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On Being a Spiritual Father in Our Times

by Archpriest Valery Lukianov

If we were to make a survey of the non-eucharistic services performed in an active parish over a period of, say, one year, we would see that the breakdown of such services might appear as follows: 15 baptisms, 5 weddings, 25 funerals, and almost 1000 confessions! From this breakdown one can easily arrive at the conclusion that the sacrament of confession occupies the place of greatest honor in the spiritual activity of each pastor. Hence, it would not be out of place for us to share with you some thoughts on the mystery of confession, particularly on confessorship in our very difficult times.

The subject of our talk will be directed primarily toward the contemporary conditions of confession and the disposition of modern-day penitents. However, to effectively evaluate the present-day conditions of confession, we must first turn to the history of the Church of Christ and in comparison say a few words about the struggle of repentance in the first centuries of Christianity.

Confession as an indispensable preliminary to the taking of Communion was unknown among the early Christians. Theirs was a time when every faithful Christian had to be prepared, on whatever day, at whatever hour, to confess his Faith and Jay down his life for Christ in martyrdom. Such circumstances had a powerful effect in raising the spirit of Christians and promoted moral purity in their hearts, making them, even without confession, prepared to approach the great Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. And if anyone committed a sin, he would repent publicly in church.

When the era of persecutions came to an end and Christians were able to plunge freely into the pagan life which surrounded them, the moral disposition of their spirit declined. It became essential to prepare for the great Mystery of Holy Communion. During the same time-period—the age of the Ecumenical Councils—the order which we preserve to this day took shape, namely: the recitation of prayers of preparation, intensified prayer, fasting, confession of one's sins, and, only then, approach to the holy chalice (Protopresbyter V. Boshchanovsky, Lessons in Pastoral Theology, p. 69).

In general, in Christian antiquity sacramental confession was not viewed as the sole and unavoidable means for the forgiveness of sins committed by a person after baptism. Confession and repentance were only one of many means of cleansing from sin. St. John Chrysostom, for example, points out five such methods, namely: 1) public confession; 21 weeping over one's sins; 3) humility; 4) almsgiving—the queen of the virtures; and 5) prayer (Smirnov, "Ancient Spirituality and Its Origins," Theological Herald, Vol II [1916], p. 377).

As regards ordinary repentance and confession of sins in antiquity, it could be done either secretly in the presence of a priest, or openly. Moreover, there was a whole range of sinners who confessed serious sins which affected the entire Christian community. The first level consisted of those who wept, standing outside the door of the church, shedding tears as they besought the faithful who entered to forgive them and to accept them back into their company; the second level consisted of those who listened, who, with the catechumens, stood in the vestibule and listened to the prayers and readings from there; and the third level consisted of those who knelt continually behind the faithful, though in the church proper. Those of both the second and third levels were required, at a certain moment, to leave the church. Finally, a fourth level consisted of those who stood with the faithful, yet were not admitted to the Eucharist (E. Smirnov, History of the Christian Church, pp. 97,98).

When speaking of the ancient practice of confession, we must also touch upon the question of eldership. In the context of ancient monasticism, there were elders who were bearers of charismata, special gifts of the Holy Spirit imparted directly from God on the basis of personal merit. Spiritual healing was viewed as the gift of the grace to "discern spirits." It was not bound up with the hierarchical ranks of bishop or priest, but was acquired by tonsure into the schema. The spiritual father took the souls of his disciples upon his own soul, guided them on every step of their spiritual life, and finally, hearing the confession of their thoughts and works, gave them encouragement and admonishment.

The moral and everyday relations between elder and disciple, spiritual father and spiritual child, very early developed externally into a stable and harmonious system. The ancient elder, like the later confessor, heard confession and regulated penance. The elder usually heard the confession of all the monk's sins. Confession to an elder and penance took the place of confession in church.

The spread of the influence of eldership among the laity began quite early, probably not long after monasticism became established. Laymen then began to patronize the elders, forsaking their own pastors.

The monastic form became the form used by the Church, and in this guise continued in the East, almost without change, for many centuries. In Russia this discipline, introduced with the rise of Christianity, survived to the beginning of the 18th century. With the acquisition of an immense expanse of territory, the separate class of spiritual fathers ceased to exist, and the right to hear confessions began to devolve upon each parish priest at his ordination.

Another peculiarity of the Church of Russia was that the position of confessor began to be limited exclusively to those in the rank of priest (I. M. Kontzevitch, Optina Hermitage and Its Epoch, pp. 15-19).

Thus, from of old, confession has taken the form, firmly established by our times, of a threefold spiritual exercise: preparation, confession, and Communion. As in antiquity, so also now confession must be met by essential external conditions without which the beneficial effect of the sacrament itself upon the soul of the penitent is limited.

The first condition, as has already been noted, is preparation. Without preparation there can be no confession! The old Russian verb "govet" (to prepare) means, in one sense, "to live" (see the dictionary of V. Dal'), "to be reborn." Through intense prayer, fasting, virtues, and spiritual reading, the path to this rebirth became accessible.

How may a believer, who with good conscience maintains a morning and evening rule of prayer, intensify his prayer? Firstly, through a more conscious and more deeply-felt prayer—one achieved, as it were, through suffering. Prayer is intensified by adding canons and akathist hymns, of which there are a great multitude. Finally, preparation may serve as the beginning of a continual remembrance of God through the recitation of the "Jesus Prayer."

Traditionally, preparation coincided with the four periods of fasting established by the Holy Church. At other times, it was felt to be desirable for preparation to be accompanied by no fewer than three days of fasting.

As regards virtue, possibilities for doing good deeds always surround us at every step. With regard to spiritual reading (apart from the Gospel, which should be read every day through the entire year), it is a good thing to read the lives of the saints. In our times, there is no lack of spiritually-edifying books and magazines.

To the unalterable external conditions for an effective confession one ought to add the time at which it takes place. Confession should take place during the evening prior to the day on which Communion is to be taken. An evening confession spiritually binds the disposition of the penitent for the whole night. This influence is felt especially during evening prayer and during morning prayer on the day of Communion, when the soul is tranquil and the heart is pure after confession. Confession in the evening makes it possible to open one's soul to the spiritual father without haste, to converse soul to soul. In parishes, particularly where there is only one priest, this rule ought to be strictly observed. In the morning, the priest is occupied with the proskomedia, and if he is forced to delay the beginning of the service because of those who come to confession at the last minute, is this fair to the whole assembly of the Church, which has to wait because of a few negligent parishioners? if there be exceptions to these two basic conditions, they can be found in extraordinary, mitigating circumstances, such as, for example, illness.

Let us now turn to the inner content of the confession of modern day Orthodox Christians.

An understanding of Christian piety has, to a significant degree, been lost through the influence of the world. We observe a complete lack of understanding of the importance and necessity of confession as the struggle for repentance in man's life. The majority of contemporary Christians now regard confession in an altogether superficial manner. Confession is undertaken as a formality which it is necessary to undergo in order to obtain access to the holy chalice. Against the background of such a soulless regard for the sacrament of confession, one may, in general outlines, draw a "picture" of the "attitude" of those who approach for confession.

The majority of those who would confess maintain silence and, in general, do not wish to speak of their sins in specific terms. If one of them does speak up, he speaks of his sins with such indulgence, with such reservations, that the spiritual father feels that sin itself is regarded by such people as a mere violation of the social order.

Of God, of God's justice, of the inner purity of the heart, of the conscience, there is no hint. To the question of the spiritual father concerning this inner state of the soul, the following dictum is often heard: "I have nothing in particular on my heart, Father. I am as sinful as other people. I haven't killed anybody; I haven't stolen anything; I am not involved in adultery; I don't get drunk. Perhaps I have judged someone; maybe I envy somebody...." Of what the penitent has done in God's name, for his neighbor, for his moral improvement, one hears not a word. There is no talk of the inner disposition of one's heart, of those multitudinous passions which rage in one's soul: malice, hatred, jealousy, judgement, falsehood, pride, vainglory, greed .... Such a person considers all of this a completely natural thing: "How can a living man exist without this?" Even more astonishing is that this entire silent majority, as though by agreement, describe their inner spiritual state in an identically lenient manner!

In order to bring about a spiritual healing, the confessor, like a medical doctor, must diagnose the affliction and disease of the penitent's soul. How can one treat those who maintain silence, who have the most false and superficial understanding of sin? More will be said of this later on.

The next category of people who come to confession are not those who keep silence, but those who speak on totally abstract themes. What do these mean-spirited confessors talk about? Usually such persons dwell on their experiences in their lost homeland of Russia, of the disorders and shortcomings of the diaspora. What transpires is a sort of quasi-political diatribe! Then, such persons will often complain about their bodily illnesses, and many even describe these ailments in the most painstaking detail. In taking leave of their audience, they unfailingly ask for health of body and length of days. And finally, these people quite openly speak about their relations with their loved ones and acquaintances, plunging into the vanity and pettiness of life, and even providing the names of those who have offended them.

It seems to us that conversations of a social nature at confession may be tolerated only in those cases when such experiences have a direct influence on the soul, or on the person's relationship with the Church. One may speak of one's illnesses in the case when, for example, the observance of the fasts would have a deleterious effect on one's health; the penitent might seek a dispensation from the rigor of fasting on the basis of his physical difficulties, which do influence the spiritual state of man. But to drag in the names of offenders is in no way laudable. Such people sow in the heart of their pastor the seeds of involuntary prejudice against others who are equally his spiritual children. The principal thing that such a person must come to understand when coming to confession is that a gift can be offered to the Lord God only after asking forgiveness of those whom one has offended and have forgiven offenses wholeheartedly.

In general, one often forms the impression that many Christians come to confession not to confess, but to urge their pastor to free them from what the Church has established as the goals of the spiritual and moral development of Her children. They justify their demand by their ailments. It is a strange thing to express such demands to a pastor. He can loose and bind, in accordance with the Saviour's command, but he must be more than careful in setting aside what the Church has ordained. Of course, a spiritual father must show leniency if it is clear to him that the penitent's reason for his inability to fulfill the law is not based on some personal caprice, but on real infirmity. Yet the penitents also must think twice before burdening their spiritual father with compromising considerations. In any event, they must fear willfulness in the weakening of the precepts of the Church, and must not dare, in any case, to set foot upon such a path without the blessing of their spiritual father.

From silence, secular garrulousness, and self-justification, some Christians, sinking even deeper into the morass of secularism and worldliness, permit themselves to attack the Church Herself. They not only do not acknowledge their own sins, but absolutely refuse to accept the precepts of the Church. For them, fasting is not obligatory (it is, according to them, fit only for monks and priests); they hold that civil marriage is enough for them, that an ecclesiastical marriage is not essential; and so forth. Put yourself in the place of a spiritual father: how can you permit such a person to approach the holy chalice? The person has no sense of his sin; on the contrary, he holds firmly to his own supposed correctness and expects the pastor to permit him to commune! To his great regret, the spiritual father has no other recourse than to withhold his permission. Before such a person comes to confession, he ought to speak with the spiritual father alone about his spiritual state.

In this latter category one may also place the many, especially of the young, who have fallen victim to the grievous apostasies and abnormalities of our times. Such are homosexuals, followers of Hindu mystics, drug addicts, and, in general, those who have fallen into the mire of today's amoral, pornographic, and abnormal allurements. In order to help such unfortunates it is essential that the spiritual fathers themselves be well-read and acquainted with the essence of these pernicious phenomena. There is an abundance of spiritual and moral literature on these questions at the present time, primarily in English.

This, in outline, is the lamentable composition of the penitents with whom today's pastors and spiritual fathers must deal. It is quite far from the spirit and ardor of the early Christians, is it not? One might ask: "is everything really so gloomy?" Let us hasten to give reassurance. In our benighted times there are many radiant spirits who approach the sacrament of confession with a sincere cry of heartfelt contrition. How many times a confessor sheds tears at a confession, seeing some kind soul offering good fruits at the table of the Lord—the Lord alone knows! But what about the majority: those who keep silence, or puff themselves up with vanity, who justify themselves, who are hard-hearted? What about them? Does one spurn them? God forbid! How can one help these sinners, how can one enkindle their hearts?

The answer to this difficult question must be twofold and comprehensive: on the one hand, the sinner must be re-educated, and on the other, the activity of the pastor himself must be successful.

Speaking of lukewarm and even hardened souls, we can only endure the gloomy reality of today's spiritual environment. There is no argument; there is no need to expound on the spiritual bankruptcy of the world. However, where is it that we encounter these deeply secular personalities, if not in church? Even if they arrive only when the bell is rung at "It is meet and right . . .," even if they leave during the sermon, nevertheless we encounter them in church. Something still draws them toward that which is holy. In a word, a spark is still alive! It is up to the spiritual father to fan that spark into flame.

In re-educating a lukewarm soul, attention must first be directed towards bringing sinners to an understanding of sin as the death of the soul. So long as man does not fear sin, he will never understand why confession has been established. When man senses that there is such a thing as a pure conscience, a pure heart, he will confess his sins with greater care and will approach the holy chalice more worthily, having made the effort to prepare himself for it. It is the task of the spiritual father to make clear, as has already been mentioned, that the penitent must pray earnestly, with his whole heart, and beseech the Lord with tears for mercy, in no wise trying to justify himself, for man can sin involuntarily, or, in any event, be a cause of temptation for others.

The second approach to the lukewarm soul must be to make him understand the mystery of Holy Communion. Everybody knows how the Lord Jesus Christ Himself instituted this sacrament, even the unchurchly, who know it from the days of their childhood when they studied catechism. Yet of the essence and action of the Eucharist many have only a superficial knowledge. What does Christ Himself say of Holy Communion? "I am the living Bread Which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this Bread, he shall live for ever" (Jn. 6:51). And even more precisely: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat of the Flesh of the Son of man, and drink His Blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, abideth in Me and I in him" (Jn. 6:53-56).

Interpreting these sacred words of the Saviour, the spiritual father must with all care impress upon the consciousness of the faithful the essence of the activity of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. These are the saving fruits of Holy Communion:

1. Holy Communion unites us with the Lord in the closest possible manner.

2. Holy Communion nourishes our soul and body and makes possible our strengthening, progress, and growth in the spiritual life.

3. Holy Communion is for us a surety of the coming resurrection and everlastingly-blessed life.

Alas, many, many do not understand this basic truth! Hence the neglect of confession. A deepening of the knowledge of the nature of sin and the saving nature of repentance is also an object of spiritual care. Every student must have a teacher. For the healing of the flock there must be an experienced spiritual father. And where should the priest's labor be directed in order to gain what is most important in his life: the experience of spiritual healing? The answer to this question we find in His Beatitude Metropolitan Anthony's book on confession: "To acquire experience the confessor must work first of all on himself .... He must love the people, love man especially in those moments when he gives himself over to you, when he surrenders to God. You will hardly find him better than at these moments, and if you do not try to love him then, you will never love under the conditions of ordinary life."

How can one nurture the spirit of being a confessor within oneself?

We refer you to the remarkable writings of Protopresbyter V. Boshchanovsky on pastoral theology, in which the author urges the pastor to know himself: who he is and what gifts of grace he has been given by God. There is present within the priest the charisma of prophecy, imparted to him with the imposition of hands at his ordination. But the priest himself must not be passive; he is called to activity, to a continual, intelligent, and highly sacrificial labor in life. The spiritual father must promote within himself certain traits without which he would be no more than an ecclesiastical functionary; and he himself can feel this in the cool attitude toward him shown by the truly spiritual sympathetic souls who are seeking genuine pastorship, real guidance. These are the traits:

A holy life. The priest must, first of all, cleanse himself before he seeks to cleanse others, St. Gregory the Theologian teaches. The priest who himself turns away from the commandments of God can expect to hear the reproof of the Gospel: "Physician, heal thyself!" Sanctity of life is not a consciousness of an attained righteousness, but a striving for it which is full of an awareness of one's own unworthiness.

Knowledge—not of the world, which is arrogant and vain, but one which is mystical and filled with grace. The pastor must know the Gospel, the word of God, the teaching of the Church and Her rules—especially as interpreted and revealed by the Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church. The lives of the saints are a precious fountain of instruction for the penitent.

Prudence—not secular and carnal, but one that is true, spiritual, which may merge with a higher virtue, discernment.

Ardent prayer, not for oneself alone, but also for all one's spiritual children. How can a pastor, who is surrounded on all sides by temptations, get by without prayer to God? And his children always sense this.

Zeal for the salvation of souls. This is the real flame of confessorship. If it is not present, the soul of the confessor is barren and fruitless. Spiritual zeal must encompass love, patience, and meekness, but firmness as well.

Thought of God must be habitual and commonplace for the pastor; for how else can the pastor move from the vanity of life to the grace-filled mystery of confession? The priest must live in a constant awareness of the closeness of God. This is the true quality of a spiritual father.

And really, who would entrust his soul to a priest who leads a secular life? Can one imagine a spiritual father who loves the cinema and the theater, who has a reputation in society as a successful recounter of not always modest anecdotes, whose reading is exclusively newspapers and secular literature, who can hold his liquor, but at confession shows himself to be a dread judge and a strict upholder of the law? Such a spiritual father doesn't so much arouse the sleeping conscience of the one confessing as cast the tormented soul into the abyss of despair and disillusionment!

Indeed, how worthy of his calling must the pastor-confessor live, to win the trust and love of the faithful who seek his spiritual help! Of all the problems of the pastoral ministry, that of being a father confessor is the most difficult, the most responsible. Truly the path of reconciling man with God is one strewn with thorns!

How does one gain the trust of the believer who comes to confession? How does one touch his soul? Firstly, as we have already stressed, one must develop the good qualities of a true confessor, must deepen one's Spiritual character.

The second condition of successful confessorship is amicable collaboration, mutual consent to the treatment between confessor and penitent. This flows from true Christian love of one for another and leads to mutual trust. The penitent must understand that the confessor is his friend, as well as his personal physician. The discipline governing the relationship must be strict. Obedience to the spiritual father must be complete—a total rejection of one's own will. A harmony of a sort must be established between confessor and the one confessing. The true pastor is ready to rejoice with one who is happy and to shed tears with one who is weeping. Therefore, the penitent must come to his spiritual father with complete trust and openly relate to him his experiences, doubts, and spiritual ailments. Under ideal circumstances, the one who confesses and the spiritual father pray for one another, and the Lord aids them. But the reward is inexpressibly great—peace of soul, joy in the Lord, and reinforced hope of everlasting life.

This is the immense task which lies before pastors and laymen alike. Can all the difficulties, all the impediments outlined above be resolved and overcome? Is this not a fantasy divorced from the reality of life? One wishes to believe that this is not the case! How can one nurture the noble impulse of the heart, how can one advance spiritual healing?

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk points us in the right direction: "One has to work. God helps those who labor, not those who lie down." Let us work for the Lord with fear, that we might gain the good fruits of true confessorship!

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 41-49.