The tradition of confession, once common practice among Christians, fell on hard times but is today making a comeback. While confession is most easily found in the Orthodox Church, Catholics are increasingly finding their way back to this ancient practice. In Protestant churches various forms of spiritual guidance and counseling are on the rise, perhaps paving the way for the recovery of a lost sacrament. It seems likely that in another generation sacramental confession will not be so rare an event as it is today in the life of an ordinary Christian.
The purpose of this small book is to help revive confession where it has been abandoned or neglected, to help the reader prepare a better confession, and to help those who hear confessions better serve as Christ’s witness, taking care not to impede the sacrament’s healing strength. It is written by an Orthodox Christian who hopes it will be beneficial not only to Orthodox readers but also to Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Perhaps it is useful to say something about what led me to write a book on confession and what gives the book a broad Christian focus.
Growing up on the edge of a New Jersey town, Red Bank, my scattered childhood encounters with Christianity were chiefly with various forms of Protestantism in which sacramental confession didn’t exist. Confession was among the “Romish” rituals long since rejected by those churches which had freed themselves from “the corruptions of Catholicism,” a phrase that was not uncommon among Protestants in those days of religious cold war. In anti-Catholic remarks I occasionally heard, confession was described as a way Catholic priests deprived those who entered confessionals of their freedom. My Uncle Charles, who believed the Catholic clergy longed to resume the torture and burning of heretics, was convinced that confession was too easy: “It’s the usual Catholic hocus pocus. You just confess what you did and you’re in the clear to do it again and again and again.” I heard from Protestants, “If you have something to confess, confess it to God directly, and God will forgive you. No priest is needed.” (Yet later in life I came to know Protestants, some of them pastors, who were deeply burdened with the memory of past sins, had yet to experience God’s forgiveness, and wished this dimension of sacramental life had not been thrown away in the age of Reformation. Truly it was a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.)
When Protestant friends invited me to their churches, I went quite willingly but was disinclined to memorize the Ten Commandments and found sermons infinitely boring. Sometimes I enjoyed the singing but too often churches seemed like classrooms without blackboards. It was only when I was invited by a classmate to an Episcopal church at which there was a communion service every Sunday that I found myself powerfully drawn to Christianity. While I would walk a mile out of my way to avoid a sermon, a sacrament-centered form of Christianity drew me with the force of gravity. It was in this old church, where soldiers wounded in the Revolutionary War had bled and died, that I was baptized at the age of twelve. The priest, Fr. Levan, gave me a special gift that day, an ancient Byzantine coin, on one side of which was impressed the icon of Christ’s haloed face — my first encounter with the imagery of the Orthodox Church.
So far as I was aware, there was no practice of confession within the parish, but in other respects it was a very traditional form of Christianity I encountered at Christ Episcopal Church in the village of Shrewsbury just south of Red Bank. Thanks to the parish priest, I was made conscious of Christianity’s origins in the eastern Mediterranean. It was in this solidly American Protestant community that I learned fragments of Greek, understanding that “Eucharist” meant “thanksgiving,” “liturgy” meant “public work,” and “Kyrie eleison” meant “Lord, have mercy.”
That first period of church involvement lasted little more than a year. The main part of my teenage years was spent outside churches with no thought of sacraments or interest in the Bible. In my adolescent mind, Christianity became something for children and unadventurous adults. Nature was sacrament enough. Having moved to California, I took to the coastline and the mountains, biking and climbing during vacations, doing odd jobs, often sleeping under the stars. If there is a God, I thought, I will search for him by myself in the wilderness.
Later, out of high school and in the Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C., my religious search brought me back to Christianity. For half a year I was part of an Episcopal parish though visiting not only other Protestant churches but various Catholic churches as well. Having found myself most challenged both intellectually and spiritually by the Catholic Church, I started a course of instruction and in November 1960 became a Catholic, at the same time going to confession for the first time. Confession has ever since been an ordinary — but never easy — part of my life.
Two decades later, then living in Europe, my work took me to Moscow for a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. In those days, the Soviet Union was showing no signs of giving up the ghost. The “iron curtain” was very solid and Communist symbols and slogans rarely out of sight once behind the curtain. While for twenty years I had occasionally read books and magazine articles about the Orthodox Church, the last thing I expected was that I was heading toward a life-changing encounter with Orthodox Christianity.
According to all I had read, the Orthodox Church in Russia was an ever-shrinking band of unlettered old women. True, old women were the majority in the church, but what old women! It was chiefly thanks to them that my vague interest in “Eastern” Christianity abruptly became far more intense. Attending the liturgy in one of Moscow’s few open churches, I was overwhelmed by the climate of prayer generated by the worshipers — in my experience, only the black church in America came close. Seven years and many trips later, my wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church at a parish in Amsterdam, St. Nicholas of Myra.
I wasn’t a “convert,” I explained to bewildered Catholic friends at the time. I was only changing my address. The main event, my conversion to Christ, had started much earlier in my life. But nowhere else in Christianity had I experienced such depth and fervor of eucharistic life, such an intensity of prayer, such continuity of teaching, such a healthy capacity to resist passing ideological and theological fashions. For all of Orthodoxy’s shortcomings — its “national churches,” its jurisdictional rivalries, the inattention of so many Orthodox Christians to urgent social issues — I found it impossible not to be part of the Orthodox Church. Yet I felt and still feel a strong bond with the Catholic Church and a connection with anyone, no matter what his or her church, who is trying to follow Christ.
More than two-thirds of my life have now been spent in churches in which confession is recognized as a sacrament, even though in the Catholic Church it has been a sacrament in decline for the past quarter century, at least in North America and Western Europe.
In Holland, my home since 1977, I have yet to find a Catholic parish where confession is a visible part of church life. A few years ago I visited a large Catholic church near Utrecht erected in the fifties, a period of optimism about the community’s future sacramental needs. Six confessionals had been built into its brick walls, but it had been years since a priest had sat in any of them. Each was being used as a closet — cleaning supplies in two of them, Mass booklets in another, candles in the next, assorted odds and ends in the last two, including a discarded Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.
One Dutch Catholic priest who avidly hoped for the sacrament’s revival was the late Henri Nouwen, whom I had come to know when he was teaching at Yale. While in the Netherlands for a family visit in the early eighties, he took me one weekday morning to meet an elderly priest whom Henri admired both for his translations of the writings of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross and because he was a good confessor. After being introduced in the church sacristy, I left the two of them alone so that Henri could make his confession. Half an hour later Henri reappeared, telling me with dismay that this was the first time in seven years that anyone had come to the pastor for such a purpose. “Can you imagine? Here is a man with a vocation not only to be a channel of God’s forgiveness but also to give spiritual direction and wisdom. But no one wants it. It is like a town with a beautiful fountain that everyone ignores.” I had rarely heard such grief in Henri’s voice.
Yet even today there are Catholic churches with confessionals very much in use. Because my work often took me to London, in the years before becoming Orthodox I confessed regularly at that city’s main Catholic church, Westminster Cathedral. Once, while in Rome for a meeting with Pope John Paul in 1980, I confessed at St. Peter’s in one of the many confessionals in the back of that vast church. Last summer, while in England for an ecumenical conference, I visited a large and thriving parish in Birmingham, the Oratory, founded in the nineteenth century by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Here there were half-a-dozen confessionals standing ready for use. (Among those who attended Mass and went to confession at the Oratory in an earlier time was J.R.R. Tolkien when he was growing up. His Lord of the Rings trilogy has at its core one hobbit’s struggle not to let temptation get the upper hand, a theme not unfamiliar to anyone going to confession.)
The vitality of confession in the Orthodox Church was not a decisive factor in my becoming Orthodox, yet I was always inspired when watching people confess in Orthodox parishes: priest and penitent standing before an icon of Christ, the person confessing toward the icon rather than the priest.
I was gradually to learn that the tradition of confession in the Orthodox Church was not only superficially different — standing rather than kneeling, in public view rather than hidden — but there is often a difference in emphasis. The geography of the ritual helped make it clear it was Christ who was being addressed by the person confessing and that the priest was chiefly a witness. There was a sense of familial intimacy in the closeness of penitent and priest standing so close to each other. Earlier in my life I had understood confession mainly as the listing of sins of which I was guilty. In the Orthodox Church I encountered a different emphasis: an attempt to identify what I had done that broke communion with God and my neighbor. It was a lesson I might have learned as a Catholic but I hadn’t.
Little by little I came to better understand the great care one often notices in Orthodox parishes as believers prepare to receive communion — the awareness that communion with Christ requires being in a state of communion with those around us, and that it is a sin to go to the chalice if you are in a state of enmity.
Confession in One Parish
Orthodox parishes being relatively few in Holland and many of us living some distance away from our parish church, I am among those who go to confession before the liturgy on Sunday mornings rather than after Vespers Saturday night.
As is the Orthodox custom, confession usually occurs in a corner of the church not far from the altar. There is a narrow tilted stand on which are placed a New Testament and a cross. On the wall over the stand, illuminated by the flickering light of a lampada (an oil lamp), is an icon of Christ the Savior. Those wanting to confess stand in line, leaving enough space at the front so that the person confessing has a degree of privacy. While confession is going on, normally a reader recites psalms and prayers in the center of the church, thus preventing confessions from being audible.
Often the first person in line is Zacharia, a large, round-faced Ethiopian woman of a grandmotherly age with a faded cross tattooed on her forehead. The priest receives her, as he does all penitents, by reciting words that remind her that he is only a witness to the confession about to be made and that it is Christ the physician, invisibly present, who heals and forgives. Zacharia speaks little Dutch, still less English, and not a word of Russian, Greek, or German — thus no language that any of our priests understands. It doesn’t matter. She stands before the icon of Christ, her upraised hands rising and falling rhythmically, relating in her incomprehensible mother tongue whatever is burdening her. As the priest grasps not a word of what she is saying, he does nothing more than quietly recite the Jesus Prayer until Zacharia is finished. Then she kneels down while he places the lower part of his priestly stole over her head and recites the words of absolution: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of his love for man, pardon all your faults, child Zacharia, and I, the unworthy priest __________, by his authority given me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
With these last words, he traces the sign of the cross on the head of this African woman who misses the liturgy only if ill. Then Zacharia rises, turns to face him, and receives a final blessing before the next person comes forward and the confessions continue.
Those in the line are men and women in approximately equal numbers. They come in all ages and sizes, from children to the aged. The only difference from the first confession is that in most cases the priest understands the language being spoken and thus can ask the occasional question and offer words of advice or encouragement before giving absolution.
There are those who whisper so quietly that probably the priest can hardly hear them, others who speak so loudly that those standing nearby are likely to murmur aloud their own prayers so as not to overhear what is being confessed. Some confess at length, some briefly. Some confess with their hands hanging at their sides while the hands of others articulate as much as words all that is being said. Occasionally the penitent weeps more than speaks, confessing mainly in tears. The sobs travel from one side of the church to the other and for some in the church prove contagious, one grief awakening others. With those whose pain is overwhelming, the priest often rests a reassuring hand on their shoulder.
Parents often bring infants and children with them when they confess. On a recent Sunday I noticed Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of our parish, hearing a young mother’s confession while holding her baby in his arms.
The frequency of confession varies dramatically from person to person. A few confess almost each week, some once a month, still others a few times in the course of a year. Only a small portion of the parish confesses on a given weekend. Even so, it is a big job for our priests. On Sunday mornings, one or two of them will be hearing confessions beginning about twenty minutes before the service begins, with one of them sometimes still hearing confessions through the first half of the liturgy, until it is nearly time for communion. It’s not the ideal practice for confession to occur during the liturgy, but with many people coming long distances and sometimes experiencing delays along the way, the priests do their best to open the pathway to communion.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a warm breeze entering the church from the corner where confessions are going on.
This is a scene repeated in Orthodox churches around the world, though details in practice vary from nation to nation. The Slavic wing of the Orthodox Church — our parish is linked to the Church in Russia — is noted for frequency of confession, the Greek wing less so, yet periodic confession is seen as an essential element of sacramental life even in those churches where it is less commonly used.
A Word of Thanks
Every book is a work of community. My thanks to all who read parts of the manuscript along the way and whose comments helped make it better, especially Barbara Allaire, Fr. Lawrence Barriger, Fr. Ted Bobosh, Alice Carter, Tom Cornell, Fr. Yves Dubois, Sr. Nonna Harrison, Ioana Novac, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, Fr. Pat Reardon, Fr. Michael Plekon, Karen Rae Keck, Shannon Robinson, Daniel Scuiry, Michael Sersch, Deacon John Sewter, Fr. James Silver, Nilus Stryker, Sue Talley, Mary Taylor, Fr. Steve Tsichlis, Fr. John Udies, Fr. Alexis Vinogradov, Bishop Kallistos Ware, and Renee Zitzloff. I wish I could place a copy of this book in the hands of the late Henri Nouwen, from whom I learned a great deal about confession. He would be pleased to see that Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting graces the cover of this book as it did one of his last books, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Finally, a word of profound appreciation to my editor and friend, Robert Ellsberg, and equally to my wife, Nancy. Without them this book would never have reached your hands.
Hoping that one day there will be a revised edition of this book, I invite any who read it to send me, care of the publisher or via e-mail, any suggestions, insights, or criticisms with regard to this book and also to share stories or experiences of confession that might be useful to others. In the case of private experiences of confession, names will not be published.