One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.
We knew virtually nothing
…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.
Like a hardened crust
I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’
The experience of a miracle
And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,
‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’
‘All of them,’ I replied.
Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.
He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’
Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’
I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.
This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And the starets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’
A precious passage. Very touching. May we all be like little children. Thank you, Father.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen! Such a blessing to read.
Thank you so much for all!
“… How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and
drive out the old person.”
Nothing better could express my thoughts for the last few weeks!
O Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us! (me a sinner)
“… In this difficult and dogged battle with sin, the Sacraments of Confession and Communion are powerful tools available to us. In the Sacrament of Confession the penitent Christian, in the presence of the spiritual confessor, opens to God his darkened and sick heart and allows the heavenly light to enter, cleanse and heal it. In Confession, as in Baptism, the great rebirthing power of the crucified Son of God is concealed. This is the reason that after this Sacrament, the truly penitent person feels cleansed and renewed, as a newly baptized infant. He obtains new strength to battle the evil within himself and to restart a righteous life.
A prolific pre-revolutionary spiritual writer, Saint Theophan the Recluse, relates the following story: “There was a youth who was greatly saddened because of his numerous sins. Once in grief he fell asleep. And there, in his dream, as if out of the sky, he saw coming down an Angel. The heavenly visitor slit open his chest with a knife, took out his heart, cut it into pieces, and removed from it all the spoiled and corrupt parts. Then he carefully replaced the heart in its original spot, and finally healed the wound as well. The youth awakened and felt cleansed of all his sins. He was so happy that God had accepted his repentance in such a sudden and unexpected way and relieved him from this unbearable burden. In truth, wouldn’t it be good,” asks Bishop Theophan, “if we could experience a similar healing from a light-bearing Angel!” And such an Angel is available to us. It resides in the healing Grace of our Redeemer which operates through repentance in the Sacrament of Confession!”
By Bishop Alexander Mileant
Glory to God!
I love St. Theophan’s stories!
A truly excellent book, and one I learnt a lot from.
This is a beautiful passage. Thank you for sharing it. Confession is one of the largely neglected Sacraments, but it is, as one priest said in a book about the subject, “Confession is more powerful than an Exorcism, for it releases the soul from the binds of sin and gives Satan his reason to flee.”
A good confession, for me, feels like a fresh drink of water after years in the desert. Sometimes it takes than long to return to Christ to “confess it all” and in truth.
Even just this author’s brief excerpt is such an blessing. I was in the Soviet Union as a teenager the summer it crumbled, and I met many “underground” devout Orthodox Christians who held to their faith as though it was bread and water and nothing else compared to its value. It left a huge impression on me and on my own life. My great grandmother was from Russia and was a quiet Orthodox woman. When I read this post, I have to think she felt the same about her Church, “We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern.”
She was known for one thing certain – that she lived for her Lord through the Church. I cannot even remember her face, but I remember her holding me during Divine Liturgy one Sunday shortly before she died. This passage makes me think of her – though she avoided much of the Soviet domination. While the persecution of the Church in Russia will always be a terrible stain on the world, it leaves a testimony of great faith and belief for which other Christians around the world can reach for.
“…This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). The Holy Spirit speaks to you through His servant, “The sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” (LXX-Ps. 50:19 [KJV-Ps. 51:17]). This sacrifice is offered to God from a repentant and contrite heart and is more acceptable to Him than any other offering. God looks mercifully upon such a sacrifice and sends His grace down upon it.
And so you see, O Christian, that the Gospel is not intended for those Christians who live recklessly and in iniquity, and do not recognize their sins, poverty and misfortune, and do not have a contrite heart. For of what use is oil to a rock? A plaster is applied to a wound, and healing is given to him who recognizes and admits his weakness. To such people is it said, “Repent, be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy into heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up” (Jas. 4:9-10). And again: “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees, therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire” (Mt. 3:10).
Sinners! Let us fear the judgement of God and endeavor to have a contrite and humble heart, that we also may draw from the Gospel as from a saving font of living water of refreshment and consolation, and that we may water our souls and so receive everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages….”
Journey to Heaven – St. Tikhon’s of Zadonsk
“… Let us come to ourselves, and arise, and go and hasten to our Father, and let every one say to Him with humility and sorrow, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before Thee, And am no more worthy to be called Thy son; make me as one of Thy hired servants” (Lk. 15:18-19). Let us hasten, hasten, O sinners, while the time has not yet passed, while the Father awaits, while the doors of His holy house are not shut. Let us repent while the mercy of God still operates, lest we experience the operation of God’s righteousness, eternal judgement.
Do not despair of whatever sins you may have committed since Baptism and find yourself in true repentance, but await God’s mercy. However many and however great and burdensome your sins may be, with God there is greater mercy. Just as His majesty is, so likewise is His mercy. Only guard yourself from sinning henceforth, and walk according to the aforementioned points.
If you have transgressed in this as a man, and have sinned, do not despair. But at that very moment, confess your sin and fall down with humility before the compassionate eyes of God and ask mercy with the voice of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13), and your sins will be forgiven you.”
Journey to Heaven – St. Tikhon’s of Zadonsk
Thank you Father for Tatiana’s story. Although I did not live in the Soviet union, my life and conversion were just the same. Thanks be to God for His mercy and to help me remember but not to despair. Everyone’s comments are so helpful.