What I would like us to talk about during this meeting is, perhaps, the same topic that we used to speak about last time. To be precise, I would like to continue with that topic. It relates to each one of us, it is about the way we deal with the Sacraments of Repentance and Eucharist, about the relations between these two Sacraments, and about the Divine Liturgy. This topic is wide, so I think we will do the right thing if we devote this meeting to it.
However, first I would like to say that it is very good to be with God. You know, a woman came to me to confess during the Vespers this Saturday. In fact, I could not get what she was talking about for a couple of minutes because she owned up to the joy she was filled with. The woman was doubtful, “All people come for confession with sheets of paper or even notebooks, they weep and sob, but I am brimming with life, I am overflowing with joy. I must be doing something wrong and I want to confess it.” Then I saw what she was after and asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She replied, “For two months.” So I asked her another question, “Do you feel as if the world used to be black-and-white but now it is full-colour?” She said yes. “Everything around and inside you used to be a mess but suddenly it all changed into awesome harmony?” And she nodded. “Do you feel that your life is full?” She said, “Yes, I do.” So I replied, “Well, I know your diagnosis. It is called the excitement of a neophyte.”
Of course, there can be no true faith without that joy, without the experience of the fullness of life. More often than not, we have this experience in the beginning of our spiritual journey to God, just as we encounter God. Nevertheless, each individual has her own personal experience of the Heaven, the experience of God’s Kingdom.
Father Alexander Schmemann once said that Nietsche had uttered the greatest slander against Christianity when he said that Christianity is joyless. Really, how can you know God and be with Him, and be unhappy? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! – Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians (Phil.4:4). The Lord tells His disciples during their last talk before His passion: again I shall see you, and your heart shall have joy, and no man shall take from you your joy. And in that day ye shall not ask me any thing (Cf. John 16:22-23). It is this experience of joy that we can return to every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Sacrament of Eucharist. Eyes of faith can see the Risen Christ in our midst, and we become His Body, we become the Church, we become the organism of the God-man, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh used to refer to the Church. We gather in one single whole with Christ in order to ascend to the Heaven. We are given the experience of Heaven when we are still on earth. We are allowed to be the partakers of the Heavenly Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven has come, it is in our midst.
The Church has a dual mode of being, which may be expressed as both the waiting mode and the fulfillment mode. The Church waits for the Second Coming of Jesus. At the same time, the Church herself already is the Kingdom of God coming in might and power, the place where God and man are already united. This is what we get as the apex of our prayerful supplication to God, our daily cycle of services, as the completion and the fulfillment. The Church again and again becomes the Heaven through the Sacrament of Eucharist. That is why many theologians and saints, and first and foremost, the first Christian saints, referred to the Eucharist as the Sacrament of Sacraments. This is due to the fact that the Eucharist makes the Church what it is, namely, the Body of Christ.
Each time we gather for the liturgy, we must realise that we come here in order to become one single whole in God, in Christ, as well as for celebrating the liturgy, the Sacrament of Eucharist, the Sacrament of Thanksgiving. We all serve each other; every Christian becomes a priest of the Most High God in the Sacrament of Baptism. It does not belittle or abolish or question the priesthood in the Church as a special gift of ministry, as a special gift of the Holy Spirit. Apostle Peter writes in his epistle, But ye are a royal priesthood, an holy nation (Cf.1 Pet.2:9).
We tend to think that it is the priest who celebrates the liturgy, while we simply attend the service and therefore can come whenever we please and do whatever we want during the liturgy: pass a note with a prayer request, look at the church goods in the booth, have a chat with someone else, and of course, go and confess during the liturgy. We do not come to church in order to become the Body of Christ and to ascend to the Heaven; we do not realise and do not consider ourselves to be a part of the organism of the God-man; we do not come in order to become the Church, we are led by our personal desire and because our hearts require it. Our faith has become too individualistic. However, this was not part of God’s plan for us because He planted the Church on earth as the place where people are united in God. We must be aware of the fact that whenever we come to church, we come in order to become one single whole, to pray like Jesus did, because it is Him who leads every service, and He is in our midst every time. Therefore, everything that distracts us from this God-man-like prayer, can be with all certainty attributed to the works of the devil. The Rev Alexander Schmemann wrote in his diary a year before his death, “It has somehow became perfectly evident to me that the devil within the Church struggles first of all with the Eucharist, with the Liturgy.” This is understandable because the devil aims at un-churching the Church, dislocating it, and making each one of us turn our attention on ourselves. Of course, he cannot simply do away with the Liturgy, although there have been such cases already, not in the Orthodox Church but in the Catholic Church.
I watched a story in the news and I’m going to tell you about it, in case you haven’t seen it. The story took place in Italy, in a Catholic parish where a church was made into a shelter for refugees. They took all the pews typical of Catholic churches out, they emptied the sanctuary completely: they carried away the Holy Table and the entire altar, they set up many beds and provided accommodation to the poor refugees who badly needed it. The Catholic priest told the reporter, pointing at the bed in the place of the Holy Table in the sanctuary, “This is the best Holy Table, this is the best sacrifice to the Lord!” This is a devil-inspired substitution, indeed!
Satan rarely tempts us with pure and unmasked evil. He is a liar, this is why he always suggests that we do anything except for prayer. I believe that each one of you has encountered and tackled with such thoughts and temptations: whenever you make up your mind to pray, a dozen of very important, really indispensable, tasks suddenly pop up, so we say, “Okay, I’ll do this or that, and then I’ll pray.” St Ignatius Bryanchaninov wrote that everything that gears you away from prayer is sent by the devil, however important or nice it appears. We have the chance to participate in the divine prayer and to ascend to the Lord’s Feast during the Liturgy. This is our prayerful ascent, this is our spiritual growth, so each prayer in the Liturgy, each part of the Liturgy is vital. We may put it in a different way: everything that leads us away from the Liturgy, from the common prayer, from the prayer of the Church comes from the devil. I think that it is wrong to have confession during liturgy.
We should be aware of the fact that confession during liturgy is only for those who make the first steps on their road to God, for those who have not entered the fullness of life with God in the Church yet. Last time we heard a remarkable example of a man who wanted to go fishing but was going past a church on his way to the lake and confessed for the first time in his life. It is awesome that it happened this way. However, if we, the practicing Orthodox, begin to treat worship, especially liturgy, superficially, there must be something wrong with that. Last time it was said that we cannot set a general rule. I beg to differ. It seems to me that we have such an amazing time in our life now when each one of us should finally consider growing up and becoming more mature in our relationship
with God by becoming more responsible (because maturity invariably means being responsible) for what we do and how we live. Each of us should know when we sin against the Gospel and the Church Tradition and consider changing our minds and lifestyles. Sure, there are some cases when one has to go and confess immediately, even if it is during a liturgy. An individual may stumble down and lose her connection to God. But then again, let’s be honest: once we are fully immersed into living with God, after we spend a decade or more in the Church, there are few such moments in our lives. Therefore, as we go to church, we must remember that we go to church in order to celebrate the Eucharist. If we feel that we need to confess, we should do it in advance: on Saturday night or on the eve of great feasts. Confessing one’s sins once a week is enough.
We might be somehow mistaken, perhaps, in our understanding of what the Sacrament of Repentance is about. We can learn the meaning of this sacrament from the absolution prayer that a priest reads after the confession. This prayer contains the following words: “Reconcile him (her) and unite him (her) to Your Holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord…” Reconcile and unite, because we sinned and broke away from the unity with God, and therefore we need reconciliation and unity.
However, we should acknowledge the difference between sin as an action, and sinfulness as a way of life. Each of us possesses all gifts of God to some extent, but only to some extent, and we should be aware of that. This is not the reason to go to confession. More often than not, people come and say, “I have no love, I have no mercy, I have no patience.” We do not possess these qualities to the full extent. Nevertheless, we have everything we need, all the gifts of God, all the potential that we should make manifest through ourselves. This is probably something we have to pray for. This is where we need spiritual guidance and spiritual knowledge.
We must distinguish the Sacrament of Repentance from a spiritual talk, from the spiritual guidance that we all should have in our lives, when we can ask some questions, share our opinions or ask for advice. We come to the confession in order to repent, in order to ask God to forgive our sins. A substitution happens often: we turn a confession into a spiritual talk. It seems to me that we, the clergy, must not be lax in this regard: yes, it is important to listen to people but we ought to explain to them why they come to the confession, to the Book and the Cross, in the first place. They come in order to die for sin and rise up for the new life, the eternal life. They come in order to reconcile with God. This is why talking with a priest during confession is simply irrelevant. The priest reminds us of this fact before the confession, saying, “I am but a witness.” Indeed, a priest is just a witness and a helper in our confession; he is the person who sympathizes with us and prays for us. It is God Himself who we speak with during the Sacrament of Confession. It seems to me that we are losing this understanding of the Sacrament of Confession. We are capable of transforming it in anything but what it should be.
Now, in the summer, we do not have priests on duty but in all other seasons there is always a priest around in the Convent, whom you can contact from 10 am till 5 pm. There is a schedule, and we can always find time to come for a spiritual talk, and the priest will pay as much attention and time to us as we need. Is a spiritual talk possible during the liturgy when a crowd of people wait in the queue for the confession? If something serious happened in our life, something that really separated us from God, we can come to the confession (given that we had no opportunity to do that the night before the liturgy), briefly tell God about our problem and ask Him to forgive us.
We see that people who regularly go to church often spend entire liturgies in queues for the confession… Each of us knows from our own experience that (let alone the fact that we cannot take part in the liturgy when we confess) it is impossible to pray while we wait in the queue. We recall our sins over and over again, trying to remember everything and to express everything as clearly as possible. We are not here: our minds and our hearts wander in a different place. This is how we miss out on the liturgy. It may appear to us that we lead a very righteous life — a vigorous, spiritual, and pious life, while in fact there is a substitution when we leave out the most important thing.
This is what I want to tell you about confession during the liturgy. We all confess that we have a dysfunctional relationship with God, that we pray in an indifferent mechanistic manner, that we stop praying. Imagine how weird this situation appears? It is during the liturgy that we neglect the prayer of the Church. After we fall out of the unity with the Body of Christ, after we abandon the most essential prayer, we repent: “Lord, forgive me, for I neglect prayer.” I think that our enemy must be applauding right at that moment.
The next thing that we should think about is that the words of our main service, our main Sacrament, our main prayer are meaningless for us, or we make them meaningless. Every supplication and every prayer is the prayer of the entire Church. It is our prayer that goes out of the mouth of the priest and the choir, this is our common prayer. I’d like to remind you once more: we all celebrate the Eucharist. Protopresbyter Nicholas Afanasiev, one of the prominent theologians of the Russian Church abroad, writes that if the ancient saints, such as St Justin Martyr, St Cyprian of Carthage, St John Chrysostom, or St Jerome, heard that only the priest celebrates the liturgy, while all other people simply attend the service, they would not believe their ears: how can one priest celebrate the Sacrament of the entire Church? This is just impossible. Our canons say that a priest cannot celebrate the liturgy without people, without at least one or two persons present in the church, because it is the work of the Church. So here we are, standing in a queue for the confession during the Sunday service. A deacon exclaims: “Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Sacrifice in peace.” The choir replies on our behalf: “Mercy of peace, sacrifice of praise.” However, we do not respond to any of these words. We do not stand “well”, we do not stand “with fear”. We do not “attend”, nor do we plan to offer the Holy Sacrifice. This is because we are queuing for the confession, we are waiting for our turn, we are preoccupied with our sins and the events of our own lives. And then the priest exclaims, calling and warning us, “Let us lift up our hearts.” – “Let us have our hearts exalted to the Heaven.” Let’s be honest. I can see clearly from the altar that the church is divided into two groups (even if they are not equal in number). One bigger group of parishioners face the altar and pray, and the other group stands in a queue for confession. So who is this exclamation for?
“Let us lift up our hearts.” I would like to say a couple of words about this brief yet meaningful exclamation. Archpriest Alexander Schmemann writes that it is frightening to remain on earth at that moment. We must be afraid of staying put on the earth with our hearts, our souls, our minds… This exclamation is a warning. Where are we? Aren’t we stuck to the earth?
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh had some remarkable life stories to share. Once he looked out of the church window to the church yard. It was a sunny spring day, the grass was green, birds were singing, the weather was seasonable. He saw an old lady who entered the church yard and dived deep into a litterbin in order to find something there. Metropolitan Anthony concludes: “Doesn’t the same happen to us, too? Here is the God’s world, here is the Heaven, here we hear the call to ascend to the Heaven with Christ and to partake of His meal. But we say, ‘No, Lord, please allow me to go on examining my own sins, I have no time for the Heaven because I face so many problems!’” And we do not notice how ridiculous it sounds! It seems to us that we spend our time doing something important and vital, and that this self-awareness, this self-condemnation is what the real life with God is all about. Basically, this is a rat race without measuring our lives up against the Heaven, without the joy and the fullness of life that is given, is revealed to us through the Divine Liturgy. And then a priest implores us to offer the pivotal prayer of gratitude to God with all our mouths and all our hearts, the prayer that will transform our offerings of bread and wine into the Body and the Blood of Christ. “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” Some of us do not react to it in any way. We have more pressing issues to deal with. And this at the time when the Pentecost happens, and the Holy Spirit descends onto everyone present in the church over and over again.
During an evening service on the eve of the Pentecost, Father Andrew said that special prayers of invocation of the Holy Spirit would be read on the day of the feast. I had just finished listening to confessions and stopped to listen to his sermon. A woman who stood by my side asked me, “Father, at what time will these prayers be recited, the prayers that are read once a year and therefore possess such a magic power? I am afraid to miss them.” You see, the Pentecost happens every day during the Divine Liturgy. Do we contemplate on this, do we realize this, do we live in accordance with this? No, we continue to queue for the confession.
We can witness the same process going on practically at every liturgy, especially on Sundays and feasts. The Chalice is already here, the Lord Himself gives his Blood and his Body to us through the hands of priests. Here we are in the Heaven, partaking of God’s meal in his Kingdom; but the confession goes on endlessly. Finally, the Communion is over and the priests carry the Chalice back into the sanctuary; moreover, a priest already calls us to descend from the Heaven: “Let us depart in peace.” This is a call and a command to go back to the world again. And we reply: “In the Name of the Lord.” At last, the service is over, and the priest has already dismissed the people but we go on confessing. The Chalice has to be taken out of the sanctuary again. And again, and again… We do not even realize that we break the rules of the most important service, the essential Sacrament. Maybe some cases are an exception but this has become a large-scale phenomenon. This has a lot to do with me and you, the observant Christians.
Great write up.