In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
While I have done my best to record these podcasts in silence and moments of the day, or rather moments of the night, when there is silence, enough silence for me to focus on the things I want to talk to you about and also enough silence for you to be able to hear me, I do live in England, so it is almost always impossible to hide from rain. We’ll just have to live with that.
I have mentioned in some of the previous podcasts that the monastery has started writing and publishing a series of booklets on various subjects. We have one booklet published on the topic of prayer, and it will be followed by a second one on the subject. There is one which we have published on the island of Iona, including a small guide, a sort of spiritual guide, to St. Columba’s isle. And I’m now working on a booklet on confession and the role of the father-confessor in monastery life.
I have decided to write this particular booklet because the questions surrounding a monastic father-confessor and the way one relates to a spiritual father are very frequent. Everywhere I go and meet people to talk to them about the monastery, this is one of the central questions I get asked. So as I am preparing this booklet, I would like to discuss with you some of the topics and some of the ideas I am considering to include into the final form of the booklet. If you feel that there are other aspects you would like covered, if you feel I have not properly addressed or have not addressed at large some of the aspects I am discussing, please feel free to send me an email, and I shall do my best to either reply to you personally or in future podcasts.
What I would like to tell you today is just a tiny bit of my own experience with confession. I remember when I started confessing that I was quite puzzled about the whole ritual. I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to talk about. I didn’t quite understand to whom I was confessing—if it was the priest, if it was Christ, if I was actually simply there to acknowledge things in front of my own conscience. Then I went through a series of more or less difficult experiences with my father-confessor. I had to change my spiritual father when I went to the monastery, and that was a nightmare. Other times I felt that my spiritual father did not have enough time or he didn’t pay enough attention to what I was saying. There were instances when he felt rushed or even almost annoyed and upset for the things I was telling him.
But through it all, I kept going. I kept confessing. And as a general attitude, I often thought that the more difficult it feels, the more distant my father-confessor seems, the more useless, pointless the whole experience may feel—the more it is worth doing it, almost like hitting a wild animal when you are attacked. You’re not supposed to simply lie down and be eaten alive because you are attacked. If you are under attack, you fight back. So the more difficult confession felt to me, the more determined, almost stubborn I was to make it work.
Once you have decided, once you have chosen your father-confessor, your spiritual father, my advice is to trust him more than you trust yourself, at least for the first years. When I say “the first years,” I do not mean one or two years; I mean the first ten years at least. Trust him more than you trust yourself. After these ten, fifteen years, there may be the case that you should start placing your trust more in Christ than in yourself. With that general rule, you should be right.
Now let us turn back to confession. Confession can simply be a listing of your sins or your weaknesses, but it can be a lot more. It is entirely up to you to make it more, to make it better. Confession can indeed simply be an encounter between you and your spiritual father during which you tell him of your weaknesses and your sins and the ways in which you have failed God and yourself and your neighbors, but it can be much more if you put a bit of work into it. I am going to list a few exercises for you to consider trying out during your confession. These are things I have discovered simply through experience, and I have learned that, as a general rule, anything can be useful, anything can be turned into a useful experience from which you can learn something. I will give you only one example of what I mean by this, and then we’ll turn to the exercises.
The best thing to do when you prepare for confession, the best practical thing you can do, is to allow your father-confessor time. Never go for confession at the end of Lent or at the end of the fasting period before Christmas or Dormition. Never go and confess at the end of a long queue of 20 or 30 people. If your father-confessor has the time to hear you, if you allow him the time to hear you, he will be paying much more attention to you than if he feels pressed to hear 20 more confessions after you or if he feels exhausted for having heard 50 confessions prior to yours.
And that does happen. I remember in the monastery in Moldavia that we would be for hours, every day, especially during long periods of fasting, hearing the confession of people coming from the villages and the towns nearby. After five or six hours of hearing confessions, all you wanted to do is hide somewhere, find some sort of hole and crawl into it and never come out again, because the confessor is also a human being, and you take all that negativity, all those negative experiences, all the pain, all the failure, all the things that weigh so heavily on the shoulders of all those people whose confessions you’re hearing—it all ends up weighing down on your own shoulder. If you plan your time, if you plan your confession properly, you will be the one who benefits from it.
Now, this is the general rule. That being said, I have once noticed that if I went to my father-confessor when he was absolutely exhausted, the experience of confession felt entirely different. Yes, he as a human being was clearly not paying as much attention as he could have. He simply wasn’t able to any more. He wasn’t there any more. His attention wasn’t there any more. He was simply exhausted. But somehow, from that hollow being, from that exhausted person, came the most extraordinary advice I could possibly hope for, and these were not things my father-confessor would have normally said. After 15 years of confessing to the same person, you end up eventually knowing more or less what to expect. But I have noticed that if I want to hear not my father-confessor’s voice but somehow the voice of his conscience or his heart—I wouldn’t say God’s voice through him, but that is what I’m thinking—if I wanted a clearer view of that, then I should approach him when he, as a human being, is exhausted, when he has reached his limits.
All I wanted to say by giving you this example is that if you want to hear God, if you want to grow, anything can be turned into a positive, useful tool. If you allow the time for your father-confessor to hear your confession properly, you will definitely benefit from it, because your father-confessor understand the context, and he has the ability to think through all possible implications, and he will give you the best possible advice. So take that and use it for your salvation and rejoice in this gift.
On the other hand, though, if you ended up confessing at the end of a long period of fasting or when your father-confessor is simply tired or just not there, for any reason, known or unknown to you, then even that can be turned into a positive experience. The golden rule is that if you tell Christ in your heart, “I want to hear you. Please speak to me,” Christ will speak to you, regardless whether your father-confessor is tired or not, whether he is paying attention or not, whether he’s wholly entirely there or not. The sacrament—you must remember this—the sacrament is between you and Christ. The confessor, the spiritual father, is merely a tool. If there are problems in confession, they are never because of the spiritual father; they are always because something is not working between you and Christ, something is not working, something is not right in the way you have approached confession.
That being said, I just want to list a few exercises for you, and feel free to pick and choose which of these you think may benefit your confession. But I do encourage you to try them at least once. The first and most useful one is to try to reduce your confession as much as possible. Try to keep it under three minutes, for example. The way to do that is to look for the source of evil. I mean, do not make philosophy. Do not be expanding your confession. Do not give any sort of context. Be as simple and plain as you possibly can. Just list the things you need to confess: “I lied.” Full stop. “I am lazy and waste time.” Full stop. “I am proud and yet envious.” Full stop. And so on.
When you cut away the context, there is no way for you to use that context to justify your sinfulness. If you keep it very simple and try to go back to the source of evilness, things become very clear to you. It is the first step you must take. You must understand that there is evilness in you, or that you are fighting evilness. This is not about you selling an image to your father-confessor. This is not about you playing a game or putting on a show: the pious Christian show or the rebel Christian show or whatever else attracts you. This is simply about you being as naked as possible before Christ. Try to limit your confession under three minutes. Try to list, for instance, all your sins on a piece of paper before you go to confession, and then group them into categories, and try to see what is the source of each category. What is that initial mistake, that initial thing that generates all the visible outcomes, so to say? You may have yelled at your brother and your sister, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that reaction? You may have wasted time, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that behavior? And so on and so forth.
Really, this simply helps you to understand the depths of our sinfulness and not focus merely on the surface of it. If you simply list the mistakes you’ve made, you are really just focusing on the visible side of your sinfulness, but the depth of it, the heaviness of it lies hidden.
A second thing I try to do from time to time—and again, these are things I do on purpose—is to confess one thing that is extremely disturbing to me, even if it’s not necessarily heavy or as heavy as other things, but it is the sort of thing that, in my mind, will make my father-confessor think less of me, something that I feel horribly guilty for or disgusted. To do that is an exercise of humility, of forced humility. It is a way to empty yourself as much as you can before your spiritual father. It is a way to be as naked, spiritually naked, as you can before him and Christ.
I remember that the first time I’ve done this was after reading the Life of one of those Russian fools-for-Christ. You know who they are. They purposely commit some sort of horrible, disgusting thing in front of people, just so they feel lower and more humble than everyone else. It is useful to do that in front of your father-confessor because it is fighting your pride, and this is one of the best ways of fighting your pride. When you feel pride in your heart, always commit something stupid, on purpose, and do it in front of the people whose opinion counts most for you.
I know of monks in my monastery in Moldavia who would fast according to the strictest of rules, but then when they had guests coming over, they would always behave as if they had entirely forgotten that it was a fasting day. And this is not something that was invented by the Russian fools-for-Christ. You find this type of behavior even in the lives and the stories of the Desert Fathers, the Fathers from Egypt, the first generations of monks. There are these stories of some of the Desert Fathers going and wandering through the desert to collect leftovers or empty bowls which they would then carry to their cells and spread all around, and they did that so that the people who came to visit them would think, “Oh, what a gluttonous monk! He is good for nothing! We should move forward, as nothing good… there’s no good advice we can get from him.”
You can do the same thing in confession, and the experience of grace which you shall receive will be more than you can imagine. In a way, this will help you face your own emptiness, your own nothingness. It is a way to crush these idols we all construct of ourselves. It is also a way to test the love of your father-confessor, because the one thing that you must look for in your father-confessor is his love for you. I remember once that my father-confessor told me, “You do realize that I shall have to stand before Christ on the Judgment Day and protect you against all those who accuse you of your sins?” And that was the day I understood that that man loved me more than anyone has ever loved me. Love is what makes a priest into a spiritual father, not the ability to apply rules, not the ability to build for himself the image of an elder, not his intellectual wisdom, but simply his love.
I think I shall stop now. I’ve listed really three things you could try out. Try to confess when your father-confessor has the time, and then try to confess when he is absolutely exhausted, but in both cases keep in mind that the conversation happens between you and Christ, and he is merely a tool, a channel. Secondly, try to reduce your confession to the absolute minimum, because that will help you see the source of your failures; that will help you move from focusing on the tip of the iceberg to the real depths of it. Once you understand, once you face the roots of your sinfulness, your healing can properly begin. And thirdly, try to systematically, almost like a ritual, crush this idol we all build of our own person, and the best way to do that is to confess something that feels horribly intimate, almost disgusting, to your father-confessor.
There are some other things, some other exercises we could talk about, and perhaps I shall mention them in a second podcast on this subject. Remember to pray for me. Remember to pray for the Monastery of the Celtic Saints in Scotland. And remember to support us if you can. May God bless you and this whole world, now and forever. Amen.