Malankara World

On Confession

An interview with Protopriest Valerian Krechetov, the senior father- confessor [1] in the Moscow Diocese and head priest of the Church of the Protection in the village of Akulovo, Moscow Province.

Q: Father Valerian, how would you explain to a church-newcomer what confession is and why it is necessary?

Once a professor at a theological academy gave my father, also a priest, this question during an exam: "Tell me, young batiushka [2], (and my father was already in his fifties; he was 49 when he entered the seminary), what does God do when he wants to bring someone to Himself?

My dad answered this way and that, and the old professor agreed. Yet towards the end, to get at the heart of the matter, he asked, "And what is the most important?"

He himself answered, "He sends a person spiritual heaviness and sorrow of soul, so that the person will seek God, so that he will realize that he cannot be delivered from that condition by any earthly means."

And I think this is very true! During his life, a person constantly and inescapably runs into the consequences of his sins. There is a saying, "Live in such a way during the day, so that at night your conscience won't bite." This is an expression of folk wisdom; it is certainly true that one's sleep is disturbed by impressions of what one did, said, or saw during the day. It seems that everything has gone without problems, but then one begins to ponder on some incident or other, and hears a certain voice saying something to him, the voice of conscience. Sometimes a person, seeing that what he has done is irrevocable, takes a terrible step: he decides to "deliver" himself from this earthly life, or he begins to drink. And thus a person falls into a state even more ruinous than that from which he is fleeing. All of this is but anesthesia; the person can't cure the disease, but he gets rid of the symptoms, or at least numbs himself to them.

Searching for a way out of this pain of soul also brings him to see his need for repentance and forgiveness, one of the basic causes compelling a person to go to Church and confession.

Q: It is often asked, "Why does a person have to go to church and confess before a priest? What's wrong with repenting alone, by yourself, before God, at home, for example, without an intermediary?

If confession in a church isn't possible for some reason, then it is possible to confess this way, without an intermediary. But can a neophyte hear when God says, "Very good, I forgive you?" Saint John of Kronstadt, when he sinned in some way, would pray until he received forgiveness and spiritual healingfrom God. But does a neophyte have such a degree of communication with God?

People have a natural need for personal contact. But both in relations with another person and in relations with God, it is very important not only to be understood, but also to have a visible sign that God or the other person understands you. The Lord established it thus, that a person receive His forgiveness through another person: a priest. Whose so ever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose so ever sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20:23).

Q: When a person comes to confession, sometimes the question arises: What kind of things specifically should a person confess? Our conscience doesn't seem to bother us, doesn't accuse us of anything; we didn't kill anyone, didn't rob anyone.

Yes, the conscience accuses a person first of the serious sins. But if the conscience doesn't say anything, often that is because the conscience has opened its mouth before, but the person stopped it up. The holy fathers say that if a person goes from sunlight into a dark room, he begins first to see big objects, then smaller; if he lights a light, then he begins to see everything. In the same way, a person who begins to keep track of his inner life at first sees only the big sins, then the smaller. Then grace gives him light so that he can see his own sins, for this is what we ask God during Great Lent through the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian.

Specifically of what sins one should repent is a question of time. At first a person doesn't understand or notice very much. But during the sacrament itself, grace, the spirit of God, begins to open up a person's ability to see his sins. And the person, perhaps not even realizing specifically how he has sinned, all the same feels his sinfulness. Although the confession of sins includes the idea of comprehension; there is also a state of feeling when a person realizes simply that he is sinful in comparison to holiness; and this also is the action of grace. For example:

My father was born in 1900, so the post-revolutionary years came during his youth. There were all these new currents of thought, this breath of "freedom" and so he drifted away from the Church.

His mother, my grandmother, asked him during Lent if he wouldn't go to Church and take Holy Communion. She said, "If you do, I'll bow down at your feet."

"Oh Mama, you don't have to do that, I'll just go," he answered, and went to the church on the Arbat, to Father Vladimir Vorobiev (the grandfather of Archpriest Vladimir Vorobiev, the current rector of St Tikhon's Orthodox University). He got in line for confession and had not a single thought about repentance; he just stood there and looked at the pretty girls.

When his turn came, he knelt down, and to the priest's question, "Well, young fella, what do you want to say?"

My papa answered,
"I don't have anything to say."
"And why did you come?"
"My mama asked me to."

The priest was silent for a little while, and then answered, "That's very good, that you listened to your mama." He covered my father with his epitrachelion [3] and began to read the prayer of forgiveness. "What happened to me next, I don't understand to this day," my father told me later. "I began to sob; tears came out of my eyes as if from a spigot. And when I got up and returned to my place in the church, I didn't look at anyone, anyone at all. The world had become completely different for me."

From that time on, my father began to go to Church. Then by the Providence of God, he was sent to prison, where he was in the same prison cell with holy confessors of the faith.

After prison he became a clergyman.

Q: Is it necessary to have a feeling of repentance during confession? Some people simply list their sins without any visible emotion. Is this also okay?

The importance of the struggle with a sin is not simply that a person names it, but that the sin becomes disgusting and repulsive to him or her. When we were on Mount Athos, a priest asked one of the spiritual fathers, "Why does it happen that we repent, have Holy Communion, and then go out and commit the same sins again?" The elder answered, "It is simply because pain of heart has not yet outweighed and overpowered the sin!"

If you simply enumerate sins, with no pain of heart, that means that you don't have an inner battle with sin. Repentance obviously includes acquiring an inner feeling of repentance. And this feeling is from God. You can't give orders to your heart. But sometimes, simply naming your sin at confession is a labor unto blood.

Confession is only the beginning of repentance; repentance is the backbone of one's whole spiritual life. Regarding the prayer which the priest reads at confession (the priest usually reads the beginning of the prayer at the start to everyone together, but the end of the prayer to each person individually). "I forgive and remit." Thus begins the concluding part, and includes the words, "give him/her (the person confessing, whose sins are being remitted by this prayer) the image of repentance."

What was before that, you ask? He or she has clearly already repented, yet we priests immediately read, "give him/her the image of repentance!" This is in order to show clearly that immediately after our confession, a new level of repentance begins.

Do you remember how the Apostle Peter in the Gospel fell at the feet of the Saviour and said, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord (Luke 5:8)? This too is a repentant state, which my father also experienced that time when he felt the grace of God!

Q: Sometimes after confession there comes a feeling of spiritual relief or lightness of soul, and sometimes not. What does this mean? Should one expect such a feeling after every confession?

If there is such a feeling, glory be to God. But one should not expect it, or wait for it. It will not necessarily appear; and if it doesn't, that means that one should keep working, that in the battle with sin one can never relax.

In general, one should not expect spiritual states, and certainly not seek them. If such states are granted, good; but one shouldn't expect them.

Actually seeking or pursuing such spiritual or emotional states is categorically forbidden. If you do not feel spiritual lightness or emotional relief after confession, that does not mean that God has not accepted your confession.

One of the incidents of the holy fathers goes like this: A certain man repented all the time, genuinely, but all the same was still not delivered from a feeling of heaviness; the fathers of the monastery began to pray for him, "O Lord, he repents so sincerely; why have You not yet forgiven him?" And the answer came, "I forgave him long ago, but this suffering is necessary for his salvation."

Q: How much detail should a person go into when describing his sins at confession? Is it enough to simply list them, or is it necessary to tell the priest in detail?

Unfortunately, if each person described everything in detail, confession might last till evening. Sins of the flesh, in particular, should not be told in detail. Also regarding this kind of sin: when a person explains about the circumstances, in my experience, there is often an element of self-justification. Other people sometimes start to retell their whole workday; they have brought me at times entire notebooks. If you start to describe what you have done over the last week or month, then you end up with a whole novel!

The most important thing is not the details but the struggle: if one has named a sin, he should also wrestle with it. If there is not a real battle with sin, then all the details in the world won't help.

[1] : A priest authorized by the bishop to be the confessor to the priests of the diocese.

[2] : Endearing term used to address a Russian priest, equivalent to Achen in Malayalam

[3] : Russian equivalent of the Malankara Hamneeko or Stole (English)


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