The Orthodox Church is the hospital for the soul, bringing us spiritual and bodily healing through the sacraments. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110 AD), the Church is the community that gathers around their bishop and the Eucharist (cf. Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). Today, 1900 years after St. Ignatius, the Church is still that same community – though we often gather around the Eucharist with a presbyter (priest) who stands in for the bishop.
When we sin, we cut ourselves off from Christ and His Church – the Eucharistic assembly. Therefore, we need a means for restoring us so that our spiritual healing can continue. The mystery of repentance – often called confession – is how we receive reconciliation.
The text below explains why we need to confess, the history of confession, and how to prepare for it. It is followed by frequently asked questions. It was originally prepared as a newsletter for my local parish, but I felt it could be beneficial for a wider audience.
Why We Need to Prepare
Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24, Heb. 12:29), and receiving Him in the Eucharist is a way that we meet Him. In the Precommunion prayer of St. Symeon the New Theologian, we are likened to the burning bush that Moses witnessed, which was consumed by the Divine Fire, yet it was not destroyed (Ex. 3). With that in mind, we collectively pray before Communion,
May the communion of thy holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.
Only those who have prepared themselves through fasting, prayer, and a recent confession should come to the Eucharist. At the institution of the Mystical Supper during our Lord’s sojourn on earth, we see the consequence of receiving the Eucharist without love for God or neighbor,
And having dipped the bread, Jesus gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. Now after [receiving] the piece of bread, Satan entered him (John 13:26-27).
Judas was possessed by Satan when receiving the Eucharist from the Lord because he did so unworthily. In another place, St. Paul writes about Christians becoming sick and dying from receiving the Eucharist unworthily,
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged (1 Cor. 11:27-31).
Confession in the Assembly
In the passage from Corinthians above, St. Paul mentions examining oneself. Part of that examination is confession, which in the early church was sometimes done publicly. A public confession may seem strange to us. However, when we sin, we are in some sense cutting ourselves off from God and from His Church. Our sin is never a private matter that happens only between us and God. It has an invisible ripple effect on those around us.
We see this begin in the Old Testament. When an Israelite sinned in the camp, he or she was to publicly confess the sin, have some form of restitution, and then be received back into the community (cf. Numbers 5:6-8).
Public confession of sin continued with St. John the Forerunner as he baptized people in the Jordan River (cf. Matt. 3:6, Lk. 3:10-14). We also read that in the early Church, Many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds (Acts 19:18). The Apostle James tells us to confess your sins to one another (Jas. 5:16). We are assured by the Apostle John that If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9).
Until after the Protestant Reformation, confession was never seen as something strictly private, that is “between me and Jesus.” The accountability that comes from confessing our sins to someone else is spiritually beneficial and is in line with the practices of the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments.
Outside the Bible, the Didache (a first or second century church document) also witnesses to a public confession (Didache, 4.14). In the third century, Origin wrote about the need for discretion in choosing a wise and compassionate clergyman to confess before, and to only make a public confession at the clergyman’s recommendation (Homily on Psalm 37.6, Greek text).
While confessional practices varied in the early centuries, public confession before the assembly of Christians seems to have been reserved mostly for the sins of apostasy, adultery, and murder. As the Church grew, it appears this practice faded, and confession became more private (between penitent and a clergyman).
By the end of the sixth century, confession rituals began to appear that are not so different from what we see today (except that the rite of confession with its many prayers and Psalms is greatly abbreviated in today’s practice). The priest acts as a witness of our confession to God, and in some sense, stands in place of the assembly of the faithful.
While the sacrament of confession is not a strictly private event, we should kneel nightly before our icons or at our bedside and mentally review the day. Did I say something offensive or unkind? Did I lack love or patience at any time? Did I commit some other kind of sin?
Confess all these things to God, then making the sign of the Cross over your bed, ask our Lord to bless your sleep, remembering that it is an image of death and the grave. One day, we will do this for the last time before being laid in the earth. Let’s pray we don’t have a sudden death that prevents us from making a final confession with a priest.
Preparing for Your Confession
St. Demetrius of Rostov created a confessional guide that I have revised to make it more easily understood by modern Americans. Many people have found it to be helpful.
Even with this guide, you probably won’t be able to remember and confess every sin that you’ve committed between sacramental confessions with a priest. However, if you complete a nightly confession as mentioned above, you’ll become more aware of your shortcomings, which in turn, will help you to make better confessions.
Some people find it helpful to write out their sins before coming to confession. Other people use a sheet like the above mentioned guide. Still others remember their sins and need no reminders. Find what helps you make the best and most honest confession.
If you’ve never been to confession, then a life-confession is needed. These take a bit longer because in them we confess all the sins we have committed throughout our lives. It’s a freeing thing to get that off your chest, to no longer hide skeletons in your closet.
Honesty and sorrow for our sins are the most important internal aspects of a good confession. We should be honest with God, honest with His priest, and honest with ourselves. It may be painfully embarrassing to realize we are not the virtuous person we hoped we were but coming to that realization is a necessary part of our spiritual healing.
Dealing with Embarrassment
Vulnerability is necessary to make a good confession, though some people are concerned the priest will judge them. However, priests are commanded to never judge those who confess their sins. They are there to witness the penitent’s confession to God and encourage him or her in repentance.
I’ve only been a priest for a year, but I’ve heard nearly everything. So, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. Sexual sins are usually the most difficult to admit, but again, you’re not going to surprise your priest. Nearly everyone growing up in this perverse culture is sexually damaged.
Many people are also embarrassed to confess habitual sins. But we all have our weaknesses and struggles. It’s rare for someone to not have some habitual sin that they need to confess most of the time. Those who think they don’t are probably lacking self-awareness.
Leaving something hidden in the darkness of secrecy gives it a certain power over us. Those who confess their shameful sins will find that instant relief follows. It’s never as bad as we think it will be to admit it.
Ultimately, for all of us, pride will be the greatest sin we struggle against until our dying breath. The habitual and shameful sins that we continually wrestle with push us towards humility – it’s hard to be proud when we’re grieved by daily sins. These sins remind us that we are not who we think we are. We are not ok. We all need a great amount of help and healing.
Confessing our sins, especially habitual and shameful ones, cultivates humility within us. And no matter our struggle, if we have humility, then we have Christ. And if we have Christ, we will have joy in this life, and we will awaken to glory and salvation in the age to come. Our present struggles with sin become our battle wounds for which we receive crowns in the next life.
We Judge Ourselves
In the passage above from 1 Cor. 11:31, St. Paul says we are to judge ourselves so that we are not judged by God. This judgement is not self-destructive but ego-destructive. It shatters the ego so that the true self, our real life in Christ, can come through.
When a man meets God, judgment occurs by default. This isn’t because God is a harsh judge, rather it’s because He is the Light that pierces and reveals all things. When we meet Him, everything is laid bare. If we have already worked through our sins, then there is nothing to inhibit communing with God. If we have not, if we have held things in secrecy, then our lack of vulnerability will prevent divine communion. Our ego is not capable of communing with God – only our true self is. Through repentance we shatter our egos and seek our real life in Christ.
Confession plays a key role in our healing from sin. Coupled with confession, the Eucharist then becomes the crowning act in “the remission of our sins and life everlasting. Amen”
Frequently Asked Questions
How much should I tell my priest?
Confessions should name the sin yet not be explicit in detail. We should avoid vagueness and euphemisms. For example, we should say, “I became drunk” and not “I was at a party and might have gotten a bit carried away.” The latter statement is too vague and unrepentant. For sexual sins, stating something like, “I masturbated” or “I had lustful thoughts” is sufficient. For situations that involve other people, we can confess “I was proud and argumentative” or “I said critical and unkind words.” However, we don’t need to elaborate on all the details of what happened.
Also, we are to confess our sins, not the sins of others. We blame ourselves for our shortcomings and do not make excuses for our sins. I’m always pleased to see this exemplified in married couples who, when coming separately to confession, blame themselves for whatever marital quarrels they’ve had recently. In most situations, our pride or lack of love contributes to the sin that occurred, so it is usually sufficient to confess only our sins.
The article mentioned “fasting, prayer, and a recent confession” as prerequisites for receiving the Eucharist. How are these defined?
Fasting is typically a fast from both food and drink, starting no later than midnight the night before receiving the Eucharist. If a medical issue or bodily weakness prevents you from completing this strict fast, consult with your priest.
Prayer means Precommunion prayers completed at home the night before or the morning of Liturgy. Traditionally, this is a long prayer rule that would take most people two or more hours to complete. A more common prayer rule today is the Canon in Preparation for Holy Communion together with the three Psalms (22, 23, 115) and ten Precommunion Prayers. Most Orthodox prayer books have these sets of prayers. Consult with your priest if you have questions about what prayers to complete.
A recent confession can be interpreted in various ways. When I say that phrase, I usually mean confession once every month or so. See the question below for more details.
Should confession be completed before each reception of the Eucharist?
In short, if it’s required in your parish, then yes, do it. If it isn’t, then that’s between you and your father confessor.
Confession before each Eucharist is a common practice in Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. It developed in the past centuries due to the lack of frequent communion among the faithful. At some point in the past several centuries, people began to receive communion only once – maybe twice – a year. According to church canons, if a Christian abstains from communion for more than three consecutive weeks, then he or she has excommunicated themselves from the Church unless there are extenuating circumstances (Trullo, Canon 80). The way to be reinstated into the Church is through confession. So, people would go to confession before receiving the Eucharist – not only for reinstatement but because they had likely committed numerous sins since their last confession the prior year.
At some point, this habit became a pattern and people associated reception of the Eucharist with doing confession first. In the 20th century, when Orthodox Christians once again communed regularly, the pattern of confession preceding communion was thoroughly ingrained, and the practice in some regions became confession before every communion.
A more reasonable habit – one that is encouraged in the Orthodox Church in America’s guidelines – is confession once a month unless someone feels a need for more frequent confession. OCA parish bylaws state that no one is a member of the Church who doesn’t confess and commune at an absolute minimum of once a year.
With that said, during the first two or three years that I was Orthodox, I went to confession almost every week. I found it beneficial in making progress against long-standing sinful habits. Consult with your priest if you are uncertain.
Am I really repenting if I keep committing the same sin over and over?
Some people covert hoping for something magical to happen when they go to confession and receive communion. While there are a handful of instances where people have been quickly delivered from a habitual sin, these are rare. As I indicated above, God allows constant struggles for our humility.
To those who wonder if they are really repenting, I would say you are in the process of repenting but your repentance is not yet complete. That said, you should keep coming to confession. For those who are ready to give up, I would ask: Do you take your trash out? If so, why? Don’t you have to keep taking the trash out every week? We keep doing it because nobody likes to live in filth. Confession is like spiritually taking the trash out. Even if you’re generating far more spiritual trash than you should, keep coming to confession and keep wiping your soul as clean as possible. It will be worth it in the end.
Who should I confess to?
Most frequently, your parish priest is your father confessor and spiritual father. Any other arrangement (such as confessing to a priest-monk) should be made with the agreement of both your local parish priest and the father confessor in question.
Unfortunately, some zealous converts believe they are too spiritual for a parish priest and need a monk to be their father confessor. This attitude often stems from delusion or ignorance. Because their interactions with the monastic are infrequent, they lack the needed spiritual oversight and accountability that comes from confessing to someone they see often. The delusion that follows can cause spiritual shipwreck.
With that said, I often encourage my parishioners to make pilgrimages to healthy monasteries, go to confession there, and experience the beautiful cycle of services. Also, it can be beneficial to meet occasionally with a monk for spiritual guidance in matters such as prayer. However, this should supplement – and not replace – the regular guidance of your parish priest.
The parish priest is responsible before God and his bishop for those who receive communion from him. If he doesn’t know the spiritual state of someone coming to him for communion, then he has the responsibility to withhold the Eucharist from that person.
Since ancient times, a penance was given to a person at their confession. Usually, the penance had to be fulfilled before receiving absolution and communing. The penance was often a period of fasting and abstaining from the Eucharist. This helped emphasize the seriousness of sin and guide the sinner to repentance.
Today, penances are rarely given. What some priests call “penance” is often more like spiritual homework. Usually, it includes a reflection or a duty to fulfill some virtue that is the opposite of their sin. While penances can be beneficial, penitents who fail to fulfill their penance (due to forgetfulness, laziness, or apathy) bring greater judgment upon themselves for the sin of disobedience. For that reason, many priests have stopped giving penances. We wish to free people from their sins and not add to them.
What should I expect during confession?
If you’re about to go to confession for the first time, or for the first time with a new priest, you may feel nervous about what to expect. There are various customs and traditions, and any amount of research will show that there has never been one universally practiced rite of confession.
Should I sit? Should I stand? Should I kneel? Much of this will depend on the priest’s training and preferences. He may also indicate that you do whatever you wish. My favorite form is for both the priest and penitent to sit while facing an icon of Christ. Such is the instruction given by St. Symeon of Thessalonica in his manual On Confession. If you’re new to a church community, follow local custom or ask the priest.
What if my priest has given direction that contradicts what’s here?
Follow the direction of your father confessor. I prepared this guide for the people in my parish. Your priest may have differing views and that’s ok.
Much of what was written here is based on seminary training, my experiences as a priest and penitent, and information from the following books:
- Orthodox Christianity Vol. V: Sacraments and Other Rites, Met. Hilarion Alfeyev, SVS Press, 2019.
- The Euchologion Unveiled, Abp. Job Getcha, SVS Press, 2021.