I shall never forget the first man I prepared spiritually to meet death As his wife met me in the hospital corridor, she told me that "Ivan" had a terrible cancer of the mouth and throat which had so eaten away his tongue that only she, his wife of many years, could understand his speech -- and that barely. She also did not know if she could rouse him; he was very far gone.
When we stood by his bed, however, and "Anna" softly nudged him, saying "Batiushka is here," Ivan awoke quickly and looked at me with great attention. After I gave him the instruction before Holy Confession, I listened for the some time while Ivan groaned and struggled 'to confess; how he longed to speak! Great tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke to God in the present ,, of His minister. The tears continued as I made the cross over his much-suffering head and pronounced absolution "...in the Name of the Father and of the ~on and of the Holy Spirit..." and as he received his last Holy Communion "...unto the remission of sins and life eternal." Then he grew very still and peacefully received holy Unction. This was the first time I had seen a man prepare for a Christian death, and I was greatly moved.
As Anna walked me to the elevator, I reminded her, with all the zeal of a young priest, that every Christian death is a sign to us to confess and receive the Holy Mysteries now, while we still have time. She looked at me and said dully, "Our Church is too strict about this. We should just have general absolution like the (...jurisdiction)." After what we had just witnessed together, I was dumbfounded at this indifference. I still pray for "Anna." I pray that she will find it in her heart to humble herself before the Church, to confess as the Lord ordained, before His priests, lest she find herself one day helpless, unconfessed and voiceless, waiting for the angels to come and seize her soul.
Those who argue to abolish individual confession usually quote two examples from history. "In the early Church," they say, "there was no private confession. Also, St. John of Kronstadt frequently gave general absolution." But their own examples defeat them, as always occurs when the "learned" try to overturn Holy Tradition by citing the past. In the early Church, the sinner not only had to proclaim his sins to the priest, but to the entire community. In the great Church of St. Andrew at Kronstadt, those confessing screamed out heir sins in the presence of thousands. If anyone had not confessed well, St. John knew this in his clairvoyance, and he would not give them Holy Communion!
Is this open and humbling form of confession the practice which the proponents of "general absolution" promote? No, it is not. They look not to the past, not to Tradition, for their "reform," but to the practice of the Anglican communion, in which the individual recites his sins silently, supposedly directly to God. Here the minister does not witness the penitent’s confession, but simply says a prayer of absolution for all present. Some people regard this method as kinder, somehow, but actually, it is a terrible sin against the individual Christian, in several ways.
(1) It deprives him of the opportunity to destroy his pride. It is dishonest and unrealistic to say that this silent confession humbles the penitent. Only saying one's sins aloud before another human being can realty enable the Christian to attack the illusion of righteousness each of us battles constantly. And if pride is not controlled, not, eventually, destroyed, there can be no salvation!
(2) Silent confession locks the individual within his own judgment, his own perception. The Holy Fathers teach us unanimously not to trust our own judgments, but constantly to seek spiritual counsel Should we not follow this practice, above all when we are trying to judge the relative severity of our various sins, and decide which methods to use to uproot them and be healed: "Do you know someone who has fallen?" asks St. Dorotheus of Gaza. "Be sure that he directed himself. Nothing is more grievous than to be one's own director, nothing is more pernicious.'
(3) Pretending that one need only confess to God, weakens the Christian's sense of the Church. There is an old saying: "those who go to heaven go together; each one who goes to hell goes alone (literally, 'in his own way')." Confessing before the priest, the representative of the Church, roots in us the awareness that our sins have not only an individual but also a corporate effect. Whatever one member of the Body does affects the whole Body, and only by being reconciled with the Body can a member also be reconciled to Her Head. The idea that "general confession" is somehow more 'communitarian" is superficial, externalistic. Real community arises out of shared ascetical struggle, a struggle which is undermined---and eventually destroyed--by reducing the importance of the individual confession.
In his booklet Confession, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) speaks of some clergy in a pre-Revolutionary Russian diocese who, being under the influence of the liberal intelligentsia, naturally had as one of the items on their agenda the abolition of private confession Metropolitan Anthony responds to this very simply: "...to abolish confession is to abolish the Orthodox faith!" To understand why the late Metropolitan fe;t so strongly on this point, we can turn to his article "How Does Orthodoxy Differ From the Western Denominations?":
Moral perfection is attained by way of independent, intricate work on oneself, by inner warfare, deprivations, and especially self-humiliation..
In short, the Orthodox faith is an ascetical faith; Orthodox theological thought--that which does not remain a dead property of the school, but influences life and spreads among the People-is a following of the ways of spiritual perfection...
...Contemporary Western theologians have lost the thought that the aim of Christianity, the aim of Christ’s coming to earth is namely the moral perfection of the individual They have as it were gone mad with the fiction that Christ the Saviour came to earth in order to bring happiness to some kind of humanity in some future ages, although He said with all clarity that His followers must bear a cross of suffering, ...That Golden age which the worshipers of the "superstition of Progress" (as S. A. Rachinsky so well expressed it) await on earth is promised by the Saviour in the future life, but neither the Latins nor the Protestants want to accept this for the simple reason that (speaking openly) they believe feebly in the resurrection and believe strongly in the happiness of the present life, which, on the contrary, the apostles call a vanishing vapor (James 4:14)...
Thus does one of our 20th century Abbas express the essence of Orthodoxy: an ascetical Faith, a faith of self-denial in this life in hope of the resurrection, a faith in which one experiences an effable inner joy, even in this life, while undergoing external tribulations. Without confession one cannot struggle fruitfully but only engage in what St. Paul calls "shadowboxing". Let us therefore cast aside false opinion and hearken to the voice of the Fathers. Let us put aside the fallen desire for human respect and bare our sins to our spiritual fathers, thus destroying Satan's pride. Let us serve not him who flatters our self opinion, Satan, abandoning the life of podvig for "reform." Let us serve the Crucified One. And may He, in the words of St. Benedict, lead us all together to life everlasting!
Fr. Steven Allen
St. Michael the Archangel Church, Denver, Colorado
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