On another, and rather high-spirited, forum, a long discussion has been going on about the Holy Mystery of Confession.
As you might expect, interesting remarks have made the rounds, and some of these were, in baseball argot, decidedly foul.
In the interests of making clear the blessings of Confession to my students, my parishioners and my friends, I offer these simple points:
* I, too, am a sinner, and I am not worthy to witness the holy event of any Confession. But I have to, as this is my vocation and ministry.
* I take, with dread seriousness and sincerity, the terrible fact that the Confession is heard and received by Christ the Son of God, and Son of Man. The Theotokos is there, too, and all the Saints. I am utterly aware of their presence, and at times, that presence is not joyful to me.
* I want the person who is making their confession to be in their best attentive consciousness. I will help them attend more to their souls rather than getting lost in details of a past narrative, especially if it detracts into the acts of other people. I want them to attend to the “I-Thou” moment, in the here-and-now with their Lord. I want them to speak concretely and with immediacy. I will never hypnotize them in Confession or, for that matter, in any pastoral counseling. I harbor extreme ethical concerns about any such practice.
* I insist upon individual, private confession. There is no way that the necessary concerns for immediacy, concreteness and proper penance (i.e., “virtue that opposes -- and supplants -- the respective sin”) can be met in a public simultaneous confession of more than one person. The oft-quoted examples of St. John of Kronstadt's uproarious "confessions" were deficient in terms of their completeness of counsel or penance. Such "charismatic" phenomena are not meant to be followed in policy or ecclesial practice.
* I mourn with those who mourn. I cannot escape the pain that spills out of the heart of the person confessing the divorce of their soul from the communion of Christ.
* I fight, in every confession, the demonic that seeks to incite my own passions. Freudians would call this counter-transference: I prefer the more old-fashioned terminology. My own consciousness must be in focus, and in full: “let us attend,” indeed.
* I will never divulge the contents of a confession to anyone who is not Christ Himself. I will not divulge a confession to another parishioner, to another priest, to any agent of the state, or even to my (or any) bishop. If I find it necessary to acquaint the bishop about a canonical penance, I will do this in full consultation with the person who made the confession -- and even then, it will not be me who divulges the content of the confession. Moreover, upon hearing the confession of child or domestic abuse or assault, I will withhold absolution until surrender to the proper authorities. If the perpetrator desires, I will sit with him as he makes the call.
I do not understand why the practices of hynotherapy, regression, and/or free association have made their way into the province of Orthodox pastoral counseling in general, much less in the particular holy space of Confession. I suppose hynotherapy has its function in other, secular modalities. I harbor large doubts about regression and free association. I understand that dreams get discussed in therapy, and because they have cropped up in the narratives of Scripture and Holy Tradition, I will not disallow them. But I have told not a few clients that I am no interpreter of dreams, skeptical as I am of visions in general, much less visions of the night.
I worry, these days, that pastoral counseling (and/or “spiritual direction”) has become conflated with the Holy Mystery of Repentance. There is so much rationalization that goes on, at least implicitly, in counseling, that I am afraid it blunts the poignancy that is necessary in Confession. I wonder, late at night, whether a large part of the appeal of counseling lies in its liberalizing trend: through all the conversation, interpretation and "re-framing," I wonder whether the relief felt in the immediate aftermath of counseling lay in the newly adopted, more expansive framework that permits what was once regarded as transgressive.
And what if that former regard was rational?
So no hypnotism. No loose lips. No obfuscation. No blaming of Eve, or even of the serpent. And no repainting of the foul lines.
* And lastly, I try to, and do in fact, forget what I have heard. I do not need to try hard to do this. After a few days, the specific contents of Confession mercifully make their exit from my mind. If you must know, the awareness of some of the facts that I eventually forget do cause some suffering.
It is like the heartache-suffering of a father, hearing the cry of pain emanating from his child. Perhaps the pain was self-wrought and he is only reaping the consequences of his own actions. But pain is pain, and a parent hurts worse. If he doesn't, I wonder if he can ever pronounce absolution.
So I am glad of such anguish -- or at least I want to be glad of this. Because all sin requires suffering in its cleansing.
I am glad to be of service -- to suffer, in my own minor way, with the One Who suffered infinitely for the sake of my own sins -- and, inconceivably, for the aggregate sin of all mankind.