Next week’s title will be How to make a Confession. Explanations to follow.
Let’s lead into this with this Sunday’s saint, Mary of Egypt, who shows us Repentance and what it requires. I’m sure this is why the Fathers placed her here, a week before we go into Holy Week. For she reminds us to repent of our sins before Pascha – to clean up our acts so we will know not only the joy of lamb and ham and chocolate (mmm!), but of our souls being washed clean. Then we can rise to newness of life with our Risen Lord.
The Story of Saint Mary of Egypt
In the late Fourth Century there lived a Priest-monk Zosimas of Saint Sava’s (Mar Sabas) Monastery – which is still there and functioning see below – on the west bank of the Jordan down below Jerusalem. He always spent Lent alone in the desert across the River in what is now the country of Jordan. One day as he was walking, ahead he saw someone. He called out. A women answered: Don’t come near. I’m not decently
dressed. She was in rags, barely covered. Zosimas left his cloak and drew back. She covered herself, then he drew near. She said: You are the first person I have spoken to in forty seven years. And she told him her story.
Her name was Mary. While she had been in her teens living in Alexandria, she had become a prostitute and had been so for seventeen years. She had been in Jerusalem apparently “on business”. The Empire had become Christian, and Jerusalem was drawing many pilgrims. Mary was swept up in a crowd going into the new Church of the Anastasis to venerate the Holy Cross. Was this intentional? Was she seeking or did it just happen? Maybe she herself didn’t know. Anyway when she reached the door she could not go in – it was like a physical barrier – and she understood she was unworthy to enter. Suddenly what she was, all her sinfulness swept over her like a wave. She found herself kneeling in the street before an icon of the Theotokos pouring out her shame, promising to repent, to change. Then she went back to the Church as a new woman, and she went in.
Some say Mary stayed in the city for a while. In any event, soon she left. The temptations there were apparently too much. Sin can be repented of very sincerely, and yet the temptation comes back. Old habits are not easily broken. So Mary fled east across the River into the Jordanian desert. She had lived there alone for those forty seven years, and had found God and inner peace.
She wanted to remain alone, so she swore Zosimas to secrecy, but asked him to return next Lent and bring her Holy Communion. He did so. As he drew near the Jordan Mary approached the far bank and walked across upon the waters. She asked him to return again the following year. This time she was not waiting. He found her body in a hut with a note: “Abba Zosimas, please bury the remains of humble Mary. I died the day I received Communion. Pray for me.” Before he could begin a lion came out of the desert and began to dig her grave. She must have been one of those saints who have a closeness with wild animals. Zosimas (now Saint Zosimas of Palestine left) went back to the monastery amazed but now able to tell her story.
Saint Sophronios Archbishop of Jerusalem was so moved by it that he had it written down. It spread among the faithful, became one of the most popular stories of the time – and that is how we have come to know about Saint Mary of Egypt today.
The word “repent’ (μετανοέω, metanoéō) means simply to turn around. Turn our hearts, our souls, our minds, our bodies – away from sin and towards God. Try to get back “on the mark” and do better, get it right. Repentance is a positive thing, a turning away from darkness towards the Light, from evil and pain towards God and joy. Because (you know this) sin doesn’t make us happy, not for long. Wrong behavior is poison. Fairly quickly it brings misery and finally it destroys us, kills our souls.
That is why the Lord Jesus emphasized the negative aspects of sin – to put it mildly! “If your eye causes you to offend, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to offend cut it off. It is better to enter into life maimed with one eye and one hand, than to go whole to hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Mark 9 He’s speaking figuratively of course. * He’s trying to shock us. Whatever you need to do to stop sinning, do it now while you can. – before the sin gains control over you, before your time runs out, and it’s too late.
- Figuratively! About the fire and worms, I hope, but definitely about the self-mutilation which the Church forbids. Do you know the story of Origen, the Christian philosopher of Egypt. He had tormenting sexual temptations, and took Christ’s words literally, and… you don’t to hear about it.
But we all need to be like Mary of Egypt. She did what she needed to do to avoid her sin, her only way to God. She gave up everything and went off alone. I trust that your only path is not as radical as hers, but probably you already know what you need to do. If not, or if you’r not strong enough to do it, then get outside help from a Confessor or a counsellor. Don’t be proud. Don’t be stubborn. Find whatever you need to do, and do it.
God so loves the world, loves you and me so much – and He doesn’t want us to throw our lives away on trash and finally wind up with nothing. Because we can’t take our sins into Heaven. “Nothing unclean can enter there.” So if we plan to hang onto our sins, we’re going to have to take them somewhere else.
But Saint Mary of Egypt shows us that there is no sin too horrible that God will not forgive us if we repent. For our God is all-merciful. He “is good and loves mankind”.
How to Repent
In traditional Western Christianity (and perhaps among some Orthodox today – I don’t know), some people were over-scrupulous about their sins, even guilt-ridden. I have known some Irish Catholics and Calvinists who became Orthodox and felt set free, but still they spent years trying to get past it. I’ve heard Confessions from people who felt guilty about everything, about the multitude of things they felt they just must do perfectly or God in his anger would “get them” for it. Lord have mercy on such people. Actually He does, but they don’t know it.
However, my sense (please tell me if I’m wrong) after thirty years Orthodox is that too many Orthodox people are “under-scrupulous”. They fall into sins, sometimes even major ones, and don’t deal with them. Or they think their failures are just private matters. They don’t see how their sins are against God and the Church and their Orthodox Faith.
How to examine your life
Find a way to look at your life honestly and humbly, and see what changes you need to make. Maybe your conscience can be your first guide – if you have a healthy and informed conscience, not a demented one. I mean, the conscience of many murderers don’t seem to be at all troubled by killing. Therefore you really need to hold your life up against an objective standard. It’s kind of like looking for symptoms before you go to the doctor, to make sure you’re not missing something important, dangerous.
You could begin with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) Or better use the Lord’s Beatitudes in Matthew 5, 6, 7. The Church provides us with many forms of Examination of Conscience, as it’s often called, two of which are listed below. A caution: If you use one of these “lists”, please do not think you need to look and look into yourself until you think you can confess all these sins and failiings! * It would take many years to commit them all – many of which you almost certainly have not and never will. Look for the more obvious sins which you may have been ignoring.
- I think the following story isn’t breaking the “seal of the confessional”: An Episcopalian priest once told me that he had provided his people with an Examination of Conscience printed by their monastic Order of the Holy Cross. When he was hearing children’s Confessions, one boy quickly confessed everything on the list of possible sins, and finally he confessed that he had “been published by the Holy Cross Fathers”.
So with that disclaimer, here are some objective standards:
Here are two examples of Examinations of Life which the Church provides us. This first takes the Ten Commandments as a basis: http://ww1.antiochian.org/orthodox-prayers/self-examination-confession
Here is another from the Ukrainian Orthodox Diocese: https://www.holyorthodox.org/examinationofconscience
There are many more online and elsewhere. I’ve enlarged this below one so maybe you can read it. I hope?
Now, this sort of “checkup” should be used whether you’re going to make a formal Confession in church with a Priest, or if you’re going to confess directly to God.
I strongly recommend using the Sacrament of Confession. However, I know this is the Orthodox Church where (at least in my experience) most people do not. (We’ll say more about next week.) And this year under the present circumstances going to the Sacrament of Confession is going to be difficult, perhaps even impossible for you.
How to make a confession without making a Confession
Of course, when you’ve fallen into bad behavior, immediately tell God you’re sorry.
However, occasionally something more thorough and formal is required. Here’s how to confess directly to God:
1 After you have examined your conscience, go and stand alone in your icon corner. Or if that is hard to do (as it may be this year if you have everybody at home), then go “into your closet” so to speak, find a private place where nobody will be watching, and confess directly to Him.
2 I’d suggest you begin by saying Psalm 51 (52 in Protestant Bibles) and this prayer from the Ancient Faith Prayer Book, page 116:
Prayer of Repentance
O Lord my God, I confess that I have sinned against You in thought, in word, and in deed. I have also omitted to do what Your holy law requires of me. But now in repentance and contrition I turn again to Your love and mercy. I entreat You: Forgive me all my transgressions and cleanse me from all my sins. Fill my heart with the light of Your truth, O Lord. Strengthen my will by Your grace, and teach me both to desire and to do only what is pleasing too You. AMEN.
3 Then tell the Lord your sins. Hold nothing back. He knows it all anyway, so there’s no point in trying to hide from Him. The purpose here is to tell Him that you know and are sorry and will try to turn your life around.
4 At the end I’d suggest concluding with words of assurance like these: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
So, does doing all the above mean you have truly repented? No, it does not! Now you need to make the effort to do what you just promised: to actually repent, turn your life around, change your ways. Will you fail? Almost certainly, yes. As we said, with Mary of Egypt so also with us, old habits are hard to break. So then when you fail tell Him again that you’re sorry, and that you’ll keep trying.
Maybe all this will convince you that you need help, you need spiritual advice. Maybe if you feel very guilty you will need more assurance of God’s forgiveness. Maybe you will see that you need to use the Sacrament of Confession.
Next Week: The Sacrament of Confession – the Lord’s special gift to help us express our repentance, to get some guidance, and to know God’s forgiveness
Beginning Palm Sunday: Many of us will not be able to get to church this Holy Week. So I’m going to repeat last year’s twice-daily Posts on the Holy Week services. These will guide us through each day of that Week – so that we can participate in the horrible wonderful ever-thrilling story of our Lord’s Passion, Death and Holy Resurrection.
God bless you all and keep you safe and healthy.