Frederica: I’m sitting here with my friend, Father Gregory Czumack, who’s the pastor of Four Evangelists Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, in Bel Air, MD, near the Pennsylvania border. And feeling light and joyous and teary-eyed because we just had my confession here in the icon corner of my living room. I asked Father Gregory if we could talk for just a few minutes, if he could tell me what it’s like to be a confessor. It was something you were saying then, as we finished the prayers, about what a privilege it feels like, and of course for laypeople, when we look at priests and we think about hearing confessions, we think you must be very depressed about the state of the human race, or you must hear things that just make you furious at people, and we sort of project those ideas onto the clergy. What is it like to actually be hearing confessions?
Fr. Gregory: I think that there is no other thing that I do as a priest that is as humbling, or makes me as aware of the presence of God, as hearing confessions. There is nothing that comes even close to that.
Frederica: Really? Not even celebrating the Eucharist?
Fr. Gregory: Celebrating the Eucharist is so awesome that I think it’s beyond my mental capability to really grasp what’s truly happening there, and so certainly there is a great level of awe when I celebrate the Holy Eucharist, but just hearing confessions, and hearing people come and open up to God in front of me, a poor sinner, the deepest things from their souls, as I said, it’s incredibly humbling. It is an incredibly humbling feeling, and I realize that the opportunity to hear these confessions is just an incredible gift that God has given His priests. And among other things, it constantly reminds us of the importance of humility. And what brings me joy is the knowledge that, yes, there is a lot of sin in the world, and perhaps it would become easy to become discouraged with the world and its fallen state, but the source of joy is in the fact that heaven rejoices over the repentance of even a single sinner. And I know that when I am hearing the confessions of truly repentant people, the Kingdom of God is rejoicing. And that is just such an incredibly powerful realization for me. That I never, ever approach hearing confessions lightly. I always try and spend time praying about it beforehand and afterwards, just because it’s something that causes the Kingdom of God to rejoice. How could I approach it in any other way?
Frederica: Yeah, it’s sort of being a midwife for joy. It’s that you are the human being that stands at that moment, when all of heaven is waiting to rejoice over the return of a sinner. You must hear terrible and heartbreaking things sometimes. Do you ever find that you are disappointed in your spiritual children, or do you ever despair of knowing how to help them achieve a more holy life?
Fr. Gregory: I can honestly say that I have never, to this day, by the grace of God, ever felt any sense of disappointment. My disappointment I reserve for my own sinfulness, I guess. But again, the sense of joy is really just an overpowering thing. But there are times when I do despair. Certainly one of the things that I pray before I hear any confession is that the Holy Spirit will be in my mouth and in the other person’s ears and mouth so that it is God who is providing the guidance and simply I am speaking and being guided by Him. But to be honest, that’s not always the case. There certainly have been times when I don’t have any idea what to say and I’ll open my mouth and I’ll find myself saying things. And it’s almost like I’m listening to them as well. Other times that doesn’t happen. And so I do despair a little bit, thinking that I’m not going to be able to provide the guidance that perhaps this person needs at this time. But that would be the only time I have ever felt any sense of despair, and it’s usually been in my own perceived lack of ability or lack of thoughtful guidance to be able to provide.
Frederica: You no doubt have sometime had confession with people who had something they just couldn’t say. You might not know that that’s the case, but could you say something to encourage people who have one thing that they think they just can’t say out loud? They feel like it’ll – if you can keep it silent, then it won’t explode. Would you exhort them about that?
Fr. Gregory: I would simply point out the fact that Holy Scripture specifically instructs us to confess our sins aloud. And I think that that’s because, God has us do that because of course He’s created us in He knows the way we work, but there’s something about saying things aloud that’s different than simply thinking them. And I can’t necessarily describe what that something is, but there is a difference. And that difference is an important thing. And that’s why I certainly instruct people every night in their prayers to ask God to forgive them in their prayers, and repent and ask God to show them where they can improve in their lives and give them the grace and the strength to carry out His will for them. But it can’t replace actually going, and in the presence of the Church, which is the priest is standing there in place of the entire Church, hearing these confessions. There’s something about saying them aloud that makes them different. And until you do it, you won’t realize that there is something different about it. If you’ve spent your entire life simply asking God to forgive you in your mind, you’re missing out on the whole aspect of the entire repentance process that is initiated by saying these things aloud.
Frederica: There is something galvanizing and dynamic about the spoken word. It fits together with a book I was reading recently about what illiterate cultures are like, compared to what literate and reading cultures are like. One of the things is that in cultures where there isn’t much reading, where most people are illiterate, is that the concept of a word has a lot of power. The spoken word. In Hebrew, as you probably remember from seminary, the word for “word”, davar, also means event. And I thought, too, about how in the Scriptures it talks about calling on the name of the Lord rather than just calling on the Lord. It’s like you say the word out loud. And there’s something about bringing something into the open, into the airwaves of space, that does catalyze, that does set things in motion that you can’t imagine otherwise.
Fr. Gregory: I would agree. I think certainly when you keep things inside mentally, as you said they’re not out in the world. But when we say them, we are to a certain extent baring our souls through our voices in a way that we can not do simply in a mental fashion. And I believe that this God, knowing this about us, because it’s how He has created us, that’s simply why He instructs us in Holy Scripture to confess our sins. To say them out loud like that, because it makes a huge difference.
Frederica: I think too that if you’re suppressing something, it feels even bigger and stronger and more frightening than it really is.
Fr. Gregory: I definitely think that’s true. For most people, they realize that they have something that’s really weighing on them and they’re afraid to be able to say it aloud, almost always after you’ve said it, and it’s done and it’s out there, not only is the sense of relief palpable, but I think also you can look back at it and realize that perhaps while it was still a sin, it is not something that I should be holding inside of myself and letting it drag me down and eat away at me on the inside. By saying it, you’re helping in a way to get it out of you.
Frederica: Yes, yeah. I got an email from a recent convert just yesterday, I think, and he was saying it was like having all the poison in his soul pulled out. And he was saying, ‘Why did I never know about this before?’ That was after his “life confession” — m Most of us who become Orthodox as adults, we have to give a life confession. In conclusion, what would you say to somebody who is facing giving their very first confession and trying to sum up their whole life?
Fr. Gregory: First of all, it’s always important to remember that you’re not confessing to a priest. You’re confessing to God. And as such, open your heart. Open your heart to God. Say things. Say things that you never thought you would have said. Because in a confession more so than in any other time, more so than I think even in a relationship, perhaps, with a therapist or a counselor or a psychiatrist, when you’re in Holy Confession, you are baring yourself to God and you’re throwing yourself at his feet and asking for mercy. But we do so with the firm knowledge that when we truly repent, God always forgives. And that firm knowledge of God’s forgiveness is something that there’s nothing else that can compare to it.
Frederica: It’s true joy, isn’t it? Thank you, Father Gregory.
Fr. Gregory: Thank you very much.