It is a commonplace in the Orthodox way of life that repentance is a constant. We continue to sin. We continue to repent of those sins. Stories of the desert fathers are replete with these great men of God who, on their deathbeds, having lived lives of exemplary virtue, nonetheless lament that they have no more time in which to learn the art of living repentance. For those sensitive to whiffs of works righteousness, of earning our salvation by our efforts, let’s be clear: these men were not lamenting that they had no more time to “earn” their salvation, but rather that the experience of God’s grace purifying them and preparing them for eternal life was coming to a close; they wished to be made more pure by the Holy Spirit knowing that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
In light of this centrality of repentance to the Orthodox way of life, I had some dialog in a couple of different settings over the past couple of weeks about the Sacrament of Confession in the Orthodox Church and the role it has played in my life and the lives of those I was communicating with (all of us having come from other Christian groups prior to becoming Orthodox). The few individuals with whom I was talking and I were convinced that if there were one thing that kept us anchored in and returning to the Orthodox Church it was our experience of confession.
In the Orthodox Church confession is made in the Church building (customs vary slightly as to where), usually before an icon of Christ or near but outside the altar (for lay people). The confession is made to Christ in presence of the priest who stands beside the penitent and, representing the Church, listens to the confession. The priest may or may not offer words of counsel and discuss briefly the content of the confession as a means of pastoral help, but the priest functions as a witness of the confession between the penitent and Christ. After the penitent has confessed all that is on his heart and the priest has offered any counsel he will give, the priest then, as an intercessor of the Church, asks Christ to forgive the penitent and announces, as a witness of the Church, the absolution of the penitent’s sins.
Normally, frequency of confession is tied to how often one may receive Holy Communion. I will not address that issue here as practices vary widely, and discussion of various excesses of stringency or laxity will take us far afield of the topic at hand. Suffice it to say here that living a life of repentance from sins goes hand in hand with the reception of the Lord’s Supper.
I’ll not speak directly of my experience of confession and absolution, nor of my experience of receiving Holy Communion. I will say however that what made becoming Orthodox something other than just simply changing my denominational affiliation was this aspect of confession and repentance as being central, because Holy Communion is central, to the way of life as a Christian, and specifically an Orthodox Christian. There have certainly been aggravating and infuriating aspects of my life as an Orthodox. If I had become convinced that the Orthodox Church was precisely the New Testament Church my Restoration Movement heritage had taught me to work for and preserve, I was quickly disabused of the notion that this Church was a perfect Church. Bishops behaving badly. Priests offending the tender-hearted. Lay people cutting one another. Apparent lack of evangelistic fervor. Seeming insularity. Welcome to Sunday morning coffee hour.
I saw and have seen fellow converts enter and then leave again this Orthodox Church I took years to find and to test and then to enter. But if I had been asked, “Will you leave, too?” I think I would have said something like, “Where else can I go? Here I have confession and Holy Communion.”
I have been accused by one of my brothers, whom I still highly esteem and who has left Orthodoxy for the Roman Catholic Church, of being a self-appointed “guru” and “the Elder of Newport Ave” (the street on which our parish church sits). I have also been accused of being a hypocrite. I’m not a guru or an elder, which is evident to all, but I can’t defend myself from the charge of hypocrisy. If anything, the regular practice of confession teaches me that. Yes. I am a hypocrite. I can say the words, which I believe in my heart, but living those words is a chancy and imperfect thing. To say it another way: I can talk a good game. I do not yet live it consistently.
On coming into the Orthodox Church I did what many Protestants do by way of teaching and constant example: I gave my testimony (which ended up being a lengthy, perhaps self-absorbed if nonetheless sincere, set of essays) and I gave my “witness” (which amounted to me explaining, defending and getting into online debates on topics related to Orthodoxy). To the best of my ability to be self-aware, I did these things with sincere and good intentions. I am also aware I did not always do so in grace. I regret these things. Were I to do it over, I would do many things differently, and some things I wouldn’t have done at all.
One thing I have learned is that, at least for me and speaking only for myself, living this Orthodox way of life comes from the confessional to and in and through Holy Communion, and then returns to the confessional. The experiences I have had since becoming Orthodox could very well have motivated me to leave the Orthodox Church. I could have blamed all my troubles, trials and tribulations on becoming Orthodox. But the confessional taught me different. While I am not responsible for others, and sometimes things just happen, nonetheless I am responsible for me. Then, having taken responsibility, having confessed, having repented, then grace flowed again, still surrounding me, and flowing through me.
I learned early on, thank God, that this has to do with the heart, that place and that energy within us through and in and by which we are united to God. Each time I go to the confessional I experience a little more grace. I experience a little more healing. I get the strength to put one foot in front of the other one more time. I get the ability to stand firm. I find the courage to advance. Apart from the confessional, I do not know whether or not I’d be Orthodox. It is a gift to me, and one in which I get to offer myself right back.