Are You Comfortable?

Recently I was reading a foreign-language newspaper (well, the English part of it) and there was an article in it about the church. My eyes were first attracted to the article by a photo of an old priest in a stole, having a long white beard, and holding a prayer rope (not the photo at left). The article accompanying the photo read as follows: “The monk priest Fr. (name withheld) came from (a foreign monastery) just before Pascha to hear confessions of the faithful. Many people are more comfortable going to confession with a priest that they don’t know rather than their own parish priest so Bishop (name withheld) organized for Father to travel to various churches across the country for that purpose.” This revelation caused my brain to stall out a bit, so that I had to read it again to make sure I was reading it correctly.

I will not comment on the particulars of the situation. But I do think it worthwhile to reflect on the idea that confession to our own parish priest makes us uncomfortable.

By anyone’s figuring, confession is not a sacrament calculated to increase our comfortable feelings, just as making a list of our sins is not calculated to give us the warm fuzzies. Going to Holy Communion on Sundays, or receiving sacramental anointing when we are sick can be a great comfort and solace, but no one that I know approaching the time when they make their regular confession says to himself, “Gee, I can hardly wait to tell my priest all the horrible things I have done.” There is of course the relief and blessing that come from receiving absolution, but that comfort comes at the end of the confession, not at the beginning. Let’s be honest: in many ways going to confession is like going to the dentist—you really need to go, and are glad that you went after it is over, but no one really looks forward to it.

Going to confession to one’s parish priest is only psychologically possible because one regards him as a father. Confession is usually made to one’s parish priest because Orthodox life is lived in a family called a parish, and the priest is the head of that family, functioning in it the same way that a father functions in any other family. A father is someone who loves and watches over and protects us, and we can share the things that cause us shame because of that loving and watchful protection. The priest is not like anyone else in the parish, most of whom we would never dream of sharing our secret and shameful deeds. The priest is different. He is our papa, and as such we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable with him, such as we are in confession.

It is just here that going to another priest to avoid feeling uncomfortable with our own parish priest becomes problematic, for this refusal to be vulnerable with our parish priest interferes with our ability to treat him like our father. We want to see and interact with him on Sundays like we would with anyone else in the parish, smilingly confident that he will never know all the horrible things we have done. And this is problematic because when we refuse to treat our parish priest like our father, we do not treat the rest of the parish like our family. In the situation detailed by newspaper article mentioned above, the priest can sometimes become not the father of our family, but simply a paid functionary, one to whom respect (and money) is given, but a mere functionary nonetheless. And the group over which he presides becomes not our true family, but simply an association to which we belong, like the Lions Club or the Rotarians. It can be a good organization, even a holy organization, and one that does much good, but it is still simply an organization and not our family, for it does not give us our identity in the same way that a family does, even if we do sit on its board and derive social status from it.

So, it is okay to feel a little uncomfortable when we confess to our parish priest. We could, of course, avoid the discomfort and short-circuit the whole process of fatherhood and family by going to another priest whom we don’t have to look at every Sunday. Or we could cope with the discomfort by relating to the priest as to our papa. If St. Paul is correct in describing the Church as household of God (1 Tim. 3:15), the second is clearly the preferred option.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reminder. For me it is also a matter of trust. My priest has been my priest for about 25 years. When he puts his stole around my shoulders I feel safe and free within a sacred space. He is both protecting me from the outside world and standing with me as a guide and guardian before the Lord–making sure I do not run away. When I have confessed with other priests, I have never felt quite as safe. It was an extra hurdle I had to get over. Those times were either because I was traveling or at a retreat or he was.

  2. While I agree the parish priest is in general the ideal for Confession, I am not sure this analogy holds up. First, speaking personally, I do not tell my biological father – whom I love, have a great relationship with, and respect – my darkest secrets. I suspect this is true of most people. Second and likely more importantly, Christian Confession was originally to the community and I have always been instructed that the priest is a standin for the community as a concession to the practical reality of “abuse” of the trust of the community as things played out over time.

    But anyway I do think that regular Confession should be with the parish priest and done quite regularly. I am a rare believer (judging by common practice in the OCA) in weekly Confession, which I think helps drive accountability, but anything is better than nothing.

    1. That is the point of an analogy: not all aspects in the two things that constitute an analogy are applicable. A father, both in a family and in the parish, are a source of protection and have a unique role. But the the father in a family is not one to whom one would tell all one’s sins; nor could he preside at the Eucharist. You misunderstand what an analogy is.

      1. Father, I struggled with the right word choice and failed. “Offensive” is so subjective as to be essentially meaningless. Actually, saddened would be a more accurate word.
        Thank you for allowing me to restate more appropriately.

  3. To say, I go to regular confession in order to receive Holy Communion. I really haven’t had it on my mind to consider the Confessor’s (or Priest’s) role in any depth, as long as he is there to live out his vocation and commitment in meeting my need to repent and confess in order to receive Communion and for the salvation of my soul. True he is the Spiritual Father of the Community, but when it comes to confession, it is really only on my mind that he is my Spiritual Father at the moment and meeting the need of the Sacrament. I don’t see it as important that one is going to Confession in their own parish as long as they are going to Confession – period.

    comments are welcome…..God bless!

    1. Forgive me your attitude seems quite without sobriety to me. More appropriate to a Roman Catholic than an Orthodox. Confession is not just some course you go through to get to the real deal. It is an integral part of salvific process. Indeed, if one did nothing but participated in the Sacrament of Confession and never partook of the Body and Blood, you would still be sanctified through the forgiveness articulated by the priest and the seal against further sin.
      It is incredibly intimate and the priest is crucial, not just some sort of living post. The way you describe it is almost pornographic and extraordinarily offensive to me.

  4. I don’t recall what my source was, perhaps my baptizing confessor, Fr. Michael (Memory Eternal). One of my sticking points as a convert or prodigal was telling my sins to another human, regardless of their role. I was reminded that the priest provides a focal point for my confession but that my words are to God.

  5. It is a grace that God has given us a visible manifestation, an analogy, of who He is to us, in the Priesthood. We know Christ is the real Priest, every vocation is by analogy, whether the Priesthood of believers or of those with which Christ has gifted the Church (He ascended and gave gifts…).

    As was said, if we cannot relate to our Priest, in this analogy, honoring it both as the reception of a gift, the existence of a Priest whom God has appointed to visually represent Himself so that we would not be lacking in the need due to our frailty, due to the fact that we cannot communicate with God in the way in which we are designed, especially as it relates to our psychological condition – the reality that we need actual atonement in the Eucharist, the reality that we need actual confirmation of sins being forgiven, the reality that we need actual confirmation that we are cared for as children – this vocation, just as feeding the poor is God’s heart but gifted vocationally to humans, God employs those in His service to act on His behalf – if minimized or disregarded, we will not relate properly to others, to ourselves even, if the analogy is ignored.

    (As an aside, I remember some time ago struggling with how to approach my Priest when I question something he believes or when I just disagree with him. Because in a Protestant setting, and really this is what is at stake here, treating your Priest like he’s a paid speaker with a lot of other duties you probably know nothing of, you are basically an equal with the pastor. Because of Sola Scriptura and some other Reformation doctrines, every lay person has the potentiality to never agree with their pastor on a lot of things. So, your pastor is never seen as your superior because in their functionality, they are just formally doing what you have the potential to do as well, namely, be a speaker who visits sick people, does some marriages, etc. And by no means am I trying to discount the hours good Protestant pastors spend on the needs of others. But a Priest is an entirely different thing than a speaker. He is called to be vocationally Christ to us, and can only be so in succession with the Apostles, whereas a pastor is called so to speak, to present the Word of God to us in a reliable, truthful way in the main – leaving aside how that is impossible with a Protestant most of the time. )

    But, last, this analogy is eventually to be done away with. Eventually, ideally, we will all become Priests, but not just Priests, co-regents in the heavenly family. The analogy should develop into a 1:1, having become gods by grace. Never to be absorbed into God, or in any way equal – but fulfilling our intended purpose. So, again, to ignore the role of a Priest in this life, is to also be eschatologically deficient, and this will have consequences. I mean, if we ignore that a Priest is by a God set analogy to be Christ manifest to us, there’s good chances that we won’t see that we are by God set analogy to be Christ to others, or make it our aim to become gods by grace. The analogy is actually a movement towards a reality. I’m not sure what you call that. But the analogy of who we are in relation to Christ, is actually supposed to change us into perfect man. We are not just the Body of Christ analogically but ontologically. Both are at play, ontology and analogy. But without the analogy, because we are not glorified, you won’t get the ontology.

    Sorry I go on so long, I’m most caffeinated this time of day!

    Thank you Father for reminding me of things I know but don’t know well enough not to need reminded.

  6. Sorry, last comment…

    In the case of treating your Priest like a speaker with other duties, if you apply the analogy to yourself, if God’s intention is a “paid functionary” eventually to go to heaven when you die, then you are a paying beneficiary, eventually to go to heaven when you die. If your Priest is visibly Christ to you by God’s intention eventually to rule and reign with Christ with those perfected who intercede on our behalf, you will be Christ to others – especially those to whom you have the most opportunity, eventually becoming with your Priest, those perfected who rule with Christ in the Age to come.

    Ecclesiology is part of our soteriology, there’s no escaping that.

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