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Necessary Confession

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Written by Basil on 06/2/2003 3:00 PM. Filed under:

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Yesterday, I made confession. As usual, it was in response to guilt over “the sin that so easily besets” (cf. Heb 12.1). This usually brings me to confession about once every four to six weeks — coincidentally, what our bishop recommends as the interval for regular communicants. This time, however, I took much more care in preparing. In the past, I have prepared for a few minutes before confession, or perhaps as long as an hour. I have never made a list. I always thought this too “meticulous,” a fault I had been warned about as a Roman Catholic.

This time, however, I prepared for most of the preceding week, even making a list and writing out what I was going to say. I did this because Fr. David likes to burn lists that people bring at the foot of the large cross that we have in our nave. He does not like for people to leave with their list of sins that they have just received forgiveness for. I was curious about the psychological effect this might have.

Yesterday’s confession was perhaps the best confession that I have ever made since becoming Orthodox. The attention paid to preparation, the depth of the sinful attitudes against God that I was willing to acknowledge, and the presence of a written reminder of the sins I had contemplated while preparing: all of these seem to me indicators of the depth and effect of my repentance. Additionally, the effect of seeing my sins literally vanish in flames at the foot of the cross heightens the feeling of being clean, which simply reflects the sacramental reality.

Gideon recently wrote about confession and his growing understanding of its necessity. Part of his understanding developed out of wrestling to understand Father’s apparently curious admonition, “If you need it before then just let me know.”

The idea of needing to make a confession is related to the idea that sin, in the ordinary course of Christian life, must be confessed in order to be forgiven. “Trivial” sins are not an immediate barrier to communion with God and the Church, but over time they harden our conscience, like cholesterol and fat in our bloodstream harden our arteries. Hardened consciences consider more and more sins trivial. Hardened consciences are more likely to commit grave sin carelessly, without thinking.

Grave sin? What is that?

Grave sins have gravity. They’re “heavy.” Fornication, adultery, theft, murder, slander. Sins that inflict wounds on others and cause scandal to the faithful. A grave sin is a break in communion, a true rift which indicates a turning of the soul against the love of God. Without repentance, that is, without turning again to receive the love of God, such a rebellious attitude is itself damnation. It is the rejection of God’s love.

These sins require the priest to impose a penance. A penance, the service books make clear, is not a punishment. In the West after Anselm, “‘Penances’ are understood, ‘not as an educative therapy provided by God in His lovingkindness for the healing of the sinner, but as a ransom which the sinner must pay.’” (Metallinos, “The Exomologetarion of St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite”) The Reformers rightly were repulsed by such an understanding of penance, and they broke with the ancient Christian practice as a result. The East, however, continued to understand penance as educational and therapeutic. Penance provides for the spiritual man what physical therapy provides for the flesh. The deeper the wound of the sin, the longer must be the therapy.

In view of our mortality, then, priests are instructed not to ever refuse to take a confession. Obviously, there are times when they may ask to postpone the confession — when the Divine Liturgy is in progress, for example. And, clearly, the faithful who find themselves having embraced such sin in their hearts, do well to repent immediately and avail themselves of the Mystery of Repentance with all due haste. You are never given the next moment; your earthly life may be extinguished before the next Saturday arrives. And though we are not permitted to despair of the salvation of someone who has died, we are nevertheless instructed that death holds judgment by God of the hearts and minds of men.

That, too, is what is meant by “if you need to,” as well as the sense of forgiveness and peace that we receive from the Mystery.

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3 Responses to “Necessary Confession”

  1. James Says:


    That was a great post. Thank you very much for it.

  2. Anna Says:

    This is really good stuff, Basil.

    I recently had a conversation with an evanglelical quaker friend who said, basically that confession in a church is a sign of weakness. She said: “I’d like to get to a point in my faith where I don’t *need* to go to confession”.

    I then asked her to think about her bathroom. Is the fact that you need to clean it every once in a while a sign of “weakness”?

    Will you ever get to a point that you never need to “clean” your bathroom again?

    In Archimandrite Seraphim’s book on Confession (The Forgotten Medicine), he talks about our need for confession in terms of sweeping the floor.

    Will the floor need to be swept again? Of course! But it would be ridiculous not sweep just because you know you’re eventually going to have to sweep again.

    There’s the confession of “dusting” and there’s also the “spilling spaghetti sauce all over the floor” confession. Both need to be cleaned up. Could one have been prevented? Maybe….

    Thank God for “sins voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown…” that His grace allows us to be lead deeper on the road of repentance, and there IS medicine for the soul.

    Thanks for your convicting post.

  3. James Says:


    I gave that book (Forgotten Medicine) to our church, but I think Fr. David is reading it at the moment.