Even the thought of confession strikes fear into the hearts of many. “I have to say what to whom???!!!” Such a response is completely normal and frankly totally human. No one wants to tell his darkest deeds to anyone. It is difficult; it may open old wounds; it is embarrassing. Again such perceptions are perfectly valid and often accurate.
Allow me though, to help shed some much needed, and often misunderstood light on this important sacrament. First off, in the Orthodox tradition, one does not confess to the priest. The priest is a witness. Consider some of the words used at confession (from the simplified Pocket Prayerbook for Orthodox Christians): “My brother, inasmuch as thou hast come to God, and to me, be not ashamed; for thou speakest not unto me, but unto God, before whom thou standest.” To emphasize this, the priest and penitent stand side by side, facing the Icon of Christ and the Cross or Gospel together. In short, one confesses to Jesus in the presence of the priest.
Second, as crass as it may sound, there really is no new sin under the sun. One way or another, the priest has heard even the worst sins before. Frankly, just about anything anyone could confess is found within the pages of the Holy Scriptures anyway. So, don’t expect to hear: “You did what?!” The priest may ask you to clarify something you have said; he may clarify for you that such-and-such is actually not a sin; and he will likely give you spiritual direction to help you with particular sins, but an attitude of shock or shame on the priest’s behalf is not part of confession!
Third, the priest is listening to the penitent with Jesus’ ears, not to condemn, but to facilitate healing. In our pre-communion prayers, we recite, “O Lover of Men, Thou hast said through thy prophets, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” Here we quote Ezekiel 18:32. The whole chapter (18) is well worth reading (read it!). But the point is, God desires LIFE, not DEATH, wholeness, not brokenness. This is the heart of confession.
Finally confession is sacred—confidential. The priest is under strict discipline to guard your confession. His wife doesn’t hear about it. He doesn’t publish it in the newsletter. He doesn’t use it as a sermon illustration. Once confessed, the sin is washed away. The only way it might “come back” is if one commits it again, or if the priest asks “how are you doing with such-and-such?” having recognized it with you as a sinful pattern in your life.
So, fear not! Seek reconciliation, wholeness and health. How often? During each of the four fasts (June, August, November, March) is an excellent rule, and more often if needed. Try that for a start…and never be afraid to ask me about these things! God bless you!