by Randall Hay
One of the most moving sights in our church – for me, at least – is a line of people waiting to confess to the priest.
These lines include all kinds of parishioners: mothers, fathers, children; sub deacons in cassocks, nuns; octogenarians, young adults and everyone in between.
In the Orthodox Church, confession is not anonymous. A booth is not used to hide the identity of the one confessing. The priest stands on one side of the nave (the main inside part of the church), and the person confessing stands next to him, in front of a stand containing a Bible and a cross. (see photo on right) People waiting to be heard line up just out of earshot. Everyone is clearly visible to everyone.
In worldly terms this is bizarre behavior, at best. Why are people lining up to tell someone their own faults—especially in such a way that everyone knows they are doing it?
Our whole culture, after all, seems to have abandoned the idea of acknowledging personal guilt. Happiness is everything; and in this superficial state there is no room for guilt or moral struggle. The only sins are those committed by others; victim-hood is the order of the day.
So, what’s up at Joy of All Who Sorrow?
A big flaw in the culture of self-righteous victim-hood is that our consciences don’t sit idly by while we blame others.
Yes, others have surely wronged us (which, by definition, is “sin”); but we, just as surely, have wronged them (which, by the way, is sin too). Hence, we get a persistent inner squawking. The Holy Spirit first speaks to us, as the fathers of the ancient church say, in our conscience; this is how.
The conscience can be temporarily stifled if we feed it enough misinformation, but it’s hard to keep it down over a long period of time. The only way to unburden the conscience is by absolution. Guilt is guilt is guilt is guilt; actual relief requires actual absolution.
Forgiveness can’t be provided by psychologists, any more than by a self-help book or mental denial. How can any of these grant anyone objective forgiveness? Only God can do that.
If God actually forgives sins, why should we bother with telling them to someone else? Why not do it all mentally, since He knows our thoughts?
Well….it’s not how we’re made. God didn’t create us to be isolated individuals; He made us interconnected with one another on a very deep level.
When He created us, God said “Let us make man in our image.” In a way that is completely beyond our understanding, the one God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has never been alone. And because He created us in His own image, we are ontologically connected to every other human being; we can never be truly alone.
Hence, in Orthodox theology, being a “person” is not the same as being an individual. Being human, being a “person,” means being in relation with others; in this sense it is the opposite of being an isolated individual. Because He made us this way, God gives us His gifts through the hands of others. He gives us life through a mother and father; income through an employer; a home through a builder; food through farmers and ranchers; love through marriage, friends and family. He speaks to us through human beings, such as prophets, apostles and saints. Indeed, Jesus never wrote anything Himself; nor did He give detailed instructions for how the founding of the Church.He did, however, specifically granted the giving absolution to clergy (John 20:20-23).
On an experiential level this kind of confession and absolution is entirely different from trying to mentally grab hold of divine forgiveness. It provides true freedom: not the fake liberty of freedom from others, but freedom by other; given for our never-ending journey together into His infinite love. As Scripture says, “Worshipers, having been cleansed, have no more consciousness of sin” (Hebrews 6:2).
When I receive absolution, I can often feel the weight of sin being lifted from my neck in an almost bodily way. But, even if I don’t, the lightness and joy of forgiveness is unmistakable. There is no feeling quite like it.
I could talk more about my own experiences with confession, and the experiences of others, and even miracles; but I think the box of tissues next to the confession stand (see photo above) speaks more eloquently than I. Tears can accompany confession and absolution for many reasons; but they always flow from a heart being freed, opened and softened by the love of God.
Hence the line of people.
Subdeacon Randall (Randy) Hay along with his wife and two daughters are members of Joy of All Who Sorrow. Randy is also the author of From Liz to Eternity, probably the only Orthodox Romantic Comedy ever published. It is available in our bookstore and Randy is happy to autograph it for you. Proceeds from Liz to Eternity help support Hagia Sophia Classical Academy (grades K-12) in Indianapolis.