As the Great Lent is about to start‚ and Fr. X speaks again on Confession‚ Nick begins to realize that Confession should be part of his regular Christian life as a divine given tool that is indispensable for his continuing spiritual growth and the strengthening of His relationship with God. Overcoming the anxiety that is common before a first Confession‚ he sets up an appointment with Fr. X. However‚ the more he thinks about it the more he realizes that he does not really know what to say or do during Confession.
We have all been there and we have all struggled. Any beginning is difficult and particularly the first Confession‚ a very important step in the life of any Orthodox Christian‚ more so if one commences it at an adult age. The Church elders liken this sacrament with a second Baptism in which we are given the opportunity to be put back in our baptismal garments‚ and‚ with a clean soul and sins forgiven‚ we are made ready to re-start our life in Christ. For such an important moment advance preparation will help anyone go through it in a more timely and meaningful way. The following suggestions are meant to help in this very respect.
Talk with your Father Confessor. In preparation for one’s first Confession a discussion with the chosen Father Confessor will be of great help. A more casual conversation will alleviate many of the “beginner’s” fears and will make the entire process less painful. The Father Confessor can point to prayers to be read before‚ materials that will help in preparation‚ and can explain the way he generally conducts first Confessions‚ so one will know what to expect. This conversation alone will make everything more manageable.
Read the Prayers before Confession. Confession is a deep spiritual exercise that goes to the root of our spiritual failings. What better way to start our reconciliation with God but through prayer? The prayers will help one acquire a state of contrition by setting before one’s eyes the remembrance of one’s many failings. In the same time they also bring hope reminding that God can forgive any sin if there is true repentance. God does not rejoice in the death of the sinner‚ but He wants him to repent and live. (Eze 18:2’).
Meditate upon your sins. This is probably the most important piece in one’s preparation for Holy Confession. It is the time when‚ with a heart softened by prayer‚ one starts recollecting past errors. For an adult person that confesses the first time it May be a difficult task‚ as years have gone by‚ fading from memory many things that one might have committed. One shouldn’t despair however but try to go back in memory as far back possible and slowly unearth the deeds of one’s youth‚ so they can be washed in the Holy Spirit that is present during this Sacrament. Some people find it easy to use guides for Confession that help one examine his/her conscience by using questions. Others take as guides the ten commandments of the Lord and the commandments of the Church. Whatever is chosen‚ there should be no rush through this important task. One can write the sins down to make sure they are remembered in Confession. This is however not a laundry list to be recited without heart‚ but is the list of one’s shortcomings for which one seeks healing. Meditating upon them and the ill consequences they had in one’s spiritual life will lead to true repentance and will fill one’s eyes with tears of compunction.
Acquire a contrite heart. Once decided upon Confession‚ with a conscience properly searched‚ one should approach the sacrament with a contrite heart. The model of Confession should be the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The repentance of the Publican‚ the self-consciousness of the low estate of his soul and his hope in the mercy of God to guide him in his new‚ changed life should be the blueprint for a good Confession. Above all one should avoid bragging about any good deeds‚ like the Pharisee from the Gospel. The role of Confession is to affect the cure of the ailing‚ is to seek spiritual healing. The Father Confessor should hear what’s rotten and causing pain not what’s healthy and good. The way of true repentance goes through humility. God‚ as the psalm says‚ does not despise a broken and humble heart (Ps. 50:17) but quickly brings restoration and salvation through His divine grace.
Be concise. During Confession all sins should be described briefly‚ without getting into many particulars. The Father Confessor might ask questions to assess the depth and width of a particular sin that he deems important. One should answer those questions without going into inappropriate details. One should not stay too general either‚ trying to paint a nicer picture about any particular situation. Staying with the facts is the best middle ground. Based on these answers one will receive fitting treatment seeking the restoration of the soul.
Tell everything and do not despair. It is extremely important to reveal all the sins without hiding anything. One should always remember that that the purpose is not to look good‚ but to present the true state of oneself‚ no matter how difficult or ugly that May be. There is no point in going to a doctor and hiding important symptoms. Otherwise one May go home unhealed‚ rendering all the efforts spent meaningless. Remember that God loves the greatest sinner more than the greatest saints could ever love God. No matter how grave our sins May be‚ God’s mercy exceeds our wickedness.
Receive the healing gift of the “epitimia”. Based on your confession‚ the Father Confessor might choose sometimes to recommend what the Church calls “epitimia”. This May consists of certain prayers‚ fasting‚ prostrations‚ good deeds‚ pious readings etc. Epitimia May also involve abstinence from Holy Communion for a period‚ until the consequences of sin have healed in one’s soul and full repentance has been achieved. It is important not to consider any of these as repay for sin‚ or as a punishment. No one can repay the sins committed but we are freely forgiven in God’s grace. The purpose of Confession is also not punishment but reconciliation with God. Epitimia is merely a medication for the soul that the Father Confessor dispenses with a gentle hand bringing one in a closer relationship to God. One should agree with and embrace this treatment with joy‚ as it will ensure a fast and proper recovery.
Confession is a new beginning. The sins confessed are now forgiven; the priest has sealed the sacrament with the laying of the hands. Is this the end? No. This is only a new beginning. True repentance means not just a confession of one’s sins‚ but also the affirmation of one’s intentions for the future. A true “metanoia” means a change of mind‚ a change of one’s ways that will ensure collaboration‚ synergia‚ with the saving grace of God. Confession is not an end in itself‚ but only a mean for spiritual growth.
The first Confession should not be the last. Once our sins are forgiven at our first Confession we should try to stay as close as we can to the promise of change we have professed. Being weak however‚ most certainly we will fall back into sin‚ sometimes in the very sin that we have just confessed. We shouldn’t despair however because Confession is not a one-time event‚ like Baptism; it is something that God has left for us to use at any time as needed. A regular evaluation of our conscience is indispensable for our spiritual growth and Confession is the blessed way to do it. The Great Lent and all the fasting times of the year are opportunities to enhance our life in Christ. Beside fasting‚ prayer and good deeds‚ Confession is another way of getting closer to God‚ by actively seeking and elimination sin from our lives.
First Confession is a difficult step in one’s spiritual life‚ but also a very important one. It is the moment when one starts answering the calling of God: “you shall be perfect‚ just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mat 5:48). This work of askesis‚ as the Greek Fathers call it‚ cannot be completed without examining oneself regularly in the mirror of Holy Confession. The true reflection one will see every time will help adjust the course of one’s life moving from merely carrying the image of God to achieving His likeness.