Receiving Christ in communion during the Holy Eucharist is the foundation of living in communion with God, with people, with nature, and with the whole creation. Any act which breaks our communion with God and with God’s creation can be described as a serious sin. Sin is historically viewed as staying off the path, and getting lost from the communion of God. It is for this reason that in most of the Orthodox churches examination of conscience (if necessary going to sacramental confession) is an integral part of the preparation for communion. However, unlike an instant or ritualistic practice confession is an ongoing process of trying to see our life, thoughts, emotions and actions with clarity, openness, and honesty; to look at ourselves (introspection), our choices, our behaviors, and our life direction as known by God.
Introspection and examination of consciousness open up the door to have communion with God. In simple terms, consciousness is an inner faculty that guides us in making choices in alignment with God’s will. Moreover, consciousness accuses us when we break communion with God (with God’s creation; nature, neighbor and so on). It is a reflection of the divine image at the core of each person, developed or underdeveloped, faithful or distorted.
From a cognitive perspective consciousness can be viewed as those ‘frames of references’ (schemas) we held in our brain that includes our ‘core beliefs and assumptions’ regarding faith, spirituality, morality, God and so on. These schemas are developed and rooted in our thought processes based on our life experiences, and learning. We may not be aware of these beliefs and assumptions; but they automatically influence our decisions, actions, and emotions. In short, we all have millions of core beliefs and assumptions regarding faith, God and spirituality that directly or indirectly influences our behaviors, actions, decisions, choices, and emotions. Recent developments in cognitive sciences revealed that our thoughts lead to actions and feelings. The concept of ‘Sin’ also has three components; there will be actions, feelings and thoughts related to a sin. Though, these are all interlinked, based on the cognitive perspective it is right to say that “the sinful thoughts lead to the act of sin, and sinful emotions”. Introspection on the basis of consciousness specifically is a reflection of one’s thoughts, actions and feelings.
In order to understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grasp with a few basic and practical questions: Why church is involved in the forgiving sins? Is the priest witnessed confession really needed? If God is really all knowing, why confess at all to a human being? Why confess in the church in the presence of a priest? Nobody will be ready to reveal their true inner world; if so, is it meaningless to expect that people will confess their sins to a priest? How can you guarantee confidentiality? How can I be certain that my parish priest is going to treat me the same way, even after I reveal some severe sins? Are there any limits of confidentiality?
The best approach to address the above chain of questions is to explore the value of confession as a sacrament and to analyze the state of mind from which we need to introspect and verbalize our sins and consciousness. During Great Lent, it is customary for all Orthodox Christians to go to confession to their priest. But confession is appropriate whenever an Orthodox Christian feels the need for it. The value of confession is multifaceted:
1. Assurance of divine forgiveness; through this sacramental act (of the ordained priest and a Christian believer) we have the assurance of divine forgiveness (John 20: 23).
2. Extremely beneficial to personal and spiritual life; confession provides the opportunity to talk about one’s deep concerns, feelings, and thoughts, to receive counsel and to be encouraged toward spiritual growth.
3. Enhance resistance to temptations; confession of sins (thoughts leading to emotions and the actions of sin) or even temptations, help us to resist them better.
4. Restores our communion with God; the purpose of confession is not only to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins, but also to be forgiven and restored to communion with God and God’s creation (James 5: 16; 1 John 1:9).
5. Realignment of relationships; without confession and forgiveness love is destroyed, and damages an existing loving relationship (either with God or with God’s creation). For the sake of mutual relationships with others and nature we confess what we have done, we apologize, and we promise not to repeat the same.
6. Assurance of peace of mind; secrets in general are hard to keep, but un-confessed sins not only remains in our conscious mind but also become heavier as the time passes; the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution to have peace of mind.
7. Repentance is brought into community; we are social beings (think of the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the language we speak). Confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures that are depended on us and have been harmed by our ignorance and failure to take care. Think of the homeless, poor, sick, and starving children we have distanced from through the acts of non-communion. The community (the whole creation) is represented by the priest who is hearing the confession, who further provides guidance and wisdom that helps each pertinent to overcome negative beliefs, assumptions (schemas) and attitudes. Therefore, our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our direct and indirect sins; a private event in a public context.
8. Praise of God and affirmation of faith: confession is more than disclosure of sin. It involves praising the Trinitarian God and affirmation of our faith. Without the second and third element, the first is pointless.
Though the former practical questions on confession are relevant, it could only be placed as secondary if we have an understanding of the extended values of this sacrament. However, issues like confidentiality, limits of confidentiality, impacts on existing relationships, training of listeners, and anonymity of confessors (?) need to be studied and clarified in the modern world context.
Another issue is the question of how to approach introspection and confession? The question is from which state of mind do we need to introspect and confess? The brain researchers have observed that the human brain has two parts: a rational deliberate section and an emotional one. When it comes to faith, spirituality and God, people make decisions in a variety of ways; some may be very emotional and others may be very rational. While approaching confession either ways are of little help. For example, a youth who always wants to be logical, critical, and rational may struggle with introspection; may never want to kneel before God (priest); and may land up with an unfruitful ritualistic confession. Think of another person, who may be obsessed and ruminative of morality (excessive concern about right or wrong, commandments, or law); or a person suffering from major depression; they may retrospectively find faults with all or most of their behaviors in the past, and may feel extreme helplessness, worthlessness and guilt. This overwhelms the rational part of our brain and may finally end up with poor introspection, decisions and so on. There is a third possibility; a blend of rational and emotional mind. Some people call this a balanced ‘wise mind’. A balanced wise state of mind will help to meaningfully introspect, prepare, verbalize and participate in the process of confession. Always keep in mind; never be extremely rational or extremely emotional when you approach confession.
Another question is how can we prepare for a meaningful confession? Preparation for confession is a prayerful examination of our feelings, thoughts, words, acts, attitudes, habits, values, priorities, goals, direction and our way of life. This introspection and self-examination includes not only our personal religious life, but also our relationships, social involvement and activities, job conduct, business dealings, political and social commitments and even recreational pursuits. Extend the introspection and self-examination of our consciousness over several days. Pray to God to help us to recognize our sinful thoughts actions and emotions. Remember that our sins can never outweigh God’s love towards us.
Traditionally the self-examination and introspection for confession are aided by various simple tools;
· Reflection on our life in the light of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Reading them one by one and recognizing our failures and ignorance. Some people note it down so that at the time of confession they will be able to go through the list.
· Another popular tool is a list of questions provided by Fr. Alexander Schmemann on the three key areas of confession:
o Relationship to God: Questions on our faith in Trinitarian God, possible doubts or deviations, inattention to prayer, neglect of liturgical life, fasting, and so on.
o Relationship to one’s neighbor: Basic attitudes of selfishness and self-centeredness, indifference to others, lack of attention, interest, love. All acts of actual offense, envy, gossip, cruelty, and so on.
o Relationship to one’s self: Sins of the flesh with, as their counterpart, the Christian vision of purity and wholesomeness, respect for the body as an icon of Christ, etc. Abuse of one’s life and resources, absence of any real effort to deepen life; abuse of alcohol or other drugs; cheap idea of “fun,” a life centered on amusement, irresponsibility, neglect of family relations, picky about your food, or wasteful of foods, forgetting that so many people are without proper nourishment, extravagance and so on.
· Reading and meditating Psalms (Psalm 32, 38, 51, 102, 130), classic prayer of repentance of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:11-13), prayer of St. John Chrysostom, prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and so on.
The cognitive perspective conceptualizes SIN on the basis of the sinful thoughts, emotions and actions. Remember, it is the sinful thoughts that lead to sinful emotions and actions. However, as we discussed earlier it is not easy to identify the thoughts, rather we can easily identify the emotions and behaviors (for example, the emotion of lust, and the act of an inappropriate ‘look’; what ‘thought’ made you behave like this or feel lustful?). Identify the sinful behaviors and emotions first, and then verbalize them in specific terms. Then try to visualize and think of the thoughts at that time (when I was feeling lustful?). Though it is difficult, eventually you will learn to identify the thoughts related to a specific sinful emotion or behavior. If you have a personal journal, write it down (only if you can keep it confidential!). If you continue practicing this, you will find patterns of core beliefs and assumptions, certain maladaptive or illogical frames of references, perspectives, developed or underdeveloped consciousness and so on. We know human beings are capable of logical and rational thinking, and therefore we are capable of identifying and correcting the ‘errors’ in our thought processes. Once we are used to this exercise, its benefits are twofold; it will make our thought processes logical, positive, and helpful and gradually it will help to sharpen our consciousness. Secondly, once the root cause is identified (thoughts) and corrected the probability of repeating the same pattern of sinful behaviors and emotions are significantly reduced. Of course a priest can help and guide you better if you present your sinful thoughts rather than a vague or generalized description of a sinful act or emotion. Adapting a cognitive perspective in the process of introspection, self-examination and confession undoubtedly bear fruits of repentance, forgiveness and help us to sustain in communion with God.
Reference and suggested further reading;
Forest, Jim (2002) Confession: Doorway to forgiveness. Orbis Books, New York.