an interview with Archpriest Valerian Krechetov
Father Valerian is the senior father-confessor of the Moscow Diocese and head priest of the Church of the Protection in the village of Akulovo, Odintsovski District.
– Father Valerian, how would you explain to a church-newcomer what confession is and why it is necessary?
– Once a professor at a theological academy gave this question during an exam: “What does God do when he wants to bring someone to Himself?” He himself answered, “He sends a person spiritual heaviness and sorrow of soul, so that the person will seek God, so that he will realize that he cannot be delivered from that condition by any earthly means.” And I think this is very true! During his life, a person constantly and inescapably runs into the consequences of his sins. … Searching for a way out of this pain of soul also brings him to see his need for repentance and forgiveness, one of the basic causes compelling a person to go to Church and confession.
– When a person comes to confession, sometimes the question arises: What kind of things specifically should a person confess? Our conscience doesn’t seem to bother us, doesn’t accuse us of anything; we didn’t kill anyone, didn’t rob anyone.
– Yes, the conscience accuses a person first of the serious sins. But if the conscience doesn’t say anything, often that is because the conscience has opened its mouth before, but the person stopped it up. The holy fathers say that if a person goes from sunlight into a dark room, he begins first to see big objects, then smaller; if he lights a light, then he begins to see everything. In the same way, a person who begins to keep track of his inner life at first sees only the big sins, then the smaller. Then grace gives him light so that he can see his own sins, for this is what we ask God during Great Lent through the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian.
Specifically of what sins one should repent is a question of time. At first a person doesn’t understand or notice very much. But during the sacrament itself … grace, the spirit of God, begins to open up a person’s ability to see his sins. And the person, perhaps not even realizing specifically how he has sinned, all the same feels his sinfulness. Although the confession of sins includes the idea of comprehension; there is also a state of feeling when a person realizes simply that he is sinful in comparison to holiness; and this also is the action of grace.
– Are there any aids to help prepare for confession?
– One could advise a person to read something written for this purpose; but one must be very careful with such lists, since they sometimes function like a kind of textbook of sin, or manual of sins; because there are listed there such sins that a person not only never did but never even thought of. One should not read a list detailing the sins of the flesh, because it soils the soul. As for the other kinds of sin, it’s better simply to pay attention to your inner state. For example, when we see a weakness in someone, the very fact that we notice that weakness means that that sin is also in us. As it is now expressed, “Everyone understands things according to the degree of his depravity.” And so we notice in another person specifically that sin, we understand specifically that passion, which is in us ourselves.
– Some people are disturbed that forgiveness, it turns out, is so easy to receive. A person sins, then repents, then sins again, then repents … and over and over? Without any repentance?
– Why do you say that? Who told you such a thing? At confession, sin is forgiven; but even so, a person still has to bear the consequences of his sin. The classic example is the repentant thief who was crucified on the cross beside Christ. He repented, and the Lord said to him, Today you will be with Me in Paradise. Nothing unclean can enter into Paradise, so we know that the Lord has already purified him and forgiven him his sins; nevertheless, he remained hanging on the cross! And if that weren’t enough, the Gospel tells us that the soldiers then broke his legs (cf. John 19:32). A person all the same has to bear consequences for his sins, although certainly not to the degree he deserves to suffer.
– Many Christians, although they confess every week, nevertheless remain sinners, in no visible way differing from everyone else. Furthermore, they repent over and over again of the very same sins. It turns out, does it, that confession hasn’t helped them?
– Nothing of the sort. He who constantly labors over himself already differs from other people. Regarding the very same sins, even the Apostle Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, some kind of pain, suffering, or trial, so that he would not get puffed up. As they say, “Until the last breath, even up to the gates of Paradise, the battle with sin goes on.” St. Mary of Egypt repented, but for another 17 years she struggled fiercely with sin!
– Is it necessary to have a feeling of repentance during confession? Some people simply list their sins without any visible emotion. Is this also okay?
– The importance of the struggle with a sin is not simply that a person names it, but that the sin becomes disgusting and repulsive to him or her. When we were on Mount Athos, a priest asked one of the spiritual fathers, “Why does it happen that we repent, have Holy Communion, and then go out and commit the same sins again?” The elder answered, “It is simply because pain of heart has not yet outweighed and overpowered the sin!”
If you simply enumerate sins, with no pain of heart, that means that you don’t have an inner battle with sin. Repentance obviously includes acquiring an inner feeling of repentance. And this feeling is from God—you can’t give orders to your heart. But sometimes, simply naming your sin at confession is a labor unto blood.
Confession is only the beginning of repentance; repentance is the backbone of one’s whole spiritual life. Regarding the prayer which the priest reads at confession (the priest usually reads the beginning of the prayer at the start to everyone together, but the end of the prayer to each person individually). “I forgive and remit…” Thus begins the concluding part, and includes the words, “…give him/her (the person confessing, whose sins are being remitted by this prayer) the image of repentance.” What was before that, you ask? He or she has clearly already repented, yet we priests immediately read, “…give him/her the image of repentance!” This is in order to show clearly that immediately after our confession, a new level of repentance begins.
Do you remember how the Apostle Peter in the Gospel fell at the feet of the Saviour and said, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord (Luke 5:8)? This too is a repentant state, which my father also experienced that time when he felt the grace of God!
– Sometimes after confession there comes a feeling of spiritual relief or lightness of soul, and sometimes not. What does this mean? Should one expect such a feeling after every confession?
– If there is such a feeling, glory be to God. But one should not expect it, or wait for it. It will not necessarily appear; and if it doesn’t, that means that one should keep working, that in the battle with sin one can never relax. In general, one should not expect spiritual states, and certainly not seek them. If such states are granted—good; but one shouldn’t expect them. Actually seeking or pursuing such spiritual or emotional states is categorically forbidden. If you do not feel spiritual lightness or emotional relief after confession, that does not mean that God has not accepted your confession. One of the incidents of the holy fathers goes like this: A certain man repented all the time, genuinely, but all the same was still not delivered from a feeling of heaviness; the fathers of the monastery began to pray for him, “O Lord, he repents so sincerely; why have You not yet forgiven him?” And the answer came, “I forgave him long ago, but this suffering is necessary for his salvation.”
– How much detail should a person go into when describing his sins at confession? Is it enough to simply list them, or is it necessary to tell the priest in detail?
– Unfortunately, if each person described everything in detail, confession might last till evening. Sins of the flesh, in particular, should not be told in detail. Also regarding this kind of sin: when a person explains about the circumstances, in my experience, there is often an element of self-justification. Other people sometimes start to retell their whole workday; they have brought me at times entire notebooks. If you start to describe what you have done over the last week or month, then you end up with a whole novel!
The most important thing is not the details but the struggle: if one has named a sin, he should also wrestle with it. If there is not a real battle with sin, then all the details in the world won’t help.
Excerpted from http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/7429.htm