Confession (Part 2)


The Sacrament of Confession (Part II)

Written by Fr. Michael Shanbour

I have my annual physical coming up this week. I don’t know how you feel about going for your physical, but I really don’t like it. It’s not something I look forward to. It’s inconvenient, it’s embarrassing, it’s uncomfortable, almost to the point of being painful, and for me there’s a bit of shame involved, at least when I hear “Step on the scale, please”.

And yet, if I said to you that I’m skipping this year because of those reasons, in your love for me you would strongly encourage me to reconsider. You would tell me it’s important for my health. You would tell me to do it for my family and those I love, etc. Right?

If so, then forgive my gloating, but “Gotcha!” I have been encouraging everyone in our parish to have their confessions heard before coming back and receiving Holy Communion once the church is open again, and we are blessed to share in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. Well, I’m happy to say that time has come (see information below)!  It will be a slow start is we are only permitted 10 attendees, beyond clergy, servers, and chanters, but beginning this weekend, those blessed to be able to attend the Liturgy and receive Holy Communion will begin to grow beyond the five of us who have been serving the services so that you may participate via live streaming.

I’m thankful for the many of you who have arranged to have your confessions heard in the last several weeks. Now, for the rest of you! I know: it’s inconvenient. It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable, and perhaps there’s more than a bit of shame involved. But for all the same reasons you would encourage me not to skip my “physical,” I’m going to encourage you not to skip your “spiritual”. We Orthodox Christians see sin much more like a doctor sees illness than a judge sees a violation. Our sins are the symptoms of our spiritual illnesses, of which we are all infected. To continue the medical analogy, Confession is the “regular physical”, the “visit to the doctor when not feeling well”, and “surgery” all wrapped up into one visit. It treats our souls at every level: prevention of future illness, diagnosis of current symptoms, and treatment of illnesses and injuries, small and great. 

In the second part of Father Michael Shanbour’s article on Holy Confession, we move from the theological understanding of it we read about last week, to the practical aspects: how we go and how often. My hope is that this will be a help and encouragement so that you do not miss out on this wonderful miracle of healing that awaits each of us.  – Fr. Michael


If you didn’t read part 1 of this article, please visit: [Confession, Part 1].

4. How does Confession work…what do I do…what does the Priest do?

The actual mechanics of Confession tend to be fairly informal in the Orthodox Church. However, at different times in history, and in different places, there were more formal approaches or set dialogues. There are actually different customs amongst various national Orthodox Churches, different “styles” among Orthodox Priests, etc. In some practices the penitent kneels, in others he stands. If in doubt, ask your Priest how he handles the mechanics of the Confession.  As the Priest stands in front of the icon of Christ, the Penitent approaches and stands (or kneels) beside him to his right. The Priest usually begins with prayer. In some cases he will ask you to pray (from a written prayer) and there are some different “dialogs” and prayers that can be said before the Confession.  The Priest will then ask what it is that you have to confess to our Lord. The penitent begins to enumerate those sins they are aware of. There are not typically “formulas” (i.e. Father, forgive me for I have sinned)…the penitent must speak from his or her heart. Each person, having his own personality, will vary slightly in the way he confesses.  Some may weep…but all should seek to be reverent, heartfelt, repentant, and generally serious.  It is usually advised not to mention any names in Confession and especially to assigned blame to another for our sins or to “confess the sins of others.” We are there only to blame ourselves and to condemn ourselves for our sins, not to enumerate the sins of others.

Although we try to be thorough about the sins we have committed since our last confession, we should not be “obsessed” with this. It is fine to confess that we did not keep the fast with perfection on a Wednesday for instance. Yet, in coming to Confession we should also try to focus on the spiritual condition of our hearts, our spiritual poverty, what is truly keeping us from God.  It is more important to confess with greater weight those sins with which we are truly struggling with or which have dragged us down and are effecting our spiritual life adversely. not all sins have the same destructive.  We should try to become aware of the teaching of the Church on various sins and their causes.  We should become aware of the “passions,” those sinful inclinations and promptings which are a result of the Fall of Adam.  These un-healed passions are the cause of all sins and need to be confessed as they come out in various situations within our life. We can learn to “name” our sins. It may be that we were hurt when someone insulted us or did not praise us enough — but the problem is our ego, the sin of pride.

It is sometimes asked how much “detail” we should include in Confession. The simple answer is that we include details when they are important in revealing the nature of our sin. For example, a man confesses that he broke a vase. He then confesses that he was very angry and broke a vase.  Finally, he confesses that he got angry and broke a vase…over the head of his wife! Breaking a vase is not really sinful in and of itself. Anger is a sin. Anger acted out in an act of violence against a spouse is a completely different story. It is not important whether the vase was blue or green. The Fathers also tell us that in the case of carnal sins, we should not be detailed so as not to tempt our confessor or ourselves.  The Priest may respond with questions or words of guidance. Although we are confessing to Christ, the Physician, we may speak to the Physician’s assistant (the Priest) and receive his advice and comments so that we may be healed of the sins we are confessing. The Priest may also give a “penance,” which is like a medicine to help our healing. This may be a specific prayer, an instruction to ask forgiveness of those we have offended, instruction to return to Confession at specific intervals, or temporary exclusion from Holy Communion, etc. These are based on the discernment of the Priest as God has given him Grace. One should always fulfill a penance given.  The Priest may ask a last time if you have any other sins to confess. If not, unless the penitent cannot be restored to Communion, the Priest says the Prayer of Absolution which “seals” the confession and grants forgiveness for the sins confessed (and those legitimately forgotten), bringing purifying Grace to the penitent, and restoring him to blessed communion with God.

5. How often should I come to Confession?

This is a very legitimate question. But sometimes it is asked in the spirit of the Lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven?” Underlying his question seems to be:  “What is the LEAST I must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” The man left disappointed, precisely because the Lord gave him a maximalistic answer: “Sell all that you have, distribute to the poor, and come, follow Me.”

Since the Christian life is a life of repentance, and since Confession brings reservoirs of Grace to assist us in the spiritual life and bring healing to the passions of our soul, we should avail ourselves of it often. We should avoid thinking in terms of the “minimum requirements.” We reap what we sow. If we confess minimally, we will grow minimally. Long periods between confessions present the danger of the accumulation of “little” or habitual sins without intervention. We may also forget many of our sins over an extended time period between confessions.  A good minimal rule is four times a year, during the four fasting seasons of the Church. However, as a way of avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above, once each month will serve our spiritual lives much better. Otherwise, we should come any time there is need or desire.  While we should prepare sincerely for Confession, we must be careful not to use the need for preparation as an excuse for procrastination. Preparation (or the thought of preparation) for Confession should not be an overwhelming or exhausting experience. It may happen that we suddenly become aware of a particular sinfulness during prayer, or at a Church service. Rather than waiting a week or month for Great Lent, and bringing a comprehensive “list” of sins, why not bring this illness to the Doctor of our souls immediately if possible? Would we procrastinate if it were an earthly pain and an earthly doctor?