The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing
Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / third lecture by Bishop Kallistos
My theme this afternoon is “Coming to Christ, the Good Physician.” And I’ll be speaking about confession chiefly. But I’ll be looking at it as a sacrament of healing.
In the book by Tito Colliander, The Way of the Ascetics, a brief conversation is recorded between a monk and a layman. The layman asks the monk, “What do you do there in the monastery?” And the monk replies, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” It’s not only in monasteries that we do that. In a fallen and sinful world, an all important aspect of our personhood is our need to be healed, to get up after we’ve fallen, our need to repent, to forgive, and to be forgiven.
We’ll start this afternoon with the familiar text of St. James, Chapter 5:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the presbyters of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. If anyone has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins one to another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.
What we notice in this passage is that St. James is speaking about healing in an all-embracing sense of body and soul together. He talks about the sick person being healed through anointing with oil, but he also says that the sick person will be forgiven his sins. So, healing of body and soul go together. We are to see the human person, as we already said, in holistic terms. An undivided unity: the body is not healed apart from the soul, nor the soul apart from the body. The two are interdependent. St. James speaks at one and the same time of the sick person being raised from his bed physically healed, and he speaks of the forgiveness of his sins through confession. He speaks of spiritual healing.
I find this to be a key that opens a very important door, a vital clue — the anointing of the sick and confession are essentially connected as two indivisible aspects of a single mystery of healing and forgiveness. Each has its own specific function — they do not replace one another, but together they form a true union. So, perhaps the most helpful way to look at the sacrament of confession is to see it as a sacrament of healing.
Now, sacramental confession as we know it today in the Orthodox Church represents a convergence of two things which originally were, perhaps, distinct. First of all, there is the administration of penance. This is particularly connected with John, chapter 20, verses 22 through 23. There, the risen Christ breathes on His disciples, confers on them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and, He says, “whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whosoever sins you retain, they are retained.”
There, the risen Christ gives to His disciples the power of binding and loosing sins — a juridical power. This task of binding and loosing was transmitted from the apostles to their successors, the bishops. In the early church, the administration of penance was something public; it didn’t involve the private giving of counsel or advice. It was something exceptional. You hoped, by God’s mercy, that you wouldn’t have to be involved in penance. Indeed, the penances that were imposed were by our standards extremely severe. It often requires a leap of the imagination on our part to think of how life was in the ancient church. For example, for fornication — I mean, sex outside of marriage — St. Gregory of Nyssa assigns a penance of nine years without communion. St. Basil’s a little more merciful, he says seven years without communion. Finally, in the sixth and seventh century, in the canonical legislation of St. John the Faster, it’s been reduced to two years. Even so, by our standard, that may well seem severe. Does any part of the Orthodox Church today impose penances of that kind?
Another example is involuntary manslaughter — for example, killing somebody in a car accident. In the early church the act of accidental killing of another person meant ten years without communion. Perhaps, says St. John the Faster, if you observe strict fasting it can be reduced to three years. Parents who allow a child to die unbaptized — three years without communion. So it continues.
Now, that is one source of confession as we know it — the system of public penance that existed in the early church. But this is seen as something exceptional, not a regular part of people’s Christian life, only if they got into trouble. It was not primarily a question of spiritual direction.
But then there is another source of the sacrament of confession as we know it today. This is the practice of spiritual counsel, first found especially in the Egyptian monasticism of the fourth century, though no doubt the practice of using spiritual counsel goes right back to apostolic times. But we don’t know very much about it until the emergence of monasticism.
In the desert of Egypt, as we have learned from the Gerontikon and the Apothigmata — or Sayings of the Desert Fathers — an important part was played by the disclosure of thoughts. The disciple would go perhaps daily to his spiritual elder, his staretz, and open his heart to him. Now this is something clearly different from the system of public penance. First of all, it is regular, not exceptional. In many monastic centers, this happens daily. Secondly, it is private, not public. It’s carried out under conditions of confidentiality. It doesn’t directly involve the church hierarchy.
The spiritual father — in a monastic context, the elder — may in fact be a layman, not a priest. Anthony of Egypt was never a priest but he formed in many ways the prototype of the monastic spiritual father. Athanasius calls him a physician given by God to all of Egypt. The spiritual father of St. Simeon the New Theologian of the eleventh century — Simeon the Studdite — was not a priest. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos was not a priest. On the Holy Mountain today there are many spiritual fathers who are lay monks. Indeed, the giving of spiritual counsel can surely be done by a lay Christian — a man or woman — a person not in monastic vows at all, though that is more exceptional.
In this practice of spiritual counsel, the scope is far wider than in the formal penance of the Church. What you disclose to your elder is not just your sins, but your thoughts. You don’t just speak of what you’ve done wrong, you share with him your inner state, your whole situation. The hope is that by revealing your thoughts to your elder, you will in fact avoid falling into sin. In other words, penance is retrospective, picking up the pieces after the breakage; but, through the use of spiritual counsel, you hope to avoid the breakage itself.
When I was a student at Magdalen College in Oxford, there was a formidable guardian of the chapel, the verger, a little man called Tallboy. I remember a new Dean of Divinity arrived and, with some severity, Tallboy explained to him all the traditions and practices of the college chapel. At the end of this, the new Dean of Divinity said, a little nervously, “Thank you, Mr. Tallboy, you put me right when I go wrong.” “Sir,” said Tallboy, “I’ll put you right before you go wrong.”
Now, the first law of penance puts you right after you’ve gone wrong, but the first law of the disclosure of thoughts, so one hopes, puts you right before you’ve gone wrong.
The underlying principle behind this monastic disclosure of thoughts is very clear; it is described in this way in the Gerontikon, a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers:
If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.
The process of bringing into the open what is hidden is decisive behind spiritual counsel. That, of course, is also the principle in modern psychotherapy, but the desert fathers thought of it before Freud and Jung.
If the model in the first place with public penance is primarily juridical, the model in the second case, with spiritual counsel, is more therapeutic. Confession as we know it today represents a growing together of these two tendencies. From the fourth century onward, with the greatly increased number of Christians, the system of public penance fell increasingly into disuse. In a much larger Christian community, the trust that existed in the first centuries of the church was diluted. To discuss publicly, in the presence of the whole community, the sins of individual members became a cause of scandal. And so from the fourth century onwards, increasingly penance is no longer public. It becomes a personal meeting just with the bishop and the one who has fallen into sin. Also, with the increasing number of Christians, the bishop alone could not possibly administer the practice of penance, so he delegates this task to specific priests.
Up until the present day in the Greek church still only a minority of priests will hear confessions. This is not something conferred automatically at ordination. There is a special ceremony in the Epilogion — the book of prayers — for the appointment of a priest as a confessor and spiritual father. Generally, in Greek tradition, priests do not hear confession until they have received that special blessing from the bishop.
Once confession and the practice of penance became private, then probably the priest appointed to deal with this matter would not limit himself just to imposing a penance, but he would offer some kind of guidance, some kind of healing counsel. So, increasingly the administration of penance from the fourth century onward takes in elements from the second strand I was describing, the tradition of spiritual counsel.
But there has never been a complete fusing between the two. The practice, as I have already said, of people going to a monk who is not a priest for counsel and to ask God’s forgiveness, has not entirely ceased.
Now, in our view of confession today, where do we put the primary emphasis? Do we put it mainly on the aspect of penance, or on the aspect of spiritual counsel? Do we think of confession primarily in juridical terms, as coming to Christ as the Judge? Do we think of it, on the other hand, more in therapeutic terms, as coming to Christ as the Good Physician, the Doctor? Do we see sin primarily as the breaking of the Law, in medieval terms, or do we see sin more as the symptom of inner illness? Do we emphasize mainly binding and loosing — or healing? Is coming to confession like going to a law court, or like going to a hospital? Now, our answer surely should be, there is truth in both approaches. They are not mutually exclusive.
I remember when I first traveled to America as a hungry student, I went by boat. In those days — the 1950’s — air travel was extremely expensive. It was only for the wealthy. So, unless you were rich, you went for five days on one of the great ocean liners. I can recall traveling on the liner, the Queen Elizabeth. The price of the meals was included in your ticket. I was delighted to find on my birthday that on the menu there was a huge list of food, and you did not have to choose just one item out of three courses. You could make as many courses as you liked. At breakfast, you didn’t have to have either fruit juice or cereal or porridge, you could have all three. You could then go on to have both fried eggs and poached haddock, if you felt like that in the heaving waters of the mid-Atlantic. At dinner the other people at my table were very small-minded. They just had soup and then a main course and then pudding. But I worked it out that I could have hors d’oeuvres and melon, soup, fish, meat, and then dessert, then fruit and then cheese. It wasn’t a question of either/or, but it could be both/and.
Now I would suggest spiritually we should follow the path of the luxury liner! We shouldn’t feel we’ve got to think of confession either in legalistic terms or in terms of healing, but we should combine the two. Even so I have to say that I myself find the therapeutic model much more helpful — to see confession above all as a sacrament of healing, to think of it as coming to Christ the Doctor. The priest is not the doctor, he is the medical assistant. If you’re given a penance — that’s not a punishment, it’s a tonic to help you recover afterwards, to get better.
Of course, this means if you do have a therapeutic approach to confession that you need more time, you can’t just deal with things in two minutes. In my experience, though I am in a fairly small parish, I find I need a quarter of an hour on average for each confession, but during Lent we might spend considerably longer, even a whole hour, together.
If you stress the element of healing, confession is less abhorable. It’s a time for a true opening of hearts.
What we bring to Christ is not a laundry list of sins, but we bring ourselves. We bring not just our sins, but our sinfulness, because often there is a sinfulness that is far deeper than the specific acts we mention. But again, we do not isolate our sinfulness from our total personhood. What we bring to Christ in confession is ourselves, and we may need time to do that.
If we think of confession in terms of healing, we also have to remember that healing takes time. Normally it doesn’t happen suddenly. We shouldn’t think of each confession in an isolated way, separately from all the others. We should recognize that confession is a process as well as an event. In going to a series of confessions, if possible to the same priest, gradually we change, even though we may feel that nothing very remarkable happened at any specific confession. Yet over time we realize, yes, we have been healed.
How many of Christ’s parables in the Gospels speak of slow, gentle, secret growth, unseen by us but seen by God? Think, for example, of Mark 4:26-29. That’s one of the very few passages which is only in Mark, and not in any of the other Gospels. And Mark, speaking there of the harvest, says that you were first the blade, the tender stalk, then you have the ear, or head. And then gradually the full corn in the ear, the head full of grain, but it happens very slowly, and we don’t see it happening though after time we notice the difference. Is not that true, very often, of our own spiritual lives? Certainly it was true of Mark himself, who got off to a rather shaky start. Paul was displeased with him and wouldn’t have him on his second missionary journey. But at the end of his life, Paul tells us that “only Mark is with me,” so evidently Mark made progress.
Christ Himself recognizes how long and drawn out the process of forgiveness may be. We have to forgive people to “seventy times seven.” That’s often what God has to do to us. We shouldn’t feel discouraged if we have to keep mentioning the same sin over and over again at successive confessions. Does that mean that the confession is useless? Does it mean that we are just wasting our own time and the priest’s time? Not necessarily. When we feel, “well, I can’t go to confession because I’d only have the same things to say” — that is a temptation of the devil. We must go back. We must keep mentioning these things. Change happens slowly.
Throwing together what I’ve been saying about confession, I’d like to ask the question, “Why go to confession at all? If, after I have sinned, I turn to God in prayer and, with all sincerity of heart, I ask Him to forgive me, saying my evening prayers that day, does not God at once forgive my sin? Why, then, do I need to go to confession?”
My answer is, yes, God does forgive my sin when I confess it in full sincerity of heart from that very moment, but we still need to go to confession for several reasons. In confession, there are basically three of us there: there is me, making my confession; there is the priest, listening as witness; and there is God — Christ the Physician — who forgives and heals.
Let’s consider what each of these three people do.
First of all, there is what I do. Earlier I quoted from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers — if a thought is concealed, repressed, hidden within us, it has great power. But if we can only bring it into the open, it loses its power over us. Now there is the first reason to go to confession. Yes, I can confess my sins alone in my evening prayer, but there is great power in the uttered word. If I externalize this, if I bring them into the open, what has hitherto been internal, perhaps only half-conscious, now assumes an objective existence and so I can deal with it. Let us not underestimate the effect upon us of speaking about our secret thoughts and sins.
As part of our church service, the mystery of confession in the presence of another person deepens. Often, it is surprising how in confession itself, we say things that we didn’t realize lay in our power to say. Sometimes in confession itself, our whole situation becomes clear as we speak. We didn’t really know what we were going to say until we said it. In this way, the process of speaking can have a creative impact.
Of course, we are to prepare before confession. People who are afraid that because of the erratic character of human memory, or because of nervousness, they may forget things — yes, certainly they may write a few things down on paper. I always discourage people from writing their whole confession down before they come to simply read from a piece of paper what is there. The creative work of putting it into words needs to happen in the confession itself. The same is true, mind you, of preaching sermons. Certainly we should prepare: it’s not advisable to just get up and say the first thing that comes into your head. That, on the whole, won’t really help people. You should have a clear notion before we begin our sermon of what the theme is going to be, what is going to proceed from the point, and we may even have something written down. But we shouldn’t read a prepared statement word-for-word. When that is done, it means that the creative work was done in our study, perhaps several days before, and what we are offering to the congregation is merely the cold ashes afterward. That’s a little harsh, but it wasn’t I who said that. I think is was St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. The same is true of confession: make a few notes if you wish but always find the words at the actual moment of confession. So the creative work is happening in the confession itself.
That ends the first point — what I do, the power of the uttered word. Then there’s what the priest does. Here I think there are two points — one more obvious, the other perhaps less so. The obvious thing is that the priest can give us counsel, advice. Many people think that is the main reason for going to confession. Actually, I would say, what I — the penitent — do is more important than the advice the priest gives me. But nonetheless, the priest’s advice can be decisive.
It is a remarkable thing, that statements which, if you read them printed in a book, would not strike you as in any way remarkable. You’d say, “Well, that’s obvious enough!” But when the same words are spoken to you by the priest hearing your confession, they may suddenly prove to be words of fire. Words which, taken in the abstract, may seem very ordinary and simple, in confession may suddenly come alive. If you are receptive, they may alter your life.
I remember one case. At the Russian convent in London to which I often went as a layman, there was an elderly priest, Fr. John, who didn’t like preaching sermons and he didn’t like hearing confessions. He was always extremely laconic. Few words of advice were given. One day, a woman who often came to him for confession told him as usual and at great length the arguments that she had had with her husband. “He said this and I said this and then he said this and I told him he was all wrong and said this and this and this…” At the end of all this, Fr. John simply looked at her, and said, “And did it help?” Then he gave her absolution.
Those four words changed her life. She suddenly saw how futile it was to go on arguing all the time, always trying to answer people back, always wanting to have the last word. She suddenly thought, “It doesn’t have to be like that at all.” She stopped it and changed. It was that very simple word of advice from the priest, put in the form of a question, that made her life different.
I remember a friend of mine who went to one of the Greek priests in the cathedral. She was a little taken aback — indeed, a little offended at first — because his advice was limited to five words. He just said: “Not serious, but too many,” and then gave her absolution. Again, that made a difference. It altered her attitude toward herself.
When in confession, listen very carefully to what the priest says. He is not simply offering general advice, reflections on the human predicament. He is speaking to me, calling on the Holy Spirit to guide him. What are these words from the Spirit that the priest has to say to me here and now? If we will really listen, then we shall learn.
I remember going one day to a Russian church when I was a layman, wanting to go to confession, and asking, “Which one of the priests speaks English?” I was told, “Go to that one.” So I did. Once I had confessed, he began talking to me but I couldn’t understand a word. So I said, “Could you please speak English?” And he said in an irritated voice, “I am speaking English!” It was not a promising beginning for our mutual cooperation!
So even though what I do may be more important than what the priest does, yet the priest’s counsel can often change my life, if I will let it do so. We mustn’t expect the priest to do everything. When Christ was among people with no faith, he could not work any miracles there. It’s always two-sided. If I, the penitent or the disciple, am not receptive, then the spiritual father will not have a healing word for me.
There is another way in which the priest’s role is important, which, perhaps, we forget. The priest is there as the representative of the church community. Penance, as we saw earlier, was originally a public event. All the local community were there. Now it is personal and private, but the priest is nonetheless representing the community. There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.
All personal sins have a negative effect on other persons, though they may not be consciously aware it does. So, when I come to confession, I come to ask forgiveness not only from God, but also from my sisters and brothers, from the community. I see the priest, therefore, who is present as a witness, as being the representative of the community.
Let me give an example. I’ve heard this story twice, told by quite different people. Perhaps it happened twice. This is a story involving someone I had the privilege of meeting personally and knowing, a saint of our church, St. John Maximovich, who was a bishop of Shanghai, then here in France, then finally San Francisco.
Once, a man was making confession to him, and he said to Archbishop John, “Yes, I see that I have sinned. With my mind, I appreciate that what I’ve done is wrong, but my heart is like a stone — I feel no sense of sorrow or compunction.” Now, the confession was being heard just before the Liturgy and there were already many people in the church. Archbishop John said to the man, “Go out into the middle of the church, kneel in front of all these people, and ask their forgiveness, and then come back to me.”
The man did so. And when he knelt before the people and asked their forgiveness, a sudden change occurred inside him. Suddenly, the stoniness of his heart was taken away. Suddenly, something that held back his tears of compunction was released, and he was able to weep over his sin, and then he received absolution. This brings out the importance of the priest as a representative of the community. We have to ask forgiveness of our fellow Christians.
Here I would join Fr. Alexander Menn’ in issuing a word of caution. There is, in my view, a great danger of over-emphasizing the role of the spiritual father. People read Dostoevski’s account of Staretz Zosima, which is indeed a marvelous piece of writing, and then they think, “That’s how it’s going to be for me. I’m going to find a spiritual father who will know all my thoughts before I confess them; who will alter my life with a single healing word.” Now, for many of us, that is not the way things happen.
Priests have to be very careful, if they are in a parish and are hearing confessions of married couples, not to demand of lay people the kind of obedience that is appropriate only in a monastery. There’s a danger sometimes of parish priests thinking, “I shall be St. Seraphim, I shall be Staretz Zosima.” But even in a monastery, those kinds of spiritual fathers are very much the exception. We shouldn’t, as priests, be too quick to claim the authority of a charismatic staretz. Perhaps I am a St. Seraphim, perhaps I am not.
So I would see the primary purpose of the spiritual father — especially among lay people, but it applies also in monasteries — is to help others to discover their freedom. Not to tell them what they should do, but to help them, through the use of their own freedom, to stand in their own conscience before God and to come to an informed decision.
Very often people come to a spiritual father wanting him to make the decision for them, and perhaps the answer is they have to make the decision. The spiritual father can help them to see what the issue is.
I recall Fr. Sophrony telling me about the approach of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos towards those who came to him. He said, Staretz Silouan hardly ever told people exactly what to do, he hardly ever issued commands. Much more often, he would ask them questions — very carefully chosen questions, yes — but he didn’t issue orders. He wanted people to think for themselves. Fr. Sophrony said that if Staretz Silouan did give counsel in a more detailed way, he frequently began his sentences with the word, “If.” In other words, he tried to help people see connections, to see that if they did one thing, then that would lead on to something else, so there is a chain of cause of effect within our spiritual lives. He tried to help people see how things hang together, how one thing leads to another. Still he left it to them to make up their own minds.
If somebody comes to me and just says, “Tell me what I should do,” my response is, “That is not the real question. You can only discover what you should do if you look in a much more precise way at what the possibilities are and what the alternatives are. Then you can begin to make a choice. But the question, just in the abstract, ‘What should I do?’, is not yet ready for an answer.” The spiritual father doesn’t issue orders, he’s not a lawgiver. We hear this again and again in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. But he can, sometimes, help people to see what the question is.
The purpose of confession is that it is a school for healing. I mentioned what I do in confession and what the priest does. Thirdly, there is what God does, and that is, by far, the most important thing of all.
Confession is a sacrament, a mystery. Divine grace is at work in it. Confession, like all the other sacraments, is God’s action in which we, both penitent and priest, are invited to share.
What St. John Chrysostom says of the Divine Liturgy is true also of confession. Of the liturgy, St. John Chrysostom says, “The priest only lends his hand and provides his tongue. Everything is brought to pass by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When the priest in confession lays his stole on the head of the penitent and then his hand upon the penitent’s head, it is the hand of Christ who is laying this hand upon the head of the penitent. That is made very clear in the exhortation at the beginning of the Russian rite of confession: “Christ stands invisibly before us, I am only a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things you have to say to me.”
So here you have my reasons for suggesting that is why we do need to go to confession.
Let me end with a quotation not from an Orthodox writer but from Protestant, a Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Speaking of confession, he says, “Who can refuse, without suffering loss, the help that God has thought it necessary to offer us?”
Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. His lecture may not be reproduced without his permission. The transcription was made by Lara Oliver. Our thanks to her.