In the Orthodox Church, great emphasis has been placed on the sacramental life. The truth is that no matter what we may think or how we may feel, if we are to call ourselves Orthodox Christians we must participate fully in the sacraments. Why? Because they are the greatest means to experience God’s love for us. Wasn’t it love that started this whole thing anyway? “For God so LOVED the world...” Through Christ, God’s love is manifest to us as we are reconciled to Him. How is it that we are reconciled “through Christ?” Because the Church is the Body of Christ and through our full sacramental participation in the Church we are part of that Body and are thus brought to the Father “through the Son.”
The Church then is the means of our salvation through Christ. The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the Truth, and the truth is, all the sacraments impart God’s love to us including Holy Confession, or as it is sometimes called, the “sacrament of reconciliation.” Some consider Holy Confession as God’s washing machine. Although a very crude example, aspects of it are correct. It is through the sacrament of Holy Confession that the whiteness of our baptismal garment is renewed to its original brilliance “without a spot or stain.” It is through the tears of repentance that our souls are “washed clean.” So cleansing is truly one aspect of Holy Confession. However, restoring ourselves into God’s presence and opening ourselves to receive His Love once again may indeed be a more accurate description of the effect of Holy Confession.
Consider the following: if the frequency you washed your clothes or took a bath were the same as the frequency you go to confession, how comfortable would you be? How long might it take before you noticed your really close friends keeping some distance from you? Just because you don’t look dirty doesn’t mean you don’t need a bath or that you don’t need to wash your clothes. What makes you think your soul is any different? Just because you can’t think of anything bad you’ve done doesn’t mean your soul is free from sin.
Maybe a definition of “sin” would be helpful here. The Greek word for sin <<AMARTIA>> means “missing the mark.” It is an archery term. If you hit the target dead center you “hit the mark.” If you hit the first ring that was one “amartia”, two rings away was two “amarties”, etc. In this definition sin can be considered the lack of perfection. Since no one is perfect all the time everyone is guilty, so to say, of “amartia.”
Another definition is also helpful to visualize this circumstance. Sin can be defined as active rebellion or passive indifference toward God. When God says, “Thou shalt not...,” you do; when God says, “Thou shalt...,” you don’t. That’s active rebellion. Passive indifference is when God says “Thou shalt...,” you say, “O.K., when I get time...,” and you may or may not get around to it.
Another way to view sin in our lives was revealed to me recently. Two distinct instances crossed my path that dealt with the same action. The first was the idea of cleaning the candle tray that is filled with sand in the Narthex. Wax drips off the candles and mixes with the sand. Sometimes the candle wicks break off and fall into the sand as well. After a while the sand is filled with these impurities. In order to make the sand look clean again you have to pass the sand through a strainer so the big pieces can be filtered out. Then the sand looks much better. Even still, small particles of debris can pass through the strainer and mix with the sand. You don’t notice them until you add fresh sand to the box. Compared to the purity of the sand out of the bag the old sand looks dirty.
The other instance came from a program on the Food Network regarding tea and how it is prepared for packaging. Once the tea is processed and dried it is sorted into different grades by passing it over sieves or strainers fitted with meshes of different sizes. The passage of teas through this system gives a number of grades with more or less evenly sized particles. These grades fall into four main groups descending in order of particle size. The names are not as important as the process – the sorting.
Proverbs 20:26 says, "A wise king sifts out the wicked, and brings the threshing wheel over them". If we can picture our lives like the sand, then the Sacrament of Confession can be equated to the sifting process whereby the impurities are removed from our soul. If we then apply the action of sorting the tea through successively smaller-sized strainers to this picture, we might get an idea of what God wants to do in our lives through the Sacrament of Confession – He wants to purify us.
The problem with many people is that they only look at the first level of sorting when they consider whether they need to come to Confession or not. I will hear statements like, "I haven’t killed anyone,” or "I haven’t stolen from anyone,” or "I try to love everyone and do good,” or other statements similar to these. So what you are saying is that you will pass through the first strainer without any big particles left behind. God bless you! What about the next strainer...
So as you can see, those things we need to bring to God in confession aren’t necessarily "bad” things we have done or "good” things we haven’t done. They can merely be matters in areas where we know we have "fallen short” of what God expects of us. An Olympic athlete practices and practices until he or she gets as close to perfection as possible, striving for personal best as well as Olympic best. This comparison is still subjective since it merely compares one athlete to another.
However when it comes to Holy Confession our comparison is to Christ Himself. Below are two sets of self-examination questions — one based on the Ten Commandments, and another that is a bit more subtle. Parents should decide what is appropriate for their children to consider and may wish to explain some of the commandments in words their children can understand when preparing them to participate in the sacrament of Holy Confession.
As to when a child is old enough to understand the sacrament of Holy Confession, again it is up to the parents to decide at what age they should begin teaching their children about this vital sacrament and taking them to a Spiritual Father. Generally, when a child is at age seven or eight (J.O.Y. age), they are certainly old enough to understand right from wrong and are able to distinguish their actions. If they can make a choice to act in a manner opposed to good instruction they are old enough for Holy Confession.
If you find that the questions and comments below may apply to you or your behavior then you may want to consider an appointment for confession.
HELPS FOR CONFESSION
1. Think back to your last confession. Did you forget to say something?
Did you purposely not say something that you should have?
2. PREPARE for confession. If necessary, write on a slip of paper or an index card what you want to say.
3. Don’t forget that there exist a) sins of commission: bad things that you shouldn’t have done, and b) sins of omission: good things that you should have done, but didn’t.
4. Be specific (i.e., “I told a lie,” “I stole something”).
5. Don’t mention other people’s names or talk about other people. They have to go to confession for themselves.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF PREPARATION FOR CONFESSION
FIRST COMMANDMENT: ‘I am the Lord thy God:
Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’
- Have I loved God as much as I should?
- Have I been more interested in my own will rather than God’s?
- Have I failed to pray sincerely and regularly?
- 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 against God in 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 frequented the religious meetings of heretics and schismatics?
- Have I neglected my duties to God through fear of ridicule or persecution?
SECOND COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not make
unto thee any graven image.’
- Have I put another person or object before God in my life?
- Have I been insincere about my religion?
- Have I made an idol of any person or thing?
- Have I given to anyone or anything the worship that is due to God alone?
- Have I set before myself the holy life of Jesus and tried to imitate Him?
- Have I read the Holy Scriptures regularly?
- Have I neglected to receive Holy Communion regularly or without due preparation?
THIRD COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not take the
name of the Lord in vain.’
- Have I paid proper attention to holy persons and things?
- Have I broken any solemn promises?
- 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 or 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?
FOURTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.’
- Have I always kept Sunday as it ought to be kept?
- 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 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?
FIFTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Honor thy father and
- Have I argued disrespectfully with my parents?
- Have I respected my parents and been obedient to them?
- Have I been guilty of deception, 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 mate or harmed my mate 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 and spoiled them?
- Have I neglected my God-children and failed in my obligations toward them?
- Have I worked for my employers honestly and diligently?
- Have I treated fairly all those who have worked for me?
- Have I honored the Church as my spiritual mother by honoring and practicing my religion in accordance with her teachings?
SIXTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
- Have I harmed others by ridicule & sarcasm or contempt & stubbornness?
- Have I fought with my family and friends?
- Have I caused the injury or death of any one, or wished that they or I were dead?
- Have I done anything to shorten my own life or that of someone else by injuring health, or through evil and intemperate living?
- Have I given way to anger, or harmed others with words or actions?
- Have I defamed others who needed help, or failed to stand up for those unjustly treated?
- Have I been cruel to anyone or have I mistreated or destroyed any life unnecessarily?
- Have I failed to forgive anyone or harbored evil thoughts against them?
SEVENTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not commit
adultery (or infidelity).’
- Have I given way to impure thoughts, words, or deeds?
- Have I committed any unworthy 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?
EIGHTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not steal.’
- Have I ever stolen or wished to do so, or shared in stolen goods?
- Have I given to my Church what I know I can afford to give?
- 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 given to charitable causes in proportion to my means?
- Have I been honest and upright?
NINTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt not bear false
- Have I exaggerated or let others take the blame?
- Have I told lies, or added or subtracted from the truth?
- Have I made careless statements or spoken evil of anyone?
- Have I told any secrets entrusted to me, or betrayed anyone?
- 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?
TENTH COMMANDMENT: ‘Thou shalt 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?
Remember: It takes a good person to admit that he makes mistakes. You are not bad because you go to confession. You are a good person trying to become even better.
OTHER GUIDELINES FOR CONFESSION
You and God
- Do you believe in God and the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of Christ
and the Holy Spirit? Do you believe in the Church and her sacraments? Do
you believe in the existence of Paradise and Hell?
- Perhaps at times of affliction, illness, and trials in your life, you grumble against God and you lose your faith and courage?
- Perhaps you believe in psychics, card-readers, astrologers and horoscopes?
- Do you attend church on Sundays and on major feast days?
- Do you attend the Divine Liturgy from beginning to end, or do you get there late and leave before it finishes?
- Perhaps you hinder your husband, wife, or children from attending church?
- Do you fast if you don’t have serious health problems; on Wednesdays and Fridays and during lenten seasons?
Your Relations with Others
- Perhaps you have hatred or strong dislike towards someone who treated
you badly or insulted you in his anger, or you get jealous and bothered
about the progress, the happiness, the beauty, and the goods of other people?
- In your everyday transactions with your partner, co-workers, or customers, are you honest, straightforward, sincere and upright?
- Perhaps you slandered or accused your fellow man?
- Perhaps you speak sarcastically and make fun of the devout and those who fast and struggle to live a true Christian life? Or those that have physical or spiritual weaknesses or limitations?
- Perhaps you send people to “Hell or the devil” in your anger, or use insulting hand gestures?
- Do you respect your parents?
- Do you steal?
- Do you give to the poor, the orphans, the needy families that you know?
- Have you been attached to material things and worldly goods?
- Have you been stingy and a lover of money, or have you been greedy?
- Have you been conceited?
- Do you accept praise with pleasure, wanting others to flatter you and say that there is no one like you?
- Perhaps you are stubborn, obstinate, egotistical, self-proud and self-centered? Pay attention to these sins because it is hard to get rid of them.
- Have you polluted your body and soul with carnal sins?
- Do you watch filthy programs on television or at the movies?
- Have you ever been gluttonous, lazy, insolent or negligent?
- Have you been using obscene, insulting, or improper words, for the sake of being comical or to insult and humiliate another person?
- Are you loyal to your spouse? Have you had extramarital relations?
- Perhaps one of the partners offended or saddened the other in the presence of others or privately?
- Perhaps you encourage your spouse to follow fashions and fads which contradict God’s law?
- Perhaps you don’t allow your wife or your husband to go to church or to spiritual gatherings or events?
- Do you raise your children “with the teachings and the way of the Lord?” Have you been only interested in their intellectual education and ignoring the quality of their personality?
- Do you teach your children humility and are you concerned with their proper moral upbringing?
- Perhaps you abuse your children verbally or you scold them with indecent words?
Excerpted from a “Guide to Confession”.
WHAT HAPPENS IN CONFESSION?
How does Holy Confession work? In brief, the first thing is to examine your life and your actions. When (notice I didn’t say ?if”) you realize that you have circumstances you need to bring before God for reconciliation, it is time to make an appointment with your priest. At the appointed time you will meet the priest at the place of confession – in front of an icon, in a special room, wherever it is appropriate. The priest will begin the Service of Holy Confession with some petitions and prayers for the blessing and healing of your soul. You will then share your confession. This may also involve some spiritual counseling with the priest.
When you are finished, the priest will typically ask you to kneel. He will then place the Epetrahelion (the long sash around his neck) over your head and read the prayers of absolution. This fulfills the command of Christ given to the Apostles (and through them down to the priests) that, "whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted; and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained."
These prayers invoke God’s promise to work through
the hands of the priest as well as giving the penitent the opportunity
hear that their sins are forgiven. Once these prayers are completed the
Service of Holy Confession is concluded and you are free to go.
ANOTHER AID FOR CONSIDERATION - Confession before the Spiritual Father
NOTE: The following text is used in some traditions as a general confession by the confessor before the priest since it covers sins common to mankind. It has room for any specific additional remarks as shown. Its use may be considered after talking with your priest or Spiritual Father.
I confess to the Lord my God and before you my Spiritual Father, all my innumerable sins which I have, until today, committed in word, deed and thought. Every day and every hour I sin ungratefully towards the Lord Who gives me, the sinner, His great and infinite blessings through His providence.
My sins are the following:
Vain words, criticism of others, disobedience, pride, unmercifulness, envy, spite, jealousy, anger, slander, inattention, neglect for my salvation, carelessness, inconsiderateness, impertinence, irritability, hopelessness, revenge, hard heartedness, contradiction. I complain too much, I am self-righteous, I harm my neighbor, I speak with contempt, I lie, I make fun of my neighbor, I am scandalous, I am egotistical, ambitious, gluttonous, vain, idle. I have evil thoughts, I am greedy, I look at or read immoral photographs, periodicals and books, I am negligent during Church services, I lack concentration during prayer at Church and home.
Generally, I have sinned through words, deeds, thoughts, sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and with all these feelings, bodily and of the soul.
I repent of all my sins and I ask for forgiveness from my Lord and my God.
(Here we can state other sins that exist in our soul.)
Also, I repent and ask forgiveness for sins which I possibly forgot and did not mention during my confession.
I ask you, please, my spiritual Father, to forgive and release me of all my sins and give me your blessings to partake in Christ’s Holy and Life-giving Mysteries, to the renunciation of sin and the receiving of life-everlasting.
A GENERAL PRAYER OF REPENTANCE
(NOTE: this does not take the place of Holy Confession...)
O LORD our God, good and merciful, I acknowledge all my sins which I have committed every day of my life in thought, word and deed; in body and soul alike. I am heartily sorry that I have ever offended you and I sincerely repent; with tears I humbly pray to you O Lord: of your mercy forgive me all my past transgressions and absolve me from them. I firmly resolve with the help of your Grace to amend my way of life and to sin no more; that I may walk in the way of the righteous and offer praise and glory to the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some Final Thoughts
Some would say that if you can’t think of anything you need to come to Holy Confession for then you can at least confess the sin of pride! All this self-examination is well and good. However the ultimate self-examination is comparison to Christ. If we find ourselves falling short in any aspect of this comparison then Holy Confession is necessary. Now you may laugh and say, "Ha! With this criteria everyone would need to come to Holy Confession!” And you would be absolutely correct...
The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Holy Confession) is a required sacrament that is supposed to be practiced regularly. For some that might mean once a month. For others that might mean three or four times a year. Although circumstances may prevent some from practicing this frequency (distance from their priest or Spiritual Father for instance), everyone should consider coming a minimum of once or twice a year, and more frequently as time permits.
As with any sacrament, you should discuss any questions you have with your priest or Spiritual Father. You have nothing to lose except a lot of imperfections in the sand. And what you have to gain is a footstep more firmly planted on the road to Theosis. Reconcile yourself to God at your earliest convenience. God desires your unhindered companionship and presence. You just may find that you enjoy His company.
Please contact the priest when you are ready to schedule time for Holy Confession.