements to the act of formal repentance. The first is our need to have sincere sorrow for our sins and for breaking our communion with God. The second is our open and heartfelt confession of sins. The third element is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed on us as repented sinners. The fulfillment of the Sacrament of Confession is the reception of Holy Communion and the genuine reconciliation of the repentant sinner with God and all men according to the commandments of Christ.
The Orthodox Church strictly adheres to the teaching of the Bible that only God can forgive sins, that he does so through Christ in the Church, that his conditions are genuine repentance and the promise of change which are witnessed by confession; and that confession, by definition, is the open and public acknowledgement of sin before God and all mankind.
It is important to remember that through confession God does not wish to harm us, but rather help us turn away from sin and once again live our lives according to His Teachings. In order to do this however, we must take the time and prepare ourselves by praying to God to grant us the wisdom to thoroughly examine our conscience, courage to make a sincere and complete confession and strength to amend our ways.
The following is a prayerful examination of our feelings, thoughts, words, acts, attitudes, habits, values, priorities, goals, direction and way of life. This self-examination includes not only our personal religious life, but also our relationship with parents and families, our social activities, work or school conduct, even our hobbies and extra-curricular pursuits. That is because our entire existence, not just our life in the Church, should be lived in Christ. The goal of this sincere search of conscience under the light of the Holy Spirit is not to condemn ourselves, but to know our true selves in Christ who has given us access to God's mercy and forgiveness, and who has taught us to live for God's glory.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: A SELF EXAMINATION
1. I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.
Have I believed in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Have I failed to trust in God and His mercy? Have I complained to God when faced with adversity? Have I been thankful for God's blessings? Have I doubted the Christian faith and the teachings of the Church? Have I tried to serve God and keep His commandments? Have I given way to superstition? Have I neglected my duties to God through fear of ridicule or persecution? Have I failed to pray to God faithfully? Have I put myself before God?
2. YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF A GRAVEN IMAGE IN ORDER TO WORSHIP IT.
Have I given to anyone the worship that is due to God alone? Have I made an idol of any person or thing? Have I set before myself the holy life of Jesus and tried to imitate Him? Have I read the Holy Scriptures regularly? Have I been irreverent during Church Services, let my attention wander, or been insecure? Have I neglected to receive Holy Communion regularly or without due preparation?
3. YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD YOUR GOD IN VAIN.
Have I profaned the holy name of God in any way? Have I cursed anyone or anything, or sworn a false oath? Have I failed to give proper reverence to holy, persons and things? Have I had due respect for the clergy of the Church or hindered them in performing God's work? Have I broken any solemn vow or promise? Have I entered into any unlawful contract or made an unlawful promise?
4. REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY TO KEEP IT HOLY.
Have I stayed away from Church on Sundays or prevented others from going? Have I done unnecessary work on Sundays? Have I spent the day in an unwholesome fashion or profaned it by improper conduct? If I could not go to Church because of illness or other grave cause, have I prayed at home? Have I caused anyone else to profane the Lord's Day? Have I kept the Fasts and Festivals prescribed by the Church?
5. HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.
Have I respected my parents and been ob-edient to them? Have I been guilty of de-ception, or caused them pain by my words or actions? Have I neglected them or failed to help them? Have I done my duty towards my family? Have I been wanting in love or kindness towards my husband (or wife), or harmed him (or her) in any way? Have I set my children a good example and tried to bring them up properly? Have I corrected their faults with patience and not with anger? Have I over-indulged or spoiled them? Have I neglected my god-children and failed in my obligations towards them? Have I worked for my employers honestly and diligently? Have I treated fairly all those who have worked for me? Have I honored God as my Heavenly Father by treating others as my brothers, and have I honored the Church as my spiritual Mother by honoring and practicing my religion in accordance with her teachings?
6. YOU SHALL NOT KILL.
Have I caused the injury or death of anyone, or wished that I were dead? Have I done anything to shorten my own life or that of someone else by injuring them, or through evil and intemperate living? Have I given way to anger or harmed others with words or action? Have I defamed others who needed help, or failed to stand up for those unjustly treated? Have I been cruel to anyone? Have I mistreated animals or destroyed any life unnecessarily? Have I failed to forgive anyone or harbored evil thoughts against them?
7. YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY.
Have I given way to impure thoughts, words, or deeds? Have I committed any un-worthy actions alone or with others? Have I degraded myself in any way, or forgotten human dignity? Have I read immoral books or magazines, or delighted in obscenity of any kind? Have I associated with bad companions or frequented unsavory places? Have I eaten or drunk or smoked too much? Have I been lazy, idle, or wasted my time? Have I led others to commit sinful acts? Have I been unfaithful to any trust confided in me?
8. YOU SHALL NOT STEAL.
Have I stolen anything or wished to do so? Have I kept anything that did not belong to me? Have I tried honestly to find owners of lost articles I have found? Have I cheated anyone? Have I paid my debts? Have I lived within my income, and not wastefully and extravagantly? Have I contributed a fair percentage of my income to the Church as a steward? Have I given to charitable causes in proportion to my means? Have I been honest and upright?
9. YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS.
Have I told lies, or added to or subtracted from the truth? Have I made careless state-ments or spoken evil of anyone? Have I told any secrets entrusted to me, or betrayed any-one? Have I gossiped about anyone or harmed their reputation? Have I concealed the truth, assisted in carrying out a lie, or pretended to commit a sin of which I was not guilty? Have I tried to see the good in others rather than their shortcomings?
10. YOU SHALL NOT COVET.
Have I envied anything good that has come to others? Have I been jealous of another's good fortune? Have I wished for anything that was another's? Have I damaged or destroyed the property of others? Have I wished for things God has not given me, or been discontented with my lot? Have I been stingy? Have I held back anything due another? Have I hoped for the downfall of anyone so that I might gain by it? Have I failed to be gracious and generous to anyone? Have I expected God to give me that which I would refuse one of my fellow men?
After careful review of the self examination with regard to its relevance in your daily life, your next step is to call Father Peter and schedule an appointment for Confession. Please note that you are not confessing your sins to the priest but to our Lord, in whose presence you stand.
'The most significant effect of confession is indeed due neither to the penitent nor to the priest, but to God who heals our infirmities and wounds. It is not a matter of a let-off, a clearance; it has the force of healing, of making the penitent whole. As such it is a gift from God which man must be open to receive, and learn to receive: "Let us apply to ourselves the saving medicine of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us. For it is not we who offer it to Him, but He who bestows it upon us." It is significant that the Greek for confession, exomologesis, implies not only confession but also thanksgiving (cf. Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21): "I shall confess/give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, and tell of all His wonders" (Psalm 9:1).'
'Through the forgiveness of sins in confession, the past is no longer an intolerable burden but rather an encouragement for what lies ahead. Life acquires an attitude of expectation, not of despondency; and confession becomes the way out of the impasse caused by sin. In this respect, repentance is also an eschatological act, realizing in our very midst, here and now, the promises of the age to come. Looking backwards would seem to imply the fate of Lot's wife (Genesis 19:26) "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fir for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). God Himself is revealed before us and walks in front of us. "One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." (Phil. 3:13).'
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