In my pastoral letter for 6th Sunday of Pascha (24 May) I mentioned the importance of the Sacrament of Confession. I should like to say more about this.
Last Sunday, for All Saints of Britain, I talked about our being made in the image of God and, hence, icons (the Greek word for image) of Christ. Of course, if we likened this to one of our painted icons, we see the fading of age, paint chipped off, smudged areas, parts touched-up and the general result of wear and tear and weather. But yet it is clearly recognised, a hint of original beauty is still there, we recognise the image clearly. This well-worn icon has to be restored and can only be done through the hands of an expert iconographer. Pursuing this thought for ourselves, we too have to be restored and this must be done by the expert, even Christ Himself. When we go for the Sacrament of Confession, yes, we are in the presence of the priest, but the meeting is with Christ, and it is He who is there to restore.
A question often raised is this, why should the Sacrament of Confession be necessary, when a private confession of sins should be enough? Some also say, is it not an alternative to counselling or psychotherapy? The answer to the latter is no, the Sacrament of Confession, is quite different to counselling and psychotherapy and yes, the Sacrament of Confession, with a priest is attendance, is necessary.
We are of a complex make-up. Our very means of survival is for unpleasant, and stressful experiences, including sin, to be tucked away in the unconscious part of our mind, 'out of sight, out of mind’. Hence, we have to pray, before confession, that the Holy Spirit will enlighten the dark places of our heart, to enable us to make a full and honest confession. This is done more thoroughly when we have to stand with a priest in attendance. People will discover what a relief it is for these dark ‘secrets’ to be revealed, ‘found out’ , if you like. Our nature is to try very hard that we are not found out. We try not to be sinners with regard to each other and even to God Himself, so we can never jump out of the rut into true freedom without help. We make every effort, often and usually unconsciously, to hide or deny our sinful nature. Even if we do find time to make the effort to discover and confess privately, it is never complete. St Paul, when he had undergone his conversion and made his confession, never denied that he had been a real enemy of Christ, and the deeds he had committed were appalling. The Sacrament of Confession may be hard to face, yet we have to say, ‘This is what I am, and I am ashamed of it, I am sorry, and I want to start afresh’.
Public Confession was initiated in the early Church because of the profound sense of Oneness, the sense of belonging together in Christ and in the Church. It was recognised that the Church could be wounded and disfigured by anyone's sinfulness or unfaithfulness. A person who had acted against the integrity of the Body, the integrity of its faith, had to confess because what was important was the matter of his salvation from death to life in the Body to which he belonged, and the healing of the whole Church. The reason why confession is so different from counselling or psychotherapy is because it is about restoring a person to life in Christ, restoring his full communion within the Body of Christ, the Church. As St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, writes that the Body is one and has many members, we have all been baptised into the One Body which is Christ. No member can say to another, 'I have no need of thee’, all are necessary for the full life of the Body. Estrangement of one person from the Church by whatever means is a failure of love. The second lack of love is murder understood by Our Lord’s elaboration of this Commandment, ‘Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause…. whoever curses his brother (or belittles him) …is in danger of hell fire’ (Matt 5:21–22). The third sin highlighted by the early church was that of adultery because it is sin against the love God has given to two people. These sins are incompatible with belonging to the Church, the Body of Christ because as one Body, we live the life of Christ Himself and such healing and restoration to communion can only be brought about by Christ Himself. If by our sin we have wounded the Body of Christ, no healing is possible unless we go to Christ Himself for such healing and this is the purpose of Sacramental Confession.
St James in his epistle (James 5:16) advises that all who are in need must come to confess sins to each other. This is directed towards the individual who has fallen away from integrity. It is a coming to Christ, in the presence of a man of prayer, 'And the prayer of the faithful will save the sick, and the Lord will lift him up. And if he has committed sin, he will be forgiven’ (James 5:14-16)
When we come to confession, it is to Christ we come, not to anyone else, to Christ who has given Himself, His life and His death for our salvation. It is not the priest we are coming to. He stands there as the representative of the community, he stands in prayer and to his prayer is added the prayer of the whole community, 'the prayer of the righteous'. The priest is hearing the confession but not listening to it. He is simply holding the penitent to Christ and praying silently. He may, if he feels able, make some comment or give some advice but only if prompted to do so by God. He may say nothing but give the prayer of absolution, or he may say something that is helpful. The most important part of the confession is that the one making it is restored and forgiven, His sin has been put away by Christ who stands there representing the life of God the Father expressed so beautifully in the Parable of Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Loving Father always waiting for his son ( and daughter) to return and to be received with open arms and with love, now to be fully restored.
The process is not a mechanical one. If we have made a good preparation and are prepared for the embarrassment and have the courage, we are integrated into the Christ's death and eternal life. What we have rejected and lost, of what God has given us, our faded image (icon) can now begin further restoration in the hand of the divine ‘iconographer'.
As one priest said, ‘I go to confession because it is provided by the Church as a necessary aid to salvation’. Whatever else, it is certain that Sacramental Confession brings about the forgiveness, the restoration and the healing we require.
This mainly contains homilies and messages from our priests, although there is some scope to share thoughts and interesting articles which we may want to share with others