Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | April 15, 2008

Fr. Meletios Webber on Confession

As one who is an OBC (Orthodox-by-Choice or “Convert”), I struggle with confession. Never goes easily. I have read plenty on it thinking, “This ought to help”, but begin to think this is only increasing the apparent complexity and making it harder rather than easier. And of course the puzzle in this is that a large part of my turn-around in view and coming to Orthodoxy lay in feeling a need for this particular mystery as a formal sacrament and a part of Church life. And yet it remains so much more of a mystery to me than it should.

I found the priest’s lecture on confession in “The Way of the Pilgrim” helpful, but I still have a long way to go… and surely more to read that would be on the mark. My guess is that it is less the practice of confession, and more the troubling matters of sin, the role of my will, and my own spiritual blindness – to name just three aspects that complicate the matter for me.

And in a way, the whole of it reminds me of a Life Saving class (swimming). I don’t remember what the point was… but I do remember that they made us walk into the water… to a point where the water was up to your nose… and then you were instructed to take that last step out into the deep… where the water covers your head. Rapidly.. you switch from a calm experience of one thing happening and happening slowly… to a sudden shift where a whole lot of things happened all at once and you have kick and swim for air. This seems in part the shift I feel from preparation for confession… to the actual practice where I flounder, the waters cover my head as if there was something else I was supposed to do… but didn’t, and then I’m kicking for air. Fortunately, the stole comes up about that time, and with a quick blessing, we’re done.

Inescapably.. the notion that there are good and bad confessions comes to mind… with most of mine fitting in the latter category in one way or another. I mean either we’re hiding something… and that’s bad, or we’re candid… and what we confess… well, it isn’t all that good either. And yes, I expect that this notion is fundamentally flawed and there are good and bad experiences. Yes, on some level, it’s also probably true that all confessions are “good” in that they continue the process of unraveling the onion. Surely part of the mystery for me lies in my suspicion that what I experience as “good” may actually be less constructive, and less conducive to producing a good confession the next time…. as if somehow it has not quickened me as should the waters when I am completely submerged. Of course, I could speculate that perhaps all of our confessions are not really separate from each other as they occur, but related as part of a singular experience before Christ. But this only admits that here as ever, I remain a Thickheaded individual stumbling in the dark.

So let me leave my ramblings to agree that we really do have Mysteries in the Church rather than Sacraments. At least that’s the way they seem. In particular, Confession remains a mystery to me. And if I find myself a poor witness before Christ – and I do, then surely it attests that my resolve to offer better remains weak, and my repentance incomplete. And perhaps Fr. Melitios Webber is close to the mark in calling sin something of an addiction, necessitating a program similar to AA’s 12-steps, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and a life lived within the fullness of the Church to address.

But for my part, I find it more like dealing with athlete’s foot: it burns, and until Samuel L. Jackson screams out, “You’re damn foot’s on fire!” there’s a tendency to ignore it. Then of course, Jackson hands you the fire extinguisher and you spray it until you get frostbite and the fool thing falls off. “Yeah… it was the right idea… and maybe I got a little carried away with the ‘cure’, but I think I can hop around on one foot all right.” The steady-as-she-goes medication applied consistently a little at a time… is just soooo hard to keep up with. So this Forgetful Jones finds that despite “Fast Actin’ Tinactin”, my Athletes Foot seems a pretty constant companion. My sins… well… hmmm.

All of this is simply a poor introduction to Fr. Meletios Webber’s excellent comments (“Steps of Transformation”) on different experiences of confession and why guys like me still don’t get it:

“During my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have come across a wide variety of views concerning the Sacrament of Confession. In some traditions, confession is considered to be the essential preparation for Holy Communion, and frequent, sometimes even weekly, confession is the norm. Admittedly, this tends to be in churches that have been most influenced by Russian tradition. I attended the Divine Liturgy in Finland many years ago, before I was ordained, and I approached the Chalice at the time for Holy Communion. Since the priest did not recognize me, I was led to the side by a young altar server. Another priest then came and heard my confession – while the rest of the congregation waited. The problem was that the priest and I had no common language: he spoke Finnish and Swedish, I did not. Eventually, I was asked to kneel, and I felt the priest’s stole on my head, and a prayer was read. Only then was I free to approach the Chalice and receive Holy Communion.”

“I had a completely different reaction from another priest at about the same time. I went to a church on the South Coast of England where almost all the parishioners were from Cyprus. Since I did not know the priest, I made a point of getting to the service early, and asked to see him. He emerged from the altar, but made it quite plain that he was rather busy, and had better things to do. Nevertheless, I asked him if I might receive Communion at the Liturgy. He looked puzzled. “Can’t you just come up with all the rest?” he said.

“Generally, where there is a practice of going to confession frequently, the sacrament is seen as a pastoral opportunity for the priest and the penitent to look into different aspects of the penitent’s life. The person making the confession talks in fairly general terms about his faults, freely volunteering the information, listing small matters together with large ones. It is possible that the priest might question the person about certain things, particularly to clarify what is being said. People frequently use euphemisms in confession, or a sort of church like language, sometimes to the point where it is difficult to be clear about what the person is actually saying. At the end the priest generally talks in a kindly fashion, encouraging where it is needed, stressing that all men are sinners and that it is necessary to allow God’s love to shine through in spite of our weaknesses. After that the priest prays the prayers of absolution. The wording of the prayer in the Russian tradition is heavily influenced by Roman Catholic thinking, and contains a declaration of forgiveness in the direct form, “I forgive you.”

“In other churches, generally those of the Greek tradition, confession is often considered in an entirely different light. To begin with, confession is not necessarily considered to be a preparation for the reception of Holy Communion. Holy Communion and confession are quite separate sacraments. The essential preparation for receiving of Holy Communion in this tradition tends to be fasting. Moreover, confession is thought of as being something reserved for serious sins, and is a matter of great consequence. One goes to confession quite expecting to be given a stern series of warnings, and even to be questioned in detail about one’s sins. There are prayers of absolution, and they are read, although often with less obvious ceremony than in the Russian tradition, and the wording of the prayers lacks the directness of the prayer of absolution in the Russian tradition. “

“Incidentally, when there are different traditions within the Orthodox Church, as there certainly are in the case of confession, people coming to the Church from other faiths should take care to conform with the general norms practiced within the diocese they have chosen. There is no point of accusing the Russians of not being Greeks, or vice versa. The Church is large enough to bear a number of different traditions in many areas of its life, and it is for the individual to accept, not to judge.”


  1. Let me say that you managed to get me to read a post over 5 paragraphs long. I tend to stick to the pre-collegiate principle of the 5 paragraph limit for a good paper. 🙂 If it’s longer than that I click to the next post as a general habit, but I found myself incapable of doing so here. Your honesty was refreshing as was the fact that you didn’t substitute flowery speech for real insight. The quoted text was wonderful.
    I’m rather awful at confession. The act of standing before an icon is not at all difficult for me, but the preparation and recitation of my failures is nerve-wracking.
    I’ve no doubt someone will put you in the running for an Eastern Christian Blog Award, but should that injustice occur I will submit you for an award myself!

  2. Thanks for stopping by and your kindness…misguided as it is. I’m not sure why I’m blogging… but it’s not about awards. More like…. uh… well.. answering a question or two about how I found myself inside this Church… and why I’m happy not being able to find the door back outside. If only I could put my finger on it…. I’d be done. But for now…

  3. Yep. After 10 years, I can give you the intellectual answers about confession, but practicing it is still weird and hard even being raised RC. I still have this goofy notion that the priest I confess to should either be able to give me good counsel (which I judge from what I see of him outside the confessional), or just shut up and pray the prayers. The ones least “qualified” in my estimation are often the ones who won’t shut up in confession and by the time its over I need to go to confession again because of my attitude. sigh….

  4. Steve:

    Thanks for the post. Love the comment. And y’know when you think of it….it’s on the mark. Why can’t the priest just say,

    “Hey hang in there, man. Doin’ a great job. No really. Don’t be hard on yourself. Okay. Just kidding. Really… wait… I think we might have a problem…I mean, whoah! seriously…. the lie dietector’s goin’ off all over the place man… sheesh… what’d you do man? Wow. Oh boy, I’m gonna have to call the bishop….”

    Or maybe he ought to run a patter like the catcher behind home plate, treating each confessed sin as a pitch. So that while you’re running through the list, he’s going,

    “C’mon… pitch it right in here… I can take it… throw the heat… throw the heat… awwwwww.. Wide.”
    “Ball one!”
    “That’s okay. We’re gonna get the next one.. gonna get the next one… here it comes…here it comes… awwwwwwwwwww. Sheesh!”
    “Ball two!”
    ” Thought we had it there. Thought we had it. Okay this time we get it…. give it to me now.. y’know what I mean…. c’mon baby… gimme the heat…. awright! ”
    “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout… that’s what we want… okay let’s do it agin.. c’mon baby… c’mon…. ”

    ‘Course it could be kind of confusing when he yells “Stee-rike Three!” to know whether it means you’re done….even if you’re not… or he’s gettng ready to call down the thunder and lightning bolts.

    Anyway… if you don’t prefer these options, perhaps the priest could do something else with his time…. like tie and retie his shoes, work out his number for Keeno, work the NY Times crossword puzzle, or…. gosh… even pray or something. Probably a good thing I don’t teach “pastoral care” at seminary, huh?

  5. ROTFL! I can imagine what people out in the nave wondering what the heck is going on up there… I think a couple of layfolk should get together with all the priests and tell them stuff like this, actually. Just say, “You know guys, we’re not buying your “clairvoyant elder” schtick. Your absolution is what is guaranteed by the “grace of the priesthood” not your wisdom, let’s stick with the sure thing, OK? If I want advice, I’ll ask. Its CONFESSION, not Dear Abby.”
    But then we might be thought of as anti-clerics. Its so hard to be humble…why can’t I just go to confession and ignore the guy under the robe and accept the grace? sigh….

  6. Ah… I’m actually pro-cleric… I mean, I’m really glad someone wants the job, and is willing to stand in that place…. catching all the slings and arrows and whatnot. One might be hard pressed in my mind to make a case that a Sub-Deacon or a doggone (asleep at the switch) acolyte is anti-clerical… but I’m sure it’s not unheard of. For my bit, … I think the most pernicious anti-clericalism doesn’t lie in words… even if they sting… but in not stepping up to help where or when needed.

  7. Yep. An “anti-cleric” in a robe is a non-sequitur. But as a priest pointed out to me recently, sometimes clergy conflate their priesthood/office with their “selves” and any criticism of their actions becomes to them a criticism of the priesthood. Its a tough calling, for sure. You’d think they painted bulls-eyes on the back of the robes. 🙂

  8. Thickheaded James,

    I agree ~ your commentary had the scent of honesty and the flavor or humor — not often those two come together, fer sher. Having now discovered Veni Vidi Credidi, I will look forward to delving into its other posts (pretty sure already that, as with a book by a great new author, I’ll be trying not to go too fast, so I don’t come to the end of the series…). May I wish you a glorious Pascha (after an absolutely exhausting confession, of course).

  9. Alexander:

    Thanks you for visiting and your kind words. I assure you there is less here than you think. Today’s confession was… as always.. more excruciating in anticipation… right through the end. And as for the end… I’m not sure there is one.

    And a Happy and glorious Pascha to you as well!

  10. It’s not anti-clericalism to be realistic. Some priests do things during a person’s Confession that are out-right injurious to a person’s soul – and I am not talking about a situation wherein the penitent is hiding something or self-justifying or believing they have done no wrong, nor someone full of pride and who can’t be told anything, but someone with a heartfelt, genuine, open, deep confession. Deep enough that it was very painful to make and reveal, yet in childlike trust, told all. The priest, who is not clairvoyant and often “projects” his own flaws onto you can come back with reprimands, demands and so-called counsel, all of which (upon much later reflection and counsel from those more capable) was way off-base, yet which was honestly and obediently put into practice, leading to severe and serious wounds. All because the priest was not humble enough to ask for clarification or to keep silent when he had no idea what to say. It is almost a form of spiritual abuse, and its damages take years, through the wise, patient counsel of a different, wiser priest or elder, to heal. And if you approach this kind of priest to ask for help, revealing your confusion and pain (not accusing nor complaining), you are rebuked and condemned for pridefulness. It is always the penitent’s problem, we are told. This is a dark abyss and lacks grace and forgiveness. And if you weep over your sins and that you’ve been told you are far from God, or are saddened by all this, which you blame yourself for? Well, that just shows how further sinful you are than you thought, because you should be joyful as an Orthodox Christian. Joy does not come from giving a real, heartfelt,open, trusting confession misread, rejected and condemned. This subject needs further discussion; too often the assumption is that people are beligerant or at fault. Priests – even those with little to no experience – can think they do no wrong. But they do make mistakes; penitants need to know how to recover following such severe blunders. This topic, the way to healing (not self-justifying nor blaming nor criticizing), real healing and humility in the process of this cross-bearing, needs further pastoral reflection and discussion.

    • Anon: Thank you for drawing attention back to S-P’s comment. I think our conversation had blown past it, and you are right to draw us back:

      “I think a couple of layfolk should get together with all the priests and tell them stuff like this, actually. Just say, “You know guys, we’re not buying your “clairvoyant elder” schtick. Your absolution is what is guaranteed by the “grace of the priesthood” not your wisdom, let’s stick with the sure thing, OK? If I want advice, I’ll ask. Its CONFESSION, not Dear Abby.”

      Your comments bring this back into focus. I believe you are absolutely right that a good confession involves openness and honesty, but it seems to me that we manage this gradually, rather than all-at-once. Say what you will, it takes a stoic to overcome the potential for abuse you suggest by opening to complete strangers… just because the person is a priest. As a result, I imagine that in most cases, our confessions are really part of a series of unburdening ourselves bit-by-bit as we peel the onion that is the puzzle of ourselves. I imagine that the more traveled among us probably find this luxury less readily available… and so the danger increases. There’s a reason Fr. Mel calls confession mounting the cross… and some will nail you for it. On the other hand FWIW, I’ve seen priests whose normal manner is argumentative and/or almost belligerent turn out to be pussycats in confession, and so I imagine the opposite holds as well.

      I find there are very few materials for penitents on confession. Many I’ve looked at are of no particular help. I’d imagine the materials for confessors are slightly but not much better. And into this mix, we have to throw the parent’s experience that we have our good and bad days, our rushed and leisurely times, and the chemistry at any particular one point may not lead to the best outcome… no matter how much we love one another. Some folks I know show love in ways I would never understand. Some even closer than the bone. We are a curious mixes.

      But beyond Fr. Mel’s comments, I believe the best I’ve found so far I wrote about later (Metropolitan Anthony): and I would add that having tried this approach together with prayer for the right words and the courage to follow through… I think it does bring joy… even if it is simply the joy that “it’s over”… but more than that, it is joy for absolution, for life in the Church and the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints who join us in this and other sacraments. And yet absolution is no magic spell: If we have tears of grief when a loved one dies, then we have to allow that it will take time to feel joy in their rejoicing in the Lord; and it would seem odd to me that we would be expected to shed tears over our sins on the one hand, and then immediately transmute these into being overcome with the joy of absolution. Sometimes, yes; sometimes less so.

      I wonder what we should wish for from the priest who hears our sins? Would it be that he wouldn’t nail us for the sins we bare before him? and that he would bear afterwards? Certainly. Would it be that we pray for him in this effort as he prays for us? Even more so. And yet I’m not certain as well as to whether that’s what we need to hear. My sense is that it might go well to hear his prayers: “What would your prayers be for us now that you see who we are? What words of Christ would you share with us? What scripture, what experience would renew our lives in Christ?” I think these could help. I doubt these can be offered very well if our confessions are indeed made in series… and mystically joined together as seamlessly as our experience of the Eucharist… and so anything offered in or to a one-timer surely bears passing through the watchful gate.

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