Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Preparing for Confession

Although confession should always be proceeded by a period of concentrated preparation, our daily lives are scheduled in such a way that most of us find this very difficult. For this reason, it is the custom of some people to have Confession and Communion only on major feasts or during fast periods, especially Great Lent, when the penitential prayers and abstinence enjoined by the Church predispose the soul towards the sobriety and contrition necessary for a good confession. How often a person should partake of the Holy Mysteries is determined by his/her priest or father-confessor. During Great Lent, however, everyone should make an effort to prepare themselves especially thoroughly. The following essay provides guidance in this all-important spiritual endeavor.

One should confess in the presence of a father-confessor. Some people want to dismiss this holy Tradition, thinking to themselves: "Why is it necessary to tell one's sins to a priest? Doesn't God know our sins anyway? and can't He forgive them without our having to confess them to someone else?" To confess our sins, i.e., to recount them aloud before a priest, is necessary not because they would otherwise remain unknown to God, but because this act is spiritually beneficial and necessary for the penitent.

Our wholehearted confession of sins before a priest shows first of all our sincere readiness to judge ourselves for these sins. Whoever has the resolve to confess his sin in order to be healed of it, clearly regards the sin as something offensive; he wants to rid himself of it. The confessed sin leaves the soul; it is separated from it, just as a splinter, when it is removed, becomes something apart from the body and ceases to harm it.

...An open confession of sin before a father-confessor humbles our pride which shrinks from any witness of our sins and weaknesses, especially those which are shameful. This same pride prompts us to think that it is enough to have an inner awareness of a sin before God, because it is easier for our pride to admit to a fault before the Unseen God than in the presence of someone like us, whom we can see.

Confession before a priest is also necessary because to him is given the power to release us from our sins. And how can he absolve a sinner if he has no knowledge of the person's sins? Furthermore, how can the penitent be firmly assured that his sins are forgiven, that he has been cleansed of them, without the visible sign of this forgiveness-the priest's prayer of absolution? The priest's absolution sets the mind and heart of the penitent entirely at rest, and he departs full of peace and joy.

Finally, confession before a priest is necessary because only in knowing the state of a person's conscience can he give him beneficial counsel, guide him towards properly ordering his life, and help him to avoid falling into his old sins. [No one expects a doctor to prescribe medicine without first examining the patient and knowing his medical history.]

How should one prepare for confession? Our lives are habitually so enmeshed with worldly cares that it is very difficult for us to concentrate on our inner spiritual state and to keenly sense our sinfulness. To help us the Church has ordained that confession be proceeded by fasting. For several days we withdraw from our normal way of life; we fast from certain foods, morning and evening we attend church services, we occupy ourselves with spiritual reading and spend time alone or, better still, in the company of a like-minded individual.

Thanks to attending services, to hearing the special Lenten prayers and hymns, thanks to reading and to our retiring from worldly occupations, we enter a new world where spiritual interests predominate. We think more about God and have a closer sense of His presence within us; our inner life--with all its sins and weaknesses--appears m ac h more clearly to our consciousness...

Our attention during this period should be directed primarily towards acquiring a lively sense of God's great love for us and of our guilt, our indebtedness before Him. We should, therefore, pray more often with the words o£ King David: "Have mercy on me, O God, according toothy great mercy! Turn not Thy face away from me, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Create in me a clean heart, O God..." (Ps. 50). Self-reproach is the first and foremost requisite in properly approaching confession.

We should bring to mind David who nightly washed his bed with tears, the sinning woman who washed the Saviour's feet with her tears, the prodigal son's return to his father, Apostle Peter whose whole life was spent in tearful lamentation over his denial, St. Mary of Egypt, and similar examples. These rouse the soul to a feeling of repentance; they dispel carelessness and light-mindedness--the worst foes of a proper confession.

Sometimes our conscience immediately reveals to us all our spiritual sores. This happens if our conscience is sufficiently sensitive, or if we committed an especially grievous sin. But at other times cur conscience is silent. Those people who are inattentive towards spiritual life, who don't give serious thought to confession, who approach it merely to fulfill a sense of duty, come to confession entirely ignorant of their inner state and therefore not knowing of what to repent. And when the father-confessor asks in what way they feel themselves to have sinned, they usually reply: "In no way in particular, I've sinned like everyone else, in thought, word and deed."

Such an answer is altogether unsatisfactory. It only shows that these people either had no time or were too lazy to examine their consciences more thoroughly, and therefore didn't notice in themselves any specific sins. To test the conscience is not difficult; anyone can do it by measuring himself against God's commandments wherein man's moral obligations are clearly set forth. There does not exist a person who has never in some way transgressed one or another of the commandments. Through an attentive examination of the conscience, these transgressions surface to a level of greater awareness.

One must confess not only particular sins, as some mistakenly believe, but also the soul' s general state of uncleanness. One who truly recognizes his uncleanness often grieves more over a small misdeed than a light-minded person over a serious transgression. To a great extent, the gravity of a sin is felt in relation to the sensitivity of the conscience.

A confession must be wholly sincere. Only those who have no understanding of the purpose of confession can rejoice that the father-confessor didn't discover their sins. After all, if a sin remains concealed and is not confessed, it remains lodged within us.

A frank confession is sometimes undermined by false shame--the tongue refuses to admit to the shameful sin. In order to overcome this reticence, we must firmly remember that we are confessing not before a priest but before God Who already knows this sin. We must have fear of God! This fear will compel us to overcome our false shame before the father-confessor. If we burn a little from shame--well and good; at least our conscience will then be clean and we shall be clean before God.

Sometimes a good confession is troubled by a fear that the confessed sin will become known to others, Such fear is absolutely unfounded. The father-confessor is forbidden to divulge to anyone, at any time, what he has heard in confession. That is an everlasting secret known to the penitent, the father-confessor, and God alone!

Some people, not trusting in their memory and fearing lest agitation cause them to forget some sin, write them down and then read this list to the father-confessor. For those who tend to forget what they have to say, this is a good and perfectly acceptable means of confession.

Together with self-reproach and sincerity we must approach confession with the earnest desire not to repeat our sins, We should be repulsed by the sins we have committed; we should shake them off and desire from thenceforth to begin a new, clean life. And we must firmly believe that in the Mystery of Confession the Lord removes from as the burden and impurity of sin and sets us upon the path of a new life.

In coming to confession with this disposition og heart, and having truthfully, seriously and compunctionately confessed before the priest your sins both great and small, you should listen attentively and with faith to the prayer of absolution read by the priest; and when he says: "And I, unworthy priest, by the power given me, forgive and release you from all your sins," you will sense a unique flood of joy and freshness; you will feel that a heavy load of filth has been lifted from your heart, and that you have become a new, clean person. The past has departed from you, and there begins the dawn of a new life!

This is the experience of those who work upon themselves during the days of the Fast, and with faith and contrition of heart approach the holy Mystery of Confession.

-Protopresbyter Sergei Chetverikov

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